“I must tell you something of the Beaver”.
When William Harrison the Canon of Windsor wrote those words in 1577 he presented his description of the beaver he knew in the following fashion “Certes the tail of this beast is like unto a thin whetstone, as the bodie unto a monstrous rat: the beast also itself is of such force in the teeth, that it will gnaw a hole through a thick plank, or shere through a double billet in a night”.
I have in my time moved, trapped and handled many beavers. For the guild of those who work with this creature intimately, and who know their abilities well, his description echoing back through 400 years of time is eerily, evocatively, exact.
Prehistoric humans knew the beaver well. Archaeological studies demonstrate that early people preferentially selected beaver-generated environments for the abundance of fish, water fowl, large herbivores and other prey they contained. If they incorporated islands then all the better as these features protected the hunters from becoming the hunted at a time when big cats were still kings. Crannog dwellers in Britain lived and built their dwellings on the top of former beaver lodges. They walked out into their wetlands to gather felled timbers, ‘pencil sharpened’ into ready-made fence posts and utilised them for structures of their own.
Some of the earliest effigies of animals ever discovered were of beavers and their images feature strongly in North American rock art. The first people described them as the ‘little people’ as a result of their social similarities to us and understood that the landscapes they created functioned as the ‘earths kidneys’ around which all life revolved.
Medieval accounts are less lyrical. Most considered beavers as an object of trade not wonder. Some of the more ancient from the silk routes refer to their valuable dried scent as Jumbalasta and described its provider as being a small otter-like creature. Medieval recipes recommended their tails as being similar in flavour and texture to plump turbots and suggested that their paws should be poached in an infusion of saffron and ginger. Later illustrations show them labouring in organised gangs to create multi-tiered dwellings utilising timid musk rats as slaves.
We know exactly why we killed beavers. Their value was considerable. Our insatiable lust for their fur, glands and meat drove their demonic destruction. Once native from Britain in the west to Japan in the east; from the Mediterranean rim in the south to the edge of the northern Arctic circle beavers were hunted. Unremittingly. Without remorse. By the time of the Romans, their range was fractured. Central European kings tried to protect their populations – for their commercial worth – by appointing court officials called ‘Beverari’ to administer all matters pertinent to the beaver. Still the destruction continued. By the late middle ages Eurasian beavers were increasingly rare and the only population remaining in seemingly inexhaustible abundance was present in the new world of North America.
In the new world, beavers abounded. When the first people killed them they took great care to return parts of their bodies to the water from which they had come as a gesture of respect. The colonists were different. Fur was money. A literal currency where ‘made’ pelts were interchangeable for goods from the buyers at the trading posts. Bales of pelts were bound for transport to the auction houses of the east before beginning their journey to processing centres worldwide. Most were made into hats in specialised manufacturing centres. Some such as Denton near Manchester retain the image of a beaver on their towns coat of arms in a tribute to the good times gone. Beaver hats were durable and water proof. They were utilised as a result by merchant’s guilds, the navy and the army. Everybody who was anybody wore a beaver felt hat. Laws were passed to ensure their use and to forbid the production of cheaper substitutes. Companies such as the Hudson’s Bay Company, the North West Company or John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company competed for the supreme control of this lucrative market. They were ruthless. When one felt threatened by the predatory intents of competitors in territories, they considered their own they would urge their trappers to over-trap. To abandon any febrile pretence of sustainability and literally, practically kill every fur bearing creature with the specific intent of creating a ‘fur desert’. Once their aim was achieved and their warehouses were full to over-flowing, they were faced with the inevitable dilemma of what to do with their haul. If released in totem it could depress their markets unsatisfactorily and therefore their solution was both simple and obvious – burn them.
The pain. The misery. The fear. The destruction and death this caused bothered them not at all.
When the fur played out the trappers went too.
Worthless, debased, despised, abandoned.
While we know the above and understand it well, we are only just crudely, slowly, reluctantly beginning to understand what the removal of the beaver from the landscapes they formerly occupied has precipitated. Beavers are nature’s water gardeners. The natural force that holds water in environments in staggering amounts. The impoundments and dams made from the timber they fell; from mud; from rocks; from the root systems of the aquatic plants they garner create wetlands that slow the flow of flood events and proof landscapes against drought. These landscapes in turn recharge aquifers through seepage and purify water sustainably of the toxins discharged in profusion by us. They capture and store immense amounts of carbon.
Beaver generated wetlands vibrate with life. The 80% greater density of dead wood they generate produces an 80% greater density of insects, amphibians, fish and other creatures in turn. Biodiversity study after study demonstrates that beavers build both biomass and biodiversity. Every guild of life responds to their presence. Some species such as the large copper butterfly cannot survive in wetlands without them. While examination of the relationships other life has brokered with beavers its hardly surprising to observe that our preconceptions, our beliefs of how or where a certain creature must live are challenged and often wrong. Sand lizards can act like marine iguanas diving down into the tawny depths of beaver pools before remerging to bask and hunt on the floating timbers they proffer. Red backed shrikes are not heathland birds but wetland dwellers, perching on sunken willows to harvest a rich abundance of insects, beetles and frogs.
Time and again ancient alliances are reformed where beavers return.
It is likely that the loss of wildlife, riparian complexity and structure which followed the beaver’s removal from landscapes precipitated a greater catastrophe. When the water savers were exterminated in the North American drylands the deserts expanded. We know that beavers formerly existed in parts of the world they no longer occupy. In the vast middle eastern states, in Spain, in Portugal, in the Mediterranean and potentially too in North Africa. Could it be that the landscape changes wrought by their extinction and compounded by our overexploitation have resulted in aridity on a scale that’s vast, rapid and enduring?
Quite probably, the answer is yes.
Beavers have always intrigued people. One man who was captivated by them perhaps more than any other responded in his life by attempting to save them. In a time when it is an accepted norm for individuals to transition into whoever they want to become the story of Grey Owl seems tame. Born Archie Belaney in Hastings he emigrated to North America and eventually found himself and his life purpose as a first nations’ man. He was a remarkable individual. He was a fur trapper. He killed many beavers and other creatures which shared their water-lands. Around the time of WW1, he became increasingly uneasy about what he saw. Beavers with a single remaining leg having gnawed all off all the others to escape poorly set traps still trying to fitfully swim. Beavers suspended high in hoop snares set from sprung trees while their kits whimpered below. Bludgeoned beavers trying to protect their heads from a melee of blows while their brains ran out of their ears. Dependent orphans on dam tops starving and dying when all their other family members were trapped.
While this barbarism disturbed him the destruction and desolation that followed the disassembly of their wetlands was appalling.
All life failed when the water went.
An event altered his course forever. He killed a mother beaver and while canoeing past her abandoned lodge the next day heard her babies crying. His wife Anahareo persuaded him to rescue them. He called them Jellyroll and Rawhide. These two kits opened to him a new world of understanding. When small they curled up crying at night holding on to each other’s tiny paws. Without his comfort they could not sleep. As they got bigger, they would walk with him in the woods and when on occasion as beavers do, they decided to waddle for a short while on their hind legs they would reach up with their fingers to clasp his.
To allow them to continue their journey.
He took them canoeing, went swimming with them and they built a lodge in his lakeside cabin with a burrow under the floor leading into the water and gnawed the legs of most of his furniture.
They were beavers and they opened their life to him.
So, if at this point you are still wondering what kind of creature a beaver is its engaging, industrious, ingenious, idiosyncratic and caring. They love their babies. Beaver families defend and nurture their dependent offspring. Although their mother’s milk is only imperative for their first few weeks of their life kits are still dependent for at least their first year on their older siblings and parents. These aunts and uncles prevent them swimming in water they consider to hazardous and carry them struggling, clasped in their front paws back into their lodges when they roam too far. They cuddle them, groom them, whisper nuzzling calls of comfort in their soft, downy ears, curl up with them daily and especially through the first winter of their life warm them in a snuggled, huddle. They make their beds from soft shredded wood pulp, provide them with food, protect them from predators, provide them with a home.
When beaver kits die, as they sometimes do, there is evidence that their mothers will on occasion try to bury their tiny cadavers if they can. We have no knowledge as to why they perform this behaviour but recent footage from Switzerland demonstrates that they undertake this task with extreme care.
While it may not be prompted by love it is a sentient act.
Carefully undertaken and moving in the extreme.
They changed Grey Owls life forever. He wrote hesitantly at first about the beavers and the creatures that shared their wetlands. With increasing confidence, he told how Canada’s forests considered by every exploitive enterprise to be inexhaustible were not and that their rapid destruction was occurring on a staggering scale. He made early black and white films about Canadian Nature and the lifestyle of its first peoples and travelled widely worldwide to promote his message. He was instrumental in establishing the Canadian system of National Parks.
He was a fine and exceptional conservationist.
Beavers are being slowly returned to Britain. For all the jubilation this entails and the certainty that their elimination will no longer prove possible without significant, coordinated, state-sponsored effort it is and has not been an easy task. In Scotland this process which began in 1994 resulted in an official release project which created a ‘trial’ population in the difficult landscape of Kintyre. Difficult not because there is no abundance of vegetation or good fresh water but because they cannot cross the high mountain ridges of the valleys which separate the lochs they were put in to meet other beavers, establish new territories and expand their range. This site which was chosen to placate opponents and please proponents of beaver reintroduction has performed its function well. Its geography has limited the extent and rate of their range expansion. Only a tiny population of beavers was initially introduced and although this has and is currently being reinforced with other individuals more will be required to afford any hope of success. At this current point in time any juveniles produced are moving out from their fresh water environments via the sea in an effort to find mates.
All the indications are that the majority die as a result.
Politically acceptable yes. Practically perhaps doomed.
On the Tay there is a population of perhaps around 450 individuals. Although it’s difficult to obtain accurate figures several hundred may already be being killed annually. There is plenty of evidence in the form of burnt-out lodges, beaten individuals, skeletons and rotten, bloated cadavers with bullet wounds on the bank-sides to prove this case. While these beavers which are not officially reintroduced would, untrammelled by persecution expand rapidly it is now entirely credible that they could be eliminated. Every indication is that they are being hollowed out.
Although they form the largest and most generically vigorous population by far in Britain they are living in some of the best arable croplands in Scotland.
Where their dam building and burrowing activities present problems.
Beavers can under certain circumstances present significant challenges in human engineered landscapes. Most of the environments we occupy in western Europe fall into this category. When in collaboration with other experts from Britain, North America and Europe I helped collate ‘The Eurasian Beaver Handbook (Campbell-Palmer et al.) in 2016. I did so to provide a comprehensive summary of the sentient options for conflict resolution. There are many proven techniques, developed and designed by individuals who understand beavers well. Although in the end they do include lethal control this is not a first option. When it happens under licence it is controlled by professional beaver managers who are dispassionate, it is not handed as a fun-perk to those that hate. In civilised nations seeking to stabilise beaver populations culling does not commonly happen as a response for half a century.
It’s less than a decade since the first were released to jubilation in Argyll, Knapdale.
In British river systems which are difficult for beavers to colonise overland the translocation of problem families and surplus individuals is an obvious first option. They enrich riparian environments hugely. At a time when the governments own advisors are suggesting an 83% in biodiversity it is utterly clear that the right course of action is that we bless our blighted landscapes by returning beavers.
Why has this obvious course of intelligence not been realised?
It’s the politics of land-use.
Brash, bearded, big men stand on stage and tell in tomes of thunder how their members who are of course all conservationists will not tolerate the loss of one salmon, one lamb, one pheasant, one grouse or one carrot. Their point of view is they believe within their closed ranks entirely reasonable. Although they by no means speak for all their members – many of whom can think perfectly ably for themselves and are already charting a vastly different course – they are the evangelists, the voortrekkers of our age. In their certainty of their own right they advocate the removal of thought back to a time beyond the enlightenment into the deep depths of the dark beyond. They are a settler culture. If this seems absurd any student of history will tell you that it was always so. Strident voices on remote frontiers demanding of timid mandarins and weak politicians’ extreme actions to support their own ends. The North American first people in their colourful tribes were delivered to their doom in this way. Thylacines the same. Tasmanian aborigines the same. Zulus the same. Californian grizzly bears the same. Bushmen the same.
Beavers are only the most modern of victims standing in line on the temple steps of ignorance to be sacrificed by the primitive, priests of progress to their great god of greed.
If you think this is wrong read their social media and the standard responses, they offer to challenging environmental issues of any sort. For the followers of rational thought its incomprehensible. They see themselves as standing against popular tides for traditional values. Against the weather, nature and wild creatures. Otters kill fish kill otters. Cormorants the same, Goosanders the same, Seals the same. Buzzards kill pheasants kill buzzards…..
The list of death is endless.
Their hatred of beavers is solid and well settled. There is therefore no conceivable reason why they should be placed in a position to advise, dictate or influence an environmental policy to which they are uniquely opposed. The death penalties now being delivered for simply being a beaver have been enacted with no opportunity for consultation in wider society. Without consultation with children whose world they will impact. For the better. Without considering that the wetlands these creatures could create on currently farmed land might better serve the interests of whole communities by affording sustainable flood prevention rather than providing tax payers money for the sole profit of private individuals. Although the option for translocation is now being discussed it is currently limited to moving a very few individuals into enclosures elsewhere or Knapdale.
It is not a competent, large scale initiative to restore beavers to the very many other suitable habitats in other Scottish river systems.
So, its only death. Easily licenced for species specially protected throughout Europe. On the word of untrustworthy individuals in an area which covers 61% of their known range on the Tay. There are no real restrictions. No post mortem evidence of killing technique. Bury the carcases is the advice proposed. Hide the evidence to prevent any embarrassment or analysis at a later date. 28 licences have been issued so far with no independent assessment of need and no closed season. Whole families can be killed at any time.
This will entail killing kits in their beds.
A mirage of masking excuses disguise the ineptitude of this policy and its realities.
Where are SNH the Scottish Governments official guardians of nature on this issue. The responsible voice one would imagine of restraint and rationale thought?
Well astoundingly its either their idea or is being presented as such.
Unhappy that beavers are there ‘illegally’ in the first place. Unhappy that this population is now performing much more ably than the officially sanctioned population in the west. Unhappy that their cunning, handling of the ‘card trick’ of protection on May 1st while granting licences to kill in the same week has been so obviously observed. Unhappy that in the end when the atrocities become unbearable that they will be left by the Scottish Government holding the dead swaddling beaver.
While insiders say that the organisation was at least in part unwilling to follow this strategy it has either been persuaded or told to do so by politicians whose farming pals are perturbed. When it comes to most issues of contention involving the SNCO’s in our modern world the views of the other louder land-use organisations however illogical commonly reign supreme. Although this may change the queasy response of SNH to date can be likened to the piffling produced by piglet in a glass fronted restaurant where he is being quizzed about 100-acre wood honey theft while a hand-gunned heffalump watches from the bar across the road.
And so, we have handed this creature at the dawn of the 21st century with languid ease and little care back into the hands of grinning killers. For the worst there is no neutrality. They are remorseless. For others there is without doubt hesitation as to the rightness of this course. They must be offered other credible options. Choices that involve life not death. Evidence already in hand demonstrates quite adequately that the abominations which revolted Grey Owl are being repeated today, tonight and tomorrow on the banks of the Tay.
There is no need for this. Not now
It’s time for change, Ripe, dangling, prurient time.
Beavers are the pilot light in the boiler of biodiversity snuff them out and every activity that revolves around their pivotal presence ceases quite simply to function. We know this to be true despite the clarion calls of the ignorant.
Nature needs this creature very much. We need this creature very much. Tolerating animals that take something from us however trivial has never been a forte of our species. If and its mighty big IF we can relearn how to live with the beaver in Britain that brings so much then we might just be able before life loss on this island becomes apocalyptic and irreversible to re-chart the direction of our relationship with nature.
To move forward with the beaver into a new and better age.
Derek Gow is a farmer.
His previous guest blog here, about rewilding his farm (and much else besides), Winds of Change 4 February 2019, was one of the most popular posts on this blog in all time.