Sunday, December 6, 2009

Return of the dammed

To its supporters, the beaver is a keystone species. To others, it's a rodent with a huge appetite for deforestation. As these "charismatic beasties" are released into their new Scottish home, many are predicting trouble in the Highlands.

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Driving from Edinburgh to the west of Scotland, the radio news was reporting that everyone's favourite exiled Scot, Sean Connery, will be coming out of retirement to provide the voice for an animated film, Sir Billi. The film, the report suggested, will be about an eccentric skateboarding Highland vet who goes in search of a fugitive beaver, Bessie Boo. The beaver is on the run from all kinds of trouble and only the kilted Sir Billi can save her.

Sir Billi has been five years in the making, the idea of a pair of animators based in Glasgow. Curiously, however, a year in advance of its release, the plot of the film is currently being played out for real in the hills of Argyll. Last May, in Knapdale Forest, west of Loch Fyne, three beaver families were released by the Scottish Wildlife Trust, a trial for the first ever full-scale reintroduction of a mammal species into the British Isles. The three families each had a loch to themselves, and all was going swimmingly for them until one night at the end of June, when shots were heard.

Jenny Holden, who is the Scottish Wildlife Trust field worker in charge of the beaver project, was walking her dogs that evening in the forest with her boyfriend. I'm standing with her, as she recalls what she heard, in the driving rain on a wooded hillside above one of the beaver family's lodges. "It was actually four rifle shots," she tells me. "Ironically, it was my first night off since we had released the beavers. My boyfriend is a sniper in the army and when he heard the shots he was able to say exactly what the weapon was and know where it had been fired. Straightaway, he said: 'That's right on top of your beavers, Jen.' And the next evening we had two beavers missing."

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The beavers that were released have been named after the naturalists who originally brought 17 animals over from Norway for the project, in 2008. As a result, each beaver family sounds like an Abba tribute band. The two adults that went missing after the shots were fired were Andreas Bjorn and his mate, Gunn-Rita. At first they left their infant kit, Mary Lou, behind – very unusual behaviour for tight-knit beaver families. Andreas Bjorn came back for the kit a couple of times along the Crinan Canal, which links Loch Fyne with the Jura Sound. And then all three went missing.

The beavers are fitted with radio microchips and for a few weeks Jenny Holden and her team of volunteers could be seen scouting along riverbanks trying to pick up a signal. Eventually, Andreas Bjorn was discovered 10 miles away at a fish farm that he had reached by swimming through the sea (a surprise to the beaver team, as they had not thought the beavers would move through salt water: "Andreas Bjorn hadn't read the books," Holden says). He was returned alone to his loch where he awaits Gunn-Rita and Mary Lou, who are still at large. Holden thinks she knows where they are, but they have not had "a visual" yet. Nobody knows who fired the shots, though the Argyll police have been investigating. Perhaps a skateboarding vet will come to their aid.

The missing animals are just one of the anxieties that have beset the beaver project. Seven of the original beavers brought from Norway died in quarantine in Devon, meaning that the families had to be supplemented with beavers held in Edinburgh Zoo and the Highland Wildlife Park. Holden, however, has little doubt that the £2.5m five-year initiative – £250,000 per released beaver – will be a success, and beavers will ever after roam free in Scotland.

The lodge above which we are standing – an impressive construction of lopped trees and branches, which contains at least two dens and an anteroom entered below the waterline where the beavers can get themselves dry – is the most visible evidence of that faith. It is home to Bjornaar and Katrina and their year-old kit Millie, who have been by far the most industrious of the released families. The woods nearby are testament to their eagerness: where once there was a broad and well-used footpath skirting Loch Coille Bharr, now there is a flooded area of a few hundred square metres of trees, many gnawed through by the beaver family, all dead or dying under 3ft of water. The beavers have done what beavers do – dammed the stream that links one loch with another, allowing them to swim their territory instead of walk it. The result is a "standing deadwood" landscape somewhat reminiscent of a First World War battlefield.

Holden is excited by this scene. She's been involved in wildlife conservation since she was four or five – one of those children who would appear on local evening news with a shy hedgehog or a poorly duck. She has tracked wolf packs in the Ukraine and nurtured water voles in Cumbria; for a while, owls were her thing. When she saw Scottish Wildlife's ad for a beaver wrangler, however, she knew it was her vocation. Holden is 28; she moved up here at the beginning of the year from her home in the Lake District, trailing her flock of pedigree Shetland sheep.

She talks with something of a proprietorial air


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