Gone for 400 Years, Returned Beavers Get Protected Status in Scotland

Beavers were hunted to extinction, but a five-year trial reintroduction of the dam-building critters has proved successful.
(Photo: Arterra/UIG via Getty Images)
Dec 2, 2016· 1 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Four centuries after beavers were hunted into extinction in Scotland, the fabulously furry swimming mammals are back, and they’re here to stay. The Scottish government last week declared beavers to be a native and protected species following a five-year trial program to bring the animals back to the rivers in which they once swam.

So far the beavers have been reintroduced in two sites, with potentially more to come. “We hope the announcement will pave the way for future formal releases in other locations,” said Gavrielle Kirk-Cohen, public relations coordinator for the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, which works with the Scottish Wildlife Trust to manage the Scottish Beaver Trial.

The population of wild Scottish beavers stands at about 160 animals. That includes 10 beavers in Knapdale Forest in western Scotland and a group of about 150 in Tayside in eastern Scotland. Kirk-Cohen said the Tayside population is reproducing well and “would be considered self-sustaining,” but the smaller group at Knapdale, which has produced a handful of baby beavers, will need animals added before that happens there. That would probably require the import of more Eurasian beavers (a different species than the one in North America) from Norway, the source of the trial animals.

The Tayside population would be much bigger than it is right now, but about 20 beavers, including pregnant females and newborns, have been shot over the years by landowners who accused the animals of damaging trees and flooding fields.

That’s ironic, because the presence of beavers has tended to have a positive effect on the Scottish ecosystem. By building dams, beavers have already created new ponds and wetlands, providing habitats for birds, amphibians, fish, and aquatic plants and insects. That process is expected to accelerate now that the beavers have been officially protected, although the government has retained the option of removing any animals found to be creating problems for agricultural landowners.

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The beavers are expected to help forests become more diverse by cutting back trees, allowing other plants to grow. They may also help improve water quality.

Most interestingly, they have already boosted the Scottish tourism industry. The reintroduction site at Knapdale Forest, about a two-and-a-half-hour drive west of Glasgow, has become a popular tourist attraction.

The animals have also helped scientists learn more about the Scottish ecosystem and beaver genetics. “A lot of information was learned during the five year trial,” said Kirk-Cohen, noting that researchers have published at least 13 papers in scientific journals.

The trial team also conducted extensive outreach programs, teaching kids and adults about the value of having beavers back on their native land.

It paid off: A poll in 2014 showed that 74 percent of adults in Scotland supported the reintroduction, and now the beavers are back on the landscape, hopefully for good.