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Rewilding Efforts Step Up in Scotland

Beavers and white-tailed eagles are back. Now the country is considering reintroducing other species like lynx, moose, and bear

Simon Jones walks along a densely wooded trail in the Knapdale Forest of Argyll in Scotland and points out a few large beaver dams along the banks of Loch Coille Bharr. Beavers were hunted to extinction for their fur and musk in Great Britain 400 years ago, so it is quite surprising to see the dams.  But Jones, a project director who works for the conservation group, Scottish Wildlife Trust, expected this kind of result when three beaver families were released here in 2009 (Details about further releases and beaver status here).

beaver dam Photos by Patrick HolianA beaver dam in Knapdale Forest, Argyll. Beavers were hunted to extinction in the British Isles
400 years ago. In 2009 Scotland imported 25 beavers from Norway.

“They are the habitat engineers of the wild,” says Jones. “We imported 25 from Norway and now have 15 beavers in Knapdale. The rest have settled beyond the park. The whole point of the reintroduction is to increase biodiversity. Beavers promote populations of invertebrates, birds, and amphibians. Their dams filter sediments and hold back water in times of floods. They are a keystone species and their ecological value is enormous. However, they come with an effect.”

Some landowners are concerned with uncontrolled felling of trees or occasional flooding caused by broken beaver dams. Others fear that the animals will spread disease or disrupt salmon migration. Jones’s job during this five-year experiment is to monitor the effects of the beaver reintroduction.  After nearly four years, he has come to some conclusions.  “The Scottish Beaver Trial is not really about beavers.  It’s about people.  It’s a journey.  We know beavers can live here.  It’s whether we are bred to live with them again. It’s that simple.”

Martin Gaywood from the Scottish Natural Heritage, a government partner involved in the project, concurs. “How do beavers fit in with modern land use? That’s a key issue. This has been one of the most controversial species conservation projects we’ve ever been involved with. Overall, there seems to be strong public support for the reintroduction.  But there are land use sectors that are still not convinced. By 2015, we will report the results of the trials to government and the minister, and they will make the decision if beaver reintroduction will continue.”

Beyond beavers and white-tailed eagles, Scotland is also considering reintroducing other species like lynx, moose, and bear. The country is definitely upping the ante on rewilding. (Read “Hunters of the Scottish Skies,” Holian’s feature about the re-introduction of white-tailed eagles in Scotland in the Journal’s Winter 2013 issue.)

beaver damThe reintroduction of beavers is really about people, says Simon Jones of the Scottish Wildlife Trust.
"We know beavers can live here. It’s whether we are bred to live with them again. It’s that simple.”

Many define rewilding as large-scale conservation that provides more space for wildlife, wilderness, and natural processes.  That includes reintroducing apex predators and keystone species. But for Gaywood, it is all about habitat. “Bringing back a species is a rather fairly easy thing to do,” claims the policy and advice manager for the Scottish Natural Heritage. “But you have to have a decent enough habitat so that a viable, long-term population will thrive. I would prefer to use the term habitat restoration rather than rewilding. Scotland is a human dominated landscape. There are few places that would be considered true wilderness. Places have changed incredibly over the centuries. It’s not necessary to go back to same situation as when that species was last there. In most cases, you have to accept that the situation may have changed a fair bit.”

Indeed, Scotland’s landscape has been altered considerably over the centuries due to overgrazing, clear cutting of forests, and increased agriculture. But the Scots’ passion for the wild has not diminished. The country of only five million people has over 40 conservation organizations and charities. And then there is ”the right to roam” — a cultural license if you will — to walk the countryside regardless of property ownership.  This historically led to confrontations, especially in the Victorian Age when landowners often blocked walkers from trails that had been used for generations. The issue was finally resolved in 2003 when the parliament passed the Scottish Outdoor Access Code giving all people the legal right to hike on most lands. Today ”the right to roam” is more popular than ever and public interest in conservation volunteerism is on the upswing.

“We are really fortunate in Scotland to have a fantastic network of enthusiastic volunteers and an active NGO sector,” says Gaywood. “The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds alone has over a million members. That’s more than any political party in the UK. And there are dozens of smaller ones that also contribute.”

Since Scotland is the least populated part of the United Kingdom, rewilding here will probably continue in years to come.  But unless all in the Scottish society realize both the ecological and economic benefits of these endeavors, success will never be fully realized. 

Still, Gaywood remains optimistic about the future, “ Things are definitely changing,” he says. “The importance of healthy, functioning ecosystems is increasingly being acknowledged as a key part of our natural heritage and the socio-economic side of things. You can argue that point in terms of its niche conservation value and to species. But also it is about the basic ecosystem services that we derive from having these healthy systems in place — soils that support our agriculture, waterways that support out water supplies and irrigation of crops.  All these thing are necessary to a sustainable way of living.”

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