Beavers

September 08, 2021

One of the lead stories this week on my NY Times feed reported on the return of beavers to Scotland four centuries after they were hunted to extinction for their fur.  Not all have welcomed this return as it means a resumption of their age-old battle with humans.  Beavers have incurred the wrath of the farming community as they decimate trees and build dams that flood fields, wreck drainage systems, and collapse riverbanks.  Some farmers have obtained permits to kill the otherwise protected animals, setting off outrage among conservationists and igniting a debate about farming, biodiversity, and the future of Scotland’s countryside.

When I looked online, I found the scientific name of the Eurasian beaver is Castor fiber.  The North American beaver’s scientific name is Castor canadensis.  These two species are the only extant (living) species in both the Castor genus and the Castoridae family, which is part of the Rodentia order.  The main predators for the Eurasian beavers are red foxes, lynx, and Eurasian wolves.  Historically, humans were the main threat for Eurasian beavers.  Beavers disappeared from Britain due to over-hunting and destruction of habitat from farming and deforestation.  Beavers were hunted for their rich, lustrous fur, which was often made into hats.  Another use was for their castoreum, a musk-like substance contained in the scent glands of both male and female beavers.  While beavers use the castoreum to mark their territory, humans use it in perfumes.  It seems to fill the same purpose for both.

In May 2009, the Scottish Wildlife Trust, in partnership with the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, and Forestry and Land Scotland, released the first wild beavers in Scotland in over 400 years.  The Scottish Beaver Trial was one of the largest field trials of its kind in Europe and aimed to help the Government make an informed decision on the future of the species in Scotland.  An independent monitoring program was carried out by NatureScot to assess the effect that the trial population had on the local environment and how well they settled in Scotland.  This evidence contributed to a comprehensive report called Beavers in Scotland, which was published and presented to the Scottish Government in 2015.  The final report for this project, Beavers in Knapdale, was published in January 2021.  While some object to the beavers, they are a major attraction and bring significant ecotourism money to the area.

Thoughts:  I took a high school class in Ecology (it was the 70’s) that required a field report on a relevant project.  I decide to take a float trip down a ten mile stretch of the Kaw River that meandered through the hills and trees of the Flint Hills.  The purpose was to record the diversity of wildlife on this low human impact section of the river.  One of the things I encountered was a family of river beavers.  The water was deep, so they had not built a dam, but they did have a beaver lodge.  The beavers were sunning on the steep bank, but as they saw me pass, they all slide into the water.  These were the only wild beavers I ever saw in forty years living in Kansas.  I was amazed not just by the beavers but by the surprising diversity that existed away from regular human contact.  We need to be willing to restore and preserve our fragile waterways.  Both for the beavers and for us.  Follow the science.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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