They adapt... and we don’t in­ter­fere

The Courier & Advertiser (Angus and The Mearns Edition) - - News -

Did you hear the one about the Scot­tish Govern­ment, Scot­tish Na­tional Her­itage and a fam­ily of beavers on a river near Beauly? It’s not a joke so much as a rid­dle, and I con­fess I am no nearer solv­ing it than I was when I be­gan scratch­ing my head on Fri­day.

The beavers built a lodge on a river near Beauly, which (if you don’t carry a map of the High­lands in your head) is about 10 miles west of In­ver­ness.

It was “dis­cov­ered” by staff of Trees for Life, an en­light­ened con­ser­va­tion or­gan­i­sa­tion which is restor­ing and recre­at­ing large ar­eas of na­tive wood­land west of the Great Glen.

Their es­ti­mate of how long the lodge might have been there is five years. Hardly any­one knew it was there, and those who did had no prob­lem with the beavers.

All of which makes it dif­fi­cult to un­der­stand what hap­pened next.

Trees for Life re­ported the dis­cov­ery to Scot­tish Nat­u­ral Her­itage, who ad­vised the Scot­tish Govern­ment.

And, ap­par­ently be­cause Beauly is a long way from ei­ther Knap­dale in Ar­gyll (where the multi-mil­lion-pound of­fi­cial beaver rein­tro­duc­tion trial was held) or Tay­side (where the un­of­fi­cial beaver rein­tro­duc­tion non-trial did the job for noth­ing), a de­ci­sion was taken to trap and take them into cap­tiv­ity.

De­spite the govern­ment de­ci­sion last Novem­ber to au­tho­rise beaver rein­tro­duc­tion, to per­mit both the Ar­gyll and Tay­side pop­u­la­tions to ex­pand nat­u­rally and to ap­prove beaver re­leases out­with those ar­eas, the Beauly beavers were deemed to be an unau­tho­rised re­lease and there­fore an of­fence. This poses prob­lems. Firstly, if they have been there for five years, clearly no one knows how they got there.

Sec­ondly, five years ago ev­ery beaver on Tay­side was the prog­eny of an unau­tho­rised re­lease – or re­leases, yet these have since been given the Scot­tish Govern­ment’s bless­ing. So what’s the dif­fer­ence?

Thirdly, given that the govern­ment is seek­ing new ar­eas for fur­ther beaver rein­tro­duc­tions, and given that Trees for Life have cam­paigned to have them re­leased west of the Great Glen, the pres­ence of these beavers on a river near Beauly is ful­fill­ing pre­cisely the ob­jec­tive the govern­ment seeks to achieve.

The fact that the beavers rather than Scot­tish Nat­u­ral Her­itage picked that par­tic­u­lar stretch of that par­tic­u­lar river does not de­tract ei­ther from the suit­abil­ity of the site or the de­sir­abil­ity of hav­ing beavers in and around Strath­glass and an ar­ray of wooded glens to the west of it.

All of which leads me to one of the most fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples of beaver rein­tro­duc­tion, or for that mat­ter, the rein­tro­duc­tion of any of our miss­ing wild species, and the key word here is “wild”.

You choose what you con­sider to be suit­able habi­tat, but if the crea­ture de­cides of its own vo­li­tion – be­cause it is wild – to move to an area some­one thinks is un­suit­able or (more likely) sim­ply in­con­ve­nient, the crea­ture it­self gets to de­cide whether it stays.

If we make a law that picks and chooses where wildlife can and can­not live, that is a law ham­strung from day one by pre­cisely the same ethos that has wrecked and con­tin­ues to wreck wildlife com­mu­ni­ties on grouse moors, deer forests, and some of the more un­for­giv­ing tracts of farm­land.

The process takes time, and it must be given time. Once we re­lease rein­tro­duced wild an­i­mals into the coun­try­side, our job then be­comes very sim­ple: watch and learn.

For species rein­tro­duc­tion is a twoway process. What­ever the species, the first thing it must do is start mak­ing ad­just­ments.

It is con­fronted with a new land­scape, both phys­i­cal and cul­tural.

Its very pres­ence be­gins at once to change the ecol­ogy of the land­scape where it finds it­self.

Whether it set­tles in or moves on may well be down to sen­si­tiv­i­ties of which we are com­pletely un­aware.

The deal is that we, the ma­nip­u­la­tors of so much of our land­scape to suit our own self­ish ends, must make ad­just­ments to their pres­ence as they must ad­just to ours.

So we must give them not just time but also space, and some of that space will not nec­es­sar­ily be space we deemed to be suit­able.

But this is not the time, nor is it the job, of bu­reau­crats to in­ter­fere, and it seems to me that that is ex­actly what is go­ing on at Beauly.

These beavers, wher­ever they have come from, and how­ever long they have been there, have adapted to their re­de­fined cir­cum­stances, which is ex­actly what they are sup­posed to do.

They have cho­sen their river (and no one knows how far they may have trav­elled from wher­ever they were re­leased), and they have pros­pered there, and the fact that that is not in the of­fi­cial script is not a good rea­son to end their wild lives and trans­fer them to cap­tiv­ity.

By any stan­dards of eth­i­cal con­ser­va­tion prac­tice, it’s just plain wrong.

Pic­ture: PA.

We must watch and learn in the wild world, Jim ar­gues.

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