Rare. Elusive. Nocturnal. Aquatic. None of these words caused me to brim with confidence as I drove west recently in search of Scotland’s newest wildlife resident. Knapdale Forest in Argyll was chosen as the site for the Scottish Beaver Trial, a 5-year investigation into the impact of beavers on their habitat and their potential as a boost to rural tourism. Back in 2009, 16 beavers were brought from Norway and via a 6-month quarantine and various medical checks, were released into a number of freshwater lochs surrounded by willow, hazel, alder and oak.
Although I’ve followed the story with great interest, I’d never visited Knapdale and never seen a wild beaver in Scotland. Within ten minutes of my arriving, that had changed when a silvery wake broke the mirror-calm reflections on Loch Collie Bharr, the largest of the ‘release’ lochs. Half an hour later in the dwindling light of a summer evening, I was stood above Dubh Loch, where these industrious rodents had constructed a dam, flooding the riparian forest and creating a rich mosaic of dead wood, standing pools and wet grassland. Insects hummed, mallards dabbled and woodpeckers flitted. Suddenly I was in Estonia, Sweden or Romania; I was in a place that was wilder than I was used to in Scotland. Nearing midnight I went to bed but sleep eluded me.
Following local advice, I was up at dawn and headed for a more isolated loch where again within minutes, I’d spotted a busy beaver chomping on willow as a dawn mist fought against the rising sun. The beaver eventually retired to its very obvious home – a mountain of mud and sticks, the size of a car, wedged into the side of the loch. An amble around the local woodland revealed lots of beaver stuff, ecological chaos that was anything but chaotic. Chewed stumps with fresh coppice growth, dredged mini canals alive with insects and something else, something less tangible: a presence. I realised that just knowing beavers were there, that we’re giving them a chance, made me feel good. It’s not something easily articulated; it’s not something that can be filed into an ecological report, but it was undoubtedly real.
My time in Argyll was too short and I’m already planning a return visit later in the summer. Photography wise, I got more than I hoped for but in doing so, my head is full of new ideas I hadn’t previously conceived. The best of the images will feature in an illustrated story on the SCOTLAND: The Big Picture web site, which is presently under construction.
Some might argue that a £2m price tag and five years of research that had already been replicated at numerous beaver reintroductions across Europe, isn’t the best use of limited conservation resources but for me, beavers are a vital piece of the forest/wetland jigsaw and I’d personally like to see them back irrespective of cost. The Scottish Government is presently considering a range of options for the future of beavers in Scotland. That decision will surely symbolise how committed this country is to the wild nature which underpins its very future.
Note: I like to think I know a thing or two about photographing red squirrels or ospreys but Philip Price of Loch Visions is definitely the man for beavers. By relaying his own experience, he saved me days of trial and error and helped me secure the type of images I was looking for. He does a great line in otters too!
Thanks too to Jane at Seafield Cottages. If you’re visiting this remote part of Argyll, this is the perfect base.