Change in the water?

We don’t do change very well: as a species I mean. Our manicured, orderly landscape bears witness to that, with any hint of ‘wilding’ touching a raw rural nerve and challenging our control of a landscape that was historically perceived to be for the exclusive use of one species only: us.

And so the beaver, an ostensibly innocuous water rat, has found its way into the news; not necessarily as an agent of ecological change but as a carrier of cultural change. The beavers of Knapdale in Argyll, although not universally welcomed, have at least arrived through ‘official channels’, those prescribed by European legislation. The beavers presently running amok in the Tay catchment however, are seemingly escapees of unknown origin and questionable genetics. They are not official beavers welcomed by an official policy by well…officials. Predictably therefore a divisive dispute is raging over whether the unofficial beavers should be left alone or rounded up and popped into captivity.

I have to say I’ve read numerous reports and find it difficult to disagree with either view. Scottish Natural Heritage, although often accused of a lack of flexibility, have their hands tied both by legislation and by strategic obligations. They have ruled that the beavers must be captured. Equally, the growing fan base for the itinerant beavers also offer valid arguments in terms of animal welfare and opportunities for ecological research. It’s a tricky one for sure.

What is perhaps predictable is that this won’t be the last dilemma of its kind. As the potential for the spread of non-native species increases (not that I’m suggesting the Tay beavers come under this category), against a backdrop of growing concern for the functionality of our ecosystems, and perhaps, the tendency towards societal extremes at the expense of pragmatism, deciding which species live where and to whose benefit, will become more and more difficult.

Managing change – brought about by beavers or otherwise – has never been easy and therein lies the social science of conflict resolution. There are people who study this stuff, they’ve become experts in it. They’re not conservationists, foresters, farmers or ecologists and that’s their strength. They know little of beavers but change isn’t about beavers, it’s about people. And resolving conflict relies on knowing about people and the ability to effectively communicate with them. I can’t help thinking that somewhere amongst all the talk of beaver legislation, ecology and welfare, there’s a role for a professional communicator, a manager of change, a resolver of conflict, a mediator – call it what you will.

It happens to be beavers in the Tay just now, but red deer, seals and pine martens, they’re all symbols of our changing relationship with nature. Perhaps that change needs some innovative management?

Is it a good time to bring up wolves?

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1 thought on “Change in the water?

  1. I’m not sure whether adding another “specialist” on their own is what is needed. It is said that the Habitats Directive and its strictures are unpersuasive arguments with land owners. However, would a change manager know that the River Tay Special Area of Conservation (SAC) already exists, and that it encompasses most of the known locations of the free-living beavers of Tay?

    The River Tay SAC has a designation for otter, another strictly protected species under European law. Across European member states, many of the SAC designated for beaver are also designated for otter since they often share similar habitat. There are 98 SAC in Scotland where the otter is the primary reason for selection (11) or a qualifying feature rather than a primary reason (32) or it is noted in the Natura 2000 data form that they are present on the SAC (55). Thus were the beaver to be recognised as a free-living animal in their natural range, then the system of designated areas required by European law pretty much exists. If you went to a stakeholder meeting in the Tay area, it would at least be a reality check that land owners were already operating under a system of area protection arising from that Directive.

    David Gow and Roy Dennis have both advocated taking advantage of the opportunity of studying the free-living Tay beavers rather than have them removed. There’s is the argument that they will reveal much more and varied information than could ever be available from the Knapdale trial. However, discussions within the Save the Free Beavers of the Tay group give concern that the beavers not to be constantly caught, sexed and aged, and measured and medicated, because there already is much information in other countries about beaver re-instatement.

    There are hard issues – it is the intention of the Habitats Directive that re-instatement of species takes place in their natural range, and not just on land where the landowner agrees. It is recognised by the group that there is a need for a formula to calm the fears of landowners, something to give them a sense that in the long run there could be ways of managing difficulties, while at the same time reassuring those that wish to defend the rights to existence of the beaver. The preference is that any monitoring in the Tay area should be more sociological and perhaps geographical, rather than biological. There is a need to know how Scottish people react, while recognising that the protection beaver will receive under legislation will be a necessary guide to the discussions. Potential avenues for this work are being explored.

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