It’s just gone 4am, and I’m stuck on a trail in Knapdale Forest in Argyll. The path ahead is flooded, and it looks deep. But the reason for the flood is why I’m here: beavers have dammed up the outlet from Loch Dubh, a small lake on my left, into the far larger Loch Coile Bharr, a short distance away. Other signs of beaver activity are felled trees, which have been carefully chiselled down by some large front teeth.
Beavers are native to Britain but were hunted to extinction in the 16th century, largely because their soft fur was highly desirable. After a long campaign, they were re-introduced to the UK at the end of May last year. When I heard about this I was very keen to go and see them for myself – hence my now standing on the edge of their lake, half an hour before sunrise. I wait expectantly.
An hour later, and the only signs of movement are from a family of ducks, and clouds of midges. I hope that the midge-repellant is working, otherwise I’ll have hundreds of bites. But there’s no sign of beavers.
Half an hour later, and any self-respecting beaver – being a nocturnal animal – would be curled up in its den. I decide to walk around the lake. Not far away is a much better view, and I’m beginning to kick myself. I plough on round; the western side is steep so I clamber across fallen trees, through thick vegetation, and up the slope. Two thirds of the way round the view opens out panoramically, and I think, “if only I’d known this two hours ago!”. I notice the den on the edge of the lake below which the beavers have constructed, and admire their tenacity in chewing through trees and hauling the poles into place.
I notice the water-lilies on the lake and see a semi-submerged tree-trunk with eyes and a snout and – hang on, that’s a beaver! It swims slowly out of view, then circles round and back into view, completing another leisurely loop before disappearing.
It’s an amazing sight – it strikes me that it is much larger than I expected (nose-to-tail usually over a metre in length), and that there is something purposefully graceful about it. All the effort to see it has been worthwhile for this moment!
A couple of days later I’m back to look for the dam. This requires me to skirt round the flooding on the east side betwen the two lakes, but I’m on the dam itself before I notice what it is – and thus realise how strongly it’s constructed. The stream between the two lakes is reduced to a trickle – and I understand why beavers are seen as a keystone species, shaping the environments around them.
Beavers are magnificent and ingenious creatures, and I’m thrilled to have seen one. The trial in Knapdale Forest lasts five years: I hope they thrive and are able to spread widely, so many other people can also enjoy seeing them. For more on the beaver trial, click here.