Future forests of the past

It’s not often that a headline will make me want to buy a newspaper immediately – but this one from the Western Daily Press did so: “Forest hope for pine martens”. The article described a new study, by the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, which is directed towards the future release of pine martens in the Forest of Dean. A few years ago, I went to a wildlife hide in the Cairngorms specifically to see the pine martens (see photo); so I’d be delighted to see them much closer in the next-door county!

Pine marten at the Speyside wildlife hide near Aviemore: they’re very engaging animals, which would boost ecotourism in the Forest of Dean.

Re-introducing formerly native species back into the UK is something that I’m very interested in. Thus, in 2010 I went to Knapdale Forest in Argyll to see the beavers that had been released there, and have been following the progress of the beaver re-introductions ever since.

So why should we be releasing species back into the wild? Here are a few reasons.

  • Hunting by humans led to the extinction of beavers four hundred years ago, and the restriction of pine martens to the remoter parts of Scotland. Now, in a much more conservation-minded era, I think we have a moral obligation to release these species back into the wild.
  • As these species used to be part of the British ecosystem, there is little doubt that they would again thrive in the UK. Furthermore, they’d return to an ecosystem that co-evolved with them – and would have none of the problems associated with alien species like coypus and American mink (about which, more in a moment).
  • They would bring beneficial effects to other species. For example, writing about the alien grey squirrels and their detrimental effect on our native reds, George Monbiot wrote, “…there is another way of dealing with grey squirrels, which requires hardly any expense, indeed hardly any human intervention at all. Unlike trapping, shooting or poisoning, it works. It is happening with extreme prejudice in Ireland at the moment. There is a scientific term for this method. Pine martens.” Monbiot went on to describe how the introduction of pine martens into Ireland had a dramatic effect: the reds – which are too fast and agile to be easy prey – have been bouncing back, at the expense of their slower and fatter grey cousins.
  • Beaver in Knapdale Forest: it was well worth a midge-infested dawn walk to see them!

    Beavers are regarded as natural ecosystem engineers, because their dams create new habitat, such as ponds. They are likely to have a strongly positive effect on biodiversity. A detailed analysis in Mammal Review showed that otters, water voles and great crested newts, which are all nationally endangered, should all be beneficiaries.

  • Ecotourism is profitable. I’m an example of the potential market for this, as someone who has made efforts to see pine martens, beavers and otters. As I chat with people in the bird hides here, I’m conscious of how many people travel large distances in order to see the wildlife in the Somerset Levels, which suggests that the ecotourism market is quite large.

The process to re-introduce a species does, however, seem slow and expensive. One of the intriguing aspects to the re-introduction of beavers is that there has been a highly successful unofficial release program in the Tay valley at the same time as the rather expensive formal scheme run by Scottish National Heritage in Knapdale Forest, Argyll. Jim Crumley describes this in his engaging and enthusiastic book, “Nature’s architects: the beaver’s return to our wild landscapes”. There is much more romance to the unofficial scheme than to the rather plodding official one – but history reveals a less rosy record regarding other unplanned releases.

  • When I was a kid and my parents took me to the RSPB’s Minsmere reserve, I was excited to see a coypu from one of the less well frequented hides. This would no longer be possible because they have now been exterminated, as their effect on the landscape is destructive (for example, in severely damaging reedbeds), without the redeeming features of beaver engineering. For a species that is a resident of South America, there was an understandable lack of sympathy. They are regarded as a pest species in France and other parts of Europe. [ref]

Coypu in western France near Cenon-sur-Vienne

  • Like coypus, American mink were brought into the UK for fur farming, but regular escapes led to a growing British poulation which had a devastating effect on our own water voles. This is because mink are small enough to be able to pursue water voles into their own burrows, and their daily need for meat is particularly high when they are feeding their young. While strenuous efforts are being made to eradicate them, this is proving very difficult. As it happens, some of the best allies in this are otters, for whom mink are a nice meal, and for whom water vole burrows are too small.

These two ecological disasters illustrate why official release schemes, for all their slowness and bureaucracy, are actually needed.

Other ideas that are being circulated include the desire to release a top predator into the wild. The likeliest, at least in the near future, is the lynx. As a secretive, solitary cat it is likely to spend most of its time hiding in forests, dining on deer, avoiding human contact and ignoring sheep. The Lynx UK Trust is currently leading the campaign for their re-introduction, and would like to release them into the Kielder Forest area of Northumberland (where Jen and I went recently) and the Borders.

Another species is the wolf. Their re-introduction to Yellowstone has had a dramatic effect on the entire ecosystem: the elk moved from grazing out in the open to frequenting denser woodland; aspen and willow trees therefore recovered, providing better habitat for beavers, which grew from one colony to eight [ref]. As it happens there’s a video clip on Facebook about this which is doing the rounds as I write, which argues that the arrival of the wolves there ultimately led even to the rivers becoming more stable: the clip appears to be derived from a talk given by George Monbiot, to which video was added here.

Although I would love to see wolves re-introduced to, say, the Scottish Highlands, I recognise that a predator which lives and hunts in packs is much more contentious than a solitary, elusive, forest cat. While they would undoubtedly help to control the red deer population, they might also find the local sheep a tasty alternative. It would probably be better to re-introduce the lynx first and assess its impact on the environment before beginning to seriously contemplate releasing wolves.

I’d be delighted if pine martens were released into the Forest of Dean – even more so if this was followed by lynxes. There’s a colony of beavers which has mysteriously appeared on the aptly-named River Otter – and I’d certainly be excited if they happened to make their way up to the Somerset Levels! I strongly believe that continuing to re-introduce these species into the wild is the right course of action: we will have a more biodiverse countryside, which will lead to our own lives being enriched by them.

Beavers in Knapdale Forest

A couple of the trees felled by the beavers

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.

View of Loch Dubh, the beaver’s lake – and the lodge that they’ve constructed.

Beaver swimming away (with ear tag!)

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.

Beaver swimming back into view. I seem to have a bad case of camera shake with these images!

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.

Beaver dam. You may just be able to see the poles behind the dam which the beavers have carefully maneuvred into place.

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.