Sat, Apr 22, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Britain balks at the beaver


Plans were first laid to return the beaver to Scotland 10 years ago. But after a decade of public consultation, scientific studies, political wrangling and internecine warfare between government agencies, the attempt to reintroduce the rodent back to the Highlands was ditched last year. It proved to be one of the nation's longest, costliest and least successful reintroduction projects ever.

While the beaver was busy getting nowhere in Scotland, 26 other countries -- including Denmark and Bosnia -- were welcoming it back. Rumours are circulating at the moment that Wales will put itself forward as the most likely candidate to reintroduce beavers into Britain.

Why does the UK appear to be so set against such reintroductions? It is often said that because the beaver and many other species disappeared from these islands hundreds of years ago, they have slipped from our consciousness. Attempts to reintroduce them today seem to be a case of pushing alien creatures onto an alien landscape. Beavers, lynx, elk and wolves just would not fit.

Yet all across Europe, countries are reversing centuries of persecuting wild animals and either encouraging or reintroducing species they once forced to the brink of extinction.

Despite the cold shoulder given to the beaver, advocates for a wilder Britain take heart from the story of wild boar. These once native hairy pigs had been missing for centuries. But after a series of escapes from commercial farms, they have reintroduced themselves without any assistance. Now they are being cautiously welcomed as an important ecological component of these islands.

Polecats are a similar story. From their refuges in western Britain, they slipped out under cover of darkness and began expanding populations throughout England.

Removing persecution has meant the return of buzzards and ravens but attitudes to larger mammals are still fraught with anxiety. The problem seems to lie in the power of a tiny minority of landowners and government officials who see creatures such as the beaver as ambassadors for a wilder, more ecologically dynamic world, against which they have fought for generations.

Wild animals are always fought over; in Britain today there are battles raging over foxes, badgers, squirrels, ducks, whales and deer. But beavers, lynx, wolf and other creatures that became extinct in Britain are now part of a wider philosophical debate.

Binging back the beaver is no longer about just adding another name to the menu of British wildlife, even though EU legislation requires member states to at least attempt to reintroduce native species where feasible. Increasingly, reintroductions are about ecological restoration on a large scale. There has been a paradigm shift in conservation, and with it a growing desire for more wild lands -- or "rewilding."

According to the ecologist and reintroduction specialist Derek Gow, animals such as the beaver could "be brought back to Britain tomorrow."

"They prefer small tributaries and streams about two to three metres wide, which they dam with trees and branches to create small pools -- beavers do not like to travel far from the safety of open water. Their activity results in an astounding ecology, a mosaic of habitats of pools, meadows and willow coppice which are ideal for a huge range of wildlife," Gow says. They do not need wilderness, either.

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