As this issue has developed in recent years, there has been much confusion and suspicion as to where the animals have came from, and how they could spread so rapidly throughout the Tay system. Everyone pretty much agrees that most or all are the descendents of escapees from private collections, of which there are a number on Tayside. Any one or all of these could be responsible.
But when did these escapes happen, and does this explain the whole story?
BeaverandkitWebThe government agencies became aware of beavers being loose in  the Tay catchment in 2008, but some canoeists saw a beaver on the lower Earn in 2001, and it is now generally considered that they have been there at least eleven years.  It has been assumed that this animal was one of the first escapees but, in truth, it was merely the first beaver to be documented in recent times, and it could have been there for longer, part of an already-established population.
As more people have become aware of the situation, we start to hear stories of earlier sightings. There are now at least three reports of beavers on the Earn and lower Tay from fifteen years ago, and a report from Blairgowrie in 1981. We now have a report of beavers at Cortachy, near Kirriemuir in the 1950’s.

Saying Nothing
What is interesting about all these reports is that they have stayed under the radar for so long and, even today with all the publicity surrounding the issue, the stories only come forward very quietly and discreetly. We are almost certainly only hearing a very small part of the overall story.
One of the curious things about beavers on the Tay has been how local people who knew about them just kept quiet. Amazingly, in December 2012, the authorities thought there might be as few as seven beavers on the Tay. Less than a year later, they accepted that there were actually more than one hundred. Beavers can exist in significant numbers without many people being aware of them.

Into The Public Domain
The first person to speculate that there was a large population of beavers on Tayside was the photographer and wildlife writer Keith Ringland. If he had not brought his findings to the Press, it is likely that we would only be beginning to hear about the Tay beavers now, or indeed, the true extent of them might still be a secret.
In one of his articles last year, he discussed the origins of these animals. One possibility he raised, but rejected, was that beavers on Tayside never actually became extinct at all, that a small population persisted in isolated wetlands, and that these animals might be contributing to the population today, bolstered in numbers by the escapee animals with which they would now be breeding.
Is there any way in which this might be possible? Beavers are regarded as having become extinct in Scotland in the 1600’s, so they are assumed to have been gone for over 400 years. But, on further inspection, the accounts vary. Some say “in the 1600’s”, others in the “16th century”. They will almost always say “thought to have become extinct” or “considered to have become extinct”.
An interesting point is that Professor Bryony Coles, in her book, “Beavers in Britain’s Past” reports an item in a Parish Record listing a beaver in Yorkshire in 1789. (Beavers were believed to have been extinct in England since the 12th century). Could beavers have possibly survived in Scotland for 400 years longer than they did in England?  Prof. Coles also refers to oral tradition of beaver survivals in parts of Scotland, even speculating that the Loch Ness monster may have been a family of beavers seen at twilight. Questioning whether beavers ever really became extinct at all just sounds improbable, but it is an acceptable line of query, especially when the accounts vary so widely.

A Comparison With Capercaillie
In 2005, the EU Capercaillie LIFE Project did some very good work on collecting DNA samples from the various populations around the country. Capercaillie had become extinct in Scotland in the early 1800’s, but a population was re-introduced from Sweden in 1837, with the first birds being released at Drummond Hill near Kenmore. Interestingly, it was discovered that the DNA of the capercaillie population on the Loch Lomond islands was distinctly different from capercaillie elsewhere in Scotland, raising the possibility that they never actually became extinct in Scotland after all, and that the Loch Lomond birds were survivors of the original Scottish population.
Those were different times of course, but there were very many more people living in rural Scotland, people who would have had a very intimate knowledge and understanding of the country around them. If capercaillie persisted on the Loch Lomond islands, people would have known about them, but they obviously decided just to keep quiet and history has now forgotten all about them.

Beavers on Tayside
Could beavers have persisted on Tayside for 400 years without anyone reporting them? There are certainly some very remote and inaccessible wetland areas, especially to the east of the Tay river system. The Tay is a big river, flooding frequently, and many habitats that would otherwise have been grubbed out for farming would have been left intact because of this.
We would have thought that dams and lodges would be easy enough to spot, but maybe not. A lot of woody debris is carried by rivers and watercourses, and it is not always easy to work out what is a beaver lodge or dam and what is just a pile of sticks left there by floods. I still find it difficult distinguishing one from the other myself.

Keeping Quiet
But surely people would talk and we would get to find out? There are many examples in rural communities where local customs and traditions are conducted in secrecy, with peer pressure ensuring that this remains the case. One example is the Horseman’s Word, where young farm workers would be recruited in to this secret society to learn the skills of being an expert horseman. The tradition was maintained, but no-one until recently dared to speak about how it all worked. This survived for at least 200 years, widespread, but completely undocumented. It still exists in the north-east today.
There are other examples of history being re-written. The River Lochay near Killin is regarded by government agencies and even the fisheries board as being inaccessible to salmon, because of a waterfall at the lower end, with access only now being possible via a fish lift. But many people will tell you that their families used to catch salmon there before the lift was put in. The Gaelic poet Duncan ban McIntyre wrote about salmon in the upper river in the mid 1700’s, and there are reputedly accounts of court cases in the 1500’s in the National Library of Scotland where tenants were tried for the illegal taking of “black fish” ie salmon. Recent history from 1950 however records that none of this was ever possible. History has been poorly documented, and almost lost, with a false interpretation now having become accepted.

Did They Ever Really Go Away?
But surely beavers could not remain hidden for 400 years, could they? It is hugely unlikely, but there are a lot of things we don’t understand about the Tayside beavers, and we are only really beginning to understand the situation in front of us.
Sherlock Holmes was very fond of saying that “if you eliminated the impossible, everything else, however unlikely, could be the truth”.
We need to establish more about the origins of the Tay beavers. At present, there is not a simple DNA test available that will work on hair samples in the way that DNA could be collected from fresh capercaillie feathers. People are working on this, and hopefully it will be available soon.
The Cortachy beaver preceded any local private collections, as did the 1981 record, although various people have tried to re-introduce them down the decades. Was it an escapee or a deliberate release, or an animal whose ancestors never really went away? Did the people of east Perthshire decide to keep a secret over 400 years to which the rest of the country was never privy?
One very useful consequence of the current situation is that people are now starting to come forward with these older accounts, giving us information that would never be forthcoming to government agencies. It was the Scottish Wild Beaver Group and people associated with it that established the likely extent of the current population. Their Facebook page encouraged the recent sighting within the Loch Lomond National Park to be reported. Collating all these reports is also a useful function that will ultimately improve our understanding of all this.
If scientific principles are to be adhered to, we need to keep an open mind on all possibilities, however unlikely, until we can establish more about how the present beaver situation has really arisen.


Victor Clements
The writer is a woodland advisor working in Highland Perthshire

Beaver & kit pictured by Ray Scott

 

Add comment


Security code
Refresh