The creativity and industry of modern man has resulted in the invention and production of all sorts of new materials which have, as they have been developed, made more natural materials redundant. There was a time long ago for instance, when our ancestors clad themselves in clothes not of textiles but of animal skins and furs. In these much more ethically driven times, the very concept of using animal furs in particular has become for some, a major conservation issue. Mink farming accordingly, during the course of my lifetime, has come and gone, although sadly, mink themselves still persist in many parts of the country … to the detriment it might be said of many of our native creatures, most especially perhaps, the water vole.
Some several decades ago, Hollywood was probably the progenitor of fur fashion. Personally, I’ve never quite understood why ladies of fashion, notably perhaps during the first half of the last century, insisted upon having the fur of creatures such as mink and foxes, draped around their necks, sometimes, complete with their heads and even their paws! I am old enough to remember a time when almost every woman of social ambition coveted the glamour of the fur coat. And, let’s not forget the trappers of the nineteenth century, especially those in North America, who made fortunes on the backs of all those creatures they killed, sometimes in the cruellest of ways by the use of all manner of traps which must have caused unimaginable suffering.
It certainly has been a singular fact of life that during the deluges of recent months, the rain repelling qualities of the synthetic materials which have replaced those more natural sources of protection from the elements have been exceptionally well tested! Today’s new materials are ‘breathable’, insulating and, in the case of those that are properly constructed, genuinely waterproof. However, so too apparently were the skins of, for instance, beavers.
Beavers were of course, once pretty commonplace throughout the British Isles. However, these are animals which spend the bulk of their lives in water and it therefore occurred to our ancestors that it stood to reason that clothing made from the skins of beavers would therefore be guaranteed to keep a person dry in the heaviest of rain. Beavers were therefore killed in unsustainable numbers, slaughtered willy-nilly until of course, before long they were no more!
Unfortunately for the beavers, it was also discovered that substances obtained from a gland situated near the base of the tail, together with other unmentionable parts, had excellent medicinal and worse, it was claimed, aphrodisiacal properties. Furthermore some claimed that beaver was quite good to eat! The fact that a curious decree also allowed Roman Catholics to substitute the paws and tails of beaver for fish on a Friday, probably hastened these entirely herbivorous animals on their way to ultimate extinction in these islands.
The fact that beavers are not that difficult to track down and kill together with the utter failure of our ancestors to apply any kind of conservation practice to the mass exploitation of these dam- building creatures, led to their eventual disappearance it is thought about 400 years ago in Scotland; a few hundred years earlier south of the Border.
So, after four hundred years absence, it was decided by our scientists and eventually by our politicians to re-introduce these apparently harmless creatures on what they called a ‘trial basis’! The Scottish trial which I suppose, presumed that beavers are now safe from exploitation as providers of waterproof clothing, was to be staged in Argyll. Predictably, there were objectors – landowners who were adamant that beaver dams would disrupt the passage of some game fish to traditional spawning grounds. Many also feared that the dam building enthusiasm of beavers could cause the flooding of good farmland.
Of course, beavers had already slipped under the radar having either escaped from private collections or possibly having been deliberately released by their captors. At the time of the official release in the west, it was estimated that there were at large in Perthshire, in excess of a hundred such animals around the Tay and its tributaries. There had been vague suggestions of a cull of these animals but such were the protests about such an approach that that option was not pursued.
I must say that in general, I have reservations about re-introductions, or as it is described today, re-wilding. When beavers chomped their way through trees several hundred years ago, the damage they did was hardly noticeable in a landscape where farming, as we know it today, simply didn’t exist. Modern assessment seems to indicate that the tree felling prowess of beavers – a kind of coppicing - is actually good for native woodland.
The Scotland of four hundred years ago however, was a very different place, wild and largely untamed. Now, our landscape is a much more manicured place, the low ground patterned by cultivated fields, the higher ground, due to the long term presence of sheep, now largely stripped of its wild shrubs, in many places bereft of natural trees, in others further patterned by regimented forests of conifers.
And here’s the irony. Beavers which we may presume to have been unleashed upon Perthshire’s landscape without authority, are now being shot … also without authority! The owners and tenants of good quality farmland fear that the dam-building of the beavers, may well cause the flooding of fields from which they earn a living. And yet, as we face up to the higher rainfall which is the result of global warming and which as we have witnessed in recent days, has caused unprecedented levels of flooding both of agricultural land and dwellings too, we are somewhat belatedly waking up to the fact that the presence of beavers might actually turn out to be of benefit in figuring out ways to combat these disasters.
The new thinking seems to suggest that building flood defences, that is walls, in order to protect properties is extremely expensive and may in many instances merely serve to move flooding problems further down-stream. In much the same way, dredging too is expensive and the improvements which result from it may be minimal. In the past rivers have been canalised and now it is thought that ‘re-winding’ them could absorb some of the excess water. And indeed, farmers may be paid to allow their land to flood. More and more however, are solutions to flooding problems thought to be better sought up-stream with tree planting and areas set aside on poorer land for the holding of water when rainfall in excess occurs.
Interestingly, the presence of beavers building dams on the burns that feed many of our rivers, may also serve to slow the flow of water into the main water courses. I might add that allowing the building of houses to continue on flood plains does not seem to me to be very sensible. Flood plains are exactly what they say they are!
Beavers therefore, if they are present in the right places may well be part of the complex solutions to the increasing problems of flooding. Taking indiscriminate action against beavers however, whether or not they are present without proper authorisation, seems to me to be both selfish and hasty to say the least. On the question of re-wilding, I remain sceptical. The last time wolves were released into the Scottish environment, whether deliberately or by accident, they too were abruptly shot. That of course, is a very different story!