The return of the engineer; a researcher’s perspective

Located on Scotland’s west coast amongst the wilderness of ancient western acidic oak woodlands, clear-water nutrient-poor lochs and commercial conifer plantations, Taynish and Knapdale Woods is a designated Special Area of Conservation for more than just the reasons listed. Until a few years ago this area was relatively under-studied, with research concentrated on the presence of nationally scarce species such as the hairy dragonfly (Brachytron pratense), Marsh fritillary butterfly (Euphydryas aurinia) and numerous Atlantic bryophytes. Yet now, almost every square meter of land and water is accounted for.

The reason for this is the return of the beaver.

Officially the largest mammal to be formally reintroduced to Britain, albeit on a trial basis*, the potential for beavers to engineer their habitats, through dam building and selective tree felling, has been well-documented both in Europe and North America. With the effects of beavers encompassing several habitats and multiple kingdoms of the freshwater biome they are a researchers dream.

As a result of the pond outflow being dammed by the beavers the perimeter increased by 126% creating shallow, macrophyte rich habitat for macro-invertebrates and amphibian. A patchwork of leafless trees is often an indication of raised water levels attributed to beaver dams

As a result of the pond outflow being dammed by the beavers the perimeter increased by 126% creating shallow, macrophyte rich habitat for macro-invertebrates and amphibians. A patchwork of leafless trees is often an indication of raised water levels attributed to beaver dams

Using a canoe or kayak to assess the abundance and diversity of aquatic plants in these lochs is a pleasurable pursuit regardless of the weather (well almost), and sweeping a pond net through areas newly flooded by beaver dams and observing the vast insect diversity still amazes me. But it’s hard not to get excited by the sight of the tranquil waters being broken by the bobbing head of a suspicious beaver scrutinising its territory prior to a busy night of grazing, tree felling and dam upkeep. Coupled with their potential for damming rivers, unmistakable tree coppicing and elusiveness it’s no wonder these charismatic animals have attracted such large press coverage since their reintroduction.

Quantifying beaver grazing on the aquatic plants

Quantifying beaver grazing on the aquatic plants

My personal point of view is that by reintroducing a species that was lost to Britain 400 years ago we are directly enriching our native fauna, and by closely studying an area like Knapdale we can quantify any ecosystem scale benefits of beavers. Beyond this their presence has noticeably enhanced ecotourism within the area and will hopefully inspire both adults and children to take a further interest in environment. Between removing ticks, getting stuck in bogs, shivering from the cold, getting soaked by the rain, swiping at midges and, very occasionally, soothing your sunburn, the presence of beavers is enough to bring a smile to the face of any researcher.

* Stirling University undertakes this work for Scottish Natural Heritage as part of the independent monitoring of the trial.

Twitter: @alan_law1

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