The View from Heifer Hill
Willow, the beaver whose life I have been documenting in this column for many years, had a visit from a special guest a couple of weeks ago, Roisin (pronounced RoSHEEN, she's Irish) Campbell-Palmer, Field Operations Manager for the team working on the reintroduction of beavers to Scotland.
The Eurasian beaver, nearly identical to our North American beaver, was hunted and trapped to extinction in Scotland and much of the rest of its range more than four hundred years ago. Beaver fur, so prized as a source of felt for fancy hats, then proceeded to fuel much of the early exploration of our own continent. The beavers of Vermont suffered the same fate as their Scottish counterparts, and were reintroduced here almost a century ago.
The project in Scotland has been one of the most carefully controlled reintroductions of a native species anywhere. Over the course of the five-year study period, five family groups from Norway were released in a forested area in the center of Scotland. These beavers were introduced as a trial, and their probationary period ends this year. Roisin and the other researchers involved have demonstrated that the beavers can survive in the landscape of modern Scotland, and bring the many blessing beavers bring, including a greater variety of habitat types, greater numbers and types of plants and animals, and increased economic revenue from beaver watchers. With flood and drought becoming increasingly common, beavers are also valued as an ally in retaining water on a landscape, and reducing the impact of floods.
While this carefully monitored project was going on, an illicit beaver reintroduction occurred in another part of Scotland, a more agricultural area. Roisin is now also part of a team studying the impact of beavers there, and because the beavers in the farmland have not been as welcomed by the locals, she travelled to Vermont to find out how we manage conflicts with these industrious creatures. Naturally, she sought out Skip Lisle of Grafton, proprietor of Beaver Deceivers International. Skip has been solving beaver conflicts for years, and has learned how to modify beaver works in ways that allow them to do their wetlands restoration without causing undue damage to human property.
I joined Skip and Roisin on a visit to one of Skip's job sites—a picturesque site with an old red cape, a striking view to the south, and cows grazing tranquilly on the hillsides. The three of us agreed that the best part of the scene was the series of beaver ponds tucked into the middle. When we arrived, we watched one of the resident beavers towing a bundle of fresh plants to the lodge, a good indication that kits were inside. We went down to the roadway to inspect the device Skip installed to keep the beavers from damming the culvert. All was working as expected, and not only kept the beavers on the landscape, but saved hours of time and headaches for the Halifax road crew. As we admired the scene, a mink loped past us, another of the beneficiaries of the work of Skip and the beavers.
At dusk we hiked into the woods to visit Willow. Because it is Roisin's job to trap, measure, weigh and take samples from the beavers in Scotland, she had never met one that was happy to be with people. She was delighted to meet old one-eyed Willow, who flopped down beside us to eat an apple and offer herself for comparison to the Eurasian beavers.
Now, back in Scotland, Roisin is awaiting the final decision on whether or not the beavers will be allowed to stay. Willow and I are optimistic. In fact, I can almost hear the ceremonial bagpipes welcoming the beavers back to their ancestral lands.
Patti Smith is a naturalist at the Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center. The View From Heifer Hill, a feature on the nature of our region, appears in this space the first Saturday of each month. Patti welcomes your feedback at email@example.com. You can read more about the beavers of Scotland at www.scottishbeavers.org.uk.