Fly Fishers' Republic

Beavering Away

June 25, 2006

by Bruce Sandison

Beavering Away

Black, grizzly or otherwise, bears scare the hell out of me. I am reliably informed that the key point to remember, should you ever be confronted by a bear whilst fishing, is not to run. Apparently this only encourages the beast to chase after you and that inevitably leads to a catastrophic rearrangement of irreplacable bodily parts.

Two American friends of mine panicked and ran when they came face to face with a bear when salmon fishing in Alaska. The bear, true to form, set off after them in hot anticipatory pursuit. After a few hundred breathless yards one of the intrepid duo stopped to retie a shoelace that had come undone.

His companion screamed at him in terror: “Good God Jim! What do you think you are doing, never mind your shoe lace – run faster!” His friend smiled and replied “No hurry, Hank. I don’t have to run faster than the bear. All I have to do is run faster than you – and I have been able to do that for years.”

This story may be apocryphal but it always springs to my mind when talk turns to reintroducing species that have become extinct in Scotland; particularly large, predatory, carnivores such as bears and wolves. I agree in principle that they could, and probably should, be reintroduced, but I question the practicability of doing so.

It certainly would be one way of reducing Scotland’s massive red deer population. A couple of hundred ravenous wolves and bears roaming our hills would sharp rearrange their numbers. The problems would begin when this readily available supply of venison dried up, or, to be more accurate, was eaten up.

Bears and wolves, no doubt by then thriving mightily, would turn to other available sources of food like sheep, cows, hens and anything else that happened along; including, and no one can deny the possibility, the odd unsuspecting angler.

But the presence of these animals would greatly add to the excitement of a day out in the hills and records from countries where these beasts live naturally suggest that they pose minimal risk to human life or to farm stock.

In any case, landowners would quickly persuade their friends in government to pay compensation and grants to reimburse them for any alleged loss. Your average Highland laird can spot a grant-aid opportunity quicker than a golden eagle spots a wounded hare in the heather.

There is, however, one animal, the European beaver, that was once native to Scotland, which could be reintroduced without cause for alarm and, personally, I support Scottish Natural Heritage’s (SNH) desire to do so. Beavers would enhance our freshwater habitat. The dams they build store organic matter and this is recycled in rivers, bestowing benefits upon all creatures that depend upon that habitat for survival, including trout and salmon.

However, according to SNH statistics, more than 80% of Scottish anglers are opposed to the reintroduction. Be they ever so cuddly, beavers that is, not Scottish anglers, fishermen seem to think that beavers might threaten the survival of wild salmon, sea-trout and brown trout. If that is indeed the case then beavers don’t stand a chance. Anglers will be the people most likely to come into contact with beavers and if they think that beavers are a danger to wild fish then beavers will suffer.

Anglers might also reasonably ask why SNH has spent upwards of a million pounds of public money researching the implications of reintroducing a species that became extinct in Scotland 400 years ago, and yet has done precious little to protect and preserve species that are currently in danger of becoming extinct: West Highlands and Islands wild sea-trout and salmon whose numbers are diminishing because of the impact of disease and pollution from fish farms.

Factory fish farming in coastal waters and freshwater lochs has decimated wild stocks that have survived in Scotland virtually genetically intact since the end of the last Ice Age, 8,000 years ago. Sea lice from fish farms kill migrating smolts; millions of farm fish escape from their cages and compete with wild fish for a finite source of food; farm fish interbreed with wild fish and degrade their genetic integrity; fish farms are food-magnets not only for sea lice, but also for seals which prey upon both wild and farmed salmon alike.

It is more than nine years now since SNH brought forward their beaver proposals, introduced at a press conference held on 19th March 1998 at Battleby near Perth. Since then, even more money has been spent upon determining where the first reintroduction should take place (Argyllshire) and in preparing public opinion for the event. But in spite of SNH’s best efforts, successive Scottish ministers have delayed giving the go-ahead, and it is ever-less-certain that they ever will.

I think that this is a pity, because I really would like to see beavers back in our rivers and streams. Another vitally important attraction of the reintroduction of beavers to Scotland – rather then wolves and/or bears – springs to mind. Should the need arise I am pretty certain that I could quite easily outrun even the most fleet-footed of their kind. In the meantime, perhaps SNH could direct their attention and some of their funds to protecting our wild salmon and sea-trout?