A musky perfume, a pile of twigs – the evidence all adds up. European beavers have returned to mid-Argyll after four centuries of absence. Kenny Taylor takes a magical mystery tour of their new home.
My guide seems to be paying homage to a pile of wet sticks. We’re at the edge of a small loch, where the water has backed up against a large arc of twigs, mud and leaves. Simon has prostrated himself in front of this structure and is sniffing the ground.
“What do you reckon?” he asks, looking back over his shoulder before resuming the position. Admitting that I’m no expert on odour identification, I join the quest. Kneeling, I press my nose against a mossy stump and inhale. Nothing.
Then, about 1m away, I catch a whiff of something musky. I smile, revelling not simply in the sheer oddity of what we’re doing, but in what it signifies.
I’ve just breathed in something wonderful, something historic. It’s a scent mark in the territory of a free-living beaver, the like of which has not graced Scottish air for perhaps four centuries – since the last of the species was hunted to extinction in these waters.
My companion, Simon Jones from the Scottish Wildlife Trust
, has a connoisseur’s nose for such rare perfumes. He is the project manager of the Scottish Beaver Trial
(SBT), the five-year-long scheme that, since 2009, has been using this part of the west Highlands – Knapdale in mid-Argyll – as a test bed for the reintroduction of European beavers to Scotland.
The Scandinavian connection
Enthusiasts of the restoration of certain Scottish fauna have campaigned for many years to see beavers once again splash in Highlands lochs.
I remember over a decade ago chatting with the late Magnus Magnusson, renowned broadcaster and wildlife enthusiast, about how good it would be to welcome Europe’s largest rodent back to Scottish waters.
“Let’s agree to meet in three years beside a Scottish beaver dam, Kenny,” he said to me. “And with luck an osprey will be hovering overhead.”
Sadly, Magnus didn’t live to see beavers return to Scotland; obtaining the – albeit cautious – go-ahead took longer than expected. But I think he’d have relished both the humour and the seriousness of my pause-and-sniff tour.
As we leave the dam, Simon explains that there are now four pairs of beavers living wild in Knapdale. Last summer, a single offspring (called a kit) was born to two of those families, including the one that lives in this loch.
It was a Norwegian member of the team, Christian Robstad, who saw the first Scottish kit. All of the beaver families brought to Scotland were caught by Telemark University College in southern Norway.
Christian, who has been part of the project on both sides of the North Sea, now lives in Knapdale and is employed by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, a partner of SBT. He is also an ace beaver-catcher.
Simon reveals how the Norwegian beavers were caught: from a canoe, at night, by the light of strong lamps – a process culminating in a leap into the water with a heavy, hand-held, metal cage to drop over the beaver. I’m glad that, when we climb into the canoe at the shore of Loch Coille-Bharr today, it’s in daylight, with almost certainly no need for acrobatic exits.
We paddle quietly out into the loch. The shore here is indistinct; water laps at the base of birch and willow trees in a small swamp. “The beavers created this not long ago,” says Simon. “They built the dam we’ve just visited to control the outflow into a larger loch and the water backed up.”
It’s a step back in time, in more ways than one, as Simon explains: “This swamp gives an idea of what so many other small wetland areas must have looked like when Britain still had a healthy population of beavers. Most people I’ve brought here understand the advantages of reintroduction when they see this, visit the dam and find out how beavers can benefit a range of other wildlife, such as dragonflies and young fish, as well as aquatic plants.”
“But,” he concludes, “you don’t need to know the science to appreciate that beavers have added to the beauty of this forest.”
Magical mystery tour
Dodging low branches, we continue what, for me, is fast becoming a magical mystery tour, paddling clear of the trees and into the open loch. The canoe glides through the tawny-brown water, past floating waterlily stems and lilypads as large as dinner plates.
One of the reasons the SBT chose this place as a release site is that it offers abundant food, such as the lilies, in and around the loch.
I’m being lulled by the gentle rhythm of our progress when I see a dark shape break the surface at the far end of the loch. The creature is 100m or more away, but there’s no mistaking the profile, with its massive head and arc of dark-furred back: a beaver.
Keeping my eyes on its silhouette and scarcely daring to speak, I whisper an alert to Simon. He’s seen it, too. “I think it might be the male,” he says. “He’s most likely heard the sound of our paddles and come out to have a look – and to show us that he’s noticed us.”
The beaver dives, then resurfaces inshore beside a heap of twigs and branches that forms his lodge – the family home where his partner and kit will be snug and hidden. He dives once more, so that he can enter the lodge underwater. This time, he doesn’t reappear.
Our mid-afternoon sighting is a lucky one, since beavers are largely nocturnal, most active from early evening through to early morning. We make a hushed retreat.
A few minutes later, we’re back on land, stowing the canoe on the roof of Simon’s 4x4. I try to focus on the task in hand but my thoughts keep drifting back to the loch. It has been an afternoon I’ll savour for years.
Mid-Argyll is not particularly large if you take a simple measure of it. It’s scarcely 70km, as the eagle flies, from beyond Inveraray in the north-east, south to Tarbert where the ‘long and winding road’ that inspired the Beatles’ song continues down the Kintyre Peninsula.
But this part of the West Highlands is, nevertheless, a fitting area in which to launch a project that’s likely to be of such long-term importance.
It’s about more than size. For the region is huge in terms of historic and prehistoric significance, and has a long coastline, an array of islands large and small, and some of the finest oak woods and boglands in the west Highlands. Tongues of saltwater press far inland along sea lochs, and wood-cloaked promontories jut out to meet the ocean.
Knapdale, in the south of the region, is a great place to appreciate this mix of leafiness and salt tang. Taynish National Nature Reserve, close to Tayvallich, merges these aspects to perfection.
On a day of fast-moving clouds and shifting sunlight, I take to one of Taynish’s trails to visit the fringe of Loch Sween, dip my feet in the water and stare out for a while in a fruitless but still enjoyable search for otters.