We are standing on the edge of an unnamed lochan, scanning for a crepuscular rodent in the gloaming. The wind creates random shimmers on the otherwise black surface that suddenly streak across the water like a murmuration of tiny silver starlings. The same wet, Atlantic air is fractured by a million pine needles in a ridge of spruce above, creating the aural illusion of an amphitheatre of cascading water.
A fish jumps, my pulse quickens. I locate the spot with my binoculars, pointing it out – but all that remains is a fading disk. Soon our rarely-absent companion returns, and the entire surface of the water is pricked with raindrops, forming intersecting rings, layered over the ripples. None of this disturbance is helping us to pick out the tell-tale signs that we are looking for: a furry duck-like head, a trailing v-shaped wake, of even the sound of teeth scraping on wood.
Tracy and I have been tipped-off that this remote spot would be an excellent location to track down a pair of beavers that have established a new territory here, a few miles away from the larger Loch where they were reintroduced a decade ago. Signs of their activity are everywhere: stumps of birch sharpened like giant cartoon pencils; piles of curved wood chips, that fit neatly into my palm and ribbed at either end; a tangle of fallen branches on the far shore that must be their lodge; and a boardwalk that once hugged the water’s edge leading to a viewpoint, but is now submerged and leads to a half-drowned bench. Groves of waterlogged trees are carpeted in lichen, mosses and bracket fungi, that in their state of decay, complete the circle of life, providing a habitat for a myriad of insects that are now being hunted by emerging bats.
We scan the scene until well after dusk, but this evening we must be content with the evidence of an altered landscape, and trudge down a forestry-commission track back to the car.
The previous evening, we had joined Ollie, co-founder of The Heart of Argyll Wildlife Organisation, on a guided walk around Loch Coille-Bharr. Her enthusiasm for the ecological benefits of beavers was contagious. We learnt that unlike otters, beavers are vegetarian, and succulent lily pad roots are at the top of their menu. They complement native otters, because beaver lodges and dams filter the water, improving its quality, and their tangled network of branches provides a safe haven for fry.
In the winter, when fresh plants aren’t available, beavers gnaw the bark off branches that they gathered in the autumn and floated back to their lodge. Passing a beaver skull around our group, Ollie showed us that their lower teeth are like a self-sharpening chisel: hard, orangey, iron enamel on the outside, with a softer inside edge that is worn away with use. She pointed out a spot where the beavers had felled a dozen small trees, creating a glade in an otherwise ubiquitous wood of ten-year-old regrowth. Wildlife thrives in dynamic habitats such as this, creating mosaics, like a patchwork quilt.
Beavers are larger than we expected, weighing between 2 and 4 stones, and have a double coat of fur that traps pockets of air in between the layers, keeping them warm and dry. This evolutional advantage became their downfall – they were hunted to extinction in Britain more than 400 years ago, to supply the demand for fashionable felt hats (a classic example of unsustainable, rapacious, free-market forces undermining natural capital). A beaver’s water-repellent fur coat and thick layer of blubber make it better adapted to life in Scotland than the slender otter, who must keep eating and moving to generate heat. Earlier in the week, we were rewarded with a close-up view of an otter on the dreich Taynish peninsula during a rainy picnic. At first, it was a smudge in Loch Mhuirich. It then swam closer, rolled onto its back and gobbled a fish; it slipped out of the water and over a rock – all tail and fur – before dissolving into the haar.
Ollie’s research involves tagging each reintroduced beaver, and this has revealed more about their behaviour. They regulate the inside temperature of their lodge to within a few degrees, no matter what the Argyll weather throws at them. The released animals have explored their surroundings more than expected, felling trees far from the water’s edge, climbing steep banks, and venturing across sea-lochs, in which they cannot survive for long. Her observations have also overturned the myth that beavers mate for life: a pair at Knapdale did a partner-swap. Despite the wealth of Ollie’s local beaver knowledge, and much to her chagrin, they didn’t put in an appearance that evening either. Nevertheless, the guided tour was worth every penny – and more – for this educational wildlife charity.
We now have one evening left before travelling home, and debate whether to return to the unnamed lochan or stake-out the larger, more established territory, at Coille-Bharr. In the end, we opt for Coille-Bharr because we had been captivated by one magical spot, called The Dubh Loch, and want to see it again in better light. The Dubh is a small body of water that drains into Coille-Bharr. A pair of beavers built a dam here a few years ago, nearly doubling its size. The Forestry Commission then constructed a new boardwalk a few feet higher than the old path, so it is possible to survey another ‘tree graveyard’ that is also bursting with lichen, moss, epiphytes, lily pads and reeds.
We arrive before sunset, and the stormy weather has given way to tranquillity (featured image). Still waters are gloopy green, reflecting a verdant hillside of oak and beech. Apart from a few mallards milling about, the water remains impassive, so after soaking up the proliferous surroundings, we head down to view the much larger loch from a floating pontoon and resume our search.
Tracy later showed me photographs that she had taken of the clouds turning pink, oddly shaped like Yoda, casting beautiful reflections into the water. But I notice none of this as I strain my eyes for any minor deviation in the water-wind-rain-fish-duck patinas that I am now so familiar with. The pontoon creaks as I shift my weight. Midges rise. Bats flicker. A tawny owl hoots. My arms ache from holding the binoculars. I wipe condensation off the lenses.
Then… on the far bank, I notice a brown speck moving; from this distance, it looks like a tiny log. Focus. ‘Tracy, look, over there!’. Finally, we are watching our first wild beaver; it is swimming south-west along the side of Loch Coille-Bharr, about 600 feet distant. After a few minutes it fades into the darkness under overhanging trees. I take a photo at full zoom; the image looks like the grainy spoofs of the Loch Ness monster you sometimes see in the newspaper. After lingering for a while longer, we call it a day, and a week, and roll back to the caravan.
Despite, or perhaps because of, our limited sighting, I went home contemplating thoughts more philosophical than merely ticking off a new British species of mammal. The maxim ‘eco-system engineer’ is commonly used to describe beavers, but other terms could also be coined that are not associated with human contrivances, such as ‘ecological catalyst’, ‘habitat patchwork-maker’, or even ‘human dethroner’.
The beaver creates a tiny crack in the gilded cage that is the British countryside; that crack is filled with opportunity; out of that crack emerges something wonderful – something not created by people.