Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Parachuting beavers into the UK?

The news that the government plans to remove the first colony of wild beavers seen in England for 500 years has caused huge controversy.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is believed to be worried about the impacts and consequences of beavers living on the River Otter in Devon.

It is reported that Defra plans to capture and rehome the beavers in a zoo or wildlife park - while a petition has been set up urging the government to leave the animals alone.

The small beaver colony, discovered earlier this year, is thought to be the first of its kind in England for around 500 years.

Until then beavers would have been a common sight along the country's rivers -  which has led many environmentalists and conservationists to call for their reintroduction to our waterways.

Such a reintroduction, if one is ever given the greenlight, is likely to involve very small numbers of beavers on targeted river sections.

Parachuting beavers...

However, the translocation of beavers has not always been conducted in such a sedate manner.

Indeed in the 1940s beavers were actually parachuted into areas of America: literally, strapped to parachutes and thrown out of aeroplanes!

One of those involved in the parachuting-rodent scheme even wrote a scientific paper on the subject, which has to be one of the most unusual papers I've ever read.

Published in the Journal of Wildlife Management in 1950, Elmo Herter from the Idaho Fish and Game Department wrote the article 'Transplanting Beavers by Airplane and Parachute'.

In it he describes the need to 'transplant' beavers from where they 'exist in abundance' and may be causing damage, to areas where they're not found and could set up 'fur-bearing populations'.

According to Herter's paper such practise was relatively common but involved an 'arduous, prolonged, expensive' schedule involving several days journey with trucks and pack horses.

Many beavers died en route and some of those that survived became 'dangerously belligerent'.

So a better method was developed which involved planes and ex-military parachutes.

The paper goes into fabulous detail for the design of a box which beavers could be kept in during their flight and skydive.

Once on the ground the specially constructed box sprang open to allow the, surely bewildered, beavers to leave and set up their new colony.

To get to this final working design though the team had to test out several different types, using dummy weights, and, of course, real beavers.

Perhaps the finest part of the paper describes the adventures of one such test-beaver:
One old male beaver, whom we fondly named 'Geronimo', was dropped again and again on the flying field. Each time he scrambled out of the box, someone was on hand to pick him up. Poor fellow! He finally became resigned, and as soon as we approached him, would crawl back into his box ready to go aloft again.

Unfortunately not all beavers faired so well:
One beaver worked his head through the small opening thus made for him, and managed to climb out onto the top of the box. Even so, had he stayed where he was, all would have gone well; but for some inexplicable reason, when the box was within 75 feet of the ground, he jumped or fell from the box.
Perhaps the 'inexplicable reason' was that the poor beaver was a little perplexed as to the turn of events which saw it floating down a river eating a nice piece of willow one minute, and the next being hurled out a large aircraft.

As for Geronimo, fear not: 
You may be sure that 'Geronimo' had a priority reservation on the first ship into the hinterland, and that the three young females went with him.

Crucially the whole - wonderfully barmy - scheme appears to have been a success, as Herter reports that 12 months after the airborne beaver-invasion of remote Idaho all the beavers were thriving.

Apart from the one that jumped out of its box.

Beavers in the UK...

So instead of the UK Government getting rid of our beavers perhaps we should be parachuting more of them into our landscape?

There may not be much call for their 'fur-bearing' properties anymore, but it's possible beavers could help with river and wetland restoration, flood alleviation and carbon storage.

If you want to know more about the effects of beavers on the landscape then why not sign-up for the Wetland Science and Conservation MSc at Bangor University?

No comments: