A canoeist has uncovered the first evidence that the animals are migrating south from the Tay to the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. From there, they are likely to spread to large parts of Scotland.
A beaver, with its distinctive paddle-shaped tail, was caught on film swimming in the River Leny near Callander earlier this month. That is the furthest south the animals have been spotted since they colonised the Tay and its tributaries in recent years.
About 100 beavers are thought to be living around Tayside, descendants of animals that either escaped from captivity or were illegally released. A threat to trap and remove them was lifted by the Scottish government in March, pending a decision on whether to formally permit their reintroduction in 2015.
But by then, beavers are likely to be impossible to eradicate. “Sightings like this show us how beavers would naturally move and disperse around the Scottish landscape, seeking out the very best habitats first before filling in the gaps in between,” said Louise Ramsay, from the Scottish Wild Beaver Group.
“It is very exciting to come across a wild beaver in a completely new area when they have been extinct for over 400 years. For those lucky enough to find one, you will remember it for the rest of your life.”
Beavers used to be native to Scotland, but were hunted to extinction centuries ago for their furs, which are soft and waterproof, and for the oil they secrete. A government-approved trial reintroduction of the animals is under way at Knapdale in Argyll.
The canoeist who filmed the beaver, Gavin Millar, was “completely overjoyed” at what he saw. “I hope this will be the first of many sightings,” he said. “It is very exciting to have seen a beaver in the river and to know there is now a presence in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park.”
But landowners, fearful of damage to woodlands and flooding, are less delighted. “We are very concerned that beavers are spreading widely and in a completely uncontrolled and illegal way,” said Drew McFarlane-Slack from Scottish Land & Estates, which represents 2,500 landowners.
His organisation had been warning ministers of this danger and took “no comfort” from being proved right. “We remain very concerned that beavers will continue to spread illegally,” he added.
As a result of the new sighting, the government’s wildlife agency, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), is extending a survey of beavers to cover the Callander area. “We are keen to get a clearer picture of the range of beavers in the wild,” said SNH’s head of policy, Ron Macdonald.
“We don't know yet whether the animal is a single beaver or part of a more established group, but either way it's important to investigate further and confirm the sighting, so we have a complete picture.”
According to the Scottish Wildlife Trust, the beaver in the River Leny was “likely to have originated from the unlicensed population of beavers in Tayside.” The trust is backing the official reintroduction scheme in Argyll.
“We believe that it is important that any reintroductions are licensed by the government, based on scientific evidence and in consultation with local communities,” said SWT’s beaver manager, Simon Jones. However, the trust was “content” with the government’s decision not to trap the Tayside beavers.
The Scottish government confirmed that wild beavers would be “tolerated” on Tayside while the Argyll trial was completed. “However, unlicensed releases remain illegal,” said a government spokesman.