Beaver Expedition: Day One

The drive to the cottage was as picturesque as I imagined it would be. As we bumped down a winding gravel path I peered out the window into the dense woodland on either side. As trees whipped past I squinted to see between them, in the hope of spotting a squirrel or perhaps a deer, or maybe even the star of our expedition, the European beaver.

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Woodland gave way to open fields, and amongst the sheep was a river that cut across the road. What was once a trickling stream was now several metres wide, all thanks to the handiwork of the beavers. Every once in a while a tree stump chiselled to a sharp point came into view, with a bed of wood clippings littered all around; countryside statues designed by the very large incisors of our beavers. Like all rodents, their incisors grow continuously, and have both a hard enamel outer layer and a softer dentine layer. Over time, wear of these two layers creates a very sharp edge, allowing the beavers to make short work of hard bark.

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After settling into our quaint accommodation, it was back into the wild for a wander while we still had the sunlight. We headed back down the path and began to follow the river away from the cottages. It was clear this was prime beaver habitat. Branches of all different sizes lay strewn across the river, and every so often we’d come across a dam. Beaver dams are extremely important for preventing floods, stemming the flow of the river with packed mud and wood to force the water to flow at a much slower pace. Fascinatingly, the beavers here used to be captive, but after felling trees in their enclosure during the time of a flood, they managed to make their escape, and have since made this beautiful part of Perthshire their home. Now the fact remains whether they are feral, having escaped captivity, or wild, as they have had kits.

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A sudden ripple on the water and we all crouched down, scanning the reeds and waiting silently. Perhaps a fish, perhaps something furrier. The tricky thing with beavers is, they can move through water almost without disturbing it, so while we were watching where the ripple was, the animal could now be metres downstream. We walked on, keeping an eye out for beaver prints in the mud. More gnawed trees, and I was astonished to see a smooth chunk out of the bark several feet off the ground, meaning beavers were perfectly capable of climbing.

The forest was one of the greenest and richest I’d been in. It felt like the setting of Jurassic Park, with moist, bouncy grass and dense thicket. Beavers really are skilled decorators, adapting their habitat and changing the land and water use. Right now in late evening, the only sound I could hear were the bleats of sheep from the farms, but I knew hidden in these trees were hundreds of birds, mammals and invertebrates all taking advantage of the idyllic conditions here.

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We made our way off the beaten track and wound through the long grass. Suddenly, a sharp “WO” sound echoed through the air, signalling the presence of roe deer. A short time later and a female appeared, eying us cautiously with ears pricked up. She barked again, and in the distance the lower sound of the male echoed back. She foraged for a while before turning away, white tail flashing as she hopped athletically over the tussocks of grass.

She was doing a more graceful job than I was. Not blessed with great balance, I was staggering over logs and wading inelegantly through the grass that the deer negotiated so easily. As I stopped to find my next step, there was a speeding black bullet overheard and I looked up to see a bat zooming around in rapid circles. Heather turned on her bat detector and the alien-like clicks of the bats’ echolocation broke the silence. The calls were clearest at around 40-45Hz, suggesting that the bats were common pipistrelles, though the range of soprano pipistrelles also reaches 45Hz, so we couldn’t be entirely sure. Whichever species it was, they were abundant here; wherever I looked there were bats.

After a quick glance at the time, we realised it was nearly 11pm, despite there still being enough light to see clearly. We made our way back through the grass and towards the river, glancing at the water to see if there was any activity. A flash of white caught my eye and I felt a buzz of excitement as a barn owl swooped by in complete silence, looping ahead of us and disappearing into the trees.

Suddenly Cain froze and we ducked again. There in the field over the river was a brown blob that looked suspiciously beaver-shaped. Sure enough, the blob moved, and our first beaver made its way back towards the water, sliding down a trail and diving below the surface. The excitement was palpable, and we crept as quietly as possible along the path in an attempt to catch a second look.

The beaver didn’t seem to resurface, but then a line of ripples leading back the way we’d come made us freeze again, and a beaver raised its head above the water. As we hadn’t seen ripples coming the other way, we assumed it must be a second individual, which was even more exciting. Sitting in complete silence, our eyes and ears were trained for any sign. Then we heard a chewing noise, and I realised I was listening to a beaver feed, which was a fantastic thing to hear.

We saw another, slightly smaller beaver floating at the edge of the river, and watched until it swam out of sight, then decided we must get back to the cottage and have some dinner. After such a successful first night, I couldn’t wait to see what we could find over the rest of this weekend.

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Species seen: Barn owl (Tyto alba) Common Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pipistrellus) Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) European beaver (Castor fiber) Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) Roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) Swallow (Hirundo rustica) Tawny owl (Strix aluco) Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)

 

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