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Jan 2017: keeping chickens in. What happens?

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The next generation.

image001Many people ask us if our boys are interested in farming. I would say that they are interested in the business side of farming and butchery but are less enthusiastic about the hard work side of it, which I can hardly blame them for.

They do however, understand more about food and its production than the average 15 & 17 year olds, and that is a good thing. My eldest son, has taken his father’s love of the land and wildlife and is a passionate and committed conservationist, and in an effort to hone his writing and photography skills, has started a blog. He has agreed to guest here and we have chosen his recent posting about beavers.

Tree DamageLocally, the uncontrolled reintroduction of beavers, and their subsequent rapid spread throughout the Tay and Earn valley river system is causing problems. They block waterways, and fields previously good for cultivation, are being downgraded to less valuable permanent grazing land. Like many conservation issues there is no right or wrong answer and his piece highlights the tensions that can occur between the needs of farmers and conservationists.

An extract from

A new year, in my experience, always begins by looking back at the old one. In particular, my mind dwells on a resurgent mammal that would I had hoped would have been awarded status of British native, but wasn’t.

I'm referring to the European beaver. Having been wiped out from the UK in the 17th century, four pairs were reintroduced to Argyll’s Knapdale Forest in 2009, as part of the Scottish Beaver Trial.

Since 2006, beavers have been present on the loch of Aigas estate and before that, beavers were well established in Scotland, with a population of approx 200 established in the River Tay since escaping in 2001. Yet they have no formal protection and, being classed as feral, this has resulted in the sometimes indiscriminate killing of the beavers on the Tay. Reasons vary, with claims such as beavers “destroying woodlands”, “ruining fish stocks” and being a general threat to wildlife.

As a native species, however, the beaver has a niche in wetland ecology, even if it is a niche vacant for 400 years. Though the site of a grove of trees felled by beavers may appear alarming at first, in the long-term, this is an effective example of natural coppicing, whereby trees, through repetitive gnawing of stems, develop their ability to re-grow branches. Coppicing of stems by beavers helps increase sunlight falling on the ground floor, thus benefiting ground flora. By creating dead wood, beavers also help a range of cavity-nesting birds, invertebrates and fungi.

Perhaps beavers are best known for building dams, to reduce the velocity of a water body. Despite concerns about these dams impact on salmon, evidence from Sweden and Poland shows that, while there is a risk of dams hindering migrating salmon, this is counteracted by how beaver dams act as nursery beds for salmon fry. Indeed, salmon in dammed rivers are, on average, larger than those without. Amphibians benefit too: the Devon Beaver Project showed an increase in frogspawn clumps over 2 years. John Lister-Kaye has reported as of July 2015 that the beavers on Aigas loch have increased total biodiversity by a factor of 3.

Despite such positive effects on biodiversity, there is still fear of beavers affecting productive farmland. Beaver dams can indeed flood farmland and create areas of rushes and unpalatable grasses, yet this is often localised, and can be dealt with using non-lethal methods, such as repetitive dismantling of beaver dams.

So how does a project commenced 7 years ago concern 2015? Last year the trial wrapped up, and the final report was collated. Scottish Beaver Trial polls found 60% of correspondents supported reintroduction, while only 5% were strongly opposed. This would have been the first reintroduction of a mammal to the UK.

Discussion of the report by Scottish Parliament was supposed to have been well underway by now, with the final verdict intended to have come out in March 2015. However, it was postponed, allegedly due to clashing with the General Election, until November or December 2015 for the final verdict. Again, no final statement materialised. With any luck, it will be issued in the next 12 months. I have concerns for even that: I fear that the upcoming Scottish elections will delay the report even further and hamper the conclusion of this piece of environmental policy.

Taking a wider perspective though, Nicola Sturgeon has recently begun to unveil her policies for 2016, concerning health, education and welfare. Can I call for an environmental policy, not just for the SNP, but for all parties running in the Scottish election?

Image courtesy of the Scottish Beaver Trial 

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