Saturday afternoon we arrived at our amazing B&B. In the past I’ve booked us into some slightly questionable places (not on purpose) but I’d done alright this time, it was an old shooting lodge called Kirnan House on a large estate run by Ross (and his wife) originally from Oxfordshire, with their own forest, tonnes of chickens, goats, donkey, sheep.
After a brief stop, we headed straight back out to the site of the Scottish beaver trial. I’d been really excited about coming here, and it was the main reason we’d chosen to stay in this area for a couple of days. I think its such great news that native and once wild animals, who were made extinct due to human actions, are being reintroduced (at least trialed anyway, the results of the Scottish Beaver Trial were released this month). Beavers are a keystone species which means they are fundamental in the development and health of the entire ecosystem they inhabit. The land they flood creates homes for small mammals such as voles and shrews, frogs, hundreds of insects; the coppicing (cutting back so more shoots grow) of trees creates a better environment for birds; their dams filter the river water and improve its health so that fish can thrive; and the dams they build upstream can even help stop flooding further downstream near towns and villages. They have been reintroduced around Europe already and Britain is slowly catching on, there was the great news recently that the beavers found on the River Otter in Devon in 2013 have been given the OK to stay, after much petitioning. George Monbiot (rewilding legend) wrote a great article on all this if you want more details and a strong opinion.
Anyway! All the brochures and signs talk about coming to see signs of beaver activity, ie chewed treees, flooded lochs etc, so I was desperately trying not to get any hopes up of actually seeing a beaver. We were planning on coming back later that evening as the best time to see them is dusk/dawn but thought we’d come in the daylight first to scope it out. There was no sign of anyone else there thankfully so we made a huge effort to be really quiet and tip toe around the loch, just in case there was a beaver around. The first thing we saw when we arrived was the flooded loch which the beavers had created by building their dam. This was created by the beavers to give themselves the best habitat – deeper water to feel safe in and easier access to the plants they eat (they are vegetarian).
This is the dam, its a bit hard to make out but the beavers have filled all the gaps with sticks and mud to create a plug. The smaller flooded loch behind the dam has a higher water level than the larger loch in front of it.
Further round the large loch, we finally started seeing more recent signs of beaver activity. Trees had been felled by the beavers’ characteristic gnawing into the base of the tree, eventually make the tree fall into the water and leaving a pointy stub. We could even see the marks of their teeth in the wood, and some of the trees they’d felled were mindbogglingly huge. The larger trees are likely to be used to build the lodge or dam, while smaller trees and plants will be eaten.
And then we spied the beaver lodge! A huge construction, accessed under water by the beavers and used for sleeping, storing food and having their young. We’d been pretty quiet the whole way round the loch, but now we were so close to the lodge we were even quieter, because we were still hoping our luck may be in for spotting a beaver…
And it was! Swimming right across the middle of the main loch towards the lodge was a BEAVER. Unlike the otters who are constantly diving under water and disappearing, the beaver stays mostly above the surface so we could see him swimming the whole way, his little head above the water. We were obviously pretty far away (as you can tell from the photo!) but you could see him without binoculars. We stood, in the pouring rain, glued to this little mammal (actually one of the biggest rodents) making his way across the water to his home. I can’t begin to tell you how privileged we felt to see it – there was no one else around, it was just us and this animal, brought back from near-extinction. They are hard to spot during the day, we’d really lucked out. And it meant we didn’t have to come back at dusk and make our way towards the dam in near darkness, hurrah!
After a week and a half of intensive wildlife spotting, we chilled out a bit on Sunday. We had a brief walk around the estate (!) in the morning, accompanied the whole way by Philip the terrier. Safe to say we saw no wildlife as Philip made sure he saw off any deer before we got anywhere near them.
Ross also showed us a tree in his garden which is used by Scottish wildcats, I’d totally forgotten about them as something to look for! He said we didn’t stand a chance of seeing one (so gave up on that one straight away), but the cats use this tree basically as a giant scratching post. They climb fairly high up it and then sort of slide back down the main truck with their claws, leaving it covered in scratches and not much bark. Scottish wildcats have distinctive black stripey tails with a black tip, but are really quite endangered not helped by breeding with local or feral cats and so losing the genetic distinction.
While my pilgramage in this area was to come see the beavers, Phil’s was to visit his favourite whiskey distilleray, Laphroig, on the island of Islay. It was lovely to be back on an island, the weather was great and we learnt how they make whiskey. Great last day to our trip.
And so the next day we began our long drive home. This holiday had well and truly been an adventure, we’d seen so much more wildlife than I’d even dared imagine I might. We had certainly been lucky , but we’d also worked pretty hard at it too, making lots of trips out to places we’d been recommended, keeping quiet and having my eyes glued permanently to the binoculars. I learnt so much too, everything I’ve written in these blog posts I’ve learnt while in Scotland. As a kid its hard to imagine ‘learning’ as anything other than sitting in a classroom being talked at, but when you see things out in the real world, make your own observations or have things pointed out by experts and other enthusiasts, ‘learning’ takes on a whole different meaning. I feel like my eyes have been opened even wider and now I’m excited about going home and re-exploring the area where I live.