Go wildlife watching at Knapdale Forest, Argyll, where beavers have returned to the wild in Scotland after a 400 year absence
The beaver is back. After years of debate and discussion, this charismatic creature has finally made its return to Scotland after an absence of over 400 years. Knapdale Forest in Argyll is the setting for the Scottish Beaver Trial, a unique opportunity for wildlife watchers to spot this creature. Bounded to the north by the Crinan Canal and to the west by the Sound of Jura and Loch Sween, the rich mix of woodland and water habitats is home to the country's first truly wild beaver population.
In the summer of 2009, three beaver families were released on to a trio of small lochs in the forest (www.forestry.gov.uk) as part of the Scottish Beaver Trial. Knapdale Forest is already a popular destination, offering woodland walks, cycle trails and wildlife spotting opportunities. It is home to a thriving otter population, plus badgers, roe deer, pine martens and wildcats. In the skies above, osprey and another re-introduced species, the white-tailed sea eagle, soar.
Of the three stretches of secluded water, Loch Coille-bhar is the most accessible for wildlife watchers. A long established forest walk circles the heavily wooded shoreline and this has been re-christened the Beaver Detective Trail, with useful interpretative signs installed.
We started our quest at the Barnluasgan Visitor Centre, seven miles’ drive from Lochgilphead. Visitor centre is a grand title for what is in reality a tiny wooden cabin but inside there is a wealth of information on the project, and a rather formidable looking carved wooden beaver. At least we know what we are looking for! Of most use, however, is the regularly updated whiteboard where details of beaver sightings are posted. The centre is open daily throughout the year and more information on the Scottish Beaver Trial, plus an excellent blog, can be found at www.scottishbeavers.org.uk.
The beaver is Europe’s largest rodent – adults measure over a metre in length and weigh around 20kg. Nesting in riverbank burrows or lodges, they spend most of their time in the water, constructing elaborate networks of dams and canals. They live on a diet of grasses, leaves, twigs and bark and although they have poor eyesight, they compensate for this with excellent senses of hearing and smell. They are not fish-eaters and at Knapdale, early research has revealed they are particularly partial to willow, rowan, brambles and reeds.
The animals – imported from Norway – carry radio tags and a team of reserve wardens and volunteers will scrutinise their every move, building up a detailed picture of how they behave, disperse and populate the landscape. They will also examine how the beavers interact with other wildlife in the forest, part of a Special Area of Conservation.
Beavers operate between dusk and dawn, so it is worth making plans to fill the rest of your day. There are other marked forest trails in Knapdale Forest, all of which are well signposted and ideal for families. If you like cycling, try the nine-mile Crinan Canal Trail. It is wonderfully flat, following the canal towpath and there is plenty of interest along the way, such as watching boats and yachts navigate the locks. Bikes can be hired for £12 a day from Crinan Cycles, 34 Argyll Street, Lochgilphead PA31 8NE (tel: 01546 603511; www.crinancycles.co.uk). Alternatively, whale watching and sea-eagle spotting boat tours are run by Craignish Cruises, Ardfern Yacht Centre, Ardfern, by Lochgilphead PA31 8QN (tel: 0845 397 9824; www.craignishcruises.co.uk).
After supper we set off on foot along the Beaver Detective Trail. Binoculars and a camera are important, but the most crucial bit of kit for beaver-spotters is effective midge protection. Argyll is notoriously bad for these little bloodsuckers so invest in a strong insect repellent and a midge hood. However warm the evening, keep arms and legs covered. The paths are good but stout footwear is recommended and it is always worth packing waterproofs in these parts.
The track is pleasantly grassy as it meanders through mixed woodland. A little way on, the ruin of an old mill marks the start of a short deviation up to a viewpoint. Here we meet a couple of other beaver spotters, their binoculars trained on a reedy bay across the water. We chat but they have not seen anything, so we push on to the southern end of the loch.
According to the notes at Barnluasgan, this is a good spotting location and, as an added bonus, there is a well-placed bench with an uninterrupted view right down the loch. We make ourselves as comfortable as the midges will allow and settle down to try our luck. We witness occasional ripples on the water and wait expectantly for a beaver to surface. But each time the brief swell settles with no explanation for its cause. Probably a fish, we sigh, before moving on to the reedy bay seen earlier that evening from the viewpoint.
This is immediately more promising. There is beaver evidence on the ground; some gnawed plants and footprints in the soft waterside mud. We seek out a concealed vantage point in the undergrowth and wait. Again there were ripples on the loch and again they turn out to be nothing. But we remain vigilant, waiting for over an hour and eventually our patience is rewarded. Amid the reeds, a furry head pops out of the water.
It is an adult beaver, its long, sleek body gliding effortlessly through the water, negotiating the reeds with the minimum of fuss. Beady eyes, tiny swept-back ears and a dark snout remain just above the water line and there is an occasional flick of the trademark beaver tail. It circles, a graceful arc, before silently submerging.
It was an amazing sight, a wild beaver in its natural environment. I had seen the creature before, in captivity at the Highland Wildlife Park (www.highlandwildlifepark.org), near Kingussie, but this was incredible. The beaver disappeared as swiftly as it had appeared and despite our perseverance there were no more sightings that evening. But we returned over the next couple of nights and spotted not one but two, an adult and a kit, playing in the water close to the shoreline.
They looked so content and carefree, but a lot rests on the furry shoulders of these pioneers. This is the first time any once extinct native mammal has been returned to the wild in Britain and their impact on the natural landscape, on other species and, of course, on human interests, will determine not only their future in Scotland, but will also play a key role in planning for the re-introduction of other species. For now, however, they just looked happy to be home.
Knapdale Forest is a two-hour drive from Glasgow and can be reached by bus. Scottish Citylink (tel: 08705 505050; www.citylink.co.uk) service 926 from Glasgow to Campbeltown stops in Lochgilphead.
Where to stay
For a real budget break, try the Lochgilphead Caravan Park (Bank Park, Lochgilphead PA31 8AX) where a serviced pitch costs £18 a night for a family of four.
There are plenty of good guest houses and hotels in the area. The Stables b&b (Achnamara, Lochgilphead PA31 8PX) offers luxury b&b accommodation from £30 per person per night.
If you are prepared to spend a bit more, rooms at the four star Crinan Hotel (Crinan, by Lochgilphead PA31 8SR), which overlooks Crinan Harbour, start from £100 a night and boast great sea or mountain views