Five facts you should know about beavers
Most of us probably think about beavers as rather plump creatures with big flat tails and a penchant for gnawing wood and building dams; but how much do you really know about them? Reintroducing some species to Scotland has certainly been a hot topic this year and the beaver is one we’re particularly interested in.
RSPB Scotland is supporting further reintroductions of beavers here following the conclusion of the Scottish Beaver Trial, run by our friends at the Scottish Wildlife Trust and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland in Knapdale Forest.
The Scottish Government is due to make a decision on whether beavers will stay or go at the end of this year. That means we could end up seeing more of these fascinating creatures around the country in future, so here are five facts we think you ought to have tucked away:
Beavers are not exactly svelte...
Beavers are the second largest species of rodent in the entire world, pipped to the post only by the capybara which comes from South America. Beavers weigh upwards of 20kg – which is comparable to the weight of a roe deer. That already seems a fair size to us, but the extinct relative of the Eurasian beaver, the North American giant beaver, was as big as a bear! They could weigh as much as 200kg.
Beavers can hold their breath for 15 minutes!
Beavers spend a large amount of time in water and it’s where they feel at their safest too. They forage in water, carry materials for maintaining their homes through it, and it’s where beavers retreat to when they feel threatened. If they believe they are really at risk, they can stay submerged for up to 15 minutes! Beavers are able swimmers, and their eyes, nose and ears are all positioned atop their heads so they can have full use of their senses when swimming around. Beavers can also constrict their nostrils and close their specialised ear flaps to prevent water getting in when diving.
They have a better social life than some people
Beavers are very social creatures. They live together in little family groups consisting of an adult pair and their kits from the current and previous breeding years. Beavers can spend a lot of time grooming each others’ fur and even have a specially adapted double claw on their hind feet which act as a fine comb. Even as young beavers they love the company of others, and kits will spend a lot of their time wrestling, feeding together and mock fighting over sticks (how sweet is that).
Beavers have a secret weapon hidden in their teeth
Although beavers are capable of felling large trees they actually prefer to munch on smaller saplings. Beavers have specially adapted teeth for dealing with their tough diet, using their incisors to cut, and their molars to grind. Beaver teeth grow continuously, the same as other rodents. And the hard layer of orange outer enamel has iron built into its chemical structure – this gives the teeth their rusty colour but is also what keeps them so strong and healthy.
And they don’t just build dams
Beavers are phenomenal architects, creating brilliant homes known as lodges to live in. Lodges are pretty intricate, with a series of burrows and chambers to protect the family from predators and the elements. Sometimes they look deceptively small as most of the lodge is hidden beneath the surface of the water or within the banks of a river; beavers prefer to exit their home directly into the water because, as we know, it’s safer. Beavers don’t always live in lodges all year round though. Because they’re excellent burrowers they can quickly create what are known as ‘day rests’. During the warmer months they have been known to fashion and sleep in these simple short burrows or ‘day beds’ – I don’t know about you, but we like their style!
Conservation Adviser for RSPB Scotland, Dan Brown, tells us about the status of the curlew in the UK and the work that needs to be done to safeguard the future of this bird.
Working across the flyway to save birds like the curlew
Migratory birds undertake truly awe-inspiring journeys. The long-haul flights of many species sees entire populations travel thousands of miles - epic journeys that span countries, oceans and continents. They visit different habitats in different countries at different times of the year. And in doing so, they showcase the interconnectedness of our living planet; wildlife that is shared with peoples and cultures at other ends of the world.
In our part of the world, birds migrate along one of the three major African-Eurasian flyways. There is one special Scottish bird, the red-necked phalarope, that prefers a more Latino-inspired winter, but the rest travel across Europe, Africa and the Middle East; from northern breeding grounds to southern wintering grounds, then back again the following year.
Hundreds of years ago, species would undertake these annual cycles year in, year out, until they died of natural causes – like old age, starvation, or predation. Nowadays, surviving the annual cycle is a much more gruelling affair. On top of natural causes, add a whole raft of man-made hazards - like illegal hunting, collisions with power lines, or loss of coastal habitats to development. We call these possible sources of habitat loss and mortality ‘threats’.
Some threats have more of an impact than others. Some pose threats for particular species only. Some threats are only present in certain countries or regions. But they all add up, and often, it is the combination of threats across the flyway that drives population declines. And so to stop population declines, we must act to reduce the impact of threats across the flyway. That requires international cooperation – so that all countries understand the threats, their impacts and conservation solutions. And this is what an international conservation agreement called the African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement - or AEWA - is for.
Earlier this month I attended an AEWA conference. In attendance were governments from across Europe, Africa and the Middle East, alongside numerous NGOs. The meeting was to discuss, debate and agree on pressing issues facing migratory birds – such as how to reduce poisoning of waterbirds from lead ammunition and how to reduce the impact of marine fisheries on seabirds.
In addition, international conservation plans for several species were on the agenda, from the prehistoric-looking shoebill to the stunning grey-crowned Crane, as well as a bird of particular relevance to Scotland and the res of the UK: the curlew.
Our recent work has made us realise just how important the UK is for the curlew: we may host 28 per cent of the global breeding population – we are a global stronghold for the bird. Yet our population is declining rapidly (by 46 per cent between 1995 and 2013) and the Eurasian curlew, to give it its full name, was classified as globally near threatened with extinction by the IUCN in 2007.
In terms of global conservation status, this puts it on a par with the Jaguar. And worryingly, many other shorebirds that the UK supports in good numbers, including lapwing and oystercatcher, have just joined that list.
It seems only right that, where possible, countries that are most important for a globally declining species should lead the global conservation effort. And that is exactly what the RSPB is doing.
Together with the UK’s statutory agencies, we have written a paper highlighting why the curlew is our top priority bird species from a global conservation perspective. We have also kick-started a programme of work to help save curlews in the UK. And lastly, recognising the need to work with other countries across the flyway, we produced an international conservation plan, which was adopted at the AEWA meeting earlier this month.
At home, we need to ramp up efforts to safeguard our important breeding population. We need to identify really important breeding areas and protect them from threats, such as poorly-sited wind farms and forestry plantations.
Conservation and farming communities need to work together. We need to target agri-environment funding - to support sensitive farming practices in important breeding areas. We are already making excellent progress on this front, through farmland wader conservation projects in Strathspey and the Clyde Valley. However, we need similar projects in other important breeding areas.
This is just the start. We look forward to working with partners in the UK and across the AEWA region to save Europe’s largest wader. In doing so, we’ll ensure the curlew’s bubbling song continues to be heard across northern Europe during the spring and summer; that it is afforded safe passage during spring and autumn migration; and that coastal regions of Europe, Africa and the Middle East can continue to provide a home for flocks of curlew during the winter.
Welcome to the second instalment of our work on the Shiant Isles Recovery Project from Davide Scridel - the project is an initiative to remove non-native black rats from the isles in order to provide safe breeding sites for Scotland’s globally important seabird colonies. The project is part funded by the EU LIFE+ programme and is a partnership between RSPB Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the Nicolson family, who have been the custodians of the Shiant Isles for three generations.
Shiants episode two: bird metropolis alive again!
Imagine a large, busy and noisy capital full of unusual smells and interesting feathery inhabitants - each of them exhibiting truly individual personalities.
Shags are fascinating pre-historic looking creatures which occupy the dirtiest district in town; razorbills are the cops - always wearing shades - policing the big city; puffins are the silent, innocent looking citizens and guillemots are the bankers in their smart little suits. Dominating from above are the white-tailed eagles and golden Eagles, living the high life, looking for opportunities from above. This was me, Laura and Niall’s metaphorical view of the boulder field seabird colony after months of intense work in one of Europe’s wildlife wonders!
As spring progressed, those large early-season rafts of auks showed vivid interest in visiting the boulder field and the grassy slopes of the island. After a few weeks of constant courtship, here it comes; the first shag egg followed by the razorbills, guillemots and at last the puffins! Walking must be done with extreme care here due to the slippery snowy guano which covers the rocks, but more importantly because every square metre can hold one, two or even three eggs or little chicks!
Wildlife in bad weather
Dr. Eddie Graham of the University of Highlands and Islands wrote in his blog: “Overall, the May and June 2015 period was the second wettest on record since 1873 in Stornoway, the fourth dullest and tenth coolest since 1900. Put altogether, these are by far the worst weather statistics for May and June combined since records began in Stornoway in the mid-1850s.”
Having experienced the elements from May to August, the RSPB Scotland Shiants team couldn’t agree more! And if wildlife could speak I am sure they would agree too… For example, we noticed that puffins breeding in areas faced by strong wind and rain did worse than birds breeding in more sheltered well-drained sites.
After days of intense searching in puffin burrows to find puddles and mud instead of the eggs and chicks we were hoping for, it become very obvious just how vulnerable seabirds can be and how important this project is. Climate change and unsustainable fishing are, in the long-term, complex challenges for these birds to face and whilst we are fighting to provide better policies, we also need to act in the short-term. Providing seabirds a safer breeding site, free of invasive ground predators like rats, will surely help in increasing the resilience of these and other species in our seas.
Blooming Shiants and stormy days
As the season progressed, the surrounding sea felt richer in life. Puffins, razorbills and kittiwakes were returning to their youngsters with mouthfuls of sand eels bigger than before whilst the “local” pod of 20+ common dolphin became more of a regular sight in front of the bothy. Usually you see them slaloming along line of Galtachan rocks. While, minky whales and basking sharks were familiar visitors for whoever was working on the south of House Island; the views from that spot over to Skye are superb!
It is at this time of the year that the Shiants Auk Ringing Group comes to island for two weeks. Under the professional supervision of David Stevenson, Jim Lennon and Alister Clunas the team ringed non-stop for two weeks; any and all species that they could. We also worked together to survey our primary target species - the mysterious storm petrel and the stunning Manx shearwater. For the latter we played the sound of a male stormy purr call on potential breeding sites, continuously from an mp3 player, but with no positive response. And we got similar results when surveying for Manx shearwater. This confirms the absence of both birds as breeding species here.
The potential for them to colonise the area however is huge. Not only have we managed to ring hundreds of stormies in the space of only four or five nights, suggesting that the Shiants function as important feeding grounds, but Claire also found the first breeding evidence of Stormies on Fladda-chùain - an island very close to the Shiants.
Manx shearwater bones were also discovered by archaeologists excavating a 17th and 18th century midden heap on one of the islands, supporting the theory that they were once present on the Shiants. Similarly, surveys in the 1970s found storm petrels around the islands with brood patches. However, systematic surveys to find breeding birds on the islands have been unsuccessful. Evidence from global studies demonstrates that the current absence of shearwaters and storm petrels on the Shiants can be attributed to the presence of rats.
It is on this note - whilst remembering storm petrels moving across the water's surface in a series of bounding leaps - that our last journey back from Shiants to Stornoway is framed in my mind. By now razorbills and guillemots have abandoned their terrestrial behaviour, and are floating amongst their youngsters in the surrounding sea. Only the silent puffin and related pufflings, with some late breeding shags are still present in the boulder field.
The Shiants have taught us a lot about life and wildlife and our thoughts go out to the next team that will experience the Shiants in the dead of winter!
If you missed out on our first installment of the Shiant Isles project you can read it here.