A Return Visit to the Bamff Beavers

Last June I finally fulfilled a long-time dream – to see beavers.  I spent 3 nights at Bamff Ecotourism where Paul and Louise Ramsay have had beavers on their Estate since 2002 when Paul brought in two animals from Norway. They were joined by others from Poland and Bavaria and kept in a couple of enclosures and their descendants are now part of the Tay beaver network. You can read more about them on the Bamff website. In recent years it has mostly been a good news story for the beavers (unless you aren’t in favour of them) and they have just been awarded protected status, although SNH have issued a hefty number of licenses to control them.  I can only presume this was the compromise that had to be made to give them the protected status and hope that “control” in at least some instances means capture and relocate rather than destroy.

Eurasian Beavers (Castor fiber) are the largest member of the rodent family and can grow up to 30kg. They were hunted to extinction over 500 years ago but a closed programme in Knapdale (as well as a few other private collections such as at Bamff and also Aigas) began in 2009. In 2016 the Scottish Government recognised them as a native species, but as mentioned above it wasn’t until 2019 that they were given protected status. They are herbivorous and eat plants and bark – one way to spot them is by hearing them eating. I’ve often been aware of their presence because of the noise their teeth make without having the faintest idea where they are!

Anyway, the beavers were fab last June and I spent a brilliant 3 evenings and very early mornings watching them swim, munch on grass and do a bit of dam maintenance.  The only problem was that the grass was too long which obscured the views. 

A beaver I photographed in June 2018 – as you can see the grass is long.

This year I decided to try a little earlier in the year in an attempt to reach a better balance between light and visibility.  It worked to some extent – the grass was certainly shorter, and the water level considerably lower too.  However the light really wasn’t good enough as far as photography was concerned as they came out quite late (later than last year) and went to bed early. Possibly mid-May would be better and I’d like to try early July too to get as much light for longer. I was using my Nikon D610 full-frame camera with the Nikkor 300mm F4 lens because it was faster than the Tamron 150-600mm even if reach wasn’t as good as I’d have liked. The camera was mounted on a monopod for all the images.

As before I stayed in the Hideaway Cabin, which is basically a hide with a bed and camping stove. 

The Hideaway Cabin

Very comfortable and certainly cosy when the fire was lit, but boy was it cold in the mornings! Last year it was warm and balmy in the evenings, this year there’s late snow on the higher peaks. 

The Bamff Estate is a gorgeous place, I’m very envious of Paul and Louise.  For me the holy trinity is wildlife, Scottish outdoors and photography, and this is a fantastic location for all three.  If I could have anything I wanted then somewhere like this would be at, or close to, the top of the wish-list. Sitting in the cabin, listening to bird song and seeing the ponds, beavers and fields out of the window is really quite idyllic. It’s so far from my reality, but great to have a brief encounter with my longed-for lifestyle (with maybe a few more home comforts like running water and an inside toilet). I’m writing the first half of this blog sitting in the cabin, this is my view from each of the windows…

On the first evening I saw up to 3 beavers at any one time on my local pond.  They chose a different spot to graze at from last year though which was a bit too far for my 300mm lens. Great to watch them though as they nibbled the grass, had a bit of a scratch and swam about. 

In the water they are mostly almost silent.  You spot them by seeing the ripples appear. However at times there’s a small splash, at others, if startled, a dramatic splash as they use their large tail to alert the rest of the family to potential danger.   They also often disappear without trace, only to reappear a fair distance away, or not at all!  Beavers can hold their breath for up to 15 minutes, so plenty of time to move about unseen.

The waterways and lochs around the estate are filled with signs of beaver activity.  There are felled trees, stripped bark and dams everywhere – you certainly can’t accuse a beaver of being lazy!  I wish I could see them at work but they must do that under cover of darkness. 

After a slightly frustrating morning session when I only had brief glimpses of 3 beavers before they returned to their lodge I went to Glenshee.  Not the ski centre area this time, but a bit further along closer to Braemar.  Rather than follow the public footpath I headed up across the moorland and sat for long periods in a few locations.  Moorland often looks dull, brown and lifeless, but sit for a while and you realise it is brimming with life, especially at this time of year. 

View of the moorland from where I was sitting

Curlews were calling as was a red grouse (curlews have a much more melodic call!); wheatears, pipits and skylarks were zipping about through the heather, calling and singing and perching on rocks.  I located a pair of ring ouzel, my primary reason for choosing this location, but although I watched them for ages they never came particularly close.  They are quite easy to spot with their distinctive white breasts and if asked to describe I’d say they looked like a cross between a blackbird and a dipper. 

Much to my delight I also startled quite a few mountain hares (I’d rather not have startled them but still…).  They are now completely brown and were impossible to spot in the terrain of heather, rocks, long grass and dips but as soon as I accidentally approached they scarpered.  One did run towards me then stop in horror when it clocked me – couldn’t get the camera on it in time though.  Great to see though!

That evening I had very little success at photographing the beavers as they appeared quite late at 8pm when the light was already fading. I didn’t really see much at all. But the following morning was better, from a viewing point of view at least.

As I approached the pools I spotted a beaver floating in the water looking a bit like a log with eyes. Completely silent, obviously just chilling out before heading to bed.

Another one swam about a bit.

Eventually a couple of the beavers, an adult and juvenile I think from the different sizes, met under the rhododendron at the entrance to their lodge and groomed each other. Fantastic to watch, but it was the darkest possible place they could have chosen!

Once they had finished two more (or maybe at least one of the same pair) played together, also under the bushes and far too dark to photograph.

That was pretty much it for the beavers. Brilliant to watch, frustrating from a photography point of view, but truth be told, just getting to sit and observe them is fantastic they really are special animals. I’d highly recommend visiting Bamff Ecotourism if you have the chance, you don’t have to stay in the off-grid cabin, there’s regular self-catering and two yurts to choose from too. Paul does beaver walks in the evenings as well so you can find out more from the expert.

On Monday morning, determined not to waste my final day away from Glasgow I typed “RSPB” into my phone. I had no reception, so when it came up with the Loch of Kinnordy reserve I had no idea what was there, only that it was a mere 10 miles away. On arriving I discovered that there were 3 hides over-looking the loch and their star species included marsh harriers and osprey. According to people I spoke to in the hides in was a slow day, but I was thrilled to see my first marsh harriers, even if they were quite distant. The male appeared a few times, a beautiful bird, and the female once. A couple of ospreys flew over. One was wanting to fish, but chose a little pond behind trees in which to do so. I spent an enjoyable few hours here watching everything. There were redshanks displaying and mating, mute swans, reed bunting, lapwings, nesting ducks, oystercatchers, corvids and lots of very annoying and loud geese. Great reserve.

That was it. A lovely end to my week and a bit away from Glasgow. I’ll post a blog about Mull in due course, but I have tonnes of photographs (mostly of puffins!) to go through before I can do that.

Highland based nature photographer and guide specialising primarily in Scottish wildlife but available to cover live music and events.

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