In medieval England, a beaver pelt was worth three years of wages to a peasant laborer. So important, in fact, was the beaver, that the Church of England classified it as a fish so it could be eaten on Fridays. After a few hundred years of such popularity, however, the European beaver became extinct in the UK.
Now, after four centuries, conservationists have decided it is time to reintroduce the beaver to Scotland—a decision many residents strongly oppose.
Already, a few pilot pairs have been released with mixed success. Though one group has survived, the chances it will mate successfully are slim. Still, they mark the first mammal reintroductions ever made in the UK and, conservations hope, signal an opening to other extant species like lynx, bear, and someday wolves.
Restoring these species, conservation officials argue, are essential for rebuilding wetland habitats that long ago drained—a process that leads to improved soil health and greater diversity of birds and insects. Beavers, too, could help thin the fir-choked forests of the Scottish Highlands. Without natural predators, these trees have pushed other plants—along with the birds and animals that subsist on them—out of the region.
Not everyone is so eager for the return of the beaver. Farmers, in particular, fear the damage the industrious animals can do with their dams. Other opponents point to the dangers of experimenting with nature—a few introduced individuals, they argue, can quickly turn into a marauding hoard. Still others argue that this is just the latest example of "urban busybodies" interfering with rural life.