BONOKOSKI: Boris Johnson and the ‘rewilding’ of the British beaver

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Justin Trudeau’s “Build Back Better” post-COVID campaign slogan is the same being used today by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

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At a recent party convention, oblivious to his political woes, Johnson tried to get cute with it.

“Build Back Beaver,’ he said.

The beaver never seems to go away.

Right now, Great Britain is trying to “rewild” the beaver, injecting pairs into the rural countryside so they can do what beavers do and hopefully re-establish themselves to the numbers going back to the Tudor era when they were wiped out for their fur and castoreum sacs — fur for coats and hats, castoreum sacs for perfume.

Now, a little piece of Canadian history is that I am largely the one responsible for the beaver being named Canada’s national animal.

Forgive me.

Back in 1975, when New York State was considering making the beaver its state animal, I discovered, surprisingly, that the beaver — despite being on Canada’s first stamp, on the coats of arms, and on the Canadian nickel — had never been officially recognized.

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It led me by happen chance to a young Hamilton Progressive Conservative MP named Sean O’Sullivan who introduced a successful private member’s bill naming the beaver Canada’s national animal.

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So it quickly became a done deal, leaving me with the invective of those who believed the polar bear or moose would have been an extremely better choice than a large buck-tooth rodent.

Now the reason British PM Boris Johnson ended his annual convention speech with “Build Back Beaver” is the success of “rewilding” the beaver in Great Britain to what have been judged as prime beaver habitat — a valley, a large creek or substantial pond, and plenty of deciduous trees — and let them have another go at survival.

First there were rave reviews, and then the beavers started causing floods, and building dams in farmers’ fields.

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In other words, they started doing what beavers do best.

Beavers were hunted to extinction all over the British Isles in the Middle Ages. It’s now taken a two-decade effort by conservation groups to slowly reintroduce them into landscapes where they haven’t been present in more than 500 years.

PM Johnson appeared to try to claim some of the credit for the beavers’ return when he gave his keynote speech last week at his party’s convention, claiming Conservative policies were responsible.

He even adapted the Conservative’s post-COVID slogan of “Build Back Better” to the moment.

“‘Build Back Beaver,’ I say,” Johnson said to huge applause.

Twenty years ago, however, the only beavers in the U.K. were in captivity.

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Today there are approximately 1,000.

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One thousand beavers may not seem like a lot, but even that number has managed to raise the considerable ire of British farmers, particularly in Scotland.

Already the beavers’ tree-felling, dam-building ways have re-shaped parts of the well-manicured Scottish countryside and their messiness — and in many cases crop damage — has not been appreciated.

“Beavers are ingenious animals, although I’d rather their ingeniousness was not done here,” Adrian Ivory told the CBC.

Ivory, 46, is a former British farmer of the year who has tried to position himself as a moderate voice in an increasingly toxic public fight over the future of British beavers.

“You know, there’s some people who say extermination and others who say they can’t be touched,” said Ivory. “My belief is somewhere in the middle.”

While one would be hard-pressed to find any African-like savannah in Great Britain, its national animal is oddly the lion, its naming apparently going back to the 1100s.

More oddly, the national animal for Scotland is the unicorn.

markbonokoski@gmail.com

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