In Gaelic the European beaver is known as dobhran losleathan, meaning 'broad-tailed otter'. Hunted to extinction by the 16th century, it is set to return once more...
Historically it was prized for its meat, its thick waterproof fur (which was used to make hats), and also for the oil known as castoreum that is secreted by glands beneath its tail. There were many medicinal properties attributed to castoreum (the name comes from the Greek Kastor, meaning beaver, as does the animal's scientific name, Castor fiber), and while there is no medical evidence to support the claim that it is an aphrodisiac or a cure for epilepsy, castoreum may indeed have been an effective remedy for some ailments. One of the beaver's preferred foods is the inner bark of willow, which contains salicylic acid, the chemical compound from which aspirin was developed. This chemical is concentrated in castoreum, so it could well have had pain-relieving properties. Castoreum was still used in some parts of the world into the 20th century, as a base for expensive perfumes.
Historically, there was a lot of misinformation about the beaver's lifestyle and habits, including a widely held and bizarre notion about the male's response to being hunted. This myth was presented in one of Aesop's Fables, the 6th century Greek collection of moral tales. The story of The Hunted Beaver tells of how when hunted by dogs, the beaver chewed off its own testicles and ran away, giving the hunter the prize he was after and thus saving its own life. There were clearly some wild imaginations at play (i.e. beavers don't actually do this!), as well as some confusion as to what the hunter was after, as castoreum is actually produced in the anal glands. Nevertheless, the moral of this slightly disconcerting tale was that a voluntary sacrifice may help avert even greater loss.
It was also believed that beavers ate fish, which is again a fallacy, as they are completely vegetarian. The beaver itself was hunted for its meat, and the paws and tail were eaten by certain monks on Fridays, in the belief that it qualified as fish rather than meat!
The presence of beavers in Britain is still echoed in a number of place-names, such as Beverley in Yorkshire, literally meaning beaver's stream.
Canada's national animal, the Canadian beaver, is a different species to the European beaver that inhabited Scotland's forests. It is far more industrious in its damming activities, giving rise to the popular term 'eager beaver'. However, like its European cousin, its important beneficial influence on the health of watercourses was recognised by the native Americans, who sometimes referred to beavers as the 'Earth's kidneys'.
Fossils show that during the last Ice Age a giant species of beaver the size of a bear dwelled in North America! It was probably hunted to extinction by humans, and it has been suggested that an Algonquin myth about Wishpoosh, the giant beaver, may be an echo of that ancient time. In the tale, ferocious Wishpoosh doesn't allow anyone else to fish in his pool, killing them if they try. The trickster, Coyote, decides to take him on, and an epic battle ensues. A far cry from the gentle rodent we know and love!
In more recent popular mythology, we find a heroic pair of beavers in C.S.Lewis's The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Mr and Mrs Beaver are friendly and hospitable, sheltering the Pevensey children soon after they arrive in Narnia and leading them to the great lion, Aslan. They are also shown to have pride in their home - real beavers do indeed have good house-keeping abilities, although it is unlikely they make tea quite as well as Mrs Beaver.
In many parts of Europe the beaver is now sought not for its fur or oil, but by tourists and nature lovers, seeking a glimpse of this fascinating rodent. There are places in the UK where beavers are living wild again thanks to trial re-introductions or, as is the case in Tayside, unofficial re-introduction. With growing support for their official re-introduction, and the decision on the Knapdale Scottish Beaver Trial imminent, we may even be able to see them living truly wild in Scotland once more without a shadow of doubt looming over their existence.
Sources and further reading:
Beck, J.C. (1972) The Giant Beaver: A Prehistoric Memory?
Ethnohistory, Vol. 19, No. 2 pp. 109-122 Buczacki, S. (2002) Fauna Britannica. Hamlyn: London
Lambert, R.A. (1998) Species History in Scotland. Scottish Cultural Press: Edinburgh.
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