You’ve probably heard of the Tasmanian devil. It’s a noisy, aggressive creature that is sometimes seen spinning around in cartoons. It also has the distinction of being the world’s largest carnivorous marsupial. But a century ago, the Tasmanian devil didn’t hold that title – it was beaten in size by another Tasmanian resident, the thylacine.
From our clifftop vantage point, the whole of Tor Bay stretched out before us, a wide, sweeping vista of calm ocean. A light breeze ruffled my hair and I tasted the slightest hint of salt on my lips. In the distance, a flock of gulls – little more than tiny white dots to us – were following a small fishing boat. I turned my gaze downwards, scanning the rippling surface far below, searching for signs of movement in the water.
St Kilda. A remote, windswept archipelago in the storm-tossed seas 160 kilometres west of mainland Scotland. This scattering of rugged islands is famed for its birdlife. Nesting on and around its sea cliffs – the tallest in Britain, up to 426 m – are a huge variety of seabirds, including fulmars, gannets, puffins, guillemots, storm petrels, razorbills, shearwaters and skuas.
In 1798, an eminent zoologist at the British Museum named George Shaw received a dried and most unusual specimen from a newly-established colony in Australia. This unknown creature had many strange qualities about it: the flat tail of a beaver, the body and soft, fine fur of an otter or mole, and, most outlandish of all, the flat bill of a duck that seemed to fit quite awkwardly onto its furry head.
In recent decades, Britain has seen the reintroductions and translocations of many animals, from red kites and great bustards to pine martens and natterjack toads. But the pioneering Scottish Beaver Trial has been, if anything, even more significant than any of those. It was the first time a licensed, government-sanctioned project returned an extinct mammal to the wild in the UK.