Scotland’s wild beaver ‘shoot to kill’ policy is illegal and wrong

Native wild beavers in their natural range are meant to receive stringent protection under European and Scottish law, writes Louise Ramsay. But farmers have declared ‘open season’ on the small but growing population, shooting them at will, while the Scottish Government and its wildlife agency look the other way.

The Tay Beavers began when three of the animals escaped from a wildlife park in 2001.

Nine years later, having bred and dispersed and been added to by subsequent escapes from enclosures in the same catchment, they came under threat of official elimination in the autumn of 2010.

A campaign to save them led to a SNH study that estimated their numbers at 106-187 (midpoint 147) in 2012 and mapped their spread across hundreds of square miles of the linked catchments of the Earn and Tay, from Rannoch to Comrie, Blair Atholl, Forfar and Bridge of Earn.

They are now said to have reached as far as the Dochart in the west, near Argyll. An individual has also been spotted in the headwaters of the Forth.

From 2011 to 2014 they were officially tolerated and monitored’ during the Scottish Beaver Trial at Knapdale in Argyll, and then a report came out which SNH digested for a year ending in May this year, before the results were handed to the Scottish Government.

This report showed them to be of the right species, Castor fiber, the Eurasian beaver, and free from any problematic diseases. A decision on their future has been expected ever since and campaigners have hoped for official recognition that this species, driven to extinction in the 16th century to meet the greed of the fur-trade, is now back in Scotland.

Farmers ‘shoot to kill’ as legal protection is unlawfully denied

Legal protection is due to Castor fiber under the European Habitats Directive when the species is “established in the wild” in its “natural range”. But despite both conditions being satisfied, the Scottish Government has so far denied beavers the protection to which they are entitled.

The Tayside Beaver Study Group, which co-ordinated the monitoring, encouraged farmers to seek non-lethal solutions to any problems that arose on their land arising from the presence of beavers. But it now seems clear that shooting was always considered the management tool of choice by the farmers in question.

A recent Daily Telegraph article – which unashamedly presents the landowners point of view with no attempt at objectivity – wrongly describes the beavers as “feral” in its headline before quoting the complaints of Drew McFarlane-Slack, Scottish Land and Estates’ Highland regional manager, of “substantial damage”, and his apparent encouragement to others to shoot them:

“The beavers have established themselves and are beginning to change the environment around about them. These animals are not there legally – they have been illegally or perhaps, at worst, criminally released into the wild. They have no protection in law. I think if the damage to the property becomes severe, I’m certain that some of them want to take that decision to control them.”
The current legal position in Scotland, according to Scottish Natural Heritage, is that beavers are not protected and can be shot, although ‘possession’ is against the law, so corpses must be collected for autopsy. With no closed season, it seems clear that some pregnant and lactating beavers have been shot.

However the position of SNH and the Scottish Government could be subject to legal challenge under the EU’s Habitats and Species Directive.

In October 2014 Friends of the Earth in England commenced legal procedures under the Directive to protect wild beavers in Devon from the UK government’s plan to trap and cage them. This and popular protest forced the government to back down and leave the beavers wild and free.

No interest in non-lethal control and mitigation

The Scottish Wild Beaver Group is aware that on low-lying arable land beavers can sometimes present real challenges. That’s why we invited a beaver management specialist, Mike Callahan, of Beaver Solutions over from Massachusetts to speak at our conference, ‘The Necessary Beaver’ in Dunkeld, Perthshire in March this year, to explain what can be done.

For example, ‘flow devices’ can be fitted on streams and ditches where beavers have built dams. Acting as safety valves, they prevent flooding and property damage while when allowing beavers to live in an area and create ecologically valuable wetlands.

Some local farmers attended the conference but it appears that none has so far chosen to follow up on his advice. Instead the news is that beavers have been shot in large numbers by farmers, who, infuriated by the beavers habit of building dams in their ditches, appear to be trying to wipe them out, at least in the low ground.

This would be more understandable if it were not for their apparent lack of interest in the idea of trying out any form of mitigation.

Quite apart from the appalling animal welfare implications of kits being left to die slowly of starvation, SWBG is also concerned that a widespread slaughter of beavers could reduce the genetic viability of the population.

Beavers can actually mitigate the impacts of industrial agriculture

The same low-ground farmers who suffer most from the impacts of beavers are also the ones that are responsible for the many negative environmental impacts caused by intensive agriculture, such as topsoil depletion and diffuse pollution resulting from agricultural run-off.

As the Water Frameworks Directive requires the purification of waterways the beaver could have a useful role to play. Mitigation in the form of flow devices in ditches could enable beaver dams to remain on their land and filter nitrates and phosphates without causing water to back up into the field drains.

To make matters worse one farmer has declared war on riparian vegetation as well and is busily pulling out trees by the roots on the banks or waterways in lower Strathmore. This is being done partly to deprive beavers of their food source, but also, in his view, it is the answer to flood prevention – a concern he has espoused since the town of Alyth flooded in July of this year.

But in fact his action is completely mistaken. Trees help rainwater to inflitrate into soil and aquifers rather than run off rapidly, creating floods. And beaver dams in catchment headwaters hold back fast flowing runoff, instead slowly releasing the water over a period of weeks.

The presence of beavers and the wetlands that they build also brings great improvements in biodiversity, and the mitigation of both flooding and drought by re-naturalisation of the waterways. Recent research by Dr Alan Law has shown how beaver dams reduce peak flow by an average of 18 hours. A fact he tweeted in reaction to a farmer who falsely accused the beavers of having made the flooding worse.

In California, beavers are also credited with restoring rivers, wetlands and watersheds, creating conditions for the return of Coho salmon and increases in their populations.

We are calling on SNH and the Scottish Government to immediately place a moratorium on the shooting of beavers as another breeding season approaches, and to afford the animals the legal protection they are due as soon as possible.

But above all the two bodies – and nature lovers everywhere – need to recognise that the return to Scotland of this wonderful keystone species is something to be enjoyed and celebrated.

Petition: ‘Save the Free Beavers of Scotland!’.

Louise Ramsay campaigns for the future of free beavers on the River Tay and its tributaries. Follow her on Twitter @TayBeavers.

This article was first published on The Ecologist magazine.

Comments (10)

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  1. Brian McGraw says:

    Ignorance is the enemy here. We need a more positive influence from Scottish Government. Sounds like the Landowner lobby is the more effective as evidenced by the dumbing down of the New legislation proposed for the community empowerment bill.

  2. Blair paterson says:

    The S.N.P. Will have to decide whether to serve the ordinary people or the rich people you cannot serve both to me it is high time the ordinary people came first a thing that the other parties have never done we are looking for things to change for the better not stay the same

  3. Lisa Smith says:

    Agree with your comments Brian, Blair – our SNP government need to realise so many supporters are watching and expecting them to act on issues such as this and radical land reform, in a progressive way which will truly benefit the people and ecology of Scotland…..desperately hoping they take heed and act.

  4. John Craig says:

    Ultimately, the Scottish Government, whatever their political ethos, will go with the £’sss sign as they have done in other issues. I personally am in two minds on the Beaver issue, as the Knapdale community seem to be causing no problems, but there has to be some cognisance given to complaints from elsewhere.

    1. Peter says:

      Which issues were they you sad wankfaced little shitebag?

  5. Gordon says:

    Maybe the introduction of beavers in the hills around Carlisle would have slowed down the volume of water quickly released by the deluge and saved millions of pounds worth of damage. The flood barriers seemed to be adequate, but farmers had dredged and straightened rivers to avoid flooded fields, allowing a massive volume of water to run off very rapidly.

  6. Dan Huil says:

    I hope, in general terms, the government gets tough on landowners in Scotland. I don’t mind if it does it bit by bit over a period of time, along as it is consistant in its land reform. Even if the SNP government seems slow in its reforming of land ownership I will still vote for them since they are the best chance we have of regaining our independence. After independence we can really go after the absentee landlords and those landowners who have no regard for the well-being of the relationship between the people of Scotland and the land.

  7. Ben Clinch says:

    Why not consider and perhaps follow what other countries with a similar land use and introduction pattern have done. Nordics are far, far less sentimental and urban. Far more pragmatic. Norgie badger ‘management’ is an interesting comparison. Natural capital is valuable, but does monetarising it help protect it?

    1. Tam says:

      What is ‘sentimental’ or ‘urban’ about biodiversity in a healthy environment ? Should we really be listening to ‘Countrymen’ who really understand the ‘Countryside’ and all that guff ?

  8. john young says:

    Every living thing other than human beings seemed to have had a “purpose” in this world,humans just seem to destroy all other living things and for what? money or more money and a perceived happiness,kill everything and in a few years time wonder why am I next?

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