Beavers became extinct in Britain in the 16th century, mainly due to over-hunting. However, between 2009 and 2014, sixteen Eurasian beavers were successfully (and legally) introduced in the Scottish Beaver Trial to Knapdale Forest, Argyll and Bute, with the benefits and impacts being independently monitored by SNH. As SNH chief executive Francesca Osowska stated: “Beavers benefit nature, creating habitats such as ponds and wetlands where other species thrive, as well as alleviating flooding and improving water quality.”
Whilst the benefits that a managed population of beavers can bring isn't in doubt, if left unregulated, they can cause untold damage to waterways, which is something being experienced elsewhere in Scotland. Separate from the Knapdale controlled and managed release, a population of beavers, which were illegally released on Tayside has also established itself and is thriving. It is this unmanaged population, which has caused the most concern. An SNH Report published on 12 October 2018 estimated numbers to be in the region of 430 beavers in over 100 locations across Tayside.
These uncontrolled beavers have meant that farmers and landowners whose fields include or abut waterways, have suffered damage from the creation of ponds through damming. In addition, digging networks of burrows into riverbanks can cause significant damage to field drainage systems. This has led, perhaps unsurprisingly, to some land managers taking steps to control these animals into their own hands.
Last week, a female beaver was discovered dead on a wildlife reserve in Tayside, the cause of death being attributed to infection following a gunshot wound.
Scottish Wildlife Trust chief executive Jonny Hughes stated: “We believe this animal was shot elsewhere while foraging and then died from its wounds after returning to its home territory. Sadly, this beaver is likely to have suffered a slow and painful death, and the loss of the resident female may mean that the complex network of dams and lodges that have developed on the reserve will be abandoned.
“Without legal protection beavers are subject to unregulated culling," he said. "There is no clear picture of how many beavers are being culled or whether this is being done humanely."
In announcing the legal protection of the animal in Scotland the Environment Secretary said: “The Scottish Government believes in the highest standards of animal welfare – for both wild and domestic animals – and we felt it was high time that beavers enjoyed the same legal protection as other species like bats, dolphins, wildcats and otters.
SNH chief executive Francesca Osowska commented: “We welcome this news from the Scottish Government. Beavers benefit nature, creating habitats such as ponds and wetlands where other species thrive, as well as alleviating flooding and improving water quality. But it will sometimes be necessary to minimise or prevent beavers’ impacts on farming, and other interests.
The Scottish Government have insisted that there will be “extensive” protection and mitigation measures for farmers, particularly around Tayside. In particular, SNH together with the Scottish Government, farmer and conservation bodies, have produced a strategy, which allows for a sustainable future for farmers and beavers alike, including management plans, and a licensing system for culling when there is no other alternative available.