The reintroduction was justified on the basis that the natural behaviour of Eurasian Beavers results in the creation of habitats that are beneficial to a wide range of other wildlife including otters, dragonflies and fish. They are also said to have a positive impact on improving water quality and to assist in the diversification of woodland. Indeed, it has been reported that recent research in Tayside has shown that beavers have helped revitalise woodland significantly by increasing the number of plants found by around 50 per cent.
Following on from the reintroduction in 2009, in 2016 the Scottish Government decided to allow beavers in Argyll and in Tayside (where numbers of beavers have increased steadily since some animals were released into the wild illegally on the late 1990s) to remain in the wild and has decided to give them protected status in line with the European Habitats Directive in 2018 (albeit that this status is still in the process of being awarded).
The result is that beavers will be allowed to expand their habitat naturally over Scotland and the evidence is that this is now occurring.
It has however also been recognised that whilst beavers may have a positive impact on the environment, wetland habitats and wildlife, their impact on fishing and farming needs to be managed. This realisation follows research carried out during the 2009 trial and since, when work was undertaken by Scottish Natural Heritage and others to establish the impact of these animals on salmon and trout, and on areas of productive farmland. It is true to say that the reintroduction of beavers has not been universally welcomed. Some farmers and landowners for example have reported damage being caused by the animals such as the erosion of riverbanks, damage to trees, dams causing flooding on crop fields and damage to fences.
The Scottish Government has considered these reports and has looked at the experiences of other European and North American countries; as a result the Government expects to introduce licensing for beavers once the species is protected, thus enabling the management of unwanted impacts from beaver activities on people, infrastructure and both farmed and natural environments.
The result will be that while landowners will not need a licence to employ certain simple management techniques to prevent beaver damage, such as controlling water flow through dams and protecting valuable trees with anti-beaver paint and extra fencing, more intensive management techniques, including lethal control, will require a specific licence. In addition, as part of the management controls, it will remain an offence for beavers to be released without a licence, punishable by up to two years' imprisonment and an unlimited fine.
So whether you regard beavers as heritage or threat they are here to stay and importantly, Scottish Natural Heritage, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, and Scottish Land and Estates have worked in partnership to support this reintroduction and ensure that the benefits can be reaped whilst land management issues are considered and risks diminished.
In conclusion, the matter of beavers needs to be taken seriously by all landowners and managers, farmers and agribusinesses. The law is still evolving and protected species status is expected shortly. Nonetheless, it is important to ensure that any steps you may take to manage beavers on your land must comply with the law. For more information, please contact the Agricultural and Rural Property Team here at Morton Fraser.
Linsey Barclay-Smith is a partner in the Agricultural and Rural Property Team at Morton Fraser and is an Accredited Specialist in Agricultural Law.