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Beavers: the ups and downs of a reintroduced species

Beavers have been back in Scotland for some years now, and the call for them to be re-established in England is getting louder. Willy Inglis looks at the arguments surrounding their reintroduction North of the Border.

The reintroduction of beavers in Scotland is one of the most significant changes to the environment in recent years, according to Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and there is a comprehensive website devoted to beavers where their return was greeted with huge excitement. 

On the other hand, many Tayside farmers have publicly expressed concern about the damage the beavers cause, and privately they have lambasted the Scottish Government and the environmental agencies involved about what they see as a short-sighted, destructive and ludicrous idea that causes extensive damage at a huge cost to the farmers.

How did beavers become locally extinct in the first place and what is the significance of this?

There is relatively little hard evidence about the beaver in Scotland as it became extinct around the 16th century – the time of Mary Queen of Scots and when witches were burned at the stake. It was hunted for its meat, pelts and scent glands; it is also likely that there was a certain amount of environmental protection as the beginnings of the agrarian changes took root.

Why reintroduce beavers at all?

There has been a fair amount of research into extinction eras, the periods of time characterised by a widespread and rapid decrease in the biodiversity on earth. Some academics believe we are now in the sixth extinction era as the number of species becoming extinct has increased rapidly in the past 200 years. The reintroduction of species is designed to counter this. 

Rewilding, as it has been dubbed, must be seen in both a global and historical context.  The idea has been around for some time, and in 2015, the John Muir Trust said: “Rewilding is about inspiring and engaging people to restore natural processes. This means repairing damaged ecosystems and reintroducing lost species. It covers the restoration of native woodlands and high mountain habitats such as dwarf birch and montane scrub. It also covers the reintroduction of former native species such as the beaver, sea eagle, lynx or wolf.”

Beavers were introduced in Knapdale, Argyll and Bute, in 2009 for a five-year trial period. The trial has officially finished and in November 2016 the Scottish Government announced that beavers could remain. According to Susan Davies, director of conservation at the Scottish Wildlife Trust, “beaver tourism is giving a boost to the local economy as the presence of these animals is proving to be a strong draw for visitors to mid-Argyll”.   

In Tayside, the beaver population started from an unauthorised release of beavers from an enclosure near Alyth in 2006. Since then, beavers have spread throughout the Tay River system from Forfar Loch in the East to the River Lyon in the West. It remains a mystery to many land managers why this has been allowed to happen, considering the stringent controls on farming practices.

According to SNH, “wildlife crime officers from the former Tayside Police made an extensive investigation, liaised with the specialist wildlife crime prosecutor at Perth and submitted a case against an individual charged with unlawfully releasing or allowing beavers to escape in to the wild. The prosecutor made the decision that because of the wording in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, the case was unlikely to be successful.” This resulted in no prosecution. The beavers were not only allowed to stay, but also given protection as a European Protected species from 1 May 2019.

What benefits do beavers bring to the environment?

Beavers benefit nature, says SNH. They create wetland habitats, improve habitat structure and diversity and enhance biodiversity. They can also alleviate flooding, improve water quality and bring socio-economic benefits.

How do beavers damage the environment?

After centuries draining and improving farmland to improve production, farmers do not believe beavers do anything to help the environment. Landowners find trees destroyed and watercourses regularly blocked. The damage may take several years to manifest itself – an old beech tree ring-barked by beavers may take five years to die.

Damage to water courses can also be serious. Beavers burrow into the bank to create a lodge. This weakens the bank so that when flood water rises they readily give way. In this way, low-lying fields are quickly damaged and flood defences washed away. Drainage ditches may be blocked – beavers love to stop the flow of running water – and fields are flooded as a result.

What can be done to control beavers?

There are two main reasons why the reintroduction of beavers has caused issues in Scotland:

  1. Beavers are prolific and destructive – or constructive, depending on your viewpoint – animals that alter the environment. They are generally secretive and nocturnal, so even if shooting were an option, it would be a time consuming and expensive solution needing specialist equipment and a degree of skill.
  2. The reintroduction was not been well organised and communicated. The trial in Knapdale was one thing – disagree with the proposal or not, the publicity was widespread and the information was readily available, but the Tayside experience has been quite different. The release was not authorised; it has cost farmers tens of thousands of pounds, and the beavers have been afforded protection without any planning or control.

In May 2019 beavers became a European protected species. Before this they were controlled by land managers although this did not halt their spread. The protection means that in order to carry out disturbance to dams or sets and to carry out lethal control you must hold a licence from SNH. In most cases the licence holder will be the owner or manager of the land in question.

The licence permits “the disturbance and lethal control of beaver(s); the damage or destruction of dams and/or breeding sites and resting places; and the possession of beaver specimens or derivatives; for the purpose of preventing serious damage to prime agricultural land.”

SNH will fast track applications concerning designated areas of Prime Agricultural Land (PAL). It can also issue emergency licenses for urgent situations. For land out with PAL, the licensing team will make a site visit to identify disturbances caused.

Lethal control can only be carried out by trained individuals (accredited controllers) and subject to agreed procedures.

Accredited controllers must hold a firearms certificate and must attend a relevant SNH workshop.

What does the future hold?

A holistic view of the benefits and issues caused by reintroducing beavers must consider the future shape of the natural environment, subsidy schemes and farming practices.

The Scottish Government has intimated that the incoming system of farming subsidy will be centred on environmental land management payments for public goods. This may be a pivotal moment in the rewilding story as farmers may receive funding to reshape intensively managed agricultural landscapes to ensure greater flood resilience and carbon sequestration and to lessen diffuse pollution issues.

Beavers are being seen to play a role in this future ecosystem by re-establishing wetlands on agricultural land that has undergone years of management and drainage.

Following the protection of beavers in May 2019, one can assume that the government and SNH understand the impact that beavers will bring to the farming community. Experience so far shows SNH has been pro-active in granting licences on areas of Prime Agricultural Land, highlighting its understanding of the negative impact of the beavers.

Moving forward, the collective understanding and processing of licensing, the subsidy system and holistic landscape management will be crucial in the management of beavers on a Scotland and UK-wide level.