3. Background to beavers in Scotland
In 2009 the Scottish Government issued a licence for the trial release (the Scottish Beaver Trial) for five years of beavers at Knapdale, Argyll by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) and the Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT) with Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS) acting as a host partner (Gaywood et al. 2015). Covert releases on Tayside in the 2000s resulted in the establishment of an unofficial population, which is now spreading and growing. In late 2020/early 2021 field surveys were used to estimate the beaver population on Tayside as approximately
954 individuals (range 602 - 1381), with beavers spreading south into the Forth catchment, Fife and Kinross including Perth city centre (Campbell-Palmer et al. 2021) and a much smaller population in Knapdale (Dowse et al. 2020). The beaver was recognised as a protected native species by the Scottish Government on 1 May 2019, including the unofficial Tayside population. As beaver populations continue to grow, they will require management to prevent economic loss to landholders and fisheries. Management of beaver populations may involve non-lethal and lethal methods, both of which have implications for beaver welfare. In 2020 87 beavers were culled under licence in the Tayside population (NatureScot 2021). There is no indication of attempts at non-lethal mitigation in any of these cases and none of the culled beavers was made available for post-mortem examination.
There are several welfare issues associated with the management and control of beavers including:
1. Inappropriate firearms or their usage may result in inexpert killing of beavers, which may result in wounding of animals that do not die immediately.
2. Licences to cull beavers are supposed to avoid the kit dependency period from April to August, but may be issued in exceptional circumstances. There is a concern that dependent young may suffer, if their parents are killed in this period and social groups may be adversely disrupted by ad hoc killing of beavers from a colony.
3. It is unclear if landowners are attempting non-lethal control measures to prevent damage before resorting to culling that could increase the frequency of issues in 1. and 2.
4. Trapping, moving and releasing beavers into new areas can also affect the welfare of beavers, including any dependent young that might be left behind.
The Eurasian beaver, Castor fiber, is a native species that was once found in suitable habitats throughout mainland Britain. Destruction and fragmentation of habitat and hunting for fur, meat and castoreum (a secretion that may have medicinal properties similar to aspirin) resulted in the extinction of the beaver in Britain by around 400 years ago (Kitchener and Conroy 1997), although archive evidence suggests that it may have survived in Yorkshire until the late 18th century CE (Coles 2006).
Beaver populations in western Europe were also mostly eradicated through similar human impacts, but relict populations survived in Sweden, the Elbe River in Germany, and the Rhone River in France by the end of the19th century. More than 100 translocations and reintroductions of beavers have taken place in continental Europe during the 20th and early 21st century so that populations have largely recovered (Halley et al. 2020; Wróbel 2020). There have been frequent calls for the reintroduction of beavers to Britain over the last 50 years with some dissenting from this view (Macdonald et al. 1995).
The Scottish Beaver Trial carried out intensive monitoring of the beaver population at Knapdale including their impact on the local ecology (Gaywood et al. 2015). Subsequent surveys revealed that the illegally introduced population in Tayside was much larger than expected (433 beavers (range 319- 547) in 2017/2018) (NatureScot 2020.), but the Scottish Government chose to tolerate this population and monitor its continuing growth and spread by establishing the Tayside Beaver Study Group, which also aimed to resolve conflicts with land uses in the area. The Beaver Salmonid Working Group was established in 2009 as a sub-group of the National Species Reintroduction Forum to review the existing evidence for potential positive and negative impacts on salmonid fishes and potential management issues and in particular the impact of beaver dams in preventing migration of salmonids at critical life stages (Beaver Salmonid Working Group 2015).
The Eurasian beaver is listed on some annexes of the Council Directive 92/43/EEC on the conservation of natural habitats and wild fauna and flora (the so-called Habitats Directive), which is given legal effect in Scotland in the Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994 (as amended), commonly referred to as the Habitats Regulations (Gaywood et al. 2015). The Habitats Directive gives strict legal protection to beavers, and their breeding and resting sites. Following the conclusion of the Scottish Beaver Trial and a report to the Scottish Government (Gaywood et al. 2015), beavers from both populations were recognised as a European Protected Species on 1 May 2019. However, derogations under Article 16 of the Habitats Directive are permissible to allow management of beaver populations where these conflict with human activities provided that (Pillai et al. 2012):
- there is no satisfactory alternative;
- they are not detrimental to the maintenance of the species at a favourable conservation status in their natural range; and
- the grounds for the derogation fall within the categories listed in Article 16(1).
Reasons for issuing derogations for killing beavers include the need to protect wild fauna and flora and conserve natural habitats, prevent serious damage, e.g., to crops, livestock, forests, fisheries, water, and property, or in the interests of public health and safety or other imperative reasons of public interest, including social and economic, or impacts on the natural environment (Pillai et al. 2012, Gaywood et al. 2015).
The Knapdale population continues to develop slowly, probably given the limitations for its spread from there into adjacent areas, but it is supporting ecotourism for those wishing to see beavers in the wild, which is estimated to generate monetary benefits locally of £1.059 to 6.698 million during the Scottish Beaver Trial (Gaywood et al. 2015). However, the rapidly growing population on Tayside is causing continuing conflicts with landowners, including flooding of crops, damage to river banks and drainage infrastructure, and loss of trees. Anglers are also concerned at the loss of suitable breeding habitat for salmonid fishes and the impact of beaver dams on fish migration. This is especially important for the Atlantic salmon, which is declining due to a variety of factors.
Although both non-lethal and lethal methods for controlling beaver activities or their numbers are available, there is widespread public concern about the culling of beavers under licence. Conservation and welfare organisations have called for more use of non-lethal methods of control, including translocation to other sites in the UK, but these are not without welfare concerns.
As a result of these concerns, in June 2021 Trees for Life sought a Judicial Review, against NatureScot on five counts, including issuing too readily licences for beaver lethal control in apparent contravention of the beaver's status as a European Protected Species and without giving reasons for the issuing of those licences. In October 2021 Lady Carmichael, the judge who considered the review, upheld only one of these complaints, i.e. NatureScot did not publish the reasons for issuing of licences (2021csoh108.pdf (scotcourts.gov.uk)). NatureScot committed to revising their licensing approach in accordance with the Court's ruling. Following this ruling in November 2021 the Scottish Government announced a change in policy to allow for actively promoting translocation of beavers within Scotland to expand their population outside their current range. NatureScot issued interim guidelines (Interim guidance on NatureScot support for and assessment of beaver translocation projects | NatureScot) followed by full guidelines (Guidance - Translocation of beavers in Scotland | NatureScot) for beaver translocations. Since the change of policy a translocation of two beaver families to Argaty Red Kites near Doune, Perthshire, took place in November 2021 and February 2022 (Argaty second beaver translocation | NatureScot) and FLS is considering ten sites to select three for translocations (Beavers to be relocated to three new sites in Scotland (theferret.scot)).
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