Beaver welfare: Scottish Animal Welfare Commission report
A report on the welfare of beavers in Scotland by the Scottish Animal Welfare Commission.
5. Evidence gathered
A literature review was carried out, including guidance and since 2019 annual Beaver Management Reports, provided by the NatureScot website
A questionnaire (Appendix I) was sent to ten stakeholders and replies were received from the following:
- Atlantic Salmon Trust (AST; Simon Dryden)
- John Muir Trust (JMT; Mike Daniels)
- National Farmers' Union Scotland (NFUS; Penny Middleton)
- NatureScot (Donald Fraser, Dr Jenny Bryce)
- Roger J Wheater (RJW; former Chair of the Beaver-Salmonid Working Group)
- Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS; Dr Helen Taylor and Dr Helen Senn)
- Scotland's Rural College (SRUC; Fiona Howie)
- Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA; Debbie Wands)
- Scottish Land and Estates (SLE; Karen Ramoo)
- Trees for Life (TFL; Alan McDonnell)
Owing to constraints on time because of the development of the National Beaver Strategy, an online meeting was held with NatureScot, followed by responses to the questionnaire.
Below is a synthesis of the responses from stakeholders and the literature review. Stakeholders are identified by their initials.
Economic losses caused by beavers
NFUS and SLE referred to NatureScot as a source of data, TFL did not comment and RZSS sent a summary of published information, which is expanded below. AST indicated that management of dams that prevent upstream passage of adult salmon and sea trout, and downstream migration of smolts is an economic cost for District Salmon Fishery Boards, but did not quantify this cost.
Hamilton and Moran (2015) carried out a survey of the economic losses caused by beavers in the Tayside catchment. 46% of 111 landowners reported no beavers on their land and 17% had seen them, with the rest (43%) seeing signs of beavers or they were unsure if they were present. A minority of landowners (12%) had incurred quantifiable costs that ranged from £300 to £10,000/year (mean £2,653, median £1,000), with higher costs incurred for damaged flood defences and the felling of large trees in the lower (arable) part of the catchment (Hamilton and Moran 2015). They estimated that the total annual cost of damage by beavers in Scotland as ranging from £34,490 to £179,000 across the Tayside catchment, with future losses estimated as ranging between £48,800 to £1,360,000 per year but most probably towards the lower end of the range. However, there are no recent data from the Tay catchment, where beavers have become more widespread and abundant in recent years.
In 2021 Martin Kennedy (NFUS) reported that one farmer lost vegetables to the value of £25,000, owing to flooding of agricultural land on Tayside (Beavers Re-emerge in Scotland, Drawing Ire of Farmers - The New York Times (nytimes.com)), and a Perthshire farmer, Adrian Ivory, reported losses of £4,000/year and totalling £50,000 from flooding of crops caused by beavers and associated labour costs on his land (Beavers could improve Scotland's water supply, says report (thecourier.co.uk)). Hamilton and Moran (2015) recommended that a mechanism be set up for landowners to report damage caused by beavers and its cost, as well as an annual review of the costs and benefits of the presence of beavers, but this has not yet been implemented.
Use of non-lethal mitigation
NFUS and SLE referred to NatureScot's annual Beaver Management Reports for information about mitigation. TFL also referred to NatureScot for information. Beaver Management Reports record the population development and licensing for lethal and non-lethal control of beavers. However, there are some inconsistencies between years in the reporting of mitigation, so that comparisons are sometimes difficult. Fifteen beavers were trapped under one licence in 2019 for translocation to other sites in the UK, increasing to 31 (2020) and 33 (2021) in subsequent years (NatureScot 2020,2021, 2022). In 2019 there were 20 mitigation projects supported by NatureScot, which aimed to prevent damage and obviate the need for licences to control beavers (NatureScot 2020). This had increased to 68 projects in 2020 (NatureScot 2021), but no data were given for 2021. An operating budget of £91,000 was set for mitigation projects in 2020, but actual spend was £40,000 owing to COVID-19 restrictions. A budget of £90,000 was set for 2021-2022, but it is not clear whether this was used or not. In 2019 45 licences were issued by NatureScot, of which 39 were for lethal control and five allowed only removal or manipulation of dams without lethal control. All licences, except one, (97.5%) for lethal control were issued to prevent damage to prime agricultural land. Seventeen additional licences were issued in 2020, mostly for prime agricultural land, but also for public safety (5), forestry (1) and mitigation projects (flow devices and exclusions, using fences or grilles; 5). Six of these new licences were for lethal control. A total of 56 dams was removed in 2020. The combined effect of lethal control and trapping for translocation removed an estimated 14.3% and 15.3% of the population in 2019 and 2020 in comparison with an annual population growth rate of 30%.
Implementation of non-lethal mitigation
NatureScot explained that each situation was assessed on a case-by-case basis. The use of flow devices to reduce water levels behind dams can only be used in watercourses with a gradient (or the beavers build dams elsewhere) and are largely ineffective in drainage channels. Damage caused by burrows in banks is hard to detect until significant harm is done, because burrow entrances are often below the water and hence licences for lethal control are more likely to be issued. A technical subgroup is looking at burrow issues, and NatureScot is exploring how increased buffer zones and river restoration approaches can be used in areas where farms are affected by burrowing. NFUS, SLE and RZSS indicated that it is important that mitigation is attempted as early as possible and, where appropriate, mitigation measures should be proactive i.e., should not wait for damage to happen before instigating measures. TFL and AST were unable to respond.
NatureScot stated that it is not always possible to use non-lethal mitigation and NFUS and SLE state that lethal control is only used a last resort when mitigation has been unsuccessful or is not possible. NFUS and SLE also stated that if a wider variety of fully funded non-lethal mitigation techniques were available, land managers would use these instead of lethal control. Both are of the view that if it is known that mitigation does not work in a particular situation, there is no point in delaying lethal control, which could result in increased damage and economic losses.
TFL believe that there should be a clear record of the rationale for licensing any mitigation activity, especially in the case of lethal control. This rationale should be written by a suitably trained and experienced person after they have visited the site at least once to assess the options. Where live trapping for translocation is licensed, this should be given a minimum time-period to be successful before lethal control is considered. RZSS believes that alternative mitigation to lethal control should be attempted first, but realise that each case is different and that any delays caused by attempted mitigation could result in massive financial losses in some cases.
Monitoring economic losses and effectiveness of mitigation
NatureScot stated that licences are intended to prevent serious damage and therefore do not require prior evidence. NatureScot relies on accounts given by applicants for licences and in many cases these are followed up by a site visit by NatureScot staff or experienced contractors. NFUS and SLE indicated that land managers must adhere to several measures prior to licences being issued and both referred to the NatureScot website (https://www.nature.scot/beavers-licence-forms-and-guidance). Guidance - Managing the impacts of beavers in Scotland.pdf (nature.scot) TFL referred to evidence submitted to the Judicial Review, which showed that checks are not always made prior to the issuing of licences, nor that non-lethal control was attempted before lethal control was permitted. However, there is often insufficient time to attempt mitigation, where catastrophic damage to crops or infrastructure could occur due to flooding. RZSS stated that checks vary from telephone discussions to topographical GIS modelling, site visits, and issuing licenses for translocation, so that trapping can be attempted prior to culling. RZSS is concerned that this variation in procedure is problematic and raised this issue with NatureScot at a welfare meeting on 22 October 2021. AST was unaware and did not respond.
NatureScot stated that there is an equivalence of evidence with other licensing approaches for other species. Since the Judicial Review NatureScot has revised its licensing procedures and now states the reasons for the issuing of a licence for lethal control. NFUS stated that all existing licences were revoked by NatureScot following the Judicial Review, so that they could be revised with the new conditions and that a thorough investigation, including a site visit, or submitted evidence, is now required prior to issuing of licences. SLE submitted a similar response. Despite this RZSS is concerned that approaches seem to be inconsistent, especially with regard to prime agricultural land, and also transparency regarding what checks have been undertaken and on what grounds before a lethal control license has been issued.
Kit Dependency Period
The kit dependency period runs from 1 April to 17 August each year. Prior to August 2021 licences for lethal and non-lethal control covered the kit dependency period, but existing licences were withdrawn and revised ones were issued to exclude this period. In 2020 there were no applications, and no licensed control or live trapping in the kit dependency period. It is unclear what the situation was in 2019, when the beaver gained legal protection. Since August 2021 it has been necessary to apply for an exceptional licence for beaver control in the kit dependency period, but the latest licensing returns do not mention if any exceptional licences were issued.
NatureScot indicated that there is no open season, but there is licensed control outside the kit dependency period. Licences would only now be issued in the kit dependency period in exceptional circumstances, where risk and welfare are considered. NFUS and SLE recognise the need for a kit dependency period, but also the need for exceptional licences for this period. TFL, RZSS, SRUC also support the kit dependency period although RZSS is concerned about how this can be policed effectively.
Training for use of lethal control
NatureScot has established an accreditation process that requires controllers to attend a free training course and have firearms certification. The Code of Practice is a condition of the licence and sets out what ammunition is appropriate and controllers must also declare this in their annual returns. The aim of the training and Code of Practice is to ensure that beavers are killed humanely, i.e., to prevent injuries and deaths where welfare is compromised. Training comprises a PowerPoint presentation, detailing various technical aspects of beaver culling, and health-and-safety issues, with a Q&A session. Following training, controllers are issued with a certificate and added to a NatureScot database. There is no test of the marksmanship of the controllers.
NFUS and SLE are confident that NatureScot's Beaver Management Framework has led to the development of a Code of Practice and a comprehensive training programme for accreditation of controllers for detailing how lethal control should be carried out and that welfare is paramount and welfare impacts are minimised. RZSS is concerned about the lack of recovery of culled beavers for post-mortem examination and the lack of regulation on shooting of beavers over water.
Lethal control of beavers
Prior to 1 May 2019, when beavers gained legal protection as a European Protected Species, there was no licensing of the lethal control of beavers and no figures are available of how many were culled. However, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland carried out post-mortem examinations on 32 Tayside beavers between 2013 and 2019, of which 23 had been shot (S. Girling, pers. comm. 9.11.22). Eighteen of the 23 shot animals were sufficiently fresh to assess the accuracy of the shot; 12 had been shot correctly, but six had been shot poorly such that the welfare of these individuals was probably affected negatively (S. Girling, pers. comm. 9.11.22). Therefore, one third of shot beavers were shot in a way that would not be recommended in current training, but these were shot before that training was available. In 2019, when licences were first issued, 87 beavers were culled. In 2020 this rose to 115 and dropped back to 87 in 2021.
The 2020 Beaver Management Report (NatureScot 2021) stated that five beavers were submitted for post-mortem examinations by SRUC Veterinary Services between June 2020 and March 2021. Three of these had been shot; the causes of death of the other two were not established, but could have been the result of territorial fighting. The placement of the bullet in one of the shot beavers was not in the recommended area for humane dispatch. However, the data are too few to draw any conclusions about welfare aspects related to the shooting of beavers.
RJW was concerned that a comprehensive management plan was not in place that recognised the need for lethal control of beavers, when other mitigations have failed, and that the current demand for translocation would at best be a temporary respite from the need to have an effective population management plan. RJW stated that no further translocations should occur until a management plan was in place. Once available habitats are occupied in Scotland and the rest of the UK, there does not seem to be any longer-term plan for dealing with future conflicts. RJW also proposed that education, particularly of younger people, is required so that there is a greater understanding of the need for lethal control if other kinds of mitigation are ineffective or inappropriate.
Welfare of beavers subject to lethal control
Welfare has been considered at the population level as well as for individuals.
In 2020 NatureScot carried out an analysis of the impact of licensed removal of beavers on population viability and continues to work with the University of Newcastle to model the effects of different management scenarios and their impacts on population viability. The Codes of Practice issued by NatureScot are intended to safeguard beaver welfare, but the numbers of beavers submitted for post-mortem examination are too low to verify compliance. NFUS and SLE are satisfied that the current accreditation scheme with Codes of Practice are sufficient to safeguard beaver welfare, but TFL is concerned that there is no limit to how many beavers can be shot under a licence and RZSS is also concerned that there is a lack of regulation concerning the shooting of beavers "over water", coupled with a lack of incentive to return culled carcasses for post-mortem examination, which mean that it is not possible to ensure good welfare outcomes in all cases, or ensure that poor welfare outcomes are detected. RZSS is also concerned that the continued culling of beavers at particular locations could act as population sinks that deplete the wider areas of beavers as they continue to recolonise empty territories, which could affect population viability and gene flow. Despite this concern, so far the beaver population has been growing strongly since 2012 with average annual increases of c.30% with culling affecting c.10% of the population since licensing began. Therefore, there is currently no evidence that derogations to kill or translocate beavers are affecting the Favourable Conservation Status of the beaver in Scotland.
NatureScot, NFUS and SLE do not believe that the recent Judicial Review will improve beaver welfare. However, TFL believes that now that NatureScot must provide the reasons behind the decision to issue a licence, the process will be much more transparent and that welfare will be considered more carefully, including the preferred use of non-lethal control. In particular, the change in Government policy since the review to allow translocations in Scotland is important in allowing beavers to become accepted as part of landscapes. TFL would like to see limits on numbers of beavers killed per licence and more beavers retrieved for post-mortem examination. RZSS concurred with these views and hoped that fewer licences would be issued, resulting in less lethal control, but reiterated its concerns about shooting over water and lack of retrieval of beaver carcasses.
Post-mortem examinations of beavers
All respondents (NatureScot, NFUS, SLE, TFL, SRUC, RZSS, AST) support the need for post-mortem examinations on beavers for health and welfare assessments, but that health-and-safety concerns made it impossible to retrieve all dead beavers, although prior to legal protection beavers were readily submitted to RZSS for post-mortem examinations (see above). NFUS believes that is it important that the collection of beavers and post-mortem examinations are impartial, which is the case currently. SLE is concerned that these examinations should not be used to accuse controllers of "wrongdoing". RZSS is concerned about the low number of beavers submitted for post-mortem examination and that this may be linked to allowing the shooting of beavers over water. RZSS carried out 32 post-mortem examinations on dead Tayside beavers before legal protection in 2019 (S. Girling pers. comm. 9.11.22), which indicated that recovery rates should be much higher than they are today given the much larger beaver population and greater number of beavers that are being culled under licence.
Advice on non-lethal mitigation
NatureScot provides free advice to land managers through the mitigation scheme. There is only one resource currently on the NatureScot website (tree protection; Protecting trees from beavers using wire mesh | NatureScot), but NatureScot hopes to build up these resources as it develops casework examples. NatureScot has also published guidance on managing the impacts of beavers ("Guidance - Managing the impacts of beavers in Scotland.pdf (nature.scot)), which outlines mitigation options for landowners, and states which do and do not require a licence. NFUS acknowledged the availability of a NatureScot team and dedicated advisor to assist land managers with mitigation, but feels that the scheme is limited and lacks successful measures to protect agricultural land. NFUS is concerned that in some cases there may not be a viable mitigation option, but its main concern is funding and it would like assurances from NatureScot and Scottish Government that they will provide sufficient funding for mitigation. NFUS and SLE would like to see more technical notes available for different kinds of mitigation on the NatureScot website (see above). SLE would welcome the prioritisation of this work as such guidance is an important tool in supporting land managers and will be helpful in demonstrating how impacts can be managed. SLE commented that the mitigation scheme has been slow to become established and to successfully support the delivery of tried and tested measures. There have also been delays in exploring innovative solutions and insufficient evaluation of implemented mitigations.
Led by NatureScot, a National Beaver Strategy (NBS) has been developed with a wide array of stakeholders in 2022, which will provide a framework for considering releases into new areas. NFUS and SLE pointed out that a separate beaver translocation strategy is not required because of the impending NBS, but there needs to be clear guidance for those submitting a translocation proposal and consultation of all those affected by it. However, NFUS does not support translocation and would rather see the natural expansion of the species' range in Scotland. NFUS is not opposed to live-trapping of beavers, but points out that there are welfare risks associated with it. SLE believes that there should be a sufficiently resourced national mitigation scheme funded by Scottish Government to manage the inevitable conflicts with land managers and fisheries. As part of the NBS, SLE hopes that PAL and other important areas for agriculture, forestry and fisheries are avoided for future translocations. RZSS (and SRUC, TFL) also supports translocation through the NBS and AST would like to see more research on the impact on fisheries before future translocations are carried out.
NatureScot stated that there is now a lot of accumulated experience in carrying out live-trapping for translocation with good success rates. In the 2021 Beaver Management Report two out of 31 beavers died that were being translocated, but these individuals had injuries that may have contributed to their deaths. NatureScot points out that live-trapping provides opportunities for gathering information for use in research on welfare, animal and public health and genetics. NFUS and SLE deferred to those involved in live trapping, but TFL indicated that translocations are well practised in many countries and that welfare risks and safeguards are well researched, although it did not know if further research is required.
Welfare of beavers subject to translocation
RZSS provided a very comprehensive response: "Trapping and translocation can have significant welfare implications and we believe these should be addressed in any translocation licence. We believe that there are significant issues around trapping and translocation of unaccompanied kits. In our view it can be practically very difficult to optimise composition of translocation groups when removing animals from a conflict zone. Seasonal timing of translocation, age of animals, group composition, presence of occupied territories at the release site, time and mode of holding & transportation or the animals and post -release follow-up should all be considered when conducting a translocation (in line with IUCN (www.iucn.org/content/guidelines-reintroductions-and-other-conservation-translocations) and Scottish guidance (www.nature.scot/doc/scottish-code-conservation-translocations). There are currently limited data on the long-term post-release survival of beavers after translocations due to the difficulty of monitoring individuals (i.e., because radio-tagging is very challenging) and this is a gap in our knowledge base. The most comprehensive datasets in the UK come from the Knapdale Beaver Trial and reinforcement, but these have acknowledged limitations. New reintroduction projects should demonstrate that they understand these challenges in advance of being licenced and that they have articulated an exit strategy in advance that clearly defines whether intervention will be conducted in the event of poor animal welfare following translocation. In order to do this properly, it is highly likely that they will require the involvement of a qualified wildlife veterinarian."
NFUS remains concerned that the illegal release of beavers on Tayside meant that NatureScot and the Scottish Government are developing policies after the releases rather than before them. NFUS and SLE recognise that there are proven successful mitigation techniques being used across Europe, but that these are only being slowly developed in Scotland as part of mitigation schemes. Its main concern is more resources and funding for mitigation.
RZSS also supports the need for more mitigation to protect landowners' interests: "Further funding and support to the farming community to trial and install beaver mitigation measures should be provided. This is an issue that has been raised via the Scottish Beaver Forum with particular reference to the water-gate trials in areas such as the Meigle burn in Tayside, which have run into numerous unforeseen delays and are still not in place almost three years after first being promised. Areas such as the Meigle burn are home to a large portion of the landowners seeking lethal control licenses and NFUS contends that if the water gate situation was progressed and finished, the need for lethal control licenses would be reduced." RZSS is also concerned that expertise for translocations is limited in Scotland and that there is a need to build capacity to support the wider spread of beavers in Scotland and the rest of the UK.
AST is not against beaver translocations, but believes they must be licenced, monitored and managed in a way which ensures that the risks to free passage for migratory fish are minimised. Scotland's wild salmon populations are in crisis and AST is very supportive of efforts to increase and protect biodiversity, but does not wish beaver activity to further unnecessarily jeopardise the survival of wild salmon across Scotland's rivers. AST would like to see specific research into the loss of free upstream and/or downstream passage to adult and juvenile salmon and sea trout because of beaver dams, which would ideally be carried out on Tayside.
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