The aim of this report is to address welfare concerns that have been raised with respect to the reintroduction of beavers to Scotland. There has been general concern that for a European Protected Species that perhaps too many beavers are being culled annually to protect economic and public-safety interests and that the act of culling may be compromising beaver welfare through poor use of firearms. Linked with this is the concern that non-lethal mitigation is not being attempted first despite the widespread use of a variety of methods that are used currently in mainland Europe and North America. The welfare of beaver kits may be compromised by the culling of adults during the kit dependency period and translocation may also compromise the welfare of beavers when being trapped, transported and released at new localities.
There were ten responses from stakeholders to a questionnaire that aimed to provide evidence and opinion about these welfare issues. Stakeholders included both landowners, such as NFUS and SLE, as well as conservation organisations, such as RZSS and TFL, as well as NatureScot, which is responsible for the protection of beavers and licensing of their control.
The Judicial Review brought by TFL clarified some aspects of the welfare of beavers and resulted in a change of policy with regard to the translocation of beavers in Scotland. For example, Lady Carmichael concluded that 'that if serious damage tests are likely to be met it is not necessary to wait until damage has occurred before issuing a licence authorising derogation.' This supports NatureScot's approach of issuing licences for some situations, e.g., potential damage to prime agricultural land, without the need to try non-lethal methods. However, following Judicial Review, NatureScot must now provide their reasons for issuing licences for control, which should ensure that welfare of beavers has been clearly considered. Change in Scottish Government policy to allow more widespread translocation of beavers which are causing local problems to other areas of Scotland will reduce the need for lethal control, but this reduction will only be temporary until all available beaver habitat is occupied in the longer term.
The development of the National Beaver Strategy 2022-2045, published in September 2022, provides a comprehensive plan for the future development of the beaver population in Scotland including welfare issues as follows:
Goal 2 of the strategy covers the translocation of beavers to new areas. Under Objective C, which aims to ensure good practice in translocation population management to safeguard beaver welfare and maximise probability of successful establishment, Action i states: "Create and integrate Standard Operating Procedures to safeguard welfare into all translocation applications, with reference to the review of wild beaver welfare in Scotland being conducted by SAWC (the Scottish Animal Welfare Commission)." Action v states: "Ensure post-release monitoring included in translocation planning (immediately after release and follow-up, including data specifically to allow an audit of the impact of mitigation procedures on beaver health and welfare), in line with existing licensing procedures."
Goal 5 of the strategy covers the establishment "of systems to support land managers in the development of naturalised riparian networks that can accommodate beavers." Under Objective A, which aims to develop goal-related best-practice guidance and training support, built on prior experience, Action iv states: "Publish Scottish-relevant protocols covering agreed best practices, which incorporate assessed, practical guidance, with consideration of impacts on other species, habitats, land-use and animal welfare principles."
Therefore, this report is important in reviewing welfare issues and making recommendations in relation to beaver translocations and management on riparian systems as a basis for further developing and refining translocation protocols, and best-practice guidelines and training related to beaver management for the National Beaver Strategy.
This report has identified some remaining concerns about beaver welfare which require more action, evidence, or future monitoring:
1. Published guidance for non-lethal mitigation is very limited and should be expanded to include all the methods listed in Gaywood et al. (2015). NFUS highlighted the need for this guidance, as farmers would prefer to use non-lethal methods, if possible.
2. The potential for exceptional licences for the lethal control of beavers in the kit dependency period means that kits could suffer poor welfare in the future. Although no licences have been issued so far since the new licenses were issued in 2019, it is important that Beaver Management Reports continue to report these data.
3. Lack of recovery of culled beaver carcasses for post-mortem examination means that it is not possible to assess whether beavers are experiencing negative welfare by wounding. Restrictions on when beavers can be shot (e.g., while not in the water) could overcome this problem as well as ensuring more humane killing, e.g., shooting after live trapping. RZSS and TFL were greatly concerned that current guidance and impacts on beavers could not ensure that welfare is not being affected adversely.
4. While translocations may be preferable to killing of beavers to overcome conflicts, monitoring of the outcomes of translocation are required to ensure that protocols are adequate and are being followed, and to assess outcomes in terms of injuries, mortalities, survival and population development. Careful assessment of reintroduction sites, to ensure that they can support a reintroduced population and its development, spread and connectivity to adjacent populations, will be essential.
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