A proposal to investigate eating beavers as a way of limiting their numbers was dropped from Scotland’s new wild beaver strategy following inquiries from The Ferret.
Planned action to examine “the potential consumptive use of beaver” was cut from a major report co-ordinated by the Scottish Government’s wildlife agency, NatureScot.
The proposal was included in a July draft of the report, seen by The Ferret. But after we asked NatureScot about it, it was omitted from Scotland’s Beaver Strategy 2022-2045 when it was published in September.
The suggestion that beavers could be used for human consumption has been condemned as “perverse” and “sickening” by campaigners. They have demanded an end to the shooting of beavers — and suggested introducing predators such as wolves.
NatureScot said that this one “minor option” had been dropped because it was “a very low priority and unlikely to happen in Scotland.” It stressed that the content of the final report had been decided by “key stakeholders”.
Beavers were hunted to extinction in Scotland in the 16th century. Some time before 2006 they were illegally or accidentally released in Tayside, and have since spread widely along waterways.
There are now reckoned to be more than a thousand of them, welcomed by conservationists but worrying some farmers and landowners. Over the last three years 289 have been shot under licences issued by NatureScot.
After the Greens joined the Scottish Government in August 2021, NatureScot brought together more than 50 wildlife, farming and other groups to draw up a long term strategy for beavers.
The resulting 76-page report in September set out a series of measures to “actively expand” beaver populations to new areas “following the Scottish Government’s change in policy to encourage wider beaver restoration”.
But one proposal originally put forward was quietly dropped. A draft of the report widely circulated in July included an action on page 32 to “scope the potential consumptive use of beaver if and when population reaches optimum densities.”
But this proposal had disappeared completely from the final version of the report when it came to be published in September. In the meantime, The Ferret had asked NatureScot whether eating beavers might be controversial.
Vegetarian and animal welfare groups have reacted angrily. “If there was a risk of beaver populations getting out of control, then some thought should be given to the introduction of apex predators, akin to the introduction of wolves in Yellowstone Park,” said the chief executive of the Vegetarian Society, Richard McIlwain.
“Rather that than hunting them for human consumption, which would seem perverse, given this was the primary cause for their extinction back in the 16th century.”
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals argued that no-one needed to eat, wear or otherwise use beavers. “These sensitive, highly intelligent animals — known as nature’s engineers because their well-built dams and lodges can stand for decades — should, like all wildlife, be left in peace,” said the group’s vice president, Elisa Allen.
John Robins, campaigns consultant to Scottish charity Animal Concern, attacked NatureScot for authorising the killing of wildlife. “If they do encourage people to munch on beaver burgers it will not be the first time they have tried to disguise culling as harvesting,” he told The Ferret.
“It sickens me that culling is being planned before the widespread reintroduction of beavers even gets started. They should halt this project until they bring in strong laws to stop the persecution of beavers.”
The Ferret reported in December 2020 that NatureScot had been accused by the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty Animals of telling farmers that beavers were “good to eat and could be used for taxidermy”.
According to NatureScot, the beaver strategy was designed to look at “all possible considerations” now and in the distant future. “During the drafting phase this one, minor option for potential research was removed as it was felt by stakeholders to be a very low priority and unlikely to happen in Scotland,” said a spokesperson for the government agency.
“All decisions on the content of the strategy were agreed by the organising team of key stakeholders. Our focus at NatureScot is on the clearly stated priorities of the strategy — to identify and actively expand the population to new catchments, alongside appropriate management and mitigation.”
NatureScot emphasised that the strategy was “ambitious and forward-looking” and was “co-owned” by all the stakeholders involved. “It has been a national effort, bringing together very diverse interests to agree a common way forward for a very emotive species,” the spokesperson added.
The Scottish Wildlife Trust, one of the key stakeholders, described the strategy as a “big step forward” for beavers. “As with the development of any strategic framework, a process of refinement was undertaken by the large group of stakeholder organisations involved to produce the most robust and forward-thinking strategy possible,” said the trust’s conservation director, Sarah Robinson.
Cover image thanks to iStock/Cavan Images.