Farmers and gamekeepers are shooting “as many beavers as possible” on Tayside before they are brought under legal protection, according to email allegations released by the Scottish Government.
A wildlife expert has warned the government that the aim of some was to get rid of the dam-building mammals now to escape prosecution. This was “depressing, but not too surprising”, a government official said in response.
The allegations have provoked widespread alarm amongst wildlife and animal welfare groups. The shooting is “callous” and should be ended by urgent government action, they say.
Scottish ministers have been trying to decide since 2011 what to do about more than 150 beavers that have been living wild on the Tay, the Earn, the Isla and other connecting rivers and burns. They escaped captivity or were illegally introduced about ten years ago, and are seen as a threat by land managers.
The beavers have no legal protection, and there are no rules governing when or how they can be shot. Repeated delays in deciding their fate – along with that of a separate population that have been legally introduced as a trial in Argyll – have made ministers the target of mounting criticism.
In January The Ferret reported post-mortems showing that four Tayside beavers had been inhumanely shot while they were pregnant or feeding young. Three were shot with low-calibre guns, or from too far away to ensure instant death.
Now there is evidence that farmers in some areas are trying to kill them all. In response to a freedom of information request, the Scottish Government has released internal correspondence about beavers since June 2015, but blacked out all names (see below).
It was clear from discussion that farmers and gamekeepers are shooting as many beavers as possible just now before they become protected. Email to the Scottish Government
On 12 February 2016, a correspondent with knowledge of beavers emailed government officials saying he or she had recently given a talk to a meeting of Strathmore and Forfar farmers in Angus. “It was clear from discussion that farmers and gamekeepers are shooting as many beavers as possible just now before they become protected,” the email said.
In reply an official from the government’s environment directorate said this was “depressing, but not too surprising”, and asked whether there were any more details.
The correspondent responded by pointing out that farmers and gamekeepers had great networks. “It seems logical that if they think the beavers are a threat they will get rid of them while they have little or no protection and they are unlikely to be prosecuted for anything,” said a second email.
“I suspect they will be just shooting them in the water, which might result in injuries rather than death much of the time. Like seals that are shot in the water no doubt they will just float off downstream or die in their lodge.”
The emails in full
The Scottish Wild Beaver Group, which campaigns to protect the animals, blamed the “deplorable” government delay for giving some farmers the opportunity to shoot them. “This callous approach has already hardened the differences of attitude between conservationists and these farmers in ways that will be hard to undo,” said the group’s Paul Ramsay.
“An urgent response is needed by government to protect these much loved and beneficial animals and to provide farmers with an incentive to look for a better response to the situation.”
Harry Huyton, director of the Scottish animal welfare charity OneKind, was “deeply saddened” that more beavers were being shot. “Beavers are benign, harmless animals that the public delight in seeing,” he said.
“They should not be made to suffer because of prejudice or a lack of understanding of their behaviour and how to manage any impact they might have.”
The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland was also concerned about the welfare of the Tayside beavers. “This is a situation which is only getting worse the longer we wait for a government decision on the future of beavers in Scotland,” said the society’s chairman, Jeremy Peat.
Farmers and landowners, however, defended the need for lethal control as a last resort when, for example, beavers were damming vital drainage systems. The National Farmers Union in Scotland is opposed to the formal reintroduction of beavers on Tayside because of the damage they are doing to productive farmland.
“It remains a huge source of frustration to farmers across Tayside and Strathmore that decisions about the beaver population, illegally released without any appropriate permissions or safeguards, remain outstanding,” said Andrew Bauer, the union’s deputy policy director.
Ministers are carefully considering the best way forward and a decision will be announced before the end of 2016. Spokeswoman for the Scottish Government
He urged farmers to abide by guidelines on shooting from the government’s wildlife agency, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH). “Since reminders on control were reissued, we have no evidence to suggest that they are being contravened and we will continue to urge our members to comply with them,” he said.
Scottish Land and Estates, which represents landowners, said it was not aware of the issues raised in the released emails. “Our own advice to farmers and landowners has been to control only where it is necessary, to look at all options and if lethal control is the only reasonable option, to carry this out in the most humane way possible,” said the group’s senior policy officer, Anne Gray.
“Farmers and landowners have made clear to the Scottish Government that if beavers are to be reintroduced, proper management and good advice on that management needs to be put in place. This has still not happened following illegal releases in Tayside over a decade ago.”
The Scottish Government said the concerns had been raised in a private capacity, and declined to reveal who had raised them, or where the person worked. “The Scottish Government has urged land managers to heed SNH advice to prevent female beavers being shot when they are pregnant or have dependent young,” said a government spokeswoman.
“We are not aware of any reports of beavers being shot this year, but further steps will be taken if necessary. As we have made clear, ministers are carefully considering the best way forward and a decision will be announced before the end of 2016.”
All the documents about beavers released by the Scottish Government
A version of this article was published on the Sunday Herald on 31 July 2016.