Farmers and landowners have legally killed around one hundred wild beavers in Tayside, The Ferret can reveal.
Campaigners have condemned the killings as “shameful” and “sickening” and are demanding that beavers be moved rather than shot. Scottish ministers are now likely to face questions about the deaths.
The official number killed under licence in 2019 is due to be published soon in a delayed report from the government wildlife agency, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH). It says that in the meantime any other numbers are “unverified”.
Beavers were hunted to extinction in Scotland in the 16th century. They were illegally or accidentally released in Tayside before 2006, and have spread widely along waterways.
The last survey in 2017 by SNH estimated that there were about 450 beavers in 114 locations in the Tay and Forth river catchments. Though the animals are welcomed by many, they are blamed for flooding and crop damage by farmers and landowners.
For more than 13 years the Tayside beavers had no legal status, enabling land mangers to control them as they wished. The Ferret has previously reported multiple shootings, sometimes in ways that were criticised as cruel.
After a trial reintroduction in Argyll and prolonged delays because of opposition from farmers, the Scottish Government gave beavers legal protection on 1 May 2019. Since then in order to kill them, or destroy their dams or lodges, land managers have had to obtain a licence from SNH.
SNH disclosed in response to a freedom of information request that that it had granted 45 licences to control unspecified numbers of beavers up to 31 December 2019. Of those, 39 permitted shooting as a last resort and the other six just allowed dam removal.
In May 2019 SNH also had proposals to move up to 50 beavers from Tayside to elsewhere in the UK. Lethal control should not be carried out when beavers had dependent young “except in exceptional circumstances”, it stressed.
If land managers abided by the rules, most beavers shot under licence would have been between August and December 2019. Some wildlife campaigners have heard that over a hundred were officially killed, but others say that the final figure may be slightly under a hundred.
The suggestion that there were so many killings over the last five months of 2019 has prompted widespread anger. “I’ve personally seen the sickening sight of dead beavers left to rot in Perthshire fields in the last year,” said the Green MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife, Mark Ruskell.
“If reports are accurate, this level of culling will have made a devastating impact on the population of a supposedly protected species. The licensing scheme appears to have just legitimised the free for all killing spree that happened before the protected status was granted.”
Ruskell called on the Scottish Government to publish the SNH data in full. “There are serious questions about how and when lethal control has been used in Tayside and why beavers are not being re-located to more suitable locations where problems may have arisen with landowners,” he added.
The Scottish Wild Beaver Group, which campaigns to protect the animals, warned that the number being shot could threaten the long term sustainability of the Tayside population. “These shocking figures represent a substantial part of the entire UK beaver population,” said the group’s spokesperson, James Nairne.
“If accurate, they completely undermine the Scottish Government’s commitments to protecting nature and tackling biodiversity loss. Instead of sanctioning killing, the environment secretary, Roseanna Cunningham, urgently needs to endorse translocation of beaver families from low-lying farmland to suitable habitat in other areas in Scotland where their biodiversity enhancing benefits are sorely needed.”
The Scottish Wildlife Trust stressed that lethal control should always be a last resort. “It would be deeply concerning if a substantial proportion of the beaver population has been culled in Tayside,” said the trust’s conservation director, Sarah Robinson.
“The number of beavers in Scotland is still relatively small and localised, so a heavy cull could put the future of this protected species at risk…Licenses for lethal control should only be granted where there is no risk of negatively impacting the conservation status of the species.”
Robinson pointed out that more than 100,000 hectares of Scotland had been identified as “core beaver habitat”. Many areas such as the Cairngorms could accommodate them with relatively little conflict, she said.
“There are also opportunities to reinforce the population on the edges of their existing range, and bridge the gap between the populations in Tayside and Argyll. Therefore, we believe the national strategy should include the potential for further translocations of beavers,” she added.
“It is now more than a year since beavers were given European protected species status, and we still urgently need a robust national strategy to allow the species to thrive and expand.”
The Scottish animal campaigns charity, OneKind, argued that the prolonged unofficial persecution of beavers should not be replaced by licensed killing. “The Tayside beavers have been victims of intolerance and an uncaring bureaucracy since they were reintroduced in Scotland ten years ago,” said the group’s spokesperson, Eve Massie.
“The welfare issues of shooting beavers have been well documented and those who campaigned alongside us for the protection of these engaging creatures will be appalled to learn of their continued persecution.”
The UK wildlife campaigner, Ben Goldsmith, has accused the Scottish Government of allowing the “wholesale slaughter” of beavers in Tayside. The figures due to be published by SNH would be “truly shocking”, he tweeted.
Slightly odd to see the Scottish Government spending a small fortune carefully cultivating “one of Scotland’s most fragile populations of mammals” in one place whilst simultaneously allowing the wholesale slaughter of beavers a few miles away on the Tay. https://t.co/PvqWJLwK4h
— Ben Goldsmith (@BenGoldsmith) April 22, 2020
The ecologist and species reintroduction campaigner, Derek Gow, described the killing of beavers in Scotland as “shameful”. It was first time in European history that lethal control had been introduced within 10 years of a species returning to the wild, he wrote in a blog.
“The official yet unpublished kill figures from the Tay show just how much sanctioned death has occurred. Well over 100 are believed to have been shot so far on record and others without doubt will have swollen the ranks of the disappeared.”
Scottish Natural Heritage has been reviewing how to approach beaver conservation. “As we will shortly be publishing figures on the licenses issued to manage the impact of beavers in 2019, any other figures are unverified,” said an SNH spokesperson.
“We have always been clear that licences for the culling of beavers is a last resort when other mitigation techniques are not possible. We will also report on operation of the beaver mitigation scheme, beaver trapping and translocation to other conservation projects and recommendations for how we will approach beaver conservation in the future.”
SNH added: “This work was unfortunately delayed while we focused on the challenges of the on-going Covid-19 situation.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Beavers are now a protected species in Scotland and a valued part of our biodiversity.
“We recognise they may need to be managed in certain circumstances and the licensing system for control of beavers, which is operated by Scottish Natural Heritage, complies fully with all relevant European Union and Scottish wildlife legislation.”
NFUS welcomed the licensing system in May 2019, saying it hoped it proved to be “workable” and allowed “farmers to deal with problems when they arise.”
At the time the union’s environment and land use chairman, Angus MacFadyen said: “The union has, since 2016, recognised that the species is here to stay and that, in some locations, beavers and people can co-exist happily.
“But it is also the case that beavers have negative impacts when they locate and breed in highly productive agricultural areas.”