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.”
The National Farmers Union in Scotland (NFUS) declined to comment. It has previously said that beavers in Tayside caused farmers great concern by undermining flood protections and impeding drainage.
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.”
Cover image thanks to iStock/AlasdairSargent, and photo of beaver swimming thanks to iStock/sasapanchenko. This story was published in tandem with the Sunday National.
Once again we see who is really in charge of “wildlife protection” in Scotland.The landowners and their servants. The same people would kill reintroduced sea eagles and red kites in the blink of an eye. Until we have a real land use policy in this country, which includes wildlife alongside agriculture, forestry and other commercial use then anything which is other than rare will simply be wiped out. Welcome back to the 19th century.
As an animal welfare person, AND, believer in the reintroduction of former fauna of an area, IF no intentional harm were to be encountered, I must, out of humane concern, disagree with the reintroduction of the Beaver into Scotland, where it is obviously encountering a hostile reception from certain landowners. The reintroduction of Birds of Prey that were once in Scotland, but persecuted to extinction, I disagree with, as they have faced a continual and cruel reception ever since. It is bad enough with Golden Eagles, Peregrines, Goshawks, Buzzards, Sparrow hawks and Kestrels, and any other creature supposed to be a threat to game birds, coming under illegal killing and bringing a general dismay among humane members of the public, sci,entists and conservations. Monstrous culls of Mountain Hares, Ravens and other Corvids etc., have roused opposition by many of those finding recreation in the Scottish upland landscape. NOT UNTIL Scotland and elsewhere in the UK has finally eliminated such persecution by those who belong to another era, should any creature be brought back into the fauna. Animal welfare must be paramount, and the idealists have to be asked to curb their enthusiasm for resurrecting lost bird and mammal life by introductions, only to meet with trap, bullet and poison. Meantime, those who wish for greater diversity of life forms in our natural environment, must campaign strenuously to bring a successful end to such opposition that calls for culls of any creature that may threaten the numbers of game birds and profits of driven grouse shooting estates. World wide extinction threatens many species of wildlife and plant life, and as a modern nation, we have to awaken to the role we have to play in restoring what we have lost, and that requires an education programme in our schools, and among those we entrust in politics, that would inculcate the necessity of our being a country that has conquered the oppressive cruelty towards animals, in all areas of our society where it lingers, due to an arrogance with its feeling of being above the law and the will of the general public. To bring back the Wolf, the Lynx, the Wild Boar and even the Bear, as is the agenda of some, would be absurd for any of these animals to be brought bewildered into an environment that would cause fear, and swift extermination. Scotland is a country beset by many problems, and one is the most economically way to manage its various natural landscapes, and do so in a more wildlife friendly way. It has a long way to go to stamp out ancient prejudices shown by those whose “sport” is hunting, and the leverage such people have in the right circles. We are just bashing our heads a brick wall to think otherwise. Those who mean well, should stop and think about the poor Beavers who have been killed, and focus a bit more on reality; a reality that is seeing a Great Extinction taking place throughout the planet, due to the lack of resources and a political will to enforce protection.
There are laws, regulations and guidelines that are being ignored or bypassed by land-owners who think they are above the law. Quite often the guilty are easily identified by where these crimes occur. It should be possible to withdraw permissions and licenses as preventative measures on the basis of statistical evidence. Licenses for firearms would be a start.
And have them using Snares and other disgusting methods of ” pest” removal. At least shooting doesn’t inflict prolonged misery before death.
Very sad that this behaviour still goes on in this country, but not surprised. Reading the other comments it shows how many of us detest these Victorian estates. When the Queen gives up Balmoral or turns it into a proper nature reserve there might be some progress, as it would hopefully set an example. I won`t hold my breath. The other lamentable culprits are of course the SNH, but this edifice is controlled by politicians who in some or maybe many cases are kissing the arses of landowners.
Why aren’t they just installing bypass leveling pipes that drain the beaver pond even with the dam in place.