A plan intended to aid the spread of beavers across the whole of Scotland has been published, with more than a quarter of a million acres marked as potential habitat.
The 23-year strategy, produced by Scottish Government agency, NatureScot, maps out the places in Scotland where the animals could potentially live. It includes wooded banks and wetlands on thousands of rivers and burns.
NatureScot hopes the strategy will bring to an end the bitter conflict between farmers and conservationists over the animals.
Many conservationists, on the other hand, have been delighted at the resurgence of what was a native animal until driven to extinction 400 years ago.
Beavers were officially made a protected species in Scotland in 2019.
Beavers shot under licence
But farmers have shot more than 300 beavers under licence in the past three years where their dams have caused flooding. This has angered conservation charities, who have campaigned for the animals to be moved to other Scottish sites instead.
Last year Green biodiversity minister Lorna Slater announced that beaver “translocation” – the re-releasing of beavers to other locations – would now be allowed.
The drafting of the new strategy has been led by the Swiss-based International Union for Conservation of Nature, and will guide NatureScot’s work in managing the spread over the next 23 years.
Among measures proposed are a possible incentive scheme for farmers who live with the animals on their land. Finding private funding for beaver conservation work is also suggested.
Monitoring of beaver impacts on other species such as lichens and salmon is also included in the strategy as well as encouraging bigger “riparian zones” – areas where the land meets rivers and burns.
It also accepts the continued shooting of problem beavers under licence as a last resort for farmers.
It is hoped relocation projects could start as early as this year. Rewilding charity Trees for Life and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds are both consulting on schemes, in Glen Affric and the Loch Lomond area.
Francesca Osowska, chief executive of NatureScot, said: “The strategy is probably one of the most ambitious and forward-looking approaches to conserving and managing a species that has ever been carried out.
“We hope the publication of this beaver strategy will give a further impetus for landowners to look at the possibility of translocation and we’ll see a new phase of activity, but it’s really difficult to put a timescale on it.”
Osowska hopes cull levels will be cut, and said the rules on shooting licences have been tightened up. Every licence-holder has been contacted in the past few months to discuss live trapping and other alternatives such as fencing and the use of “beaver deceivers” – pipes in beaver dams to cut the water level.
She said she was “very enthusiastic” about the spread of beavers, adding: “The ecological benefits they bring are absolutely tremendous. Beaver can help mitigate climate change. That is absolutely what I’m determined to see.”
James Nairne, of the conservationist Scottish Wild Beaver Group, said: “If the new strategy accelerates getting [beavers’] environmental benefits to new river catchments across Scotland, it has to be welcomed.
“To be judged a success though, the strategy will have to reduce the unacceptably high number of beavers killed each year in parts of Tayside.”
NFU Scotland President Martin Kennedy said the organisation would “continue to work with all parties going forward to ensure that damage to productive farmland is minimised”.
He added: “To deliver the translocation policy, NatureScot must have sufficient resources to undertake trapping and deliver mitigation measures in areas where significant and costly damage to farmland is occurring. Funding should not come from within existing agricultural schemes. And, where mitigation and trapping measures fail, dam removal and lethal control must remain an option.
“As the strategy recognises, beavers, in the wrong areas, are proven to cause significant and costly agricultural damage so consultation and consensus are key.”
Cover image thanks to Tatiana Bulyonkova/licensed under Creative Commons