The Scottish Government is under growing pressure to act after confirmation that 87 beavers have been shot under licence in the eight months since they were given official protected status.
A report published on 28 May by the government’s wildlife agency, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), details shootings by farmers and landowners in Tayside in 2019. It suggests changes including relocating beavers within Scotland and paying farmers to “host” them.
Conservationists are “deeply concerned” by the impact of the cull on a population thought to number just 450 animals, with one saying the shootings represented a “shameful policy failure”. The National Farmers Union in Scotland welcomed the report, claiming the current management system is effective.
The Ferret revealed on 17 May that farmers and landowners had legally killed “around one hundred” wild beavers in Tayside in 2019. At the time SNH did not confirm the figure.
Now SNH’s new report says that 87 beavers were shot between 1 May 2019, when they gained protected status from the Scottish Government, and 31 December 2019. At least ten of the animals were kits less than a year old.
All shootings were in the Tay river catchment where beavers first appeared in the wild in Scotland around 15 years ago after being illegally or accidentally released. Farmers complain that their dams block ditches and flood fields.
More than half of those shot – 49 – were in Strathmore on the Isla, a tributary of the Tay. The report suggests the population in this area is likely to be “suppressed”.
It adds: “The area may act to some extent as a sink, with new animals moving into the void. This could potentially impact on the population expansion rate around this area, particularly eastwards.”
SNH points out that demands to kill beavers had been well below its worst case scenario. “There could potentially have been increased levels of control prior to protection being afforded in May 2019,” its report concludes.
In 2019 SNH issued a total 45 beaver control licences to land managers around the Tay, of which 16 were used for killing and 19 for dam removal. As many as 83 dams were removed, and ten farmers were helped with “mitigation measures” including devices to drain dams.
The SNH report does not say when in 2019 the shootings took place, and does not identify the shooters. Only 15 animals were trapped alive under licences and moved to sites in England or the official beaver reintroduction site at Knapdale in Argyll.
The Scottish Wildlife Trust described the confirmed level of killings as “alarming” and “deeply concerning”. The trust’s conservation director, Sarah Robinson, pointed out that the number of beavers shot was at least a fifth of the known population in Tayside.
“Any continued heavy cull could put the future of the species in Scotland at risk,” she said. “If lethal control continues at this level, we would have grave concerns for the future of beavers in Scotland.”
Robinson called on the Scottish Government to allow beavers to be moved within Scotland to prevent shootings and help them spread. Their dams create biodiverse wetlands and are a natural flood management system, she argued.
She added: “There’s plenty of places for them to go where there’s no conflict with prime agricultural land.” The trust has previously suggested that beavers could be reintroduced to the Cairngorms, where they could bring benefits with little conflict.
Robinson gave cautious backing to subsidies for farmers with beavers on their ground, suggesting this could help while Scotland readjusts to their presence.
James Nairne, a trustee of the Scottish Wild Beaver Group, also backed the measure, alongside moving the animals. But he said the shootings undermine the Scottish Government claim to champion wildlife diversity.
“Declaring a species as protected and then within eight months overseeing the killing of a fifth of the population represents a pretty shameful policy failure,” he told The Ferret.
Beaver killing ‘sustainable’
Head of wildlife management with Scottish Natural Heritage, Robbie Kernahan, insisted that issuing a licence to kill beavers was a last resort. “We can be comfortable this level of off-take is sustainable and is not actually having any detrimental impact on the conservation status,” he said.
There will always be a need for some “lethal control” in places where the animals cannot be tolerated, he argued. But SNH was keen to see more trapped and moved, and to explore other alternatives to killing.
The policy of moving beavers within Tayside – forbidden under the original rules in 2019 – was changing. “We are comfortable we can look at conservation translocations within the existing catchment,” Kernahan said.
“So where beavers are naturally colonising we can begin to look at translocating animals into those areas to supplement the population. It’s an evolving position.”
He added: “We need to think quite creatively about how we can support land managers to live with these animals.”
The SNH report says that ministers should consider “rapid development of agri-environment schemes to incentivise beaver presence and benefits as a potential nature-based solution.”
President of the National Farmers Union in Scotland, Andrew McCornick said: “It remains vitally important that, where there is conflict, the impact on farmland of beavers in new and existing catchments can continue to be managed through this framework.
“While that may involve lethal control, we note from the report that three-quarters of licence holders have proactively engaged with the role of trapping.”
Poll: Should the Scottish Government do more to protect beavers?
The report on beavers by Scottish Natural Heritage
Photo thanks to iStock/karen-cooper.