The Scottish Government’s wildlife agency has come under fierce attack for including images of dead and dying beavers – including one displayed by children – in shooting lessons for Tayside farmers.
A presentation on the “lethal control” of wild beavers by NatureScot, the new name for Scottish Natural Heritage, has been leaked to The Ferret. It ends with a photograph of two young girls smiling and holding up a dead beaver caught in a trap.
The presentation also includes links to YouTube videos of beavers being shot in Sweden and the US. In one a Texan hunter who calls himself “Sir Killsalot” shoots a beaver in a creek and watches its “death spasms” for one minute.
Wildlife campaigners said that most people would be “sickened” by such “deeply inappropriate” images. The Scottish Greens described the images as “crass, unprofessional and unethical”.
NatureScot accepted that the images were “distressing”. But it said they were used in private meetings “as the basis for a discussion on unacceptable attitudes to animal welfare”.
Licences allowing beavers to be killed when they threatened agricultural operations were introduced by NatureScot on 1 May 2019. According to the Scottish Government, 139 people in Tayside were accredited as “potential lethal controllers”.
NatureScot estimated in 2018 that there were about about 450 beavers living in 114 locations in the Tay and Forth river catchments. The Ferret has reported that 87 of them were shot dead under licence between May and December 2019, and that a shooting on 18 August 2020 is under investigation.
In July 2020 beavers were red listed as “endangered” in Scotland in the latest official assessment by NatureScotland and other UK nature agencies. Hunted to extinction in the 16th century, they reappeared in Tayside in 2006 after being accidentally or illegally released.
To help farmers, gamekeepers and landowners in Tayside learn how to shoot them, NatureScot ran a series of training sessions at local venues in 2019. It confirmed that the leaked presentation was used by its staff at these sessions.
The 24-page presentation, entitled “Best practice in beaver lethal control”, summarised guidelines on the targeting of beaver family groups, the use of firearms and the retrieval and disposal of carcasses.
The final slide featured without comment a photo of two young girls holding a trapped beaver carcass in a snowy woodland, next to a photo of live beavers. The girls’ faces have been hidden by The Ferret to protect their identities.
An earlier slide listed YouTube links under the heading “Video clips for discussion”. One showed a young man smiling after shooting and retrieving a beaver from a lake in Sweden.
Another was made by Brian Shaffer, a hunter in Texas, to show how he shot a beaver at night in a creek belonging to his parents in February 2017. He watched and described how after being hit, the animal struggled for a minute in the water.
“I notice that his front legs are up in the air so he’s swimming upside down and I figured he’s a goner, that this is just him going through his death spasms,” Shaffer said.
He recovered the carcass the next day. “The exit wound on him was pretty massive,” he added. “The entry wound was in the face, really destroyed his entire skull.”
The credits at the end of the video labelled it as “a Sir Killsalot production”. Shaffer, who shoots hogs, beavers “and other vermin” for landowners, also called himself “Carpe Sus” which is Latin for “take pig”.
Beaver control has been ‘disastrous’
The Scottish Wild Beaver Group, which campaigns to protect the animals, reacted angrily. “Any right thinking person would be sickened by these deeply inappropriate slides,” said a spokesperson for the group.
“The misjudged training sessions set the tone for the carnage we saw in 2019 – and the sheer number of individuals accredited completely exposes the government’s claims to be using lethal control as a last resort.”
The group argued that beavers should be trapped and moved rather that killed. “If the government is serious about animal welfare and tackling biodiversity loss, it would be reviewing all existing licences and actively relocating beavers to suitable areas in other parts of Scotland,” the spokesperson added.
The Green MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife and the party’s environment spokesperson, Mark Ruskell MSP, also called for beavers to be moved instead of shot. “This material is crass, unprofessional and unethical,” he told The Ferret.
“For Scotland’s nature conservation agency to be actively training land managers to cull protected wildlife in this way beggars belief. The whole management of beaver populations needs to be changed after a disastrous first year where nearly a fifth of the Tayside beaver population was shot.”
Ruskell added: “The tragedy is that many landowners outside of Tayside actually want beavers, so the animals could be moved to where they are wanted rather than needlessly killed.”
The Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has been working with NatureScot to monitor beaver shooting. “We have voiced our concerns surrounding lethal control and would support relocation wherever possible,” said the society’s chief superintendent, Mike Flynn.
“Lethal control should be carried out as a last resort. Humane methods should be used and carried out by trained persons giving due regard to animal welfare.”
The UK ecologist and species reintroduction campaigner, Derek Gow, condemned NatureScot for its “strong bonds of cultural loyalty to a tiny hardline cartel of killers who in no way represent the ideals of wider society.”
He said: “This presentation aptly demonstrates just how waywardly pitiful the official nature conservation body has become.”
The Scottish Rewilding Alliance, which brings together 24 environment, community and business groups, argued that a new approach was needed. “NatureScot having to teach farmers how to shoot beavers is a reminder of the needless loss of life last year,” said convenor, Steve Micklewright.
A petition calling on the Scottish Parliament to save beavers by moving rather than shooting them has been signed by 16,769 people. According to the alliance, that’s more signatures that any other Holyrood petition in the last 12 years.
The Scottish animal campaigns charity, OneKind, was shocked by the leaked presentation. “We were especially horrified to learn that NatureScot is encouraging those who wish to kill these eco-system engineers to ‘target the whole family group’,” said campaigner, Eve Massie.
“It was also upsetting to see photos of beavers in the wild accompanied by phrases such as ‘practical dispatch’. It is a world away from the positive portrayal of the wildlife of Scotland we should be seeing.”
NatureScot stressed that beavers were killed humanely. “While these images are distressing, they were shared in a private training session as the basis for a discussion on unacceptable attitudes to animal welfare, and, alongside other materials, helped depict what is and is not good practice,” it said.
“Those carrying out lethal control, are required to be accredited to ensure best practice is followed and that accredited controllers are familiar with beaver ecology.”
NatureScot added: “The high standard of beaver management training ensures that practitioners have the correct skills and knowledge to undertake any lethal control humanely, they work to the highest standards of wildlife welfare and they behave in a manner sensitive to the issues around lethal control.
“We have always been clear that lethal control will be a last resort when there is no other satisfactory solution and when beavers are having a serious impact on interests such as our most productive areas of agricultural land.”
The National Union of Farmers in Scotland declined to comment. It has previously pointed out that beaver dams can flood fields and damage crops.
Note: On 6 September 2020 Worth a Dam, a beaver campaign group in Martinez, California, asked us to make clear that it had not given NatureScot permission to use the photo of a beaver swimming with its kit on the third page of the presentation below. On 10 September 2020 we learnt that the anatomy artist, Laurie O’Keefe, had also complained to NatureScot about the unauthorised use of her picture on page 10.
The NatureScot beaver presentation in full
Photo thanks to iStock/CreativeNature_nl.