Farmers and landowners have joined forces to help a Scottish Government agency defend itself for handing out licences to kill wild beavers.
The National Farmers Union Scotland (NFUS) wrote to members on 7 April to ask for their backing in raising £100,000, jointly with Scottish Land and Estates.
The union was asking for funds to oppose a judicial review alleging that NatureScot, formerly known as Scottish Natural Heritage, has been breaking the law by the way it issues lethal beaver control licences. The case being brought by rewilding charity, Trees for Life, and is due to be heard in court later this year.
The letter – published in the Raptor Prosecution UK blog – claims that if Trees for Life wins the judicial review, along with “uninformed pressure” from conservationists, it may set a precedent for the “management” of other “increasingly problematic” species such as sea eagles, badgers, geese and ravens.
Due to the “enormity” of the “unintended consequences” NFUS and Scottish Land and Estates requested members contribute to pay for a lawyer and QC to present “hard evidence” which it claims is not understood by Trees for Life.
NFUS is committed to donating £75,000, with the remainder coming from Scottish Land & Estates.
Conservationists raised concerns about the “broader agenda” of NFUS. They pointed out the species listed as problematic included some, such as badgers, which they said did not damage farmers interests.
The Scottish Greens said that NatureScot’s willingness “to join with others to defend the right of landowners to kill animals they see as ‘problematic’” seemed “utterly at odds with its statutory role”.
The Scottish Government gave beavers legal protection on 1 May 2019. Since then in order to kill them, land managers have had to obtain a licence from NatureScot.
In 2019 licences were issued permitting the killing of 87 beavers in Tayside, a fifth of the known population. NatureScot has declined to say how many have so far been killed in 2020.
NatureScot insists the licensed shooting of beavers is “safe, humane and not in breach of regulations”.
Many conservation groups, however, do not agree. On 8 December 2020 the Highland charity, Trees for Life, launched a crowdfunding appeal to take NatureScot to court for allowing too many beavers to be killed.
The charity alleged the government agency was breaking the law by failing to ensure that shooting was “a genuine last resort”.
The rewilding charity, which has raised £60,000 for legal costs, says its case aims “to ensure a safer future for beavers, which can be key allies in tackling the nature and climate crises because their dams create nature-rich and flood-reducing wetlands”.
Beavers were hunted to extinction in Scotland in the 16th century. They were illegally or accidentally released in Tayside before 2006, and by 2018 there were an estimated 430 beavers in 100 locations in the Tay and Forth river catchments.
The animals were welcomed by many. But though the NFUS acknowledged beavers could enhance wildlife and conservation they claimed that “in wrong areas, they are proven to cause significant and costly agricultural damage”.
It insisted that licences allowing beavers to be killed as part of management strategies were essential.
No threat to management
Steve Micklewright, chief executive of Trees for Life, agreed that the NFUS had “every right to represent their members’ interests at the judicial review”.
But he added: “However, we do not believe the impact of a successful judicial review will result in preventing the management of beavers, provided it is within the law.
“Nor do we consider that this judicial review represents any threat to the effective management of wildlife where there is objective evidence that it is genuinely needed.”
The tone of the NFUS letter was revealing, he claimed. “It also sets out their broader agenda with regard to allowing the lethal control of other species.
“Their list includes badgers, a species for which there is no objective evidence to indicate they cause any damage to farmers’ interests whatsoever.”
But NFUS president, Martin Kennedy, said: “It is important that we sensitively manage wildlife to benefit and improve our biodiversity in balance with our need to produce food and keep the nation fed.
“To those impacted by beavers on their land, the licence system has been a valuable way of protecting their farm from economic and environmental damage.
“That licence system is now subject to judicial review. Given its importance to our members, we have taken legal advice and will be represented alongside others in legal proceedings.”
He claimed the outcome of the review had implications not just for those who currently hold licences to control beavers, but may also “set a precedent in terms of future species management and the options available to prevent serious damage to farming and food production”.
Last December The Ferret reported on claims by Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SSPCA) that NatureScot was encouraging a “culture of breach of regulation” which could promote the illegal killing of beavers in Tayside.
It was claimed that the statutory wildlife agency told farmers that beavers were “good to eat and could be used for taxidermy” at a workshop in May 2019 attended by an unnamed SSPCA officer, who later complained. The accusation was denied by NatureScot.
But Scottish Greens environment spokesperson, Mark Ruskell, said that considering NatureScot was “supposed to be about protecting species”, it had “an astonishing record when it comes to beavers”.
He added: “First it licensed the killing of a third of Scotland’s beaver population, then in December we heard it was promoting beavers as good to eat or for taxidermy.
“Now we see NatureScot willing to join with others to defend the right of landowners to kill animals they see as ‘problematic’ which seems utterly at odds with its statutory role.
“Landowners and communities in Scotland are calling for the translocation of ‘problematic’ beavers away from Tayside to areas where they can provide positive benefits to tourism – NatureScot should be focusing its efforts on making this a success. The Scottish Greens manifesto pledges to review the role of NatureScot, and these actions show that it can’t come too soon.”
NatureScot said NFUS and SLE were additional respondents in the judicial review “which gives them the right to represent their members in the legal process as they see fit”.
Robbie Kernahan, NatureScot’s director of sustainable growth, added: “We have been working with partners for 25 years to bring back beavers to Scotland because they provide multiple benefits to people and nature.
“In certain circumstances, beavers can cause problems. In those specific situations where beavers pose a risk of serious damage to farmland or where they occasionally cause a public health and safety concern, we issue licences accordingly.
”We are confident that our approach to managing these impacts is robust and lawful and licences are only used if we are satisfied that there is no other solution.”