Conservationists, welfare campaigners and the Scottish Greens have blasted the Scottish Government for delays in giving legal protection to wild beavers – but farmers have defended the holdup, despite fears it will mean more of the animals suffering and being shot.

Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT) said farmers themselves are to blame, using delaying tactics to block new laws which would give European protected species status to the animals.

The trust said the government must “stop pandering” to farmers, and fears continued unregulated culling of adult beavers by farmers will mean beaver young, or kits, being left to die.

That fear has been backed by animal welfare campaigners, and the delay also drew fire from the Scottish Greens, with the party’s environment spokesperson, Mark Ruskell MSP, calling it “deeply frustrating” that the government had failed to act.

But the National Farmers Union in Scotland (NFUS) said new rules for controlling beavers needed to be tried and tested before the introduction of protected status. “Any delay in timescales is justifiable,” NFUS environment and land use manager, Andrew Midgely, told The Ferret.

Environment Secretary, Roseanna Cunningham, pledged two years ago to give European protected status to beavers, which were introduced to Tayside illegally over a decade ago and now number around 430.

Cunningham made her decision after a government-backed trial reintroducing beavers in Argyll, but no legislation has yet been introduced. The original plan was to change the law in 2018 but the Scottish Government has now said it expects to do this next year – but gave no firm commitment.

Until it does, land managers in and around Tayside can go on killing beavers with few controls, in the way they do with “pest” species. Post-mortem evidence reported by The Ferret in 2016 showed that beavers had been inhumanely shot.

Beavers cruelly shot on Tayside, post-mortems reveal

More than 80 per cent of the responses to a Scottish Government consultation in October backed the reintroduction of beavers. But the animals have caused flooding and other difficulties for agriculture, mainly in the most intensively farmed areas of flat land in the Tay valley around Blairgowrie.

At the NFUS annual conference in February the problems caused by beavers were said to be “far bigger than Brexit” to those affected.

A recent study by the government’s wildlife agency, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), found the Tayside beavers had spread widely in the past six years, including into the Forth catchment, but there were areas where they had vanished. The study says in some cases this is due to unregulated culling, and it adds that unverified reports suggest up to 240 beavers may have been shot already.

Round-table discussions about how new rules should work for dealing with problem beavers, involving all the interested parties – conservationists, SNH, estate owners and farmers – have reached a stalemate.

SWT says a management system has been agreed but it is just the powerful farming lobby that is now holding up legislation.

Susan Davies, SWT director of conservation, said: “Any further delays to implementing [legislation] means that beavers can continue to be killed in a way in which we have no sense of the numbers being killed, or the standards, in terms of control.”

SNH would only licence culling using accredited and trained controllers, Davies said. “That would give us better information on numbers being taken out in the countryside and help inform animal welfare issues,” she added.

“Animal welfare is a really important consideration, in particular in terms of whether adults might be taken out and leave dependent young, for example, and if you bring in a new management approach there could be controls on the timing of when animals can be taken out.”

Scottish cull plans for beavers criticised by conservation groups

NFUS’s Midgley refused to be interviewed about the delay. Instead he issued a statement saying the union accepts beavers will remain in Tayside, and in places beavers and people can co-exist happily.

But in “highly productive agricultural areas” he said beavers undermine river banks and protective flood banks, and impede farmland drainage by burrowing and damming.

He said: “It is therefore essential that when beavers are formally protected, there is a comprehensive management framework in place to give farmers confidence that they will be able to deal with problems should they arise, or indeed prevent problems from arising in the first place.”

He praised SNH’s efforts through the Scottish Beaver Forum to find a consensus on the proposed rules, but said: “As we are still seeking to agree a pragmatic framework that will work for the long term and avoid years of conflict in the future, any delay in timescales is justifiable.”

He argued that previous management frameworks for geese and reintroduced white-tailed eagles had not worked properly resulting in “long-running dispute and conflict.”

He added: “Work on developing a comprehensive management framework that involves both a licensing regime and a mitigation scheme has come a long way from when the government announced that beavers would be protected.

“But more work is needed to build confidence among the farming community that the measures and processes that will come into play when formal protection starts will be workable from their perspective.”

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beavers

Photo: Richard Baynes

SWT’s Davies said the cause of the delay was that the farmers want to see if management techniques are effective before beavers are given protected status species status.

“There have been concerns that the licensing approach would not allow them to respond very quickly should problems arise but our sense is that the way SNH is setting up this new licensing approach means they can get an almost instant response in particularly severe situations,” she said.

“I don’t think holding up the implementation of the European protected status process is a reasonable position to take.

“The management approach developed by SNH is a very flexible one, it’s a very responsive one and it’s built on the management hierarchy we agreed with the National Farmers’ Union and Scottish Land and Estates about 18 months ago, so it feels a little bit like delaying tactics rather than any real concerns that can’t be managed through this new licensing management scheme.”

Susan Davies from the Scottish Wildlife Trust on beavers

Davies accused Scottish ministers of “turning a blind eye” to potential animal welfare issues as land managers take action into their own hands. “The environment sector is losing patience with the process and commitments from Scottish Ministers are starting to feel like hollow promises,” she added.

“There’s no rational reason for further delays to laying the statutory instrument before Parliament to secure protected species status. The process to secure protected species status must happen now, and the pandering to a handful of farmers must stop.”

She said it was no longer worth SNH’s Scottish Beaver Forum continuing to meet because it “just needs a decision from ministers” on legislation.

“I am absolutely convinced that on the basis of all the conversations we have been having through the forum that that is the type of flexible model that will be in place and the farmers have nothing to fear from that perspective.”

Farmers shooting ‘as many beavers as possible’

Scottish animal welfare charity OneKind’s director, Bob Elliot, said: “It is quite astonishing that beavers in Scotland still have no legal protection at all. The more time it takes the Scottish Government to give beavers protected status, the more beavers are at risk of being shot by farmers.

“We have serious welfare concerns about beavers being killed, with evidence that pregnant or lactating beavers with dependent kits have been shot, almost certainly leaving their young to suffer a slow death from dehydration and starvation. We would urge the Scottish Government to bring in legal protection for this wonderful native animal as soon as possible before more Scottish beavers suffer the same fate.”

The Greens’ Ruskell said: “Nearly ten years after wild beavers were reintroduced in Argyll it’s deeply frustrating that these iconic animals still lack legal protection – despite the government agreeing to protect them back in 2016.

“It was always clear that government would need to work closely with farmers and land managers so the positive benefits of wild beaver populations could be realised – but that’s not an excuse for delaying vital legal protection. The government should be listening to its own experts on this and putting in place the protections it has already agreed to as soon as possible.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The return of beavers to Scotland’s countryside demonstrates our commitment to protect and enhance biodiversity.

“We have now completed the technical assessments required and expect to bring forward European protected status legislation next year, along with a management system that protects agriculture and other land uses.”

The full statement by National Farmers Union Scotland is here. Cover image thanks to Scottish Natural Heritage. This story was published in tandem with the Sunday National.