NatureScot has been accused of failing to ensure that beavers are being killed humanely, with just one autopsy performed on the protected species last year despite previous evidence that animals have died in pain.
The wildlife agency grants licences to beaver controllers to kill the animals, and asks them to hand over the carcasses so it can check they have been killed humanely. But between 2019 and 2021, just four of 268 beavers killed by controllers were handed over for autopsy.
We previously revealed that shot beavers have suffered slow, painful deaths and their babies left to starve, according to official port-mortem reports.
Animal welfare groups said they were “appalled” by the low numbers of post mortems, which NatureScot claims are essential to ensure the welfare of beavers. Campaigners called for controllers to lose their permits if they fail to hand over carcasses for autopsy.
NatureScot data also shows that the vast majority of beavers were shot over water in recent years, which the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland and others say should be banned. They argue that the practice risks the animals being wounded by ricocheting bullets, causing them to drown or die in pain.
NatureScot said controllers receive a “high standard of training” to ensure humane killing and that most cases of inhumane shooting practices occurred before training was introduced. While the wildlife agency “requests” that bodies be submitted for post mortem, not all carcasses can be safely retrieved from water, it added.
Beavers received protected species status in Scotland on 1 May 2019, after which licences and training were required to kill the animals, with details of their deaths logged and submitted once a year.
Some farmers and landowners argue that the animals can cause flooding, and damage their land and crops. Beaver advocates say their dams provide a buffer against flooding and improve biodiversity. They want more of the protected species to be moved to places where they are less likely to cause problems, rather than being shot.
NatureScot argues that the need for beavers to be killed is decreasing due to it taking measures to stop the animals causing issues for landowners. More locations were becoming available for beavers to be moved to, and landowners were more willing to trap the animals for translocation, it added.
Beaver post mortems showed suffering
The Ferret has previously revealed that shot beavers have suffered slow, painful deaths. Autopsies of 21 beavers shot dead around Tayside between 2010 and early 2016 found that two were pregnant and two were feeding their young. Three were shot with low-calibre guns, or from too far away to ensure instant death.
The Scottish Government’s beaver welfare report, published in December, said post-mortems were carried out by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) on 23 Tayside beavers shot between 2013 and 2019.
Of the 18 carcasses deemed sufficiently fresh to assess the accuracy of the shot, 12 were shot correctly, six were shot “poorly” and their welfare was “probably affected negatively”.
“The codes of practice issued by NatureScot are intended to safeguard beaver welfare, but the numbers of beavers submitted for post mortem examination are too low to verify compliance,” the report found.
Between June 2020 and March 2021, autopsies were carried out on five beavers from Tayside by SRUC veterinary services, according to NatureScot’s 2020 beaver management report. Of the three animals which had been shot, two were killed humanely, whilst one was not.
“Overall, the sample of beavers examined is too small to draw any conclusions on welfare,” the report added. “The post mortem of beavers shot or found dead in Tayside needs to continue so that this information can continue to be assessed.”
But data obtained under freedom of information (FOI) by The Ferret shows that just one beaver was given an autopsy in 2022, compared to four in 2021. All of the beavers were handed in by members of the public, rather than registered beaver controllers.
Two of the animals were shot, although NatureScot did not specify whether they were killed according to best practice. The beaver killed in 2022 showed “severe trauma consistent with a vehicle strike”.
In 2021, one beaver had experienced “blunt trauma and salt poisoning”. “It may be that it received a blow to the back of the head which caused it to wash down into the salty water”, the autopsy report found. Another had head damage thought to have been caused by being shot in a trap, or by “thrashing” after being shot.
NatureScot’s 2020 report claims that annual return forms submitted by controllers detail “whether or not the carcass was retrieved and submitted for post mortem.” The forms ask controllers to specify whether they retrieved the carcasses, but do not explicitly ask whether the body was submitted for post mortem.
NatureScot data we obtained under FOI shows that of 268 beavers recorded as killed by controllers between 2019 and 2021, 70 carcasses were retrieved, and just four were offered to NatureScot.
James Nairne, a Scottish Wild Beaver Group trustee, said there was a “real issue” with the low autopsy numbers. “Landowners who shoot beavers refuse to hand in carcasses because they fear criticism over how the shooting occurred,” he claimed.
“If a licenceholder can’t safely recover the carcass, he or she shouldn’t take the shot. And if carcassed aren’t recovered, their licence to kill beaver should not be renewed.”
Shooting beavers over water
NatureScot data also shows that the vast majority of the 268 beavers killed – 169 – were shot in flowing water. A further 51 were shot on a river bank, 24 were shot on their dams and 17 in a burn or standing water.
The government’s beaver welfare report said RZSS was concerned about “a lack of regulation” of shooting beavers over water, “coupled with a lack of incentive to return culled carcasses for post-mortem examination” to ensure humane treatment of the animals.
RZSS suggested that the low number of beavers submitted for autopsy “may be linked to allowing the shooting of beavers over water”, the report said. RZSS advocated banning the shooting of beavers in the water, which would “eliminate the problem of poor or difficult marksmanship, which can significantly affect the welfare of beavers”.
“There is a high risk of bullets ricocheting or being slowed down by hitting water, which can result in non-fatal injuries,” the report added. “There may be similar risks when shooting unconstrained beavers on land at distance.
“Instead, beavers should be trapped alive and released into small transportable enclosures, in which they can be shot safely and humanely.” This is standard practice in Bavaria, Germany.
The Scottish Wild Beaver Group’s Nairne said “we can only wonder how many other beavers in Tayside have been wounded and then left to drift off downstream to die”.
Lead shot and controller training
Both NatureScot’s 2020 beaver licensing report and the Scottish Government’s 2022 beaver welfare report claim that controllers must specify what ammunition was used to kill beavers in annual return forms.
However, the forms do not ask controllers what ammunition was used, and a September FOI response from NatureScot said it did not hold information about ammo use.
Some are worried that the agency is not monitoring toxic lead shot, which experts estimate kills up to 100,000 waterbirds each year in the UK and poisons 400,000 more, making them more susceptible to disease and less able to breed.
While lead shot is already banned in all wetlands in Scotland, the Scottish Wild Beaver Group’s Nairne said “we have no way of checking if our rivers and wetlands are being polluted when beavers are being shot”.
The welfare report adds that controllers are trained “to prevent injuries and deaths where welfare is compromised”. But it said this consists of a presentation followed by a Q&A session, with “no test of the marksmanship of the controllers”.
Nairne stressed that as crepuscular animals, beavers are active at dawn and dusk, so beavers are likely to be shot in difficult, low-light conditions. Yet, controllers are “given a morning’s classroom training and are then free to blast away”, he claimed. “It’s the hallmark of a poorly designed system” which provides “no verification that [controllers] can actually shoot in a way that ensures a clean kill.
“This is not in line with the beaver strategy, the expectations of government and, above all, the clearly stated opinion of Scots who want to see beavers thriving”.
Eve Massie Bishop, a campaigner with the Scottish animal welfare charity, OneKind, was “appalled” by the low numbers of autopsies, of which, she said, “NatureScot and other bodies agree is an important part of welfare assessment”.
She added: “With just one autopsy taking place in a year, many beavers shot while in water and no legal requirement for marksmanship tests for those shooting beavers, how can we be assured that Scotland’s beavers are being shot in a humane manner? We can’t. And that is deeply concerning.”
Bishop, and Steve Micklewright, convenor of the Scottish Rewilding Alliance and CEO of Trees for Life, both called for more beavers to be translocated. “The high levels of beaver culling with little apparent regard for animal welfare means that we need to urgently ensure beaver shooting is replaced by relocation to new areas,” said Micklewright.
“It is disappointing that only the RSPB have secured permission to move beavers to their site at Loch Lomond so far.”
NatureScot highlighted that while translocations were only previously permitted to Knapdale and Tayside, a policy change announced in November by biodiversity minister, Lorna Slater, means that additional release sites are being proposed.
Those killing beavers must be trained and accredited to “have the skills and knowledge to undertake any lethal control humanely, work to the highest standards of wildlife welfare and behave in a manner sensitive to the issues around lethal control,” said a spokesperson.
Many of the examples of poor shooting practices predated beavers becoming a protected species, the requirement of training and the introduction of minimum weapon calibre and bullet weights. “They cannot be assumed to reflect current practice by accredited controllers,” the spokesperson added.
“NatureScot requests that beaver carcasses from licensed controllers are retrieved and submitted for post mortem so we can learn from experience and develop best practice accordingly.
“We recognise that not all carcasses may be safely retrieved when they end up in the water, but expect accredited controllers to take all reasonable steps to submit carcasses to NatureScot for post mortem.
“Any evidence of illegal killing of beavers or breach of licence conditions will be reported to Police Scotland wildlife crime officers.”
Header image thanks to RawPixel (CC0 1.0)