The Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SSPCA) is investigating the death of a beaver shot in Perthshire just two days after the season for lethal control of the animals opened.
The killing horrified a local resident who found the animal’s bloodied body on the banks of a burn. It comes after campaigners warned that August could see the start of a fresh wave of killings to match the 87 beavers shot dead in 2019 by farmers.
Licence-holders are expected to avoid shooting beavers from 1 April to 16 August to ensure mothers are not killed leaving unweaned kits, unless there are exceptional circumstances such as a threat to public health. Trapping and moving beavers or removing their dams should also be avoided in that period.
NatureScot is currently contacting all licence holders to discuss using trapping to mitigate the impacts of the animals on their land instead of shooting. Its official trapper says most farmers are happy to engage with trapping.
But at dusk on 18 August a local walker saw what he thought was a rifleman on the bank of a burn in farmland near Blairgowrie, and heard what he believed was a shot. The next morning he returned to the scene and found the body of a beaver on the opposite bank, which he said had been shot in the head.
The man, who does not want to be named, was horrified by the sight and took photographs which have been seen by The Ferret. Still audibly shaken days later, he said: “Why did they have to go in and kill this beaver?”
Beavers were granted legal protection in May 2019. Of the 39 licences issued last year allowing lethal control of the animals, 16 were used to shoot them. All 39 licences are still in force – and two fresh ones have been issued this year.
The witness called the SSPCA, which has an agreement with NatureScot to examine bodies of beavers shot under licence. SSPCA staff removed the body.
SSPCA told The Ferret that they were now examining the body to see how many times it had been shot, and if it had been shot with the right calibre of weapon.
Because a member of the public was concerned about the way this animal died they were “addressing those concerns and investigating,” said a chief inspector for the society.
“Shooting or lethal control should only be a last resort and only after the other options have been exhausted,” he added. “The SSPCA supports the translocation of beavers wherever possible.”
He pointed out that the shooting could be “completely legal” within the conditions of a licence. “The shooting of any beaver, people will find disturbing and unpleasant,” he said. “At the moment the nature of this shooting is being investigated.”
“The SSPCA is working with NatureScot to investigate and ensure the welfare of beavers that are subject to lethal control, and we are conducting investigations to establish if its welfare has been compromised, as part that agreement.”
Possible welfare issues in this instance include the fact that the animal may have been shot in water at night, increasing the risk of wounding, the SSPCA inspector suggested. “It’s extremely sad that this beaver has succumbed to lethal control,” he added.
The beaver’s head was ‘just a mess’
The witness, who was walking his dogs on the evening of 18 August and knows the area well, said the man across the burn he thought was armed was 40 metres from the path he was on.
“I went back the next morning and crossed the burn. I had a look and I saw this beaver that had been shot in the face lying on the bank,” he told The Ferret.
“I could see the tail sitting in the wind, the full body of the beaver. Its head was just a mess, just left there.”
He said the problems beavers cause farmers were well known. But he argued that they had an alternative: “There are things that can be done to stop the beavers getting in there. They could have driven onto this ground, trapped the beaver and had it away safely.”
Trapper Roisin Campbell-Palmer, a highly experienced and respected beaver ecologist, has been taking Scottish beavers to sites in England for licensed releases of the animals.
“I can only trap if the licence has been issued and the landowner wants to engage so if people want to have those discussions I am very willing to help, and there are definitely homes for these animals to go to,” she said.
“Many of the farmers are engaging in this process. It’s only a small minority who just for various reasons won’t, but generally people are quite happy if the animals are going and the problems are being solved. Trapping saves them doing the work of lethal control.”
According to NatureScot, the shooting was not cruel or illegal. “From our information the controller was acting legally under licence and dispatched the animal humanely,” said a spokesperson for the agency.
The area was prime agricultural land “where we know, from experience, that alternative mitigation measures either have not or will not address the problems being experienced.”
In the wake of the revelation that 87 beavers were shot in 2019 NatureScot began a new survey of the Tayside beaver population. This includes possible sites to which beavers could be moved within their existing range.
The shooting brought strong reaction from pro-beaver groups, who feared more killing over coming months.
Steve Micklewright, convenor of the Scottish Rewilding Alliance and chief executive of wildlife charity Trees for Life, said: “A beaver being shot in the very first day or two of the shooting season – and at a location where non-lethal trapping for relocation was very possible – is a worrying sign of the needless loss of life to come.
“We urgently need the Scottish Government to allow beavers to be trapped and relocated to new areas in Scotland. Every signature on our save Scotland’s wild beavers petition on the Scottish Parliament’s website will help send a powerful signal to our politicians that wildlife matters.”
Eve Massie from the Scottish animal campaigns charity, OneKind, said: “We were horrified to see the disturbing photograph of a shot beaver that had been left on the bank.
“OneKind supports the live parliamentary petition, brought by Trees for Life, that calls for the translocation of beavers to suitable habitats to reduce licensing killing.”
The Ferret has attempted to contact the landowner, but without success. The National Farmers’ Union Scotland declined to comment.
Cover photo thanks to iStock/AlasdairSargent. This story was edited at 10.33 on 25 August 2020 to include the name of OneKind’s spokesperson.