Two Scottish beavers have been shot and another five were seen dead in Tayside over the last month, an investigation by The Ferret has revealed.
In one case, a family on holiday watched as a distressed beaver struggled to survive for hours in the Firth of Tay, before dying and drifting out to sea. In another, the beaver was found to have been shot in the head with a shotgun.
Around 170 farmers and other land mangers in Tayside have just been officially accredited as “controllers”, enabling them to apply for licences to shoot beavers under a new regime introduced on 1 May.
Wildlife experts are worried that the killing of beavers has been widespread and is set to carry on, causing suffering and environmental damage. Licensing continued culling is a “momentous and potentially fatal mistake”, said one.
Beavers were illegally or accidentally released in Tayside before 2006, and have spread widely along waterways. A 2017 survey by the government’s wildlife agency, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), estimated that there were about 450 in 114 places in the Tay and Forth catchments.
Though welcomed by many, the beavers are considered a major problem by farmers and landowners. They say that the animals can undermine river banks, while their dams can cause flooding and damage crops.
For more than 13 years the beavers have had no legal status, and so farmers and others have been able to control them as they wished. There have been repeated reports of shootings, sometimes in ways that were criticised as cruel.
After a trial reintroduction in Argyll and prolonged delays because of opposition from farmers, on 1 May 2019 the Scottish Government brought into force a new regime giving beavers legal protection. Now in order to kill them, or destroy their dams or lodges, farmers have to be granted a licence by SNH.
But The Ferret has unearthed evidence suggesting there has been a spate of killings in the run-up to the new rules coming into force. The seven deaths reported since 12 April are likely to be an underestimate, as carcasses may have been washed out to sea or buried.
On 1 May, two dead beavers were found near Auchterarder and on the River Earn, near Crieff, and reported to the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SSPCA). One has been sent for a post-mortem, while the other could not be recovered from the river.
On 25 April another beaver was discovered dead on the River Earn at Strowan, near Crieff. X-ray analysis by the SSPCA suggests that it was shot in the head with a shotgun.
The carcass was found and photographed on the riverbank at Strowan by a local resident who wishes to remain anonymous.
Another beaver was found earlier in April on the River Tummel, south of Pitlochry. A post-mortem for SSPCA concluded that it had been killed by a shot to the chest with an expanding bullet.
Scottish Beavers seen dead and dying
According to the Scottish Wild Beaver Group, which campaigns to protect the animals, at least two other dead beavers were seen in April.
One was discovered by a family out for a walk along the River Tay at at Stanley Mills, north of Perth, but was too decayed for a post-mortem. Another was found on the beach at Broughty Ferry on the Firth of Tay, but then washed out to sea.
A family from Oxford enjoying an Easter holiday walk at Tayport, Fife, also described how they watched a beaver struggling, dying and drifting out to sea. Catrina Parton (14) was with her parents on 12 April when she saw a beaver swimming close to the shore.
“He kept letting the tide wash him up the side of the beach and just lying there, letting us approach rather close to him,” she told The Ferret. “He was obviously distressed.”
The family called the SSPCA and waited for a few hours. “We watched the struggling beaver until it eventually stopped swimming and got washed away into the sea with the incoming tide,” she said.
“Its head was under water and its legs were sticking up in the air. We think it must have died and I was very upset.”
Parton had been told that people were shooting as many beavers as possible before they became protected under law in 1 May. “The SSPCA think that our beaver may have been shot and that was the reason it died,” she said.
The SSPCA said it had received eight calls about dead or injured beavers in the last month, though not all of them were located. “Two of the dead beavers were able to be recovered and were given a post-mortem examination,” said an undercover SSPCA inspector.
“They were both found to have suffered from gunshot wounds. The body of a third beaver has recently been removed and is awaiting a post-mortem examination and a fourth was unable to be retrieved due to its location.”
In a statement the SSPCA also stressed that beavers should only be killed using humane methods which avoided unnecessary suffering. “We want to ensure the welfare of beavers in the wild and any dependent young they may have,” it said.
The Scottish Wild Beaver Group pointed out that beavers are now raising their young, known as kits. “It’s sad that a few individuals are still shooting beavers in the knowledge that they are to be protected from 1 May,” said the group’s Elliot McCandless.
“As we now enter the dependency period – when kits are born and remain dependent on their mothers milk – it’s critical that beavers are free from persecution. There are tried-and-tested methods of resolving human-beaver conflict that don’t involve lethal control.”
On 22 February the Scottish Wildlife Trust reported that a beaver had died of an infection on a Tayside wildlife reserve after being shot and wounded. The animal was likely to have “suffered a slow and painful death”, the trust said.
The dead beavers that have been found
|1 May||River Earn, near Crief||Awaiting post-mortem|
|1 May||River Earn, near Crief||Couldn’t be recovered from the river|
|25 April||River Earn, Strowan, near Crieff||Died from suspected shot to the head|
|21-24 April||River Tummel, south of Pitlochry||Died from a shot to the chest, according to post-mortem|
|20 April||River Tay, Stanley Mills, north of Perth||Too decomposed for post-mortem|
|17 April||Firth of Tay, Broughty Ferry||Carcass found on beach but then washed out to sea|
|12 April||Firth of Tay, Tayport||Family on holiday watches beaver struggle, die and drift out to sea|
|22 February||Wildlife reserve, Tayside||Reported by Scottish Wildlife Trust to have been shot, wounded and died of an infection|
170 people accredited as beaver controllers
To prepare for the new licensing regime on 1 May, Scottish Natural Heritage held three workshops from 21-23 March under the heading “Beavers in Scotland: Best Practice in Lethal Control”. They took place in Crieff, Dunkeld and Alyth and were attended by 210 people.
The aim, according to the agenda, was to enable those who turned up to become “accredited controllers” allowing them to apply for licences to undertake lethal control of beavers.
The programme included “practical dispatch”, “targeting of family groups”, “use of firearms” and “use of cage traps”. The agenda stressed that “no assessment (neither written nor firearms) will be required”.
In response to questions from The Ferret, SNH disclosed that “approximately 170” people were accredited as beaver controllers at the meetings. They still have to apply for licenses before they can legally kill any beavers.
As of 1 May it was reported that SNH had received 32 applications for beaver control licences, and had so far issued 28 for lethal control and dam removal.
SNH’s approach has come in for fierce criticism from wildlife experts. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) stressed that lethal control should only be seen as a last report.
SNH’s new approach, however, “appears to discourage beaver tolerance, and doesn’t immediately seem to comply with the legal requirements for a European protected species,” said RSPB Scotland’s head of species and land management, Duncan Orr-Ewing.
“SNH’s system apparently involving more than 100 accredited controllers for beavers at this stage serves to undermine the notional aim of having restored, healthy and properly functioning ecosystems in Scotland.”
If beavers were truly to be welcomed back, Orr-Ewing argued, “then a robust and transparent licensing system must be put in place that aims to evaluate each beaver case on a site by site basis and seeks to employ non-lethal measures first.”
There is a danger that the licensing regime for beaver culling just legitimises the free-for-all we have seen for years. Mark Ruskell, Green MSP
The Scottish Greens warned that beavers were still at risk. “There is a danger that the licensing regime for beaver culling just legitimises the free-for-all we have seen for years now where even pregnant animals have been shot,” said the party’s environment spokesperson, Mark Ruskell MSP.
“If this happens then the beaver’s new legal status will be effectively hollowed out by the licensing regime. Land managers need support from SNH to manage beavers responsibly rather than jumping for their guns.”
The Scottish animal welfare charity, OneKind, said it was “heart-breaking” that Tayside beavers had been killed and “very worrying” that SNH had made 170 people beaver controllers.
Lethal control of beavers can cause “serious animal welfare issues, particularly at this time of year when they have dependent young,” said OneKind’s campaigner, Sarah Moyes.
“We must ensure that their new legal protection is not undermined simply by letting people apply for licences without exploring non-lethal methods of controlling these sentient animals first.”
Derek Gow, a freelance ecologist who works on species reintroductions, highlighted the suffering caused when beavers are killed and their kits orphaned. Humans were capable of delivering great “misery and pain,” he said.
SNH was planning to hand “death and sanctioned cruelty” to groups of “hardened killers”, he claimed. “In allowing the killing under licence of beavers so soon in Scotland we are making a momentous and potentially fatal mistake.”
Beavers need to be controlled
SNH stressed that becoming an accredited controller did not mean permission to undertake lethal control, which now required a licence. “Licences are considered on a case-by-case basis,” it said.
“But we accept that farmers experiencing or anticipating damage on land classified as prime agricultural land – our most important land for food production which covers about 13 per cent of Scotland – will be eligible for a licence.”
SNH promised to collect a “random sample” of beavers shot under licence to ensure it was being done “appropriately”. The purpose of accredited controller training was “to ensure that if and when lethal control is carried out, it is done in such a way so as to minimise welfare impacts.”
SNH has also been working with farmers to develop, trial and monitor new ways of mitigating the impacts of beavers. “This includes water gates, deterrent fencing, soft engineering on river banks, flood bank protection, piped dams and monitoring of water levels in farm ditches,” said beaver project manager, Ben Ross.
“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.”
Farmers experiencing or anticipating damage on land classified as prime agricultural land will be eligible for a licence. Scottish Natural Heritage
Ross added: “To ensure more transparency than currently exists we intend to regularly publish detailed summaries of all licensed activities in relation to beavers. We will also be able to licence the translocation of animals from problem sites in certain circumstances.”
The National Union of Farmers in Scotland (NFUS) called for “effective” management and licensing schemes for beavers. “The union has, since 2016, recognised that the species is here to stay and that, in some locations, beavers and people can co-exist happily,” said NFUS environment and land use chairman, Angus MacFadyen.
“But it is also the case that beavers have negative impacts when they locate and breed in highly productive agricultural areas.”
He pointed out that the rapidly expanding and illegally-released beaver population in Tayside was already causing many farmers great concern. “They can undermine river banks and protective flood banks and impede farmland drainage as a result of damming,” he added.
“The agreed management framework, effective from 1 May, includes accreditation, licensing for management and mitigation trials. We hope it proves to be workable and allows farmers to deal with problems when they arise.”
According to the Scottish Government beavers were now part of Scotland’s wildlife. “We have been clear that lethal control is a last resort, but we recognise that beavers do need to be managed,” said a spokesperson.
“That is why we have a robust management and licensing system in place, operated by Scottish Natural Heritage.”
Agenda for Scottish Natural Heritage lethal control workshops
Photos of beaver at Tayport thanks to Richard Parton.