To many people, it may come as a surprise to learn that the British Isles are home to a healthy population of beavers. The species was hunted to extinction in Britain some 400 years ago, but since being released in Scotland’s Knapdale Forest in 2009 as part of a pioneering rewilding project, the species has begun to re-establish itself, with an estimated 450 now living in the wild.
From an environmental perspective, the re-introduction has so far been an unmitigated success. Beavers are ecosystem engineers; they help to regenerate suffering habitats and have been busy doing so ever since they were brought back to Scotland.
By felling trees to create small dams, beavers create light, warm pools and wetland areas that can support a mind-boggling array of species including bats, birds, frogs, otters and fish, including salmon, which grow faster and healthier in beaver-inhabited areas.
Furthermore, beaver dams help to reduce flooding by regulating water flow as well as improving water quality by trapping sediment.
After acknowledging the success of the Knapdale trial, the Scottish government gave beavers protected species status on May 1st 2019. Paradoxically, on the same day, they also issued licenses to certain landowners to allow them to shoot beavers and remove their dams.
As of December last year, 87 beavers are known to have been shot under this scheme. Many people believe that the actual figure may be double the official one.
So what exactly is going on? Well, some landowners complained that beavers had been causing significant damage to their land and crops and demanded the right to take action. Most of these complaints came from farmers farming low ground in Tayside, where a few beavers escaped from a private collection in 2001 and have since proliferated.
If unchecked, it is certainly true that beavers may occasionally drown areas of low-lying arable land by damming ditches and burrowing into flood banks. They can also make themselves unpopular when, for example, they bark or take down 250-year-old beech trees that form part of a much admired landscape.
It does, however, seem short-sighted of a government supposedly committed “to tackling the connected crises of climate breakdown and nature loss” to jump straight to killing before trying any other options to deal with the reported problems. Surely killing has to be a last resort, used only when all other avenues have been explored?
Steve Micklewright, Convener of the Scottish Rewilding Alliance and Chief Executive of the conservation charity Trees for Life, certainly thinks that there are ways of beavers and farmers living in harmony:
“At the Scottish Rewilding Alliance, we advocate paying farmers for having beavers on their land. Sometimes beavers may still need to be removed, but paying for beavers could help to change the way farmers view them.
“Another really positive solution would be to relocate beavers from areas where they aren’t wanted to places where they are. Scotland has plenty of suitable habitat where beavers can thrive. And a growing number of forward-thinking landowners would love to have these aquatic engineers working their magic on their land too.
“In the Highlands, for example, we have identified many beaver-friendly locations, often surrounded by land with low sensitivity to beaver impacts.”
Frustratingly, Scottish legislation currently does not allow beavers to be relocated; the species is only permitted to spread naturally. This means it will take beavers decades to reach suitable areas that could benefit from their presence right now.
This law needs changing, and soon, to ensure Scotland continues to enjoy the myriad ecological benefits that beavers bring. The Scottish government can’t argue its not feasible; 75 percent of the farmers who have got licenses to kill said they would be happy to have the beavers trapped and moved.
The reality is that each beaver shot is a wasted life that could have helped tackle the climate emergency and nature crisis by creating a thriving, vairegated wetland habitat somewhere else in Scotland.