Alan McDonnell: Do beavers have to be made into a political issue?

A family of beavers discovered living in the wild near Beauly in the Highlands is to be trapped and removed. Picture: Peter Cairns
A family of beavers discovered living in the wild near Beauly in the Highlands is to be trapped and removed. Picture: Peter Cairns
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It is less than a month since we discovered a family of beavers on a river near Beauly. Watching footage of two kits playing in the water near their lodge, we did not foresee how abruptly their fate would be determined by politicians’ need to be seen to be doing something. We know beavers have been controversial on Tayside, but this corner of the Highlands is very different.

There is no way of knowing where this population has come from. It is possible they were released, but we think it is more likely they have escaped from a private collection. From evidence along the river, we know beavers have been in the area for at least five years and do not appear to have caused anyone any problems.

Trees for Life has supported the return of beavers to Scotland for 25 years. They can improve the health of rivers and lochs, reduce flooding, and create wetlands that benefit many species. So following the announcement from environment secretary Roseanna Cunningham’s last November, that reintroduced beavers can remain in Scotland, we have been looking into the scope for establishing a population in the Highlands.

When we found the beaver family near Beauly, we spoke with Scottish Natural Heritage and proposed engaging with local people to discuss whether these animals could be allowed to stay where they are or look at other options that could work well for both the animals and the community.

But shortly after the news reached the Scottish Government, Ms Cunningham announced that the beavers are to be trapped and removed. She is determined to avoid a repeat of the experience on Tayside, where arable farmers have seen crops damaged by an unauthorised beaver release with no measures in place to manage the impacts the species can have on farming. This is understandable – but we disagree with the idea that this should drive a decision to remove a beaver family in a completely different area.

The Beauly beavers are a long way from Tayside, living on a stretch of river where there is no arable ground. This reduces the chance of conflict straight away. The lie of the land also means beavers are less likely to behave in ways that affect other land uses – they are very unlikely to build dams here, for instance.

Given that trapping a beaver family involves the risk of leaving dependent young behind to starve, why not use this time to listen to local people’s concerns and explore other options?

Beavers have been successfully reintroduced to 24 European countries.

Actively managing how their natural behaviour can affect farming and fishing has been key to these successes and has allowed them to benefit from the positive ways beavers affect the river environment and added to an area’s appeal to visitors.

A knee-jerk response to remove this beaver family will do nothing to address the impacts of beavers in Tayside, but it may deprive the Beauly community and environment of something very special. We have an opportunity here to have a different kind of conversation about wildlife – one that doesn’t lead to conflict and stalemate.

We need to listen to the concerns of farmers and fishermen, but let’s consider the opportunities beavers bring and see if any solutions can work. What have we got to lose?

Alan McDonnell is conservation projects manager at environmental charity Trees for Life