Beavering away to reverse extinction

The European beaver was to be reintroduced to the wild in Scotland in 2009 on a trial basis. Picture: PA
The European beaver was to be reintroduced to the wild in Scotland in 2009 on a trial basis. Picture: PA
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WELCOME return needs controls, says Lindsay Mackinlay

Next month, Scottish Natural Heritage will send a dossier to the Scottish Government on one of Scotland’s most significant wildlife issues of recent years.

The dossier will contain scientific data and reviews from academics and conservationists. It will help the Scottish minister for the environment reach a decision on this key question: will beavers be allowed to live freely in the Scottish countryside again or not?

It has been a long road to reach this point, dating back almost 20 years since initial work was begun to look at the feasibility of reintroducing the beaver to Scotland after an absence of almost 500 years.

Respected organisations have become involved; most notably the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland and the Scottish Wildlife Trust, whose five-year trial assessing those beavers reintroduced into a small corner of Argyll has just come to an end. Meanwhile, others have been studying the natural expansion of escaped beavers in Tayside for almost a decade – there are now estimated to be up to 200 wild beavers living in Perthshire and Angus?

Scotland is one of the very few countries in Europe which does not have a wild beaver population, with many nations, including the Netherlands, reintroducing them in recent years. Why would they do this?

There are many reasons. One is the responsibility, under the European Commission’s Habitats Directive, for member states to consider reintroductions of extinct native species, such as the Eurasian beaver. Another reason, related to this, is that the beaver is an important element of our native fauna which plays a hugely vital role in the conservation of other wildlife. This has been proven in countless studies. For example, an area’s amphibian and aquatic insect abundance, productivity and diversity can greatly increase when beaver ponds appear in the landscape, with knock-on benefits for predators. We also know that the beaver can play a beneficial role in enhancing wetland processes, including strategic flood management and water quality improvements. Conservationists call it a keystone species because its presence has such a major impact on the natural environment and its wildlife.

However, let’s not pretend that beavers are always good neighbours. Sometimes, they are not. Their dam building activities and burrows can cause localised flooding and tree felling problems for those who own and manage land. There is still on-going debate on their impact upon our important salmon fisheries, although it is worth remembering that beavers and salmon co-existed for many hundreds of years.

The National Trust for Scotland (NTS) has weighed up the pros and cons of seeing the beaver return again to Scotland. We believe that the Eurasian beaver is native to Scotland and should be resident here. We wish to see the existing beavers in Argyll and Tayside managed to permit their natural expansion from these core areas. We also hope that other licensed reintroductions in appropriate areas will augment the existing populations.

However, before that happens, we need to agree a national mitigation plan that addresses the legitimate concerns of landowners, salmon fishery managers and other interest groups. We must use tried and tested methods from countries such as the USA and Germany to resolve any conflicts. In the latter case, we may need to consider licensed culling as a last resort in extreme cases.

This mitigation plan will need some funding but we believe such costs will be small compared to the environmental and economic benefits beavers will bring to Scotland in terms of free water management, enhanced wildlife and increased revenues from ecotourism. NTS believe we have a moral duty to aid the beaver’s return, especially since the reasons for its original loss, such as hunting and loss of habitat, have been addressed through improvements in the way we manage our countryside.

In short, the NTS hopes the Scottish Government will follow the lead of other European countries and permit beavers to live freely in Scotland again in the very near future.

• Lindsay Mackinlay is the National Trust for Scotland’s nature conservation adviser nts.org.uk

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