Inside Environment: Beavers will be vulnerable and need proper protection

The Eurasian beaver is to be formally recognised as a native species after the first formal mammal reintroduction in UK history.
The Eurasian beaver is to be formally recognised as a native species after the first formal mammal reintroduction in UK history.
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A tiny experimental project carried out in a scenic woodland in Argyll has made UK history. Its success means the Eurasian beaver will be formally recognised as a native species, 400 years after it was hunted to extinction across the country.

The culmination of two decades of research and campaigning, the Scottish Beaver Trial has become the first official mammal reintroduction on British shores. The long-awaited decision has been welcomed by conservationists, who claim the rodents have an important role to play in the health of the natural environment. They also insist beavers, Europe’s largest indigenous rodent, have huge potential as an attraction for the burgeoning nature tourism market.

However, their continued presence – and particularly their ability to dam rivers, fell trees and flood pastures – is not likely to be greeted so enthusiastically by farmers, crofters and gamekeepers who make their living from the land.

The official trial was staged over five years at a remote site in Knapdale Forest. But an unofficial – and unmanaged – reintroduction has simultaneously been taking place around Loch Tay. And this has caused a great deal of controversy in the area.

The official project began in 2009 with five beaver families taken from Norway. Norwegian animals were chosen for their genetic similarity to original Scottish populations. At the last count there were thought to be around 20 of the creatures living wild around lochs and rivers in the area. Since this is not a sustainable population, there are plans to add to their numbers.

Meanwhile, an estimated 40 groups of beavers – numbering around 150 individuals – are thriving around the Tay and Loch Earn, in areas renowned for farming and fishing. It’s not known how the Tayside population began but it’s thought they must have escaped from captivity or been deliberately released. But dam-building activities and damage to trees and crops have sparked conflict with local landowners. Reports suggest many have resorted to shooting the animals – including pregnant and nursing females.

Now these colonies, along with their Argyll cousins, are here to stay and permitted to “spread naturally”. However, the environment minister has made it clear that anyone carrying out unauthorised releases in future will face a potential jail sentence and hefty fines. She also said licences to cull the animals may be granted in special circumstances as a last resort.

This may be a small comfort to those who feel beavers pose a substantial threat to their livelihoods, and I have sympathy for their predicament. But, really, after going to all that trouble to bring back this long-lost mammal, to be allowed to gun them down ... It doesn’t make much sense to me.

There has been outcry over permitted killings of protected seals and mountain hares. Surely we can expect an even bigger hullaballoo if people go about culling a species that has been reintroduced at substantial effort and cost.

Once all the paperwork is in place beavers will enjoy protection under the European Union’s Habitats Directive, which is probably about the strongest they can get. But this will inevitably take time and they remain vulnerable until then. The fear is that the latest news could prompt a move to pick off as many of the critters as possible during this unprotected period.

Ministers must surely put in place interim protection. Animal welfare groups are calling for a closed season to safeguard beavers during the breeding period. That would be a good start.