Call for beavers to be released across Scotland - 400 years since native species were wiped out

A group of 21 prominent environmentalists, academics and commentators has urged the Scottish Government to allow the release of beavers across Scotland for the first time since the native species was wiped out 400 years ago.

The group, which includes the award-winning filmmaker Gordon Buchanan, conservationist Sir John Lister Kaye, wildlife reintroduction specialist Roy Dennis, and Allan Bantick, founding chair of the Scottish Beaver Trial, has sent an open letter to Scottish Ministers calling on the government to open up beaver translocation to all areas with suitable habitat for the protected species.

Other leading figures named include Dr Kenny Taylor, former conservation director for Scottish Wildlife Trust, Professor Christopher Smout, the environmental historian and Historiographer Royal, Professor Fiona Mathews, the environmental scientist the chair of the Mammal Society, Professor Roger Crofts, the environmental strategy adviser and former CEO of Scottish Natural Heritage, and the English actor and children's author Ben Miller, who recently discovered the species in an episode of More4 series Scotland: Escape to the Wilderness.

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Their move comes after the Scottish Government's nature agency NatureScot announced a single license for beaver translocation to a farm in Stirlingshire. The group claims the release of beavers at Argaty near Doune is "only a tiny step in the right direction" however. The site is just five miles from the nearest wild beaver population, and in a river catchment where beavers are already present. Historically, the native animals were present throughout Scotland.

Calls have been made to reintroduce beavers. Picture: Shutterstock

In its letter, "Beaver Policy in a time of Biodiversity and Climate Crisis", the group says most of Scotland’s potential beaver habitat remains closed-off to beavers.

It calls for all suitable habitat to be made potentially available for the translocation of the animals from areas where they are currently in conflict with landowners.

It states: "In advance of COP 26, the First Minister wisely called for 'credible action, not face-saving slogans'. The undersigned ask that the same principles are applied to the Scottish Government’s approach to the biodiversity and climate crises, and specifically that ‘credible action’ is urgently taken to address a critical shortcoming in Scottish Government’s current beaver policy.

"Since the Eurasian Beaver was declared a European Protected Species in May 2019, over 200 of these biodiversity-boosting animals have been shot under government licence in Tayside.

"That is over one fifth of Scotland’s total estimated beaver population killed in 24 months -- the vast majority of which could have been moved to suitable habitat in other parts of Scotland where their ecosystem engineering would bring multiple environmental benefits to both human and wildlife communities."

The Eurasian beaver, which disappeared from Scotland’s lochs and rivers in the 16th century, became the first mammal ever officially reintroduced to the UK following a trial that ran in mid-Argyll from 2009-2014. There are now thought to be up to 1000 beavers in total, including a population in Tayside that resulted from unauthorised releases and has spread naturally into surrounding areas.

While their presence brings many environmental benefits, the animals can also cause problems with certain human land uses, especially in low-lying agricultural land.

In 2019 they were awarded European Protected Species status in Scotland, which made it illegal to carry out a range of activities, including lethal control of beavers and destroying established dams and lodges, without a licence.

However, 87 Tayside beavers were shot under government license in 2019/2020 and another 115 in 2020/2021 despite estimates there are over 105,000 hectares of "suitable beaver woodland habitat" all across Scotland.

The rewilding charity Trees for Life recently challenged the Scottish Government in court over its beaver policy.

The letter to government Ministers adds: "The failure to consider translocation to new river catchments within Scotland of these hugely popular mammals makes a mockery of the Scottish Government’s 'face-saving slogan' that 'lethal control is always a last resort'.

"Last month, in judicial review proceedings brought in the Court of Session by the charity Trees for Life, Lady Carmichael ruled that NatureScot had 'erred in law' by issuing licenses to kill beavers without sufficiently explaining why lethal control measures were necessary.

"Killing such high numbers of a European Protected Species -- especially one which brings multiple environmental benefits -- is a national embarrassment. The Scottish Government urgently needs to endorse 'out of range' translocation in order to avoid such disgracefully high levels of killing in future."

The letter calls for a specific change in policy including the lifting of "the de facto prohibition against the 'out of range' translocation of beavers to suitable new river catchments in Scotland" and financial support for such translocation where necessary.

It also calls for all existing lethal control licences to be revoked and for implementation of a meaningful "hierarchy of mitigation" for beaver conflict, moving from "acceptance", through "mitigation" to "translocation" and only then -- as a genuine last resort -- contemplation of lethal control.

The group says no new lethal control licences should be issued without detailed reasons explaining why lesser measures, specifically including translocation to new areas of Scotland, are inappropriate.

The letter adds: "Scotland’s beavers are a significant ally at a time of climate change -- with beaver-created wetlands mitigating both drought and downstream flooding, sequestering carbon, improving water quality and creating rich habitat for a wide range of other species.

"Moving family groups to new river catchments, away from conflict sites in low-lying agricultural areas, would be a win for beavers and farmers, a win for the wider environment and a win for Scotland’s people.

"An announcement of this change in beaver management policy in the wake of COP26 would be well-timed, publicly popular and send a message that the Scottish Government really takes the biodiversity and climate crises seriously."

Andrew Thompson, a trustee of the Scottish Wild Beaver Group, said: "It's encouraging that so many distinguished voices are calling out the prohibition on translocation to new river catchments.

"Public patience is running out with a government policy which pushes farmers into lethal control applications, and which fails to grasp the seriousness of the biodiversity crisis."

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