A farmer has described a lack of trust within the farming community towards Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) over its handling of illegally released beavers at Tayside.
Euan Walker-Munro believes that the public body has “ignored their own protocols” and “effectively condoned an illegal release” by failing to halt the spread of beavers since their release in 2008.
Beaver activity has been noted as far south as the River Forth, costing some farmers thousands of pounds.
Beavers were hunted to extinction in Scotland in the 16th century but after an illegal release of the animals, their population is burgeoning.
There are claims that the animals are having a transformative effect upon the Tayside area and much of its arable farmland.
Walker-Munro said: “We are now arriving at a self-manufactured situation that finally the government’s having to wake up and deal with.”
In 2008, SNH placed the responsibility for the situation solely with those who refused to come forward as the beavers’ owners.
Last night, an SNH spokesman said it “still strongly believes owners of captive beavers, or indeed any species, have a responsibility to ensure their animals are properly managed and all efforts are made to prevent escape”.
Walker-Munro, chairman of National Farmers Union of Scotland’s (NFUS) Angus branch, says this is “passing the buck”.
“There’s very little trust in SNH amongst farmers, they think ‘hang on, you guys generated this issue’,” he said.
Director of Policy at NFUS, Jonathan Hall, said: “Euan’s fair enough in his comment that there’s a degree of mistrust between farmers and SNH. Nevertheless, we have to work with SNH. My experience of this is that SNH are being as engaged as they can be with us on this. We have an ongoing dialogue.”
Since 2017, SNH has been in discussion with various stakeholders, including NFUS, as part of the Scottish Beaver Forum. It is trying to develop a plan for the co-existence of Tayside’s farmers and beavers.
Alongside proposals to trap and move some of the population to less arable land, which is costly, it has recently begun to trial mitigation measures, including dam removal and tree protection.
SNH encouraged struggling land owners to contact it. A spokesman added: “Through the Scottish Beaver Forum and our direct engagement with farmers in Strathmore we are developing an effective plan for beavers in Scotland that takes into account challenges experienced by farmers.”
The trials will probably not be completed before the beavers receive European Protected Status (EPS) later this year. The move, which has been praised by environmentalists, will mean that farmers have to apply for a licence to cull beavers or face a criminal charge.
Walker-Munro sees this as another reason for farmers’ unease: “We’re dealing with a situation which was imposed on us – we never asked for it – and we’re potentially being criminalised.”
He believes this division is having a direct impact. SNH is conducting an investigation into the size of the Tayside beaver population and Walker-Munro claims some farmers are reticent to report beavers on their property.
Looking to the future, he says: “You’ve got to really work on this trust bit and you’ve got to turn over a new leaf if you want this to work. Going to European Protected Status without running the trials, I don’t think really does that.”
Hall added: “Our major concern is that the Scottish government presses on with EPS before trialling work has been done on all the mitigation measures you might want to put in place.”
As the larger rewilding debate continues, Walker-Munro says that the Scottish government’s handling of the Tayside beavers will no doubt set the tone for how the future of Scotland’s land use is decided.