Beavers are the ecosystem engineers we need across Scotland – James Silvey

In January 2023 RSPB Scotland Loch Lomond became the third site in Scotland to translocate Beavers. Often described as ecosystem engineers, Beavers deserve their title. Through their busy engineering work they create ponds, dynamic wetlands, muddy canals and wet woodland. This in turn benefits a whole host of species from aquatic insects to amphibians and fish.

The beaver family that was moved to RSPB Scotland Loch Lomond were originally from an area where their engineering activities had been identified as having a negative impact on the surrounding farmland and as such, a licence had been granted to kill or trap and remove the family.

In 2021 87 beavers were killed in Scotland under licence representing almost ten per cent of the estimated Scottish population. The main reason a licence to kill beavers will be granted is for the protection of agricultural land.However, this should be taken as a last resort when all other mitigation has failed or is deemed unsuitable. Part of the non-lethal mitigation that can be used is translocating beavers to other areas of the country where conflict is less likely, such as our reserve at Loch Lomond.

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There are an estimated 100,000 hectares of suitable, vacant habitat for beavers in Scotland, but until recently translocations of beavers outside of established areas was prohibited. This short-sighted strategy was thankfully reviewed in November 2021 and the following spring a new strategy was published (Scotland’s beaver Strategy 2022-2045) that aims to see more animals in more places, acknowledging the biodiversity boosting impacts of the species.

James Silvey, Senior Species and Habitats Officer, RSPB ScotlandJames Silvey, Senior Species and Habitats Officer, RSPB Scotland
James Silvey, Senior Species and Habitats Officer, RSPB Scotland

With a positive strategy, beavers that require translocation and plenty of vacant habitat available, the scene seems to be set for an increase in beaver translocations in Scotland, but this can only happen if the sites are available to put them. Here is where Scotland’s public agencies with land management responsibilities have a major role to play. Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS), NatureScot and Crown Estate Scotland collectively manage a significant proportion of Scotland’s land, including many areas which would act as ideal translocation sites for beavers. Recently FLS announced eight sites where they hope to progress beaver translocations by autumn 2023 which is welcome news, but this needs to form part of a rolling programme of sites ensuring that throughout the lifetime of the strategy, suitable areas are always available.

We also need to see an increase in engagement with land managers and communities in areas where beavers are actively expanding or in areas which have been assessed as highly suitable to identify new translocation opportunities. This engagement should seek to give an honest overview of the benefits the species can bring such as increasing the water storage potential of the local area thereby acting as natural flood defences. It should also detail how the national management and mitigation framework can be used to alleviate any potential negative impacts.

At a time when the world faces a nature and climate emergency, the reduction of any species that can help address the issue is a major loss. With beavers back in parts of Scotland we have seen the return of our wetland creator, manager and restorer. Let’s not now waste the opportunity to see the return of beavers to the whole of Scotland.

James Silvey, Senior Species and Habitats Officer, RSPB Scotland

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