As I watched the two parents and three kits take their first cautious steps across the frozen ground before crunching into the icy pond, two thoughts struck me. The first was that these animals were lucky to be here, lucky to be alive. The second, that they might be the first of many beavers relocated within Scotland this year, but also just as easily the last.
Between 2019 and 2020, around a fifth of Scotland’s tiny beaver population, estimated at 1,000 animals, was killed under licence. Ask why the numbers were so high and you’re likely to receive the literal answer: landowners can apply for lethal control licenses when beavers have unmanageable impacts upon prime agricultural land.
But this only tells part of the story. Beneath the surface lies a deeper truth. Beavers are killed in such shocking numbers because of institutional failings, because, two decades after beavers’ return to Scotland, our government and the agencies we trust to preserve our wildlife are still letting us down.
Beavers are a keystone species: they hold ecosystems together. Their wetlands provide superb and much-needed habitat for insects, amphibians, birds and fish. Their dams slow water flow, reducing the risk of downstream flooding, and trap sediment and agricultural run-off, purifying water and further benefitting aquatic species.
These animals should be seen as one of nature’s solutions to the environment crisis. Instead they continue to divide opinion. With some exceptions, environmentalists love them and land managers don’t. But what of our government and nature-based agencies, NatureScot and Forestry and Land Scotland? Where do they stand?
The only clear thing about the SNP’s position is that it has always been unclear. After being hunted to extinction in the 1500s, beavers returned to Scotland in the early 2000s through accidental and unauthorised releases.
Despite a growing body of scientific evidence showing how ecologically crucial beavers are, our government took until 2019 to grant them European Protected Status, 18 years after the first beaver escapes, 12 since the SNP came to power.
Huge numbers of beavers were shot in that time. Even when protection was granted, a provision allowed landowners in Tayside to cull them. Yet humanely trapping beavers and moving them to suitable sites was forbidden.
Now the Scottish Greens are in coalition. Thanks to their influence, the expansion of our beaver population will finally be promoted through more use of translocation to new areas.
This is great news. But any sceptical land manager will ask: is there sufficient money to support this ambition? Why is there still no scheme to incentivise landowners to accommodate these important animals? The SNP isn’t making things easy.
After years juggling a muddled policy where beavers were simultaneously protected and somehow not-protected, Scotland’s nature agency, NatureScot, at last has clear government direction. National strategy meetings are ongoing, due for completion this summer, by which point we should have a vision for how expansion of the beaver population will be achieved. We’re told to expect to see beavers in new catchments this year.
Freed from the shackles of unworkable government policy, we must allow NatureScot the chance to make expansion happen. Yet so far the agency has proved anything but swift when it comes to beavers.
It took us almost six months to receive our license to move beavers to Argaty, a local translocation. The nearest beaver population is just five miles away, and animals from those territories were bound to colonise our waterways naturally, given time.
Some degree of apprehension was understandable, ours being Scotland’s first translocation to a new site, but in an environmental crisis, future attempts to save a keystone species and move them greater distances, to new catchments, must not be treated with such grinding caution.
Of equal concern was the account of the landowner from whose farm our beavers were removed. She liked beavers and had no problem hosting some on her land, but their numbers had multiplied, some fields were flooded beyond use, and she wanted a few removed. It took NatureScot two months to license this. Had the landowner applied for lethal control, the licence would have been issued overnight.
NatureScot must move at a speed demanded by the overlapping nature and climate emergencies. Producing a new strategy and processing new translocation applications within a few short months might seem like a tall order for an organisation not known for haste. Let’s hope the agency is up to the task. If not, beavers that could be moved will instead die.
A handful of wildlife charities and private individuals are rumoured to be interested in applying for translocations, but many relocation sites must be offered if we are to reduce Scotland’s appalling beaver-cull numbers. As owner of 3.7 per cent of public land, NatureScot is ideally positioned to help with this. Its nature reserves are designed to “showcase the best of Scotland’s nature” and provide “ecosystem services”. Beavers fit this mission statement.
Forestry and Land Scotland, which says it uses “nature-based solutions” and that “biodiversity is a focus in everything” it does, is also well-positioned to help, because the National Forest Estate covers nine per cent of Scotland’s land mass. Beavers are already present on some of that land, but there must be space to rehome more. Scotland’s beavers need more than empty rhetoric, they need help.
Thus far our government and nature agencies have done little to assist beavers to return to Scotland. Sometimes they have hindered progress. Public money and public land must be made available for public good. We need this now. If not, Argaty’s beavers may be the last in 2022 to be relocated, the last to be saved.
Tom Bowser is the owner of Argaty farm, on the Braes of Doune, and author of A Sky Full of Kites: A Rewilding Story