Jonny Hughes: Just back from extinction, beavers are now being killed

It seems the people of Scotland love beavers and want to see them thrive in the countryside. Last week, the Scottish Government published the results of a consultation on the future of wild beavers in Scotland.

The majority of respondents (83 per cent) agreed with the reintroduction policy and were content that appropriate measures have been identified to mitigate any disturbance beavers might cause to economic interests. However, there were some from the land management sector who expressed concern that for mitigation measures to work, long-term funding and a management framework will be needed.

The return of the beaver to Scotland after being hunted to extinction for meat and fur several centuries ago is one of the most inspiring conservation success stories of the past few decades. The multiple award-winning Scottish Beaver Trial in Argyll, led by the Scottish Wildlife Trust and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, paved the way for the historic announcement by Roseanna Cunningham MSP in late November 2016 that beavers living wild in Scotland were to be given leave to remain. This was the first time an extinct mammal had been reintroduced anywhere in the UK and was a symbol of hope that we might just be able to reverse the inexorable trend of wildlife loss and decline on these islands.

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Fresh support for beaver reintroduction in Scotland
An adult beaver in Knapdale (Picture: Steve Gardner)
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However, despite the success of the trial and strong, growing public support, beavers are not out of the woods yet. Some farmers in Tayside are unhappy that the colonies there have originated from illegal releases or accidental escapes and that, in some places, beavers are undermining riverbank levies and flooding prime agricultural land. I have sympathy with both these concerns.

Ideally, after the Argyll trial, controlled releases into other areas of Scotland should have taken place where animals could have been properly vetted and then monitored as they established themselves. It is also true that, in a few places, the burrowing and damming activities of beavers cause real problems that need to be managed, often at short notice. I fully support those land managers who are calling for long-term funding and a management framework to be put in place as soon as possible.

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More urgently though, with the Brexit clock ticking, the Scottish Government needs to get the paperwork done to secure European Protected Species status for Scotland’s beavers under the EU Habitats Directive. This would mean it would be an offence to kill or injure a beaver or deliberately disturb them during breeding and rearing periods. In the two years since beavers were given the green light to stay, they have not had such protected status and as a result many animals have been killed. The killing will continue until legal protection is in place, hence the urgency.

Once protected status and a new management framework are agreed, the long-term future for these amazing mammals should be bright. They can get on with the job of being ‘ecosystem engineers’, stabilising river flows, reducing flood risk and creating valuable woodland coppice and wetland habitats in which a wide range of other species from dragonflies to amphibians can flourish. The return of the beaver to the wild in Scotland is something to be celebrated. Successive SNP environment ministers should be commended for their role in this success story as should Scottish Natural Heritage and the conservation charities that helped make the vision a reality through their inclusive and patient advocacy.

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Jonny Hughes is Scottish Wildlife Trust’s chief executive. Follow him on Twitter @JonnyEcology