Guest blog – What now for Beavers in the UK? by Jonny Hughes



Jonny Hughes is CEO of the Scottish Wildlife Trust and a global councillor for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Twitter: @jonnyecology





What now for Beavers in the UK?

It’s been an up and down kind of year for nature in the UK. The State of Nature report published in September concluded that over the last 50 years, 56% of species have declined, while 15% are at risk of disappearing from our islands altogether. Brexit threatens many of the EU laws which are so crucial to protecting and restoring our most important habitats and species. Wildlife crime continues to be a major problem despite increasingly effective opposition from what Chris Packham, speaking at the Nature of Scotland Awards last week, referred to as ‘green blobbers, nutjobs and conservationists’.

But in the last couple of weeks there has been a flurry of successes, topped off by one of the most important milestones in the history of UK conservation.

First, we had the news that golden eagle numbers are on the up in Scotland with RSPB Scotland reporting a 15% rise since 2003, when the last survey took place, from 442 to 508 pairs. This is great news though the almost complete absence of golden eagles from grouse estates in the eastern uplands remains a national scandal.

Then on Wednesday last week we had an announcement from the UK Government that they will be putting £15m into natural flood management. Modest in comparison to the money pumped into engineered flood defences but still a clear recognition that nature-based solutions are a smart investment.

Then came the big one. A couple of hours later in the Scottish Parliament, the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform announced that beavers, already living wild in Scotland, would not only be allowed to remain, but be given protected status under EU Habitats Directive. That’s the same Habitats Directive that a few de-regulatory governments together with Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, have been trying to undermine through the Regulatory Fitness and Performance Programme (REFIT).

The announcement followed a successful trial reintroduction led by the Scottish Wildlife Trust and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland. I can attest the trial was a colossal effort and everyone who played a part in its success should be rightly proud of the outcome it has (eventually) led to. Hundreds of people were involved in making the Scottish Beaver Trial a success.

Over the five years a total of 11,817 hours of fieldwork were undertaken by 13 independent monitoring partners and more than 60 volunteers. Our team led 720 guided walks, conducted 1,717 day and 3,016 night tracking sessions, collected more than a thousand water samples, and captured and analysed hundreds of hours of video footage. Meetings, campaigns, fundraising, site visits, photo opportunities, monitoring activities, boat trips, school activities, work with local business owners, community consultation were all needed to build the support to make it happen.

Great news then that “the beavers are back and back for good” as Roseanna Cunninghame said at the Nature of Scotland Awards. However, there is still a long way to go before we achieve healthy, self-sustaining populations in Scotland. Looking into the detail of the announcement gives a clue to this. The key points in Ms Cunninghame’s statement were:

  • Beaver populations in Argyll and Tayside can remain
  • The species will receive legal protection, in accordance with the EU Habitats Directive but work will be required to achieve this in the coming months e.g. the Scottish Government is now required by law to complete a Habitats Regulations Assessment and consider a Strategic Environmental Assessment
  • Beavers will be allowed to expand their range naturally
  • Beavers should be actively managed to minimise adverse impacts on farmers and other land owners
  • Management techniques to prevent beaver damage, such as controlling flow through dams, or protecting valuable trees can be carried out without a licence
  • More intensive management techniques, up to and including lethal control, are permitted under the Habitats Regulations for specified purposes and subject to there being no other satisfactory solution, and no adverse effect on the conservation status of the species
  • The Scottish Government will provide advice and assistance to farmers in understanding their options and helping them implement mitigation and prevention measures
  • It will remain an offence for beavers to be released without a licence, punishable by up to 2 years imprisonment and an unlimited fine

So there is still quite a lot of paperwork to be done before the protected status of beavers is legally secure. The announcement last week was a political statement which still needs to be enacted.

In the meantime there could be many challenges for Scotland’s beavers and what happens in the next few months will be very important to the future status of the beaver in Scotland in the long term.

Here’s what the Scottish Wildlife Trust thinks needs to happen next.

First, it is absolutely critical that we do not jeopardise the excellent science-based conservation that has helped us get this far with any more illegal or ‘accidental’ releases of beavers. We agree with the Cabinet Secretary’s hard line on this. Any further illegal releases could destroy trust between conservationists and famers and must not happen.

Second, farmers must desist from killing beavers until the paperwork has been completed and they are in a position to apply for licences for lethal control in situations where other management measures have failed. A killing spree will have the same effect as further illegal releases, destroying trust which would take years to re-build.

Third, we need constructive dialogue between farmers affected by beaver damage and ecologists who understand beaver behaviour. Conservationists need to appreciate that what we might consider habitat creation, farmers might see as an expensive nuisance. Similarly, farmers should seek to appreciate that there are many different management measures available which could enable them to live and work happily alongside beavers. A beaver management advisory service and a clear and comprehensive management plan will both help. We should take every opportunity to get farmers and conservationists talking in Tayside.

Fourth, the Scottish Government needs to now identify areas where new colonies can be released. When I say new, some of these might be ‘recycled’ animals from the Tayside population. It is very possible that in some highly sensitive prime agricultural areas, animals may require translocation. These beavers need somewhere to go. Prior to the Scottish Beaver Trial a report commissioned by Scottish Natural Heritage identified many suitable places for beavers in Scotland. We need to dust off that report and use it to make some evidence based decisions on ‘where next’ ensuring the Scottish Code for Conservation Translocations is adhered to in the process.

Finally, as a matter of urgency we need to re-enforce the isolated Knapdale beavers with new animals to ensure genetic diversity and a viable future breeding population. The small trial population was never intended to be big enough to be self-sustaining and they are in need of company.

If we get the next few months’ right, beavers will eventually bring many well-documented benefits to Scotland. They are the missing keystone, the natural-engineers we need to help restore Scotland’s degraded ecosystems back to health. In time, the beaver will hopefully fully return to the wild in Wales and England. The Scottish decision will surely now help speed this process up. The Scottish Wildlife Trust stand by to help in any way we can to get things moving in other parts of the UK.

After all, we need beavers to help make our freshwater catchments more resilient to the effects of climate change. We need them to create new habitats for wildlife. We need them to help cleanse our streams and rivers. We need them to help promote Scotland and other parts of the UK as a great nature-tourism destination. We need them more than they need us.

European beaver (Castor fiber) feeding at night, Knapdale Forest, Argyll, Scotland. Photo: Peter Cairns
European beaver (Castor fiber) feeding at night, Knapdale Forest, Argyll, Scotland. Photo: Peter Cairns




30 Replies to “Guest blog – What now for Beavers in the UK? by Jonny Hughes”

  1. All good stuff Jonny. Very thorough update and sage advice. Let’s hope everyone sees sense and cooperates. The last para was great. Boar and Lynx next through similar official trials. Shame English government into following you lead.

    1. Boar are already back in numbers. The contrast between their easy reintroduction by farmers and the torture of beaver reintroduction for conservation is painfully illustrative.

      Because beavers were a conservation project, MAFF in its various forms spent several decades thinking of new reasons to prevent reintroduction. Meantime of course the rest of Europe, without the NFU in charge of conservation policy, got in with it, with great results.

      Beavers are all too easy to control, harmless, ecologically almost entirely beneficial, and carry minimal easily screened disease risk. They can certainly cause genuine and significant problems for individual landowners but these are localised and can be fairly readily addressed as Jonny proposes.

      Boar on the other hand are at least potentially dangerous, carry every disease known to man or pig, breed like rabbits, are notoriously difficult to control, cause widespread problems for agriculture, and can be a mixed blessing ecologically. Farmers, not conservationists, wanted to import wild boar so MAFF gave them a licence and they escaped the following year.

      Full credit to Holyrood for recognising that it’s better to regulate democratically rather than allow frustrated public interest to boil over into direct action outside the law.

      1. Boar are not back in large numbers in Scotland, there are only a a few of them here in the border region. They are very hard to transport illicitly, even moreso than lynx as a lynx can travel in any large dog carrier for short periods. A boar needs specially constructed cages as they can pretty much destroy anything used for commercial transport. You need a farmer who is willing to slip them in with their Tamworths in a pig carrier. Even then it is a risk as boar are much more powerful than your average Tamworth pig even if your average plod can’t spot the difference.

  2. Great blog Jonny. Well done for reaching this stage – clearly a massive effort. I think your comments about building trust are very important and I hope that, on both sides, people will play by the rules – ie no clandestine releases or clandestine killing of beavers – so the project can continue to full fruition.

    1. Yep, need to build trust slowly and take into account the feeling of the farmers to stop them killing them. Just in the same way Hen Harrier Brood Management will so successfully deal with the potential problems of the illegal killing of them by grouse shooters and…er…farmers.

      I’m going to call the plan to build trust between farmers and conservationists Operation Doomed to Failure, which will complement what I imagine the Scottish NFU’s name to be as Operation Negotiate in Bad Faith. I know we need to go through the motions to prove that farmers, water bailiffs, and land managers have no intentions of accepting beaver back, but I think we can take it as read that illicit releases will eventually become the norm until government can no longer duck acting outright. That is just how re introductions work in practice in the UK. Proof: If it wasn’t for the illicit Tayside releases, we’d still be havering away at trials instead of accepting that beavers were back and the genie was out of the lodge.

      1. I’m delighted for the beavers and for SWT, and I don’t condone illegal activity. That said, like R22, my impression is that the unauthorised Tayside release was hugely influential in bringing about this excellent result. The large number and geographical spread of the beavers meant that eradicating them was going to be a highly visible and controversial business, and the fact that so many had lived wild for some years with very little trouble (except after the story eventually got into the papers) effectively killed off the farmers’ argument that the sky would most certainly fall in.
        Everyone would like to believe that extensive consultation and trust-building should be the best way forward. However, depending who you’re dealing with, it doesn’t always work that way. One of the main motivations for the unauthorised releases of otters and polecats in parts of southern England was to circumvent the orchestrated howls of anguish from farmers and landowners that would have followed any official proposals or consultations. As it was (so I’m told), these species apparently simply returned with a minimum of fuss and some quiet rejoicing – and most people barely noticed.

        1. Whoever the genius was who released the otters in city and town centres which had canals and rivers through them deserves a medal. Sadly they cannot ever come forward and claim it, they’d still get some sort of prosecution on some trumped up charges or harassed by the tabloids, but they meant that the species got gold plated publicity and a minimum of persecution due to not having to deal with the NFU and its direct line to the government.

          Urban pine martens next, I’d bet on it. Possibly, anyway. I mean I’m just guessing, obviously.

        2. I would not argue against the need for a public consultation on lynx reintroduction in areas where they are to be released, but if anyone wanted to start translocating polecats to help reduce rabbit numbers and also to depress mink populations should that require one? It starts getting silly and sadly as everyone is local somewhere including attention seeking drama queens consultation exercises can be dominated by the loud and ignorant as I’ve seen on more than one occasion.

        3. Perhaps I should have spelled out more clearly why the unauthorised Tayside release was so vital. The Knapdale Trial had very specific success and failure criteria. One of the success criteria was that the core population should be stable or increasing. In fact, the core population was stable but did not increase and the population did not reach its predicted size due to low reproductive success. Thus this criterion was just about met.
          One of the failure criteria was whether mortality levels were likely to preclude establishment of a population. The population modelling performed on the Knapdale data showed that, even with supplementation, the population would not be viable. Thus, one of the trial failure criteria was pretty solidly met.
          It could therefore be argued that the Knapdale trial could easily have been judged a failure on scientific grounds, which would have made it very possible for the Scottish government to come to a different decision from the one we are all celebrating.
          What rescued the situation was the obvious and unequivocal evidence from the illegal Tayside release that, left to their own devices, beavers could indeed increase their numbers substantially and establish a thriving population.
          Given the final successful conclusion, it’s easy to suggest that the Knapdale project was an unqualified success and a model of the way things should be done. However, as I understand it, the reality was a good deal messier, both scientifically and ethically. (If I have got things wrong, somebody please enlighten me!)

          1. I accept your point, Alan, about how illicit reintroductions have played a crucial part in getting the beaver to the point at which Roseanna Cunningham’s announcement could be made. It may well be true that without this illicit activity we could have waited years for beavers to be allowed to establish in the Scottish countryside and I certainly welcome the outcome that legal and illegal releases have resulted in. However, I remain very uneasy about the idea that people should take things into their own hands when it comes to the reintroduction of species into our countryside and circumvent the law and the legal authorities.
            Whoever released beavers illegally may well have been well informed ecologically and genuinely able to justify their own confidence that they were doing an environmentally and socially beneficial thing but can we be confident that this will always be the case? If we encourage people to go ahead and make clandestine releases of species into the wild are we potentially giving a ‘licence’ to every Tom, Dick or Harry with a pet theory about which species is missing from the countryside to go ahead with a private release? It is easy enough to conceive of ways in which this could go wrong. Releases of species with tenuous or no evidence of ever having been native, releases of animals from inappropriate genetic stock, releases of misidentified species (how about a well-meaning transfer of wrongly identified crayfish for example or, more topically, some Canadian beavers?), releases of diseased livestock and so on. However tempting it may be to force the hand of government and short-circuit tedious trials and negotiations I think the dangers of doing so are self evident and we could find ourselves on a very slippery slope if we encourage it.
            With regard to Random22’s views on the need to build goodwill within the farming community, I agree that the NFU’s instinct to refuse to engage with anything other than business as usual and the reflex reaction to label any proposal for species reintroduction (or other conservation measure) as financially disastrous for its members are deeply frustrating. However, we have to deal with the world as it is and the fact is that farmers occupy and manage most of the countryside and we do need to find ways of working with them if conservation is to make any headway. Farming is not like grouse shooting in the important respect that people are not doing it for fun but in order to make a living (and also in the respect that it is not wholly dependent on criminal activity in order to operate successfully). This means that it is not ever going to be banned and we cannot hope that one day farmers are going to go away and leave the land to the wise husbandry of conservationists. It also means that if something appears to them to be a threat to their livelihood it is not actually unreasonable for them to protest and kick back. Their perception may or may not be misplaced but if we simply disregard it we will no make progress. We have to try and work with them to bring them onside as far as we can.
            Random22 draws an analogy with the hen harrier and I think she/he is right that that species’ predicament is indeed illustrative for the potential future of the beaver in Britain. The hen harrier benefits from the highest level of protection afforded by the law in the UK and Europe but this has not helped it at all and it is virtually extinct in England and far below the population level it should be at in Scotland. As we know, this is because it is easy to kill hen harriers without detection and so those who see the species as a threat to their shooting interests simply disregard all of that legal protection. Beavers face the same problem: it will be all too easy to shoot beavers without detection (it is already happening, I believe)and their protection in law will be worth diddly-squat if we don’t also seek ways to ensure that farmers and other riparian land-owners/occupiers see beavers as more than just an unwelcome threat.
            Farmers can be bloody-minded and simply telling them that we know best and we don’t care about their – real or perceived – financial losses will not be a recipe for the successful expansion of the species.

          2. JW – I agree with a lot of what you say. I hope I made it clear at the start of my first comment that I do not condone illegal activities, and I would condemn any irresponsible or ill-informed releases or translocations. The purpose of my comments was to present a more ‘warts-and-all’ history of some aspects of the process leading up to the beaver decision, which I think raise all sorts of issues, some of them uncomfortable. I think we learn more from history if the awkward bits are not airbrushed out.
            You and I possibly take a different view regarding the agricultural industry! Once again, I regard history as important. We allowed, almost without audible challenge, farmers to make a range of choices that had, and could have been predicted to have, hugely damaging impacts on our wildlife. I’ll mention one or two:
            Changing from hay to silage production, making most lowland grassland unsuitable for ground-nesting birds and almost eradicating grassland wild flowers (and associated insects);
            Changing from spring to autumn sowing of cereals, removing a major (probably the major) source of winter food for small seed-eating farmland birds;
            Installing thousands of miles of field drains, abolishing important damp habitats for wading birds and many invertebrates;
            Filling in tens of thousands of ponds and polluting thousands more;
            N and P pollution of small and large watercourses;
            Not to mention releasing millions of non-native pheasants and partridges!
            I now believe that we should learn from our past somnolence and challenge the actions of the industry if we think they are unreasonable, unnecessary or excessive. The line that they are just trying to earn a living is not an automatic excuse for all damaging actions or attitudes – think drug-dealing, burglary, fly-tipping, shoplifting…
            Of course, there are lots of ways of going about things. Confrontation is inherently unpleasant, but I’m not sure kowtowing is always best.

          3. Alan, all of those impacts of modern farming that you list are of course things that I am fully aware of and deplore. I certainly did not mean that we should not challenge farmers or that we should kowtow to them. All I am saying is that we have to be pragmatic and simply dismissing their concerns out of hand is to my mind not a recipe for success with something like the establishment of beavers on our river systems.
            As you say, the line that farmers are just trying to earn a living is not an automatic excuse for all damaging actions or attitudes and I believe that in many areas economic arguments have routinely been allowed to trump environmental concerns for far too long. But that doesn’t mean we should expect any group to accept a loss in their earnings without a fight and we therefore have to find a way either to force them or persuade them to accept the change. What does these mean for beavers? Well, beavers are protected by law so in theory they can now spread at their leisure without interference from anyone but, as I suggested in my previous post, that may not count for much if an irate farmer with a shotgun thinks he can take a potshot without anyone witnessing. This surely means that we have to find other ways besides the fact that it is illegal to persuade farmers not to take matters into their own hands and bump off beavers. This can include demonstrating that their worst fears are not justified and also perhaps providing a mechanism to allow proportionate management measures to be taken when genuine damage is experienced.
            In the wider context of the steady sterilisation of the countryside that you refer to, it is perhaps important to recognise that farmers are not operating in isolation from the rest of the world. The subsidy system, banks, supermarkets and other food buyers all play are part in driving the intensification we have seen and the resulting impoverishment of wildlife in the countryside. We need to address all of these, remembering of course that our own food shopping habits are part of the problem.
            Making the changes that are required in the countryside to stem the losses of wildlife will certainly not be achieved by kowtowing to the NFU and its allies but, I agree, will need a strong challenge to the status quo. I would strongly support major changes in the farm subsidy system to make the money received much more contingent on provision of clear environmental benefits (I don’t welcome Brexit but it does at least provide an opportunity for that) but I would be open to other measures including legislation to bring about change if necessary.
            I hope this makes my position a little clearer.

          4. Jonathan – I think I should conclude our exchange by saying that my level of agreement with what you say has now climbed to about 99%!
            (I should also add that this is just a fraction short of the level for almost all of your posts here and elsewhere.)

    1. Congratulations Jonny and Scotland. Next, reverse the social and biological devastation of the Highland Clearances.
      Andy, I only half agree. Yes, we need to re-beaver the countryside but we must also rewild landownership. The former will give us clean water, flood protection and the creation of first rate riparian habitats. The latter will slash land prices and allow a repopulation of the countryside. This will give us once more, thriving and fair rural communities with, for example, bright, young and innovative farmers at last being allowed to work the land sustainably. And as a result, those regenerated and enlightened communities are likely to be pro ecosystem services, pro biodiversity and pro various forms of rewilding.

  3. Jonny, you are another voice of reason that shows the way to those ‘green blobbers, nutjobs and conservationists’ whose causes would be eminently supportable were it not for the continuing own goals.

    Mine is a voice from the grave and I go on ad-nausem because every time I think progress on the negotiating skills front might be made, another batch of foot mutilation hits this blog and my family suffers.

    In hope!

  4. “It will remain an offence for beavers to be released without a licence, punishable by up to 2 years imprisonment and an unlimited fine”

    If you are caught trapping them and releasing them in those same open and empty uplands in which grouse and raptor shooters operate in undetected and unmolested by the police. I suppose the risky part about illegal beaver reintroduction is being stopped by the motorway cops with a beaver in the back of a van. I guess that means as long as they don’t use a van, but a more conventional vehicle with a large but enclosed boot, and have all the road tax and insurance and MOT up to date, don’t speed, use your indicators, and have the vehicle in good order to as to all not attract the police attention, then you’d be pretty golden. Obviously don’t do it, it is illegal, but people that are going to do it just have to abide by the road traffic laws and they will mostly go undetected in their illegal releases of a native animal.

    I have written to my SNP MSP to ask what methods the Scottish government will take to ensure that beavers are moved legally below the M8 corridor and into Southern Scotland where there is ample habitat, particularly in Dumfries and Galloway and in Ayrshire too, in order to preempt any illegal introductions. He has yet to get back to me though. I hope he is quick off the mark.

  5. Rowan, i’ve said it before but what exactly is your contribution? Employing undiplomatic language to say people are being undiplomatic? Negotiating skills, perhaps, begin at home. Why not leave the chiding to one side? Why not relinquish the melodrama (‘voice from the grave’ – yeah the global situation is serious, but hey, the gothic tends to sound better with musical accompaniment, or at least with some sharply dressed vampires on hand. And the implication that posts on this blog directly hurt your family is a bit much too, no? Want to specify?)? Why not instead positively engage and try to convince others that you have a more effective method available than that they are currently employing? Or are you going to just sit on the sidelines and snipe at those genuinely trying to make a difference? Would it be unfair to call that self indulgent?

    1. Jim, God knows I’ve tried with Mark but the only engagement you get with him if you dare to criticise is smart arse one liners and eventual banning.

      I’m happy to engage reasonably any time. Let’s give it go.

      Mark, How did referring to Matt Ridley as the “Not so talented Viscount Ridley” help with the DGS petition?

      1. Rowan – I think you are forgetting that you are supposed to be a new visitor to this blog. You are mixing up your personas.

    2. Jim, does that answer your question?

      “If there is any one secret of success it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from their angle as well as your own”
      Henry Ford.

      It’s such an obvious point, yet few of us apply it in (moral and political) arguments because our righteous minds so readily shift into combat mode.
      Jonathan Haidt.

      1. If only it was a as simple as “seeing things from the other person’s angle” and then presumably everyone is happy. Wrong. Far too often along the rocky road of conservation since the mid 20th century, significant losses to biodiversity have come about as a result of what is presented as a reasonable compromise, when it is nothing of the sort. The result of “compromise” in say, hen harrier brood meddling, is that rare wildlife gets killed. There will always, in the short term, be winners and losers here and there will always be directly opposed views – someone has to be strong and longsighted. Sums up the godawful mess of our Uplands and riverine habitats – no one taking bold initiatives, just tinkering while trying to keep everyone happy.

  6. Someone once thought that talking and understanding another point of view would avoid a war. Events proved him to be devastatingly wrong. We do our wildlife and environment no favours by bending to uninformed, ignorant or biased self-interested opinion. It is often necessary to agree to differ and fight ones corner in order to achieve anything worthwhile.

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