Guest blog – Beavers by Nonie Coulthard

I am a kayaker, Nature-lover, conservationist-becoming-activist. I worked (with Mark) on Bee-eaters in The Camargue and (without Mark) on Bee-eaters in Sénégal and I’m now a consultant and volunteer on conservation and local community development mainly in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and other parts of West Africa. I live next to the Angus Glens and I like running (slowly), biking, kayaking, hill walking, swimming and camping with family and friends around nice bits of Scotland, especially The Hebrides. I’ve supported beavers and uplands conservation in Scotland for more than 20 years and I’m a volunteer supporter and trustee of the Scottish Wild Beaver Group. 

Like many readers and contributors to Mark’s blog, I seem to spend my days (in between ‘real’ work) on social media catching up with news and signing petitions against legal and illegal slaughter of wildlife, or ecological degradation and destruction carried out to favour intensive ‘sport’ shooting or agriculture. I really, really hope that the tide is beginning to turn – at least with the Scottish Government (see Mark’s blog), partly in response to the huge public revulsion at the slaughter of Mountain Hares, the League Against Cruel Sports and Revive Coalition report last week of massive wildlife killing on 6 Scottish grouse moors (including ‘collateral damage’ – i.e. death of ‘non-target’ species) and of course the relentless, illegal killing of eagles and other raptors to increase numbers of Red Grouse for Driven Grouse Shooting across the UK. 

I’m writing this on Sunday, in advance of a ‘Twitter storm’ on Monday, planned to highlight ‘the other’ wildlife scandal that took place last year in Scotland and may resume again this week – the widespread legal killing of beavers under licence on lowland farmland on Tayside.   Monday, 17th August marks the end of the declared ‘kit dependency period’ (during which beaver killing was only permitted in ‘emergency situations’) – this means that landowners granted a licence in 2019 to kill ‘problem beavers’ can resume killing on the site for which a licence was granted without further oversight or monitoring by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) – for a total period of up to 24 months.  Half of the 2019 licences (21 out of 42) were issued without a prior site visit by SNH to explore the possibilities for non-lethal mitigation and a total of 87 beavers were legally killed between 1st May and 31st December, 2019 (SNH Beaver Licensing Summary for 2019).

The last census of Tayside (and Forth) beavers in 2017/ 18 gave an estimated total population of 433 (range 319-547), based on assessment of territories.  An unknown number were also killed in the run up to the announcement by Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham on 1st May, 2019 of European Protected Status (for both the Tayside beavers and those introduced under the Scottish Beaver Trial in Knapdale). Thus, the total population is unknown, but the 87 beavers killed in 2019 probably represented around 1/5th of the Scottish population.  It seems impossible for SNH to carry out their function to ensure ‘Favourable Conservation Status’ of a protected species, without knowledge of the current population size and the impacts of licensed and unlicensed killing over the last 3 years. According to SNH’s ‘beaver blog’, a new census will be carried out before the end of 2020, which will also help to identify suitable places for translocation.  Along with evaluation of mitigation options, the hope is that this will “reduce the level of lethal control measures going forward”.

The history of the reintroduction of the European Beaver to Scotland is long, complicated and in many areas (including the current situation) nonsensical. In the weeks immediately after granting of Protected Status for beavers in Scotland on 1st May, and up to the end of 2019, the Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham issued 45 licences (5 for dam removal only and 40 for killing and dam removal across Tayside) – of what is now a Protected and threatened native species – added to the Red List for Scotland’s Mammals as ‘Endangered’ in 2020.

The SNH Beaver Management Framework was developed over 2 years with input from a wide range of stakeholders – statutory agencies, landowner and land management groups, conservation NGOs, voluntary conservation groups and individual experts on the Scottish Beaver Forum.  In theory, this Framework should work to support the full reintroduction of the Beaver to Scotland, following established conservation principles and best practice with attention to genetic viability and spread of populations. There is a mitigation hierarchy to deal with issues where Beavers and other land management objectives come into conflict – with ‘lethal control’ only as the last resort.  However, in practice, the Scottish Government’s refusal to allow for beavers to be moved into suitable areas in any other catchments in Scotland (or even more widely than ‘current range’ on Tayside and in the Knapdale Trial site), means that where land managers say they have a problem and there is ‘no other solution’ than to remove the problem animals, the default ‘solution’ is shooting them. This, despite the fact that many conservation groups, projects and other landowners, aware of the multiple ecosystem service benefits beavers provide (flood and drought mitigation, water quality, biodiversity increase and Carbon storage in beaver wetlands, ecotourism attraction etc.) – are interested in beaver translocation to suitable sites that currently have no beavers.  There is ample evidence of successful mitigation techniques (flow devices through dams, tree-wrapping to protect individual trees, fencing) and a large volunteer and professional ‘workforce’ ready to help landowners with mitigation to encourage our co-existence with beavers in the landscape (see examples of this work and offers of help by Scottish Wild Beaver Group). Instead, in 2019, the Scottish Government undertook to train over a hundred people to shoot beavers ‘well’. This appeared to take priority over any effort to develop and support mitigation, and crucially, closed off the option to relocate beavers to other parts of Scotland.

SNH’s own assessment has identified hundreds of suitable catchments across Scotland: more than 105,000 ha of suitable beaver habitat (‘core beaver woodland’) into which ‘problem beavers’ could potentially be moved – to areas where they will benefit people and help maintain and restore functioning wetlands and wet woodland ecosystems (map below). Ironically, the only situation in which the Scottish Government allowed for live-trapping and removal of beavers from ‘problem’ sites in Scotland in 2019 was for translocation to English reintroduction projects or trials (8 beavers to River Otter, Forest of Dean and Holnicote in Somerset) and the Knapdale Scottish Beaver Trial site (7 beavers – considered to be the maximum this site can receive).  The remaining ‘problem’ (87 beavers) were shot and 83 dams were removed under licence in 2019.

To quote from Steve Micklewright’s piece in The Scotsman: “Ultimately, each beaver shot under the current licensing scheme is a wasted life that could have helped tackle the climate emergency and nature crisis by creating a thriving nature-rich wetland somewhere else in Scotland.

So, this is now Wednesday and many of you will have been ‘Twitter-stormed’ or at least felt the tail end of the cyclone – this blog will hopefully provide some more information (and sources) if you need it and act as a prompt to take any action you can, please, to support the various campaigns for proper reintroduction and conservation management of European Beaver in Scotland, with lethal control only as a genuine method of last resort. Please sign the petition to the Scottish Parliament (you do not have to be resident in Scotland to do this), this calls for relocation to be opened up around Scotland in order to reduce licensed killing. Deadline for signatures 27th August and it is very close to 10,000 signatures.

You also still have time to be ‘arty’ (and rebellious-but-legal) in support of the Extinction Rebellion Scotland and SWBG ‘87 Beavers: In Memoriam’ art action. Submit your art and ‘watch this space’ for follow-up action (exhibitions at Holyrood and elsewhere and a beaver art auction). Deadline for submission of artwork extended to 31st August.

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21 Replies to “Guest blog – Beavers by Nonie Coulthard”

  1. It seems that the Scottish Government (SG) has got itself in a mess on this issue. SG has bowed to the agricultural lobby and gone straight for the "kill" option thinking this is an easy solution. In the Eurasian Beaver Handbook I read that no other European country adopted the "kill" option until 10 years after reinroduction. Yet we adopted it from day one. Translocation was the norm for "problem" beavers.
    It is madness for beavers to be translocated to England but not to other parts of Scotland. There must be lots of locations in Scotland where beavers would be welcomed by local communities as a boost to tourism.
    The areas where beavers are being killed will continue to be re-colonised, we are therefor are creating "sinks" which will continue to prevent the growth and spread of the beaver population. In these "conflict" area there needs to be resources put in to advising landowners to help them minitgate the impact of beavers on their landholding.
    SG needs to have a complete rethink on this one.

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    1. Thanks Alister. You're absolutely right and SNH's Beaver Licensing Report and blog acknowledge the risk of creating sinks in Strathmore and inhibiting expansion elsewhere. It is indeed the strength of the farming, fishing and landowning lobbies that has cowed ScotGov into the position that 'wildlife cannot be allowed to get in the way of productive agriculture' - and especially not on 'Prime Agricultural Land'. Even when there are obvious other solutions like moving flood banks back from rivers on flood plains to give the river (and beavers) space to create habitat and slow floods etc. in the public good - which the same farmers are often being paid to do (and beavers would do for free). Derek Gow wrote a great piece in The Scotsman in June about this - the same Strathmore farmer complaining about 5k of beaver damage annually while also in receipt of nearly 140k of taxpayers' money, 46k of which was for agri-envt. schemes to help mitigate climate change.

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      1. Sadly there's a real need for an organisation to make the type of observations that Derek Gow did regularly, loudly and publicly. Certain farmers and their representative organisations seem to be able to say whatever they want and it's virtually heretical to contradict them. This is incredibly damaging and not just in terms of conservation, people are subsidising piss poor upland sheep farming that's helping to flood their houses - but they're ignorant of this fact, and that's money that could be going to the NHS or social services instead. Crofters pleading poverty and the NFU saying we need to keep subsidising marginal agriculture for food security when 40% of our food is wasted are two of my biggest bugbears.

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    2. Is it valid to compare Scottish reintroduction with European reintroductions ? As far as I know the Scottish beavers either escaped or were unofficially released and the consequent absence of any assessment meant that this happened in Strathmore, an area where conflict with agriculture was likely, which then influenced the management. Conservation therefore seems to be playing catch up with an unofficial re introduction and you might assume that things will not stabilise and lethal control reduce until SNH, as Nonie notes, identifies and consults on suitable sites for translocation sometime in 2020. Seeing all that through of course assumes some enthusiasm from the Scottish Government and reasonable behaviour from land managers, neither of which is the norm.

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      1. Hi Stevenson, thanks for this. I don't really buy the argument that the way that the beavers arrived here should affect their correct conservation management and reintroduction now. In fact, ScotGov acknowledged this last year when Roseanna Cunningham gave them (Tayside and Knapdale beavers) official 'right to remain' as a European Protected Species. I guess you are right in that an 'official' reintroduction from the start would probably not have released them into 'Prime Agricultural Land' but as you'll see from other comments here there have been decades of good conservation planning and public consultation - with largely favourable feedback. And it has always been acknowledged that there would be need for mitigation (with lethal control as last resort) in areas of conflict with land management. But currently ScotGov is blocking what could be a 'win-win' of moving beavers from areas of conflict to areas where they are wanted and needed. And apparently farming and fishing bodies are not favourable to agri-environment schemes based on payments for beavers providing ecosystem services on farmland. So as you say, needs ScotGov enthusiasm/ action and reasonableness from land managers.

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  2. An excellent blog. It just shows that so called countryside managers such as SNH always seem, when Wildlife is perceived as a problem, to take the easy way out . In this case the killing of 87 beavers rather than relocating them.
    Why is it that British standards of management and decision making, particularly related to supporting our struggling and declining wildlife and the countryside environment generally is so very low? We can and must do better than our current very poor performances.

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  3. Thank you Nonie for a clear exposition of a ludicrous situation. This blog sadly highlights the point made by Laurence Rose in his blog earlier this week about our relationship with nature. "We" have a low tolerance of other species sharing the landscape with us and the default approach is always to seek to eliminate the alleged pest.

    Vast amounts have been written about the beneficial impact that beavers have in landscapes and it makes no sense to oppose the translocation of 'problem' beavers into catchments where they can contribute to the expansion of the species range to the benefit of the environment as a whole, including us. As you point out there are also tried and tested techniques available to mitigate beaver damage where they do cause a problem so the immediate reaching out for the shotgun in every case is really not excusable.

    Hopefully the tide is beginning to turn but if it is, it is doing so imperceptibly slowly. Thank you for the work you do with the Scottish Wild Beaver Group to encourage a faster change to a more positive attitude to one of our most charming (and of course ecologically valuable) mammals. All power to your elbow!

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    1. Thanks Jonathan - all support and encouragement is very welcome! I think tides are turning but 'oh so slowly'. And SNH (like NE) has some really great biologists and conservationists but (like NE - possibly very slightly less so) have their hands tied by ScotGov and the huge influence of the landowning/ farming lobby. SNH have also been trialling water gates somewhere in Strathmore which is encouraging but also expensive so I'm sure there will continue to be pressure for shooting as the 'quick and easy' option. As you and others say here the problem is the institutionalised land manager reaction - the need (or 'right'?) to kill something as soon as it is perceived to be a 'problem' to any land management interests - instead of looking for ways to coexist and reap the benefits for wider society. And this is 25 years on from the first attempt by SNH to do a 'proper' (trial) reintroduction, including widespread aspen planting etc. - turned down by ScotGov in '95 I think. (I can remember the then CEO of SNH and staff disappointment at the time - I was on SNH's SAC which was fully behind the proposal). And of course even then we were already decades behind the rest of Europe and Scandinavia.

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      1. I participated in that very first public consultation about reintroducing the beaver way back in 95 and even then there was overwhelming public support for it. It was disgusting how obvious it was certain ignorant, selfish interests that were kow towed to and clearly nothing's changed.

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  4. Petition signed. It seems utterly ludicrous to have give Beavers legal protection and then go to lethal control of "problem" animals rather than translocate to currently empty suitable habitat. One almost gets the impression the SG had rather they had none at all, they do however have a history of pandering to the landowner lobby.

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    1. Thanks Paul - and yes, spot on about pandering. And we can all get sucked into this perverse thinking. I found myself arguing with other beaver supporters recently that it was not our job (voluntary beaver campaigners) to help SG/ SNH 'compromise' with farmers over 'problem' beavers - that's SNH's job. But then realised that's wrong too - SNH's function is "to improve our natural environment in Scotland and inspire everyone to care more about it.......our key habitats and landscapes, ...........our native species – maintained, enhanced and brings us benefits..........in order to maintain and enhance biodiversity..". etc. There is mention of that awful word 'balance' in there but I think it's clear that overall their job is conservation and 'connecting people with Nature' not pandering to landowners and the agriculture industry

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  5. Thanks for the informative blog - petition signed! I still don't think I understand exactly where the stumbling block is, in preventing their release in other catchments. From what I have read, the Scottish government stated they will be allowed to expand their range naturally, and that releases without a licence will still be illegal. Did they explicitly say no translocations (or is that implied)? Given SNH accept translocation as a valid process, what is stopping them issuing licences (thereby presumably rendering it legal) to translocate to areas outside of their current range?

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    1. Thanks Kim - the current ScotGov position is that beavers cannot be translocated to anywhere in Scotland 'outside current range' (though you're right natural expansion is 'allowed'!). I'm not sure (but will find out) exactly how 'current range' is defined but assume it relates to the recorded territories in the 17/18 census. Another issue I assume is cost/ resources - SNH only have limited traps and trained operators for live trapping and removal to another site following correct procedures for animal welfare etc. (and 'receptor' sites may want specific age/ sex beavers that don't match the removed ones). I think SNH are trying to increase this capacity but of course it is still 'cheaper' to shoot. And it also requires farmers/ land managers to be willing to have animals live-trapped (and accept possible delays etc.). In the SNH Beaver Licence summary they report that c. 75% of farmers were "generally positive" to live-trapping but don't say why they didn't achieve this. SNH: "However, whilst the level of willingness for trapping was relatively high, the number of instances where trapping was carried out was lower than we had hoped for and further work needs to be carried out to improve this".

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  6. Seven beavers on the Knapdale site! Showing my ignorance I know but having been to Knapdale I’m astounded that it can contain so few.
    This whole situation shows clearly the contempt our governments have for wildlife and the people that try to help.
    Beaver reintroduction to alleviate flooding must surely be in line with the Paris agreement. Therefore shooting them as a first course of action must be against it.
    Come on WJ, I have more dosh to give you on this one!

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    1. Apologies Paul - this was maximum of 7 ADDITIONAL beavers to Knapdale in 2019 (on top of the original ones released as part of the Trial or produced as offspring over the years of the Trial). I think there was a specified total number of licences for 'import' to Knapdale (based on biological/ reintroduction criteria). The Scottish Beaver Trial website will illuminate! https://www.scottishbeavers.org.uk/

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  7. In all honestly not only shouldn't we NOT be shooting any beavers while there's suitable habitat for them, existing or potential, we should actually be sourcing beavers from other parts of Europe to get the population up as soon as possible. A point I've made a few times (oh god am I turning into Giles!), but I can't help repeating the sooner we fully benefit from their flood reducing abilities the fewer people who'll need to mop out sodden homes with the associated human misery and dire financial repercussions. Putting in traditional engineered flood defences is seen as a priority, irrational not to feel the same about the beaver becoming fully re-established. The Netherlands govt actually offered the UK some beavers they were due to legitimately cull, but Michael Gove turned them down.

    I'm positive the Carron Dams nature reserve in Falkirk could take a pair of beaver even if just for a year or two when they can be moved on, and Linlithgow Loch about four miles from me could take more. There are probably hundreds of beavers that could be moved to sites like them that haven't even been officially logged yet. The good news is that early this year I spoke to a ranger from the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park and there's beaver sign in virtually every loch in it. Maybe just single males looking for territory/mates, but hopefully their female companions won't be far behind. Excellent article Nonnie, thanks.

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    1. Thanks Les - agree with everything you say and I imagine beavers around Falkirk and Linlithgow would be huge tourist attractions too. Very exciting about LLTTNP lochs too - roll on the day when either they or CNPA are allowed to have a licence for translocation into our National Parks ........ One of my favourite Aldo Leopold quotes is the one about the sadness of marshes that have lost their cranes - the more I see of what beavers can bring back in places like Bamff Wildland, the more I think how sad and beaver-bereft are so many other Scottish wetlands and riparian habitats.........

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      1. I think we're going to be in for some major and very pleasant surprises when we see what happens when beavers spread and they start interacting with other species like black grouse and ring ousel. On the Insh Marshes they should help keep encroaching scrub under control so do something that the RSPB is using volunteers to do at the moment to help waders. If beaver end up helping curlew that's a scenario the grouse moor owners won't like. The people behind the planned burbot reintroduction have said the habitat created by beaver should be perfect for them. I think it was Derek Gow who claimed the large copper butterfly won't be successfully reintroduced without beaver.

        He definitely said that the black stork is spreading back through western Europe aided by the wetlands beavers create and they could very well expand into Britain. They're bringing beaver back to Knepp and have had black stork visiting so it's possible that it could be the first recorded breeding site for both white and black storks in the UK which is a very exciting thought. Beavers have been doing their stuff for up to seven million years or more so an awful lot of our wildlife must be 'keyed in' to them in ways we just can't imagine. A very big piece of the missing part of the jigsaw is coming back.

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