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.[registration_form]