Why we welcome beavers – but also need to support farmers

It has been one month since beavers were added to the list of European Protected Species of Animals and protected under Scottish law. We look at the benefits beavers can bring, and work being done to tackle the problems they occasionally cause.

European Beaver (Castor fiber) ©Lorne Gill

©Lorne Gill

Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) has supported efforts to bring beavers back to Scotland for many years. We know that beavers can create incredibly diverse and rich habitats, particularly wetlands. This in turn benefits many plants, as well as animals like otters, water voles, fish, bats, birds and insects. Under certain conditions, these changes may help regulate water flow, reduce flooding and sediments and improve water quality.

But this incredible ability of beavers to significantly change the environment they live in can occasionally cause problems on farmland, in forests and gardens and even occasionally to infrastructure such as roads and culverts. Beavers can burrow into river banks and dam smaller water courses, block culverts, forage crops and fell trees.

While many landowners are happy to have beavers on their land, sometimes their activities can seriously compromise the ability to produce crops or rear livestock. This is particularly the case in parts of Tayside which has some of the most productive farmland in Scotland. Many of these areas are flat, low-lying, reliant on good drainage and susceptible to flooding.

There are a number of ways SNH helps farmers and other affected by beavers and their dams. Firstly, we can look at whether work can be done on the ground to minimise any problems. This includes measures such as installing specially designed water gates, beaver deterrent fencing, soft engineering on river banks, flood bank protection, piped dams and monitoring water levels in farm ditches. We are currently working on a range of these kinds of projects and increasing our understanding of how they can be applied more widely.

©Lorne Gill/SNH/2020VISION.

©Lorne Gill/SNH/2020VISION.

Further options include moving beavers that are causing serious damage to other locations where there are planned beaver conservation projects – this is known as translocation. So far, we have licensed the translocation of 12 beavers from Tayside to Knapdale in Argyll; Devon and Yorkshire. We currently have live licences and proposals for translocation for conservation projects elsewhere in the UK that could cover moving up to 50 additional animals, and there are likely to be a number of other potential translocation opportunities for this year and beyond.

Translocation is not without its own risks and has to be very carefully planned and undertaken, however we are working with farmers to identify sites where animals can be humanely trapped to support translocations and remove the need for lethal control.

Lethal control is a last resort when beavers are having a serious impact and there is no other satisfactory solution.   We have also made sure that any lethal control is done as humanely as possible by requiring that it is only carried out by individuals who have received SNH training. Licences are also very clear that lethal control should be avoided during the kit dependency period, except in exceptional circumstances, and that we must be notified straight away. We have not had any such notification to date.

©Lorne Gill/SNH/2020VISION

©Lorne Gill/SNH/2020VISION

To date we have issued 29 licences to permit dam removal and the lethal control of beavers as a last resort but we anticipate that many of these sites may be suitable for the capture of beavers for translocations to other conservation projects. We are aware of the recent discovery of the carcass of a pregnant beaver and of other dead animals being found, however no beavers have been shot under licence to our knowledge to date since protection was afforded on May 1. Any carcass found therefore either pre-dates this or has been unlawfully shot. We take any suggestion of unlawful shooting very seriously and we will work with the police and other agencies to help investigate these. If anyone suspects suspicious practice, please report this to Police Scotland.

Taken together, we are confident that our approach will not affect the continued expansion of the Scottish beaver population and the positive impacts they can bring to other areas. We will continue to carefully monitor both the use of licences and of the Scottish beaver population to ensure we achieve this aim.

We will continue working with farmers, landowners and managers, conservation bodies and a range of interest to ensure that we all learn from experience and realise the benefits that beavers will bring to Scotland, while providing support to those who are experiencing problems with the effects of beavers on their property.

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