On 1 May 2019, beavers became a protected species under Scottish law. Trees for Life, like many others, celebrated this vital step in securing the future of this keystone species, a key ally in tackling the climate emergency and nature crisis. The reintroduction of beavers to Scotland has been a major achievement, but it has not been a smooth one, with a small number of farmers having to cope with a challenge they did not ask for.
When NatureScot, the Scottish government’s nature agency, announced that 20% of the already fragile Scottish beaver population were shot under license in just eight months last year, we were more than a little shocked. That was why we petitioned the Scottish Parliament in October of this year to ask them to review the government’s approach to beavers. 16,785 people signed the petition making it the most supported in at least 12 years.
The petition created a huge amount of interest and led to questions about whether the Scottish government was implementing the law surrounding beavers as a protected species properly. For Trees for Life, working with the legally specialist rewilding charity The Lifescape Project, upon receiving previously unpublished documents from NatureScot, it soon became evident that NatureScot were failing in their legal duties.
Trees for Life adopts a constructive and collaborative approach to rewilding and the challenges it brings. We have been working quietly for a number of years to try to make it possible for the benefits that beavers can bring to reach a much wider area. We have wanted to find common ground with those with whom we may have differences of opinion and to persevere in the knowledge that where areas of commonality can be found, we all benefit. And to date, this has been our approach with the challenges surrounding the reintroduction of beavers.
Taking NatureScot to judicial review marks a change in this approach. However, when it became evident that the law is being broken, we felt compelled to act. We are aware that there is a possibility that this judicial review may further fuel polarisation of the debate about the future of beavers in Scotland. To that end, we wanted to be clear in this blog about our perspective.
Some people may perceive beaver reintroduction as a conflict between farming and conservation. We don’t. We see it as an opportunity for collaboration. Beavers are causing problems for some people, but a greater number of people are having problems that beavers can help to solve. We should be working together rather than focusing on conflict. Natural flood management, water quality improvement, restoring nature and economic benefits from tourism are among the positive impacts that beavers have.
We completely sympathise with the farmers who suffer beaver damage on Tayside. They never asked to have to deal with this issue and we want to increase the options available to them to manage beavers. We support the use of lethal control but only in exceptional circumstances when all of the alternative ways of alleviating beaver impacts have been transparently explored, discounted and evidenced. We also believe that a more strategic approach to the beaver issue is needed and that this has to feature support for land use that simultaneously minimises beaver problems and delivers valuable environmental benefits around our rivers and watercourses. Experience from elsewhere in Europe has shown how important this is in making co-existence with beavers sustainable in the long term.
We are seeking changes to NatureScot’s current approach to beaver management. Since the summer of 2020, NatureScot have been taking a more proactive approach to promoting translocation and have said that they are open to translocating beavers within their current range in Scotland. We are asking them to go further by formally putting translocation ahead of lethal control and making all of the suitable beaver habitat in Scotland available to receive beavers. There are areas across the UK and within Scotland where it is feasible for beavers to return right away, rather than being killed. However, we recognize that there are many areas where there will need to be a more detailed dialogue with land users subject to thorough consultation and detailed local assessments which meet the Scottish Code for Conservation Translocations.
Genuine conversations about the pros and cons of beavers are needed with all stakeholders in a river catchment. We believe that productive conversations can be held where all viewpoints are heard and understood with honesty and respect. There should be no sense of a foregone conclusion in these conversations. There are plenty of examples across Europe where this process has been handled in this way.
If we receive a favourable ruling at judicial review, opening consultations in river catchments suitable for beaver reintroduction is a crucial next step. Where consultations conclude that beavers should be moved to a new area, we anticipate that ourselves and others will be in a position to enable the reintroduction of beavers which are causing problems to more favourable places, provided that the right process has taken place and the beavers will be welcomed by the community.