Much of the tension on this issue is around principles.
- Bias. Few if any of the projects or study groups are seen as truly unbiased. There is a strong feeling, with some justification, that a decision was taken by staff members interested in re-wilding at SNH and NGOs in the early 2000s to have wild European beavers in Scotland. Consultations after the event have only been about how to live with the change, not whether the change is sensible.
- Illegal release. Beavers have been illegally released into a number of the Tay system tributaries for around 10 years. DNA testing of trapped beavers suggests they are closely related, and many of the releases have been close to main roads.
- Non-prosecution. The illegal release has been accepted by the Minister because it is perceived to be politically impossible to be officially testing beaver re-introduction in Knapdale while culling them in Tayside. It has also been difficult to pin the release on an individual.
- Impact on salmonids.
- Impact on farming. Beavers not only dam, but burrow. This has caused verifiable damage to flood defences in the eastern Tay catchment, annoying a good number of our farming members. The SNH-led Tayside Beaver Study Group has been put in place to monitor numbers, impacts and advise on mitigation.
- Impact on roads. There are real concerns fuelled by experience of other beaver populations, though little hard evidence, that local and main roads will suffer increasing verge and flood damage from burrowing and collapsed dams lodging in culverts and ditches.
- Disease. Beavers can carry Giardia and Echinococcus multilocularis but limited disease screening appears to have ruled this out in the released population.
Beaver dams are being held up as potential flood mitigators, trapping and slowing water. However, this only works in the uplands and when heavy rain follows dry conditions. When beaver dams are full, further heavy rain appears to overtop the dam and may increase the risk of a dam breach. And beavers do not choose to use upland areas first, but prefer willow rich flat lowlands, where they damage levees.
- Beavers are not currently native in Scotland and so can be culled without fear of prosecution because they have no legal status. However because of CITES regulations you cannot have a dead beaver in your possession without a licence.
- Three ministers in succession have indicated that if SNH determines beavers have become resident then they will receive protection under the Habitat Directive.
Land managers may have to accept the battle is lost on whether beavers are now ‘native’. Nevertheless, the GWCT condemns such unilateral species releases and their non-prosecution as non-evidence-led conservation and policy.
Should beavers become protected, the GWCT backs approaches, similar to those in other European countries, which with advisory support allow unlicensed control of beaver activity such as temporary dam building and licensing to cull beavers where they are shown to be causing environmental or economic damage that cannot be otherwise addressed.
Dr. Adam Smith