Wild beavers in Scotland

| 22nd July 2020
A beaver in the Scottish Highlands is a great first step to restoring functioning ecosystems
Flickr
87 Beavers have been shot under license in Scotland. What has gone wrong?

How can such slaughter of these recently reintroduced, highly beneficial, native herbivores be avoided in future?

Beavers were finally given legal protection in Scotland on 1 May 2019, almost two decades after their return  to Scotland.  On the same day, the Scottish government issued licenses to certain landowners to allow them to kill beavers and remove their dams.

Up to the end of the year, 87 beavers are known to have been shot under this scheme not including the unknown number killed illegally.  Many people believe that the actual figure may be double the official one. At the last count there were around 450 beavers in Scotland so we are talking about one to two fifths of the known population. 

Meanwhile there are landowners and reintroduction projects across the UK who want beavers. These ecosystem engineers help with wetland restoration, flood prevention, nature and wellbeing and much more besides, and are in high demand.

Ecosystems 

So what is this all about? How did it happen, and how can such slaughter of these recently reintroduced, highly beneficial, native herbivores be avoided in future?

Beavers make complex wetlands by building and maintaining dams. The dams can be one hundred meters long or up to two meters high. In some landscapes, they can build several dozen dams in a couple of kilometres of waterway and have a really significant effect on the hydrology of an area, slowing the flow of water in times of flood and holding it on the land in times of drought.

They are agents of rewilding, creating abundant habitat for our beleaguered wildlife. Their dams and wetlands act as filters for agricultural run-off and other pollutants. They are both ecosystem engineers and a keystone species.

They also cut trees, since they need building material for their dams and lodges,, and they eat the inner bark of these trees to get them through the winter. These trees are usually (although not always) native broadleaves (eg willow, birch or hazel) that will often coppice, pollard or sucker the following year, forming thickets of vegetation by the water’s edge which is excellent habitat for many species of invertebrate and bird. Another less obvious advantage of beavers is that they may kill some trees by drowning their roots.

This looks destructive but in fact it  creates rare and valuable standing dead wood - much needed by species such as woodpeckers and owls, beetles and fungi.

After all, beavers co-evolved and co-existed with our native woodlands and riparian areas for centuries before they were extirpated by people due to demand for their secretions and their fur, so it makes total sense that they are a vital component of functioning ecosystems.

Downsides

While all of these activities are highly beneficial to the environment, they can, sometimes, be very annoying to certain low ground farmers. Unchecked beavers may occasionally drown areas of arable land by damming ditches and burrowing into flood banks. They can also make themselves unpopular when, for example, they bark or take down 250-year-old beech trees planted as part of a much-admired designed landscapes.

The beaver has its own view about landscape planning and it does not always agree with the decisions of our predecessors, who sometimes liked to put trees in places they would not naturally have grown. But while some of the things beavers do are genuinely problematic there may sometimes be a tendency to go by the precautionary principle and get rid of them before they settle in.

The Scottish Government, under pressure from farmers’ organisations, and nervous about economic loss  in some of our most productive land, agreed to give out licenses for the shooting of beavers on areas defined as Prime Agricultural Land (PAL) with very few questions asked, at the same moment that they gave legal protection to this recently reintroduced species.

45 licenses were issued to farmers and landowners in the course of 2019 and Scottish Natural Heritage, the public body responsible for our biodiversity,  also ran short training courses which effectively encouraged numerous individuals to shoot beavers on land belonging to license holders. In an incredibly short-sighted process, they seemed to jump straight to the last resort of killing before trying any other options to deal with the reported problems. 

So, given that there are some real problems with the beavers’ activities for these farmers, what could be done differently? The answer is that while it is difficult to accommodate these agents of rewilding in a highly artificial landscape, often it is not impossible and it is well worth the effort.

Mitigation 

There are three things that should be tried before anyone resorts to shooting a beaver. The first - accommodation -  is to just leave it be and wait and see if there is a real problem after all. But if there definitely is, then the second thing to try is mitigation, which is always a better idea than shooting or trapping.

Mitigation enables farmers to keep beavers on the riparian edges of their land where they and the rest of us can benefit from their activities.  Such an approach also leads to stabilisation of the situation. Where beavers are shot, or trapped out, the habitat is then left open for another beaver family to move in and start the process of damming all over again.

Unfortunately, they will usually cut more trees to build new dams and lodges, or dig fresh burrows, thus exacerbating the situation.  It is much better to accommodate the beaver family you already have. Beavers are extremely territorial and the resident family, happily accommodated within the farmers parameters will then defend the territory against the arrival of other beavers. 

There are a number of mitigation options, such as fencing, to keep the beavers out of particular areas. Dams can be adapted by having a pipe installed through them as a permanent leak or an electric fence run along them to limit their height. Where this works well it enables the beaver family to stay put and accept a smaller pond. Flood-banks can be protected with wire, and culverts can be protected with fencing boxes called  beaver deceivers. Valued trees may be individually wrapped with wire or painted with a mixture of paint and sand, and sections of woodland can be fenced. 

Mitigation can provide brilliant solutions that bring benefits to all concerned but as yet not many farmers have much faith in them. The government should be doing all they can to encourage mitigation before resorting to licensed shooting but instead they have approached this the other way around, by allowing widespread shooting first and then trying to retrofit some mitigation in a few places. 

Twenty such projects have been carried out in Tayside in the last year, and more are planned, but seen against 87 dead beavers this seems like far too little too late.

Relocation 

Where mitigation won’t work, in the short term, beavers can be trapped and relocated to other places where there is good habitat and little or no likelihood of conflict, bringing only their many benefits. A small number of Tayside beavers have been trapped and moved to Knapdale on Scotland’s west coast, and a few to England. 

But a survey by Scottish Natural Heritage shows that there are over 100,000 hectares of potential core beaver woodland in Scotland and various landowners and NGOs are very keen to have beavers in their area.

Despite this, the Scottish Government has, so far, decided not to allow relocation to these places, or anywhere in Scotland other than the official trial site. Capacity for live trapping has not been developed as much as it could be because the emphasis from the start was on teaching people to shoot beavers. 

Farmers have therefore had the animals shot, thus enraging many animal lovers and conservationists.  75 percent of the farmers who have got licenses to kill said they would be happy to have the beavers trapped and moved but with the ban on moving them to most areas of Scotland, this just isn’t feasible. 

Conflict that could have been avoided is now raging across the low-ground of Strathmore and Strathtay. 

Definition 

Even if you accept the idea of some licensed activities to manage beaver conflict such as dam removal and lethal control and you give extra leniency to owners of Prime Agricultural Land to allow them to do this, you need to be very careful about definitions.

Currently too many kinds of land are defined as prime and too much leniency is being given to the farmers who have it. Shooting first and asking questions later seems to be the order of the day, whereas it should be exactly the other way around. In addition to the shot beavers, 83 beaver dams have been removed in the last year under 19 licences.

We need to know more about these dam removals. Can we be certain in each case that the removal was necessary? If not, the risk is that beavers will cut more trees to build another dam and the problem, if there was a problem, may be exacerbated rather than solved.

Often the dam does much more good than harm, making a beautiful pool full of fish and waterfowl, amphibians and water plants, filtering run off and holding the water table steady. With beavers you get water features installed and maintained for nothing! 

Sometimes there is a real problem, but sometimes people just don’t like change.

Revisualisation 

So given the difficulty of accommodating beavers on Prime Agricultural Land why is the animal known in the Netherlands, as The Necessary Beaver and in the productive arable land of Switzerland as Our Ally"?  And this is not just the language of environmentalists, it is the language of government.

The Netherlands could be regarded as Europe’s canary in the mine shaft of climate change.  If we are worried about the consequences of flooding how must the Dutch feel? After a catastrophic flood in 1995 when 200,000 people had to be evacuated from their homes, the Dutch did some serious thinking and concluded that they needed to completely review the way they manage their waterways.

Instead of hurrying water down straightened ditches and rivers and risk catastrophic flooding in times of heavy rain, they needed to revert the land to a more natural system of drainage where water meanders and flows more slowly across the land. So they created their ‘Room for the River’ project and moved agriculture away from the water’s edge, giving a wide strip of the riparian edge back to nature - allowing & encouraging rivers to re-meander and pools and wetlands to form along the edge. 

To speed up this process they brought in beavers, but at the same time fenced them out of the most productive farmland but  farmers were still allowed to use the floodplains for summer grazing. 

The wider riparian strip has now become habitat to many species of bird, fish, amphibian, plant and invertebrate. Pollinators buzz happily on species rich meadows; agricultural run-off is filtered through the dams and wetlands and catastrophic flooding has been averted for the last 20 years.

Restoration 

In Switzerland a similar approach by the government has enabled beavers to exist alongside arable land with carefully designed fencing to keep the beavers out of the critical places and to encourage them into the places where they can mitigate some of the problematic impacts of agriculture.

In Bavaria thousands of beavers live on the prime agricultural land and the vast majority of them are accommodated without conflict, simply by pulling agriculture back a little from the edge of the waterways.

In Scotland, you might argue, we value our PAL because we have very little of it and do not want to sacrifice any of it to create habitat for beavers and the like.  But its not as though agriculture of this kind was not causing huge environmental problems itself.

We are degrading this land all the time - losing soil into the waterways and this silt, along with other run-off is then damaging the salmon runs and liable to block town drains further down the hill. Straightened, incised rivers, burns and ditches hurry the water off the land as fast as possible, causing downstream flooding in times of heavy rain and losing all the water quickly in times of drought.

In narrow, often grazed riparian areas, we have lost a great deal of pollinator habitat and berry farmers have become more dependent on expensive and vulnerable hired-in bees. Beavers can restore all of this. Modern farming leaves a huge dent in nature and the approach needs to be comprehensively reconsidered.

Diet

Downstream from the Prime Agricultural land of Strathmore, where beavers are being shot to protect farmland, Perth is a city with a serious flooding problem, and back in 1993, after a huge flood,  at a debate in the House of Lords it was proposed that Perthshire farmers should be encouraged to convert some arable land to “water meadows” to protect the city.

This did not happen, but instead £30 million  was spent on flood walls which have recently been very nearly overwhelmed. It seems likely that it is only a matter of time before they are.

The question is therefore not whether we can afford to give wide riparian edges back to nature but whether we can afford not to?

It is important to ask ourselves what is actually grown on this prime agricultural land in Scotland? In east Tayside it includes crops grown for livestock fodder, barley for malting, raspberries and strawberries, potatoes & carrots. Of these, the last two are undoubtedly staple crops providing much needed food (although there is room for debate about how exactly they are grown and the impact on the wider environment and long-term health of the soil).

If not quite a staple, raspberries and strawberries are a highly desirable crop and part of a healthy diet. Whisky and beer are great products but neither really classify as food. The large acreage given over to the growing of fodder for cattle is highly contentious and a strong argument for eating less meat.

Agriculture

As people move to a more vegetable based diet - flexitarian, vegetarian and vegan - this is should already be freeing up land not just in the uplands and other less favoured areas where the livestock are grazed, but also in the low lying areas where much of the grain that is grown is fed to livestock. 

Meat takes (approximately) five times as much land per calorie as vegetables when you count the fodder land.  Well short of everyone becoming a vegan there is a great deal of scope for reducing the amount of land needed by farming and still producing as much food as we currently do, or far more, with vertical farming, permaculture and various new approaches.

If our government and farmers were more visionary in the way they saw our land-use then beavers would not be viewed as a pest on Prime Agricultural Land, but as part of the solution to a more resilient biodiverse countryside.

The way the public funding of agricultural land works just now, the farmer is paid a sum per hectare for farmland, and some of the money you pay in your taxes is paid to farmers just for having farmland.  This is called Pillar One. If the farmland ceases to be farmland because it has become flooded or scrubbed up with bushes (and has thus become wildlife habitat instead) it is then re-defined as non eligible hectares and no longer qualifies for the Basic Area Payment under Pillar One.

At this point it may be possible to apply for Pillar Two funding instead for “greening”. The downside of this kind of payment is that it is paid at a lower rate per hectare and it is competitive. You can spend many hours filling in the form - trying to make your project meet the criteria - and not get anything.

You can pay the best advisor to do it for you and still be turned down. This doesn’t  happen with Pillar One, the Basic Area Payment. So, there is little financial motivation for farmers to move away from agriculture to wildlife habitat, even on poorer land.

Bureaucracy 

When farmers get Pillar 2 payments, they are asked to fit very specific criteria. But in reality, nature does not always conform to bureaucratic requirements.

There is no payment as yet for rewilding - that is - putting nature in charge of the process. But some farmers do get these payments and shockingly some of the farms on which beavers are being  killed and dams removed are in receipt of large sums of public money for “Greening." 

The system of payments will last until 2024 but then it will change. It is believed (and hoped) that the next payment system will be designed around the principle of “public funds for public goods”.

This is an opportunity to introduce payments for wide riparian edges with beavers and happily this is under discussion. This could be really transformative, not just to the survival of beavers but to the very survival of our countryside in this time of climate and biodiversity crisis.  

Funding

These proposals need not be about finding more money, but about re-allocating the money that is already being spent on an unsustainable system.

Beavers’ ability to reduce flooding at no cost, alone, is worth an enormous sum. For example the small village of Comrie is considered in 2017 to need an outlay of £25 million to protect it from flooding.  In parts of England such as at Pickering in Yorkshire, and, for example, in the Eddlestone Water in the Scottish Borders, artificial beaver dams have been installed in streams to reduce flooding of towns in the valleys below.

Some of these projects in England now have beavers assisting in the maintenance of the dams which would otherwise have been done at great expense by people. These beavers, incidentally, mostly came from low ground farms in Tayside where rare instances of relocation were carried out instead of shooting. We could be doing so much more of this if they were allowed to go to suitable new habitat in other parts of Scotland as well.

Beavers, apart from bringing immense interest and joy, and attracting tourists,  can save us humans vast amounts of money, although this is entirely over and above their intrinsic right to be here in their old territories - places from which our ancestors trapped them out for their pelts. 

The beaver killing on our farmland in Tayside last year is an illustration of how, for a nation of animal lovers we really can be remarkably zoo-phobic. We must stop this cruel and destructive shooting of beavers now and enjoy the many benefits of their return to our countryside.

 

This Author 

Louise Ramsay is chair of the Scottish Wild Beaver Group and lives in Perthshire on a farm with beavers.

Get involved

If you are unhappy about all these beavers being killed and want to see better policy, and you live in Scotland, then write to your MSP to say so.  To find the right contact details you can enter your postcode here.

Alternatively you can write to Roseanna Cunningham, cabinet secretary for the environment, climate change and land reform here

If you are an artist then you can contribute an art work to XR and SWBGs 87 Beavers in Memorium Art Action. For more information visit the website for Scottish Wild Beavers  

There is now a Trees for Life Petition calling for relocation of beavers here.  Please sign and share!

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