WILDLIFE groups are calling for beavers to be legally released at new sites across Scotland to ensure that the dam-building mammals have a long-term future.
Among the possible places mooted for more beavers are the two national parks around Loch Lomond and the Cairngorms, as well as Caithness and Sutherland. The dozen or so animals left from the trial reintroduction at Knapdale in Argyll also need boosting, experts say.
“It is essential for the population to be established that there are further releases where there are willing stakeholders and appropriate habitat,” said Sarah Robinson, head of conservation programmes and science at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland.
She thought it would be ideal if the Argyll population, as well as being augmented by new releases, could join up with the 150 or so beavers living on Tayside following an illegal introduction a decade ago. “But it is important that it is a licensed and legal process,” she said.
The Scottish environment minister, Roseanna Cunningham, announced last week that the Argyll and Tayside beavers would be allowed to stay. The long-awaited decision was hailed as the “first formal mammal reintroduction in UK history”.
It followed revelations in the Sunday Herald that farmer and gamekeepers had shot Tayside beavers that were pregnant or feeding young. An email from February 2016 released by the Scottish Government warned that “as many as possible” were being shot before legal controls were brought in.
Land managers defended the “lethal control” of beavers. They said the animals’ dams could disrupt vital drainage systems and damage productive farmland.
Now the beavers have been given official permission to stay, a licensing system will be introduced to govern their management. The aim will be only to allow killing as a last resort.
But if beavers are proving particularly problematic for farmers in parts of Tayside, they could be moved to another area. That’s another reason why new sites are now being suggested.
“It’s possible that some animals will be relocated from prime agricultural land in Tayside so suitable release sites will need to be identified in the next few years,” said the chief executive of the Scottish Wildlife Trust, Jonny Hughes.
“Beavers require lochs and rivers surrounded by native woodland, and there are several areas of the country that could be suitable. Any new sites have to be considered on a landscape scale and follow the guidelines set out in the Scottish code on conservation translocations.”
The immediate priority was to expand the small population at Knapdale “to increase the genetic diversity and secure its long-term future”, Hughes argued.
“As we move into this new exciting phase for beaver conservation in Scotland it is essential that there are no attempts at unauthorised releases. Such illegal activity would jeopardise over a decade of science-based conservation.”
Grant Moir, chief executive of the Cairngorms National Park Authority, welcomed the news that beavers were here to stay. “We believe they can play an important role both ecologically and from an eco-tourism point of view,” he said.
“We will explore the potential for, and the implications of, beaver reintroduction in river catchments in the Cairngorms National Park. Once the next steps set out by ministers are complete we will work with all stakeholders through the Cairngorms nature strategy group to consider this further.”
Andrew Bauer, deputy director of policy for the National Farmers Union of Scotland, stressed that any new sites would need to be chosen very carefully. “They should not be where there could be impacts on farmers or crofters,” he said.
“We can see advantages in moving beavers from areas of Tayside where they are in conflict with land use,” he added. “But I see no need to accelerate re-colonisation by beavers – they are doing it themselves very rapidly.”
The Scottish Government described the reintroduction of beavers as “a highly significant milestone in our work to protect and enhance biodiversity”. But it stressed that the animals could cause harm and had to be carefully managed.
“The Scottish Government is now required by law to complete a habitats regulations assessment and consider a strategic environmental assessment,” a spokeswoman said.
“As a result, we have no plans to license further releases in the foreseeable future. We will also take swift action if another illegal release takes place – such an act constitutes a wildlife crime and carries serious potential penalties.”