Beaver culling in Scotland: what’s the issue?

Concern is mounting that beaver culling in Tayside, Scotland threatens the viable population. Here’s our digested read of the issue.

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What’s the issue?

Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) granted licences last year to cull 87 beavers that were deemed to be causing problems for farmers and landowners. That’s one-fifth of the country’s total population of 450 — just months after the government declared them a protected species in Scotland.

Currently the Scottish beaver population is concentrated in two areas – around Knapdale on the west coast and Tayside in the east. The government has said that beavers will be allowed to spread naturally across Scotland, but it will take many decades for beavers to reach areas that are already suitable for them and which would benefit from their role as ecosystem engineers.

What sort of problems do beavers impose?

Beaver activities around our waterways help protect our towns and cities against flooding, restore wetlands and create habitats for a wealth of wildlife. Occasionally, as in Tayside, they can have local impacts on agriculture too, flooding agricultural fields. Ministers are putting landowners around the Tay in a difficult position by blocking beavers’ relocation to other more suitable areas of Scotland.

Is culling a problem?

Culling in small numbers, which might replicate the action of natural predators (such as the wolf), shouldn’t be a problem. We need a natural balance between healthy water and soils, vegetation, herbivores and carnivores. In the absence of a natural range of large carnivore species (e.g. wolves and lynx), it’s likely we will need to replicate their impact on large herbivores, to achieve that natural ecosystem functioning. However, the population of Tayside beavers is relatively new and just becoming established. There are fears that killing 87 beavers in a year will wipe them out.

What should be done?

In a letter to The Scotsman, Steve Micklewright, convenor of the Scottish Rewilding Alliance, of which Rewilding Britain is a member, has called for beavers to be humanely trapped and relocated.

Each beaver shot under the current licensing scheme is a wasted life that could have helped tackle the climate emergency and nature crisis by creating a thriving nature-rich wetland somewhere else in Scotland,” he says. For beavers to have a secure future in Scotland, the number of rivers in which they live and their total population must both be allowed to increase. Instead of killing beavers, relocating them to rivers where they are welcome by the community would ensure they deliver the biodiversity and climate change benefits Scotland so desperately needs.”

SNH research has identified many Highland locations with good beaver habitat, and these are often surrounded by economic land uses with low sensitivity to beaver impacts. Ecologically, we know that beavers can thrive in the Highlands, just as they did until hunting made them extinct around 400 years ago.

The Scottish Rewilding Alliance is calling on MSPs in Holyrood to vote to ban the licensed killing of beavers in Scotland at least until their conservation status is clearly secured. They also advocate paying farmers for having beavers on their land for the public goods they offer. These include preventing flooding downstream, cleaning up waterways and providing richer conditions and food for all freshwater creatures.

What does Rewilding Britain think?

It’s important that we explore options of payments to landowners, and other ways to ensure that beavers and our waterways can thrive. We believe beavers have an important role to play in our landscapes. We know many landowners and communities who would welcome their return. The Scottish Government should use beaver relocations as a strong example of leadership in both biodiversity recovery and climate change.