Dam poor show on Tayside - OneKind calls for immediate protection for beavers

Harry Huyton's avatar
Harry Huyton
02 February 2016

Disturbing information has emerged over the last week about the killing of beavers in the Tayside area leading us to call for urgent protection for all beavers in Scotland.

Unlike the animals released in Argyll as part of an official reintroduction trial, the Tayside beavers are living in the wild due to unauthorised releases or escapes from local collections.  After an absence from Scotland of 400 years – having been hunted to extinction in the 1600s – this population of beavers appears to be thriving and has grown to around 150 to 200 individuals.

In 2012, after various attempts to remove them, the Scottish Government decided to tolerate the beavers’ presence.  Why wouldn’t they? The beavers pose no risk to public or animal health, nor do they eat fish.  Even so, that tolerance does not appear to have extended to all local land managers, some of whom object to the impact of the busy beavers on their land.

Questions in the Scottish Parliament by Alison Johnstone MSP of the Scottish Green Party have confirmed that some local land managers are killing beavers, and these killings have on occasion been particularly cruel. 

Since 2010, post mortems have been carried out on a total of 21 shot beavers. In addition, correspondence released to BBC Scotland following a Freedom of Information request shows that SNH, the Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT) and the RZSS have all raised concerns about the animal welfare impacts of ongoing lethal control – and rightly so. 

If lethal control of wild animals can ever be justified – and the bar should be set high for this – OneKind believes the most basic tenet of humane slaughter must be observed and a quick, clean death ensured.  Yet the autopsies carried out by the RZSS vets revealed that three beavers were shot with inappropriate calibres or ammunition, or at a range which might compromise the likelihood of immediate and humane death.

Further animal welfare issues emerged when we learned that, of the 21 beavers autopsied, four were pregnant and a further two were lactating. The killing of a lactating mother inevitably condemns her dependent kits to a slow death from dehydration and starvation.  That is why close seasons are observed for other mammals such as deer and hare.  Even fox hunting is a seasonal activity.  But at present, beaver kits are not even afforded the protection of a close season.

Plenty of alternatives to lethal control exist if a beaver is deemed to be causing a problem. For example, flow control devices can be used to reduce the impact of beaver dams, wire fencing to protect trees. Trapping and translocation can even be used as a last resort– a beaver was successfully translocated from the Moulin Burn at Pitlochry earlier this month. And yet the correspondence uncovered by the BBC shows NFU Scotland resisting a proposal that the Tayside Beaver Study Group should recommend non-lethal control on its website.  This is shocking given the serious welfare concerns and the range of alternative, non-violent ways of managing the impact of beavers.

The correspondence also shows that the zoo vets who necropsied the beavers highlighted their welfare concerns, and asked SNH for the introduction of a close season and better shooting guidelines.  The response from SNH was that a decision on the future of reintroduced beavers in the course of 2015 was likely to bring legal protection in its wake.  But it is now 2016 and there has been no announcement, leaving the beavers in limbo and completely unprotected.

The only possible humane response is for the Scottish Government to introduce emergency protections for all beavers until a final decision has been made about their reintroduction. Furthermore, if a full reintroduction is decided upon then a fully funded plan must be in place to ensure beavers and people live together in harmony. We must also learn from this as in the absence of protections this persecution was inevitable. For the future, any wildlife management project, including reintroductions, must be subject to a full animal welfare impact assessment before it gets underway.

Scottish nature writer Jim Crumley, writing about the beaver as “Nature’s Architect” emphasised the benign effect of these beguiling rodents on a landscape with new dams and lodges, creating more open water for the beavers to work with:

“This is the benevolent rhythm to which beaver life moves, a constant cyclical process of expansion and renewal, and with each stage of the cycle, the beavers create new opportunities for plants, insects, birds, fish and other aquatic life, and water-loving mammals.”

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