Devil’s Advocate: Making the case for and against the reintroduction of beavers

Devil’s Advocate: Making the case for and against the reintroduction of beavers

Hunted to extinction around 400 years ago, beavers were once a native species in Scotland.

In 2009 the Scottish Wildlife Trust, in partnership with the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland and Forestry and Land Scotland, launched the first beaver re-introduction trial at Knapdale Forest in Argyll.

The trial had mixed results but through further re-introductions elsewhere, both legally and illegally, Scotland’s beaver population is now reaching record levels.

This increase in numbers has prompted much controversy and debate, especially with the announcement of a new beaver release site being approved at Argaty, near Doune, which is the first since Knapdale.

Against this backdrop, Senior Associate Charlotte Gilfillan and Assistant Land Agent Carrie McLennan from our Highland Office explore both sides of the argument and discuss the future of beavers in Scotland.

Carrie McLennan

There’s no doubt that beaver reintroduction has caused plenty of conflict between conservationists and land managers. Depending which side of the fence you’re on, you either love them or hate them … and in my line of work, it tends to be the latter.

However, it is important to look at re-introduction with an open mind, as beavers have the potential to bring a whole host of environmental, economic, and social benefits. Right now, this is more important than ever, and keystone species such as the beaver have the power to define entire ecosystems, so maybe it is time that we viewed them in a different light?

Indeed, this is about more than just re-introducing an extinct species, it’s about restoring lost ecosystems. Beavers are called ecosystem engineers for good reason as they have a profound impact on their surroundings and possess the ability to restructure their environment through the creation of new habitats, increasing biodiversity, and restoring ecosystem functionality.

I believe that improved communication between stakeholders and conservationists could be the key to helping both sides understand the species and its management options.

There are a number of effective measures which can mitigate the negative impacts of the species and allow for landowners and beavers to coexist. Flow devices, for example, alleviate the impacts of beaver-related flooding issues by allowing the flow of water to continue in a waterway where dams are present.

Recent developments regarding translocation also allow for beavers to be relocated, under a protected species licence through NatureScot to other parts of Scotland if they are causing a disturbance to land managers and prime agricultural land. Previously the only option was to relocate beavers to the established trial population in Knapdale, or to move them to England. This means beavers can now be moved to places where they will benefit nature and the environment, reduce the risk of damage to agricultural enterprises, and crucially, help resolve conflict between key stakeholders.

We should also bear in mind that beavers can and do coexist with people. This has been evident elsewhere in Europe, where the species reintroduction in Sweden has been commended as one of the most successful ever, as they have coexisted with society since 1922, offering one of the best examples of the benefits brought by reintroducing a lost species. There is no reason why this cannot be the case in Scotland, we just need to better understand the benefits that keystone species such as the beaver can bring, and utilise the management options available.

Charlotte Gilfillan

The reintroduction of the beaver in the UK  has been hailed a huge success by conservationists and re-wilders, with numbers tripling in Scotland over the last three years.

While I recognise there are some important ecological benefits to the return of beavers, it has come at a huge cost. From destruction of arable crops through blocking drains and ditches, burrowing through flood defences, felling of trees, flooding of commercial forestry plantations, the list goes on. Even designated sites have been impacted in some areas, with beavers raising water levels sufficiently to threaten the site’s favourable status.

Infrastructure hasn’t escaped unscathed either, with roads and railways being damaged by burrowing, damming and flooding. Last year Network Rail announced they had successfully built ‘Scotland’s first beaver tunnel’ in a culvert under the Highland line in Perthshire, to much fanfare. What they didn’t highlight was that it took several teams from Network Rail plus outside contractors and specialists many months of work to resolve the problem of the dammed culvert and build the tunnel, all at significant cost to the taxpayer.

Although mitigation measures like flow devices, translocation and tree protection are available, there are still costs attached to these options. One of the most effective tools in managing beavers, particularly around arable crops, is a licence for lethal control. The future of NatureScot’s Beaver Management Framework and licensing system, which includes lethal control, was subject to judicial review last year, following a legal challenge by Trees for Life. The majority of the complaints were thankfully dismissed but it is vital that this licence remains available as numbers and impacts of beavers increase.

The re-introduction of any species will inevitably bring its own set of unique challenges, particularly those that have been extinct for hundreds of years and whose natural range and landscape is now completely managed. Trials are therefore imperative to determine the feasibility of any re-introduction and to consider the consequences, both intended and unintended.

Given the uncertain success of the initial trial at Knapdale, where the population failed to grow, there is a question of whether future legal re-introductions would have been supported by the Scottish Government. However, by the time the trial results were available many beavers had already been released illegally by private individuals in Perthshire, deliberately and without repercussion, leaving farmers and landowners to pick up the cost.

With the beaver then subsequently becoming a protected species in 2019, this undoubtedly fuelled the debate further and set a dangerous precedent for future re-introductions.

Driven by the Climate Emergency and Biodiversity Crisis, species re-introduction has never been more topical or more polarised. If the re-introduction of beavers in Scotland is to be used as a benchmark against which other proposed re-introductions are considered, then I have a gnawing feeling we could be in serious trouble. Ultimately the question remains, do the benefits really outweigh the costs – I remain unconvinced.

Article posted on 14/02/2022