Earlier this week NatureScot released its beaver ‘management’ report for 2020. The admission that 115 beavers were shot under licence last year captured headlines and hearts. And quite rightly – shooting animals is abhorrent in most circumstances and particularly difficult to understand in a species that has recently returned to Scotland and is supposedly ‘protected.’ But focussing only numbers killed misses some nuance, and the other ways people are harming and helping beavers.
Firstly, we must consider how these beavers died. Only three post-mortems were carried out, of the 115 beavers who were shot, but on one of the these the “bullet placement was not in the recommended area to best ensure a humane dispatch.” With so few post-mortems done it is hard to know if this was an aberration, but there is the potential that many beavers who were shot did not die instantly and may have suffered greatly. This seems likely as 80% of the beavers were shot in the water, where it is more difficult to ensure a humane kill.
It is unacceptable, and quite astonishing if you stop and think about it, that anybody can shoot an animal in Scotland without any training or proof that they have the knowledge or skills to do so safely and without causing additional suffering. We would like to see an end to the killing of our wild animals but, in the absence of that, there should at least be a requirement for all shooters to be certified.
Licences can be granted to kill beavers but also for other measures, primarily trapping and dam removal. 56 dams were removed last year, representing homes destroyed and families disturbed. The psychological and social repercussions for beavers may be grave, and dam removal should not be seen as a benign action.
Many people and organisations are arguing strongly that the Scottish Government should allow beavers to be trapped and translocated to suitable habitat elsewhere in Scotland (they currently allow trapping but not release, so some beavers have been taken to England and released there). The point is made that this could avoid many or all of the kill licences and is therefore preferable. We agree with this, but it is important to acknowledge that this type of intervention causes a huge upheaval for the beavers. The experience of being trapped and moved will be stressful, families may be separated, adjusting to a new home may be challenging, there may be dispute with other beavers nearby the release site …
Translocation is preferable over killing but should not be seen as a panacea.
Mitigation and co-existence
Alongside issuing licences to shoot or relocate beavers or remove dams, NatureScot has been promoting and investigating mitigation measures. These are actions that landowners can take to reduce the less welcome impacts of having beaver neighbours, without disturbing or harming the beavers. Examples include protecting specially valued trees with mesh or installing pipes through a non-habited part of the dam to allow some continued water flow.
NatureScot is supposed to ensure that all possible mitigation measures have been considered when processing licence applications, and only grant a licence if mitigation cannot provide a viable solution. The scepticism around whether this is happening is warranted. But there have been technical groups established to explore innovative mitigation measures, and NatureScot states an intention to expand work in this area.
We urge them to do so, and to prioritise these measures over any licensed ‘control’. Humans need to learn to co-exist with other animals, to understand and lessen the harms we cause even with the more innocuous of our ‘management’ measures, and to change our own behaviour and responses when there is ‘conflict’ rather than defaulting to exerting control over all other beings.