One of the most special wildlife experiences I have enjoyed in Scotland was watching a young beaver kit and its mother swimming together in a big pool that had been created by the industrious family. It was dusk, and we had been taken to the spot by a local campsite owner who had recently started offering beaver tours. We sipped on our hot chocolate and took in this magical scene of a new beaver family returned to Tayside after their ancestors had been pushed to extinction by hunting over three centuries ago.
That was three years ago, and since then the ‘unofficial’ population across Tayside that probably has its origins in an illegal reintroduction has continued to expand. Sadly, however, not everyone has welcomed their return and this expansion has been in spite of much conflict. In early 2016 evidence emerged that 21 beavers had been shot dead, including pregnant and lactating beavers. There was a public outcry and in response the Scottish Government announced “interim protections” for beavers, and threatened to take action if further evidence emerged of welfare concerns being ignored. Then, in November 2016, it was finally announced that beavers were to be recognised as a protected species and allowed to naturally expand their range and population. A year and half later and this still hasn’t happened, and predictably there are now reports that beaver persecution continues.
This week the Scottish Wild Beaver Group have said that there is “hard evidence” that farmers and landowners in Tayside have been killing beavers on their land and neighbouring waterways this year. At the same time, in response to questions from Mark Ruskell MSP, the Cabinet Secretary has committed to introducing permanent legal protection for Scotland’s beavers in place by Autumn 2018, but insisted that the Scottish Government “has not received any reports in the past year that beavers are being deliberately killed in Tayside”. Whilst technically true, this dodges the open secret that beavers are being killed right now. Indeed the promise of legislation without any interim protection may even be making matters worse as those opposed to beavers seek to exploit their final opportunity to kill without impediment.
OneKind does of course welcome the promise of protected status for Scotland’s beavers, but we are dismayed that nothing has been done to protect the welfare of these animals in the meantime. The reality of this is that right now beavers have no legal protection whatsoever and their kits could be being orphaned and left to starve. Yes, the Tayside beavers were illegally introduced; but they should not have been left unprotected whilst the slow wheels of Government turned and a permanent solution was developed.
This story will end well, with beavers re-established across the country, but there was needless suffering and conflict on the way. The Tayside beavers have been victims of a combination of intolerance and an uncaring bureaucracy that places little value on the lives of individual animals. It’s too late now to introduce interim protections, but I hope that we will at least learn from this experience.
Firstly, it is absolutely clear that illegal species introductions lead to conflict and suffering. In the future, things have to be done by the book and in collaboration with all who hold a stake in the issue. The second lesson is that the Scottish Government needs to start showing compassion and respect for the welfare of Scotland’s wildlife. Not only is there a moral imperative to protect wild animals, but the public debate around this issue – not to mention the raven and mountain hare culls – clearly shows that this is what the Scottish public expect. It’s time that the wildlife management bureaucracy reflected on this and focused more on caring about wild animals and less on managing wildlife.