In November 2016, following months of debate, the Scottish Government announced that beavers will receive legal protection, subject to a Parliamentary vote. Roseanna Cunningham MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, indicated that this work will be completed by autumn of this year.
Legal protection would classify beavers as a European Protected Species in accordance with the EU Habitats Directive. This means it would be an offence to kill or injure any beaver, or deliberately disturb a beaver during breeding or rearing periods. Breeding and resting sites would also be protected.
What is the EU Habitats Directive?
The Habitats Directive ensures the conservation of rare, threatened or endemic animal and plant species. This is a key legal driver for assessing the need for reintroducing beavers to Scotland.
Article 22 of this Directive states that EU Member States should consider looking at reintroducing specific species (listed under Annex IV), after a public consultation. Eurasian Beavers are one of the species included in Annex IV for the UK.
Before the ministerial decision on Beaver reintroduction, the Scottish Government did not believe there was an obligation to apply legal protection to the European beaver under the terms of the Habitats Directive. Now that ministers have decided that beavers should remain in Scotland, it is expected that some form of legal protection should be applied.
Beavers in Scotland
Eurasian beavers (Castor fiber) are a species of beaver living in small colonies of multiple family groups, with each group containing a pair of breeding adults. Each breeding pair produces between one and six offspring, or kits, per year.
Beavers are regarded as ecosystem architects. Through the manipulation of their habitat, they form structures such as burrows, food caches, beaver canals and dams (Figure 1), which provide a variety of ecosystem services including:
- increased groundwater storage
- flow stabilisation and flood prevention
- natural change and restoration of habitats
- increased biodiversity through the creation of new habitats.
In the 16th century, they were hunted to extinction in Scotland for fur and meat.
Earlier this month, the Scottish Wild Beaver Group urged the Government to grant beavers legal protection as soon as possible. They claim that the delay in granting legal status potentially exposes dependent kits to a slow death by starvation in their burrows, if their lactating mothers are shot during another breeding season.
Legal protection of beavers in Scotland has divided opinion. Farmers and land owners are concerned about their impacts on agricultural land, whereas environmentalists argue that beavers can enhance biodiversity.
In summary, some of the stated advantages of granting beavers legal protection are as follows:
- Beaver dams slow rivers down, which reduces scouring and riverbank erosion, and improves water quality by holding back silt.
- Beavers can naturally maintain woodland through coppicing, which diversifies the surrounding woodland floor and is a practice foresters would do anyway.
- The Wildwood Trust have said there is a moral obligation for humans to return beavers to where they belong, having been largely responsible for their extinction.
- Beavers can increase wetlands, enhancing biodiversity of wildlife such as invertebrates, amphibians and birds.
- The Scottish Wild Beaver Group say Beavers can enhance Scotland’s wildlife tourism.
Some of the stated disadvantages of granting beavers legal protection are set out below:
- The Tweed Foundation has expressed concerns in relation to fish passages, as beavers can dam streams, preventing or restricting spawning fish from getting upstream.
- National water companies have said that beaver dams could affect water flows in the uplands which could have detrimental effects on water availability.
- The National Farmers Union of Scotland have reported beavers burrowing under flood banks, leading to the banks collapsing and flooding fields.
- Farmers are anxious that wild beavers could damage crops and spread diseases, including a type of parasite, to humans and livestock.
- British Waterways say that canal structural integrity could be compromised by the activity of beavers.
Figure 1 | Beaver dam in Perthshire, Scotland (Source: Scots Magazine).
Existing groups/colonies in Scotland
In May 2008, the Scottish Government approved a conservation project to rewild Eurasian beavers in Knapdale, Argyll, submitted by three partners (Scottish Wildlife Trust, the Royal Zoological Society and the Forestry Commission). This was the first conservation project of its kind in the UK, initially taking place between May 2009 and September 2010.
Following the Government’s decision to allow beavers to remain permanently, up to 28 more beavers are expected to be released into Knapdale by 2020.
Whilst the Knapdale project involved a deliberate beaver reintroduction, an unlicensed group of beavers also colonised the River Tay, which either escaped or were illegally introduced (Figure 2). Attempts to capture the Tayside beavers were unsuccessful as the population was too large. Therefore, in 2012, the Government announced it had decided to tolerate and monitor them.
In 2012, it was estimated that 38-39 groups had colonised the Tay catchment, equating to approximately 146 beavers. A project which began in 2017, led by the University of Exeter, aims to provide an up-to-date estimate of beaver family numbers around the area.
Figure 2 | Distribution of beaver policy areas in Knapdale (left) and Tayside (right) (Source: The Scottish Government).
Scottish Government action
Considering the experience gained from the Scottish Beaver Trial in Knapdale, On 24 November 2016, Scottish Ministers announced:
- Beaver populations in Argyll and Tayside can remain
- The species will receive legal protection, in accordance with the EU Habitats Directive
- Beavers will be allowed to expand their range naturally
- Beavers should be actively managed to minimise adverse impacts on farmers and other land owners
- It will remain an offence for beavers to be released without a licence, punishable by up to two years imprisonment and an unlimited fine
A Habitats Regulations Assessment has been completed, and a Consultation on the Beavers in Scotland Strategic Environmental Assessment Report 2017 closed on 6 March 2018. The Scottish Government is analysing the 533 responses to this report.
After completion, the Scottish Government intends to put legal protection for beavers in place as required by the Habitats Directive. A Scottish Statutory Instrument would add beavers to Schedule 2 of the Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994. Following Parliamentary approval, beavers would then be classified as a European Protected Species under the Habitats Directive.
Gareth Thomas, UK Research and Innovation PhD Intern, Brexit, Environment and Rural Affairs.