Beavers set to become a protected species in Scotland (or are they?)

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 The Scottish Government has introduced Regulations that will provide beavers (the Eurasian Beaver, otherwise known as the European Beaver) in Scotland with European Protected Species status. This is the culmination of a 10-year process since beavers were released as part of a trial reintroduction in 2009.

This is the first ever example of a mammal reintroduction to Scotland and will see the “official”’ return of a species that lived in Scotland for thousands of years, before they were hunted to extinction around the 16th century.

What has happened since the Scottish Beaver Trial started in 2009?

The Scottish Beaver Trial began in Argyll in 2009, though it later became apparent that beavers were also present through unauthorised releases in the Tayside area. A 2018 Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) survey found that they were spreading and are now found outside the Tay and Earn catchments, with an estimated population of 433.

The background to reintroducing beavers to Scotland, and associated challenges and benefits, were summarised in a SPICe blog last year. Beavers act as ‘ecosystem engineers’, building dams which create pools and wetlands and enhance biodiversity, and which can also slow water flow, assisting with downstream flood management. However, there are also concerns about potential negative impacts on land uses such as farming, via damage to drainage systems or flood banks which protect crops.

The Scottish Government announced in 2016 that it was minded to allow beavers to naturally recolonise Scotland following the trial, meaning that they would need to become legally protected in accordance with the EU Habitats Directive. European Protected Species status under the Habitats Directive means it would become an offence to kill or injure a beaver or deliberately disturb them during breeding and rearing periods.

In 2017, the Scottish Government consulted on a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) to assess the potential impacts of their decision. The consultation found that 83% agreed with reintroduction. NFU Scotland accepted that beavers should be given protected status, but also urged the Scottish Government to ensure that a management framework is set up which works for farmers.

The Government had been under pressure from environmental NGOs to introduce the legislation. In December 2018, a group of organisations sent an open letter to the First Minister highlighting welfare concerns about unregulated culling, including shooting of pregnant beavers and beavers with dependent kits.

How will beavers be managed in practice after they become legally protected? 

 SNH have published guidance on beaver management and committed to provide free advice to land managers. They are also developing a beaver mitigation scheme and trialling mitigation measures, using experiences of measures used in other parts of Europe (such as Norway) and North America.

Although under the Regulations beavers will become protected, SNH would be able to issue licences to kill beavers and remove their dams in certain circumstances. Actions that will not require a licence include discouraging dam building or fencing off areas such as crops or woodland. The Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform said in a letter to NFU Scotland on 23rd February:

“I can guarantee that any farmers experiencing or anticipating problems from beavers on prime agricultural land will be given licences to manage beavers if they are required and that these will be available in advance of protection being afforded. Licences will also be available for farmers on other land whose livelihoods are affected by beaver activity.”

The Scottish Wildlife Trust have emphasised that lethal control must be a last resort, rather than a ‘go-to solution’. Before granting a license for lethal control or disturbing mature beaver dams, SNH will need to be satisfied that each of the three following ‘tests’ are met:

  1. Licence purpose. Licences are required to prevent serious damage to certain interests such as crops, for health and safety or other important social, economic or environmental purposes.
  2. Alternatives test. Licenses must be issued as a last resort where other possible actions have been tried or are not likely to resolve the problem.
  3. Conservation impact. Actions must not harm beavers’ conservation status.

Parliamentary procedure: motion to annul

 The Regulations were laid on 22 February 2019.  The Regulations are a Scottish Statutory Instrument (SSI), subject to negative procedure – meaning that Parliament does not need to agree to the instrument in order for it to come into force. To prevent it coming into force, a motion to annul has to be agreed in the Chamber no later than 40 days after the instrument was laid.

John Scott MSP lodged motion S5M-16304—That the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform (ECCLR) Committee recommends that the Conservation of (Natural Habitats, &c.) Amendment (Scotland) Regulations 2019 (SSI 2019/64) be annulled on 12 March 2019.

The ECCLR Committee took evidence on the Regulations on 5 March 2019. The next step is for the motion to be debated by the Committee to decide if they will recommend that the instrument be annulled. They will do this on Tuesday 19th March, after hearing from the Cabinet Secretary.

If the Committee does not recommend to Parliament that the instrument be annulled, then beavers will become a protected species in Scotland on the 1st May, and the focus is likely to turn to management issues as beavers become further established and more is learnt about their impacts. The Cabinet Secretary has said:

“I am confident that, as we move forward, we will refine the management and licensing system to allow us to benefit from beavers as landscape engineers and a keystone species, while at the same time ensuring that the vital business of farming is not compromised.”

You can watch the ECCLR Committee session live on Scottish Parliament TV from 09.30am on Tuesday 19 March 2019.

Alexa Morrison, SPICe Research