asks Victor Clements of Scottish Native Woods

Among all the commotion about the recapture of the Tay beavers in recent months, many people may well be asking themselves if this subject is in any way important or relevant to them in their everyday lives. It is a good question.
Until this issue arose locally I was, on balance, against a beaver re-introduction programme in Scotland, but the issue did not really animate me one way or the other. The official Scottish Government introduction felt very much as if it was being orchestrated and imposed. It felt a bit scripted and predictable, with arguments for the sake of arguments between groups saying pretty much as you might expect them to say. A great deal of ineffectual talk and a lot of playing to the gallery. Many of those involved where (and are) getting paid by us to do this.
Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) was to be the independent arbiter of the introduction and report impartially to Government at the end of the current trial in Knapdale, but all its communications and press articles suggested that it already had its mind made up. The Knapdale trial is costing £2 million, but what will we learn from it? We already know what beavers are and the effect that they have on the local environment. We know their life cycle, how they reproduce, how they disperse. There was really no reason to become too interested in the trial, because what could it really tell us?
The real purpose of the Knapdale trial is merely to warm us up to the thought of having beavers in Scotland. It cannot really tell us very much because there are no other land uses with which they might interact there. The outcome of the trial is in little doubt. Beavers are probably a good idea but more money is required to continue and expand the trial to other areas. This is what the verdict in 2015 will most likely be.

A Sudden New Dynamic
Meanwhile, we have had beavers in the Tay from 2001, on the basis of the evidence available to us. They appear to be doing well, people like them, the majority of farmers and landowners appear quite relaxed about them, although there are genuine concerns as well. Even fishermen regard them as being the highlight of their day if they come across one. Realising all this has changed my mind about beavers. There is a dynamic at work here beyond the regimented arguments and understanding of the current “stakeholders”, the ones paid by us to voice opinion on the subject.
There is now a very strong consensus that we will learn a lot more from the Tayside beavers than we will from the ones in Knapdale, but there are two areas of particular interest: the law as it applies to beavers in Scotland, and how we manage these animals in the longer term.

The Legal Quagmire
The previous Scottish devolved administration in Edinburgh would not sanction a trial beaver re-introduction programme in 2005 because the then Environment Minister Rhona Brankin MSP was not clear whether an exit strategy existed on not - ie Would it be legal to recapture beavers that where living in the wild in Scotland, even if they were supposedly only released as part of a trial?
In the Ardennes in Belguim, over a hundred beavers were illegally released in what was widely acknowledged as a criminal act, but their government decided that, irrespective of how they got there, they were now subject to the full protection of European law.
It appears now that Ms Brankin had her head screwed on in relation to this, and would not sanction a trial introduction because there may well be no way out of it. The temptation for Mike Russell in 2009 as part of the ‘Year of Homecoming’ was just too strong to resist and he authorised the trial to take place regardless. He departed the scene shortly afterwards.
Hence, we now have beavers officially ‘in the wild’ in Scotland. (Evidence of their activity near Aberfeldy is pictured here)

Legality of Removal
The Tay beavers have now focused attention on the legalities. In 2015, it will likely be illegal to remove any of the trial beavers, and it is almost certainly illegal to remove the Tay beavers as well. Unless a more inclusive dialogue can be generated and a better strategy developed, the legal protection that beavers are entitled to will almost certainly be tested in court before the end of the current trial period, brought either by beaver enthusiasts or by landowners or anyone else who feels they have been manipulated or hoodwinked in this process to date.

Anticipated Problems
If these animals have the full protection of European Law, what then happens next? Their numbers will expand, and at some point they will start to cause problems. It is their potential ability to block off salmon spawning tributaries that is most often cited as an issue, rightly or wrongly, but there will be other problems.
Even slight changes in the water table locally could turn productive agricultural land in to little more than permanent grassland, and there is the potential for damage to roads or bridge infra-structure as well. Orchard trees and other special trees may need individual protection.
Will we have a situation where these animals can never by touched at any cost, or something a bit more pragmatic like in Bavaria where only two people are apparently required to deal with beaver-related problems across the country?
The evidence suggests that managing the above ‘problems’ is easier than might be anticipated. The effects on fisheries, the most polarising issue, is inconclusive, with positive implications for areas of salmonid habitat as well.

Sensible Approach Required
The Tayside beavers have shown us that people can live with them. What landowners fear is not the beavers but gold-plated implementation of EU legislation that ties their hands for ever more in relation to this particular species. It is our government that they are fearful of, really. Its track record of implementing EU legislation in any sort of workable manner is very poor, at both UK and Scottish levels.

The Cost of Designations
The Tayside beavers will force us to ask ourselves if our current approach to designating habitats and species is the right one. Already 13% of Scotland or 1.5 million hectares is designated as SSSI, with a whole host of other designations as well. These must be monitored and policed and the cost is astronomical. We all have to pay for this, whatever our occupations or interests. This is why it is important. The cost is probably £15-20 million annually, something like that, although this is merely an educated guess.
Are we achieving anything for these designated habitats or species with this money, or should we be a bit more relaxed about things, allowing populations of animals to find their own balance within our landscapes and with ourselves and do away with the rigid approaches that almost always lead to paralysis by analysis?

Beavers- Yes or No?
Are beavers a good idea or a bad idea? The answer is that they will be an asset in some areas, and sometimes a bit of a pest in others. As with deer, their preferred habitat will also be the one where they come into greatest conflict with other land uses, and a degree of management will always be required along the frontier.

Wildlife Management in Scotland
Can we achieve a culture within wildlife management in Scotland which allows us to do this, allowing beavers to survive as self-sustaining populations in some areas without dominating our lives completely in others? This is where the challenge is, and this is why the Tay beavers are real pioneers in wildlife management in Scotland today. They will get us thinking about these things in a much deeper way and shed light on how we operate in relation to these matters. We will all benefit from that.
The focus for that debate will be Tayside, not Argyll. Many people have now come to realise this. The Scottish Government needs to realise this as well.

 

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