Much has been said about the Tayside beavers over the past two years or so, with the news agenda dictated primarily by those campaigning to have the animals retained. However, many government agencies and wildlife charities have also been involved in the story. Often, they have been constrained in what they could say, with views being expressed almost exclusively through carefully worded press releases, with the “line to take” being rigidly applied.
beaverchewingwebWhat has been most difficult for them to ascertain is how the situation actually arose in the first place. On AutumnWatch recently, we saw the clip of one of the presenters being canoed down the Tay. When he asked how many beavers there were on Tayside, and was told 140-150, he almost fell out of the boat. He couldn’t believe it. Most people struggle to work out how the present situation arose, but this especially applies to the various government agencies and NGOs who have an interest in the official beaver re-introduction.
In the spring of 2013, the Scottish Wild Beaver Group (SWBG) submitted a Freedom of information (FOI) request to Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) asking for all its correspondence relating to the Tayside beavers. This was not altogether straightforward and took much longer than expected but, eventually, several files where forthcoming, covering the years 2008 to early 2013.
In the files, much information is blacked out or redacted, as are all names and locations, but it is possible to see which organisations were sending messages to others and what they were saying. The files include correspondence with SNH, mostly email exchanges. Included in email trails are internal emails within other organisations, or between other organisations, but which are also copied to SNH. There will have been emails sent between those organisations independently of SNH that will not feature in the material received.
Nevertheless, the files contain some very interesting material about how the situation developed from an agency and Scottish Government perspective. Much of the material is informal and unguarded in nature, and interesting little snippets can be derived from this. It is clear that while the situation was pressured and stressful, it was also very obviously interesting and enjoyable for those involved at times, probably much more so than other functions they had to perform as part of their jobs. Many will regard their involvement in this as one of the more interesting and challenging projects in their careers.
There is still much speculation and confusion about where the Tay beavers came from and how they got established in the wild, seemingly with no-one really being aware of them. The purpose of this article is to try and explain how a wide range of agencies struggled to come to terms with the situation in front of them, and how that led to the difficult situation that then arose in 2012-11.

The First Sighting
Although beavers are now widely regarded to have been present in the Tay system from at least 2001, and some would say much earlier, the first time they came to the attention of the authorities was in 2008 when the Tayside Police Wildlife Crime Officer confirmed that two beavers were present at a site just below Perth.
 A number of developments arose from this that would dominate thinking for the next few years:

  • Firstly, as outlined subsequently in his biography, the WCO thought it odd that two animals should be recorded at one location, and he suggested that the most likely explanation for this was that they had been deliberately released in the area. At that point, he had no idea that beavers had already been established for at least five years, and that they would be able to find a companion or mate quite naturally. This idea that some-one was deliberately releasing the animals took hold from this point, although as will be seen later, the WCO then seemed to change his mind on this assessment.
  • No-one was really prepared to take responsibility for the animals. The authorities maintained it was the responsibility of the owners to deal with the situation, even though the “owners” could not be identified. The most likely source was a wildlife park further up the Earn, but there was no way of verifying this
  • A crime had been committed, wittingly or otherwise, and Tayside Police by default had to take responsibility for the situation, even though they did not have resources to spend too much time on it.
  • The landowner was initially hostile to the animals, but then began to see them as a possible visitor attraction, and considered fencing them in to retain them. This reaction has turned out to be quite common in the period since, with people not liking the concept of having beavers on their property, but being more curious than hostile if the situation actually arose. There are exceptions to this.
  • Most tellingly, the WCO in November 2008 described the legislation relating to the beavers as a “grey area”, with EU and UK legislation seemingly in conflict. It is still a “grey area” today.

Beavers Here & There
Over the next few years, a number of sightings of beavers emerged, from the Earn and Tay, to Angus, the Isla and Fife. At this time, the official Scottish Government re-introduction in Argyll was being developed, and a number of agencies were involved with that. Beavers loose on Tayside were a problem, because they would distract from that trial. They might even undermine it. Attempts were made to try and catch the escaped Tayside beavers from 2009 onwards, both by Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture (SASA) and then the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), which operated on a voluntary basis.
BeaverandkitWebThe assumption was, at this point, that there were only a small number of animals, possibly 5-6, that they were escapees from private collections (or possibly deliberate releases), but that they were not actually breeding. Most significantly, an assumption was made that the only animals present where the ones that were known about by government agencies. The thought that a much more extensive population might be present and breeding was not contemplated. There was no reason to think this.
Throughout this period, there are numerous communications regarding new beaver sightings, and much discussion about whether this was the one seen at some other location or other. There are lots of mentions of “…. If it is the same beaver………”.  A picture emerged of a small number of escapee beavers roaming over huge areas, defying all attempts to locate or catch them. Each subsequent new sighting was reported by email to a round robin list of agencies and interested parties, each of whom then put their (usually different) interpretation on what this meant. In retrospect, we now know that many of these sightings were off different animals, and the population was much bigger than supposed.
Two animals were captured during this period. SASA calculated that 143 man days had been required to catch them, a cost of £6-8000 a beaver if charged at even just £100 a day. In September 2012, SASA estimated that it would take two people full-time trapping for 6 months to remove the 7-20 beavers it then estimated were present on Tayside, but such a level of resources was never implemented.

Catching the Beavers
During this period from 2009-2009, there was a lot of experimentation with traps of different kinds, and also baiting techniques. Many of the beavers were trap-shy, possibly suggesting they had already been caught up in parks. Another school of thought suggested that they were not well enough set or concealed. On many occasions, animals were caught but then escaped. Many of the traps were not solid enough. The beavers would often get the food without becoming trapped, or if the trap was sprung, they would find a way of getting out. This caused a mixture of frustration and amusement, and ensured that the Tay beavers slowly began to attain almost mythical status in the minds of their pursuers.
On 7/4/2009, for example, RZSS responded to news of a beaver that had twice escaped after being caught by SASA by saying  “clever little critters, aren't they……?”. It went on to suggest that at least they were not orangutans, which had been known to steal keys with which to open doors, or even to conceal a piece of wire in their cheeks with which they could pick locks!
In June that year, a trapping effort had to be stopped because SASA thought that there were young within a lodge. This was a new development, and snake-wire cameras were used to investigate. The squeaks that had been heard were supposed to be young, potentially the first born in the wild on Tayside that the agencies knew about. Eventually it was concluded that no young were present, but the adult beaver managed to escape as well. When told of the story, a neighbouring keeper mentioned that the beavers there had actually raised a family the year before!
This is typical of how matters were progressing at that time, with information being gleaned in little snippets, discussed among a number of different organisations, interpreted in different ways, but with no-one really knowing what was going on. Many of these reports were regarded merely as anecdotal evidence, perhaps not that reliable. Perhaps there was a reluctance to admit that the population was bigger than suggested, otherwise how could that have happened unnoticed? Admitting to a large and viable population on Tayside would also have arguably undermined the official re-introduction, which was in planning at that point. Perhaps an element of selective blindness was creeping in, or a conscious effort to keep the Tayside beavers under the radar until the official trial had begun.
The Angus animal proved particularly difficult to find, and was risking becoming a “cause celebre”. A beaver in Invergowrie seemed to be easy enough to trap, but it was within a built-up area and people knew about it, and there was a reluctance to try and catch it. Another beaver in Fife proved to be equally troublesome and elusive. This demonstrates that even in 2009 the animals were already outwith Tayside. A report is also given about how a captured beaver on the Thames had also managed to escape and was on the loose down there. This beaver was reputedly captured in Tentsmuir in North Fife previously, and could be regarded as being a Tay beaver as well. In every direction it seems that these little animals were getting the better of the authorities trying to catch them.

Key Information Emerging
The email chains from 2010 show other key information emerging.
SNH confirmed on 13/5/2010 that young dispersing beavers could move “tens of kilometres in any one movement in a few weeks”. This is important today in that it confirms that Tayside is not necessarily big enough to contain these animals, and that we should not be surprised when they turn up in Callander, Rannoch or Fife. The current monitoring efforts have to recognize this, but the resources required to do this would be massive.
On 24/6/2010, RZSS confirmed it could only hold one captured beaver at a time, meaning that animals would have to be destroyed humanely if any number were caught. This would be an important bottleneck in any operation to recapture and re-home all the beavers. This may well have been a brake on trapping activity, conscious or otherwise.

Tensions Rising
In any project with multiple organisations taking part, tensions inevitably rise, especially when their objective is not being achieved.
In the beginning, the initial tension was with the owners of private collections for allowing the animals to escape. However, it was impossible to trace the animals to a particular collection, and only one has admitted that animals escaped. It should be remembered that the private collections can extend to many hectares, the owners usually don’t know how many animals they have, and up to today, there remains no means of effectively supervising their activities. Animals could genuinely escape without being noted, and DNA technology has yet to be devised for analysing hair samples to determine the likely source of beavers. The animals had bolted.
Tayside Police suggest any future prosecution is unlikely, and will almost certainly now be time–barred. Even today, people with grievances about the beavers blame the owners and demand that they accept responsibility, and are frustrated that this is not forthcoming or possible to prove. Even in May 2012 SNH insisted that “The Scottish Government is not responsible for the capture of these animals….” That is fine, but someone ultimately has to be responsible.
Tayside Police initially accepted the responsibility for co-ordinating the capture efforts, although others carried out the actual work.
beaver signswebOn 19/6/2010, in an internal email within Western Division HQ, Tayside Police expressed their frustration with the other organisations involved and thought that they were deliberately not trying hard enough to capture the beavers so that a “free” trial area could be maintained, and that there was a “political” element to the lack of effort. The email continues, “…. It is convenient for the other agencies to have Tayside Police as the lead agency. It is great top cover for them.”  The Scottish Government maintained it was a Police issue. The Police begrudged the time required.
At the end of the year, on 24/11/08, SNH confirmed that efforts to date had relied on goodwill between parties, and that the issue fell between different remits. RZSS had been trying to capture the beavers on a voluntary capacity only. It had no duty to do so.
On 24/6/08, RZSS itself had got fed up with the situation and declared that it wanted to leave the problem to others. Essentially, it had become the willing donkey at that point, and was “feeling a bit lonely”. A request by SNH for it to apply for a licence for catching the beavers had been a request too far.
By the end of 2009, SASA too was withdrawing  its support levels. ScotGov was saying still that the issue had nothing to do with it. It suggested SSPCA should take the lead, which it would have been reluctant to do. RZSS suggested that the beavers should just be shot and be done with it. This illustrates its frustration and just how messy the situation had become.
At the start of 2009, on 12/2/09, there was a particularly interesting comment from the Landscape & Habitats Division of the Scottish Government at Victoria  Quay. It feared that the Tayside beavers would cause Ministers to lose enthusiasm for Knapdale and that they suspected that there was a separate agenda going on but being kept quiet by the various agencies. The ScotGov official wanted assurance that “Knapdale was not a cover for something that was already happening.” This suggestion that SNH itself was somehow complicit in the establishment of a population of beavers on Tayside is one I had previously heard myself, but had given no credence to at the time.
The relevance to Knapdale has been referred to since 2009. When SNH announced the Tayside beaver catch-up in November 2012, it gave the reasons as health and welfare, provenance of the animals, their illegal means of release and so on. However, it confirmed a different angle on 27/8/2012, namely: “From our point of view, the main threat is to the success of a managed re-introduction programme...., and the opportunity for Britain to provide a haven for the conservation of the western form of the European beaver”.
It feared that leaving the beavers on Tayside would effectively be a de facto introduction, and what then was the point of having a trial in Knapdale? It is clear from the emails that the Tayside beavers were a real threat to Knapdale, which could easily have been cancelled because of them.
The nervousness and distrust in ScotGov is detailed above, and yet it was lacking a clear plan of operations to deal with the problem, even continuing to deny its own responsibility in dealing with it. This must have been a stressful situation for all involved.
Against this background, and given that the Tayside problem had been communicated to the Minister, the decision to release animals in Knapdale in the early summer of 2009 looks to be particularly ill-judged. Either he did not ask too many questions, or the problem was played down. There may well have been 50-60 animals on Tayside at that point. If this had been known, or even remotely suspected, there is no way that Knapdale would have progressed. That he did not apparently know is something that is now very difficult to admit to.
Finally, the Scottish Rural Property and Business Association (SRPBA, now Scottish Land & Estates, SL&E) was letting its frustrations be known. On 23/2/09 it demanded capture of a beaver in Fife that “had been dumped”, and said that its members were horrified at the prospect of escapes from Knapdale not being effectively managed. As it turned out, of course, beavers were escaping from Knapdale within days of release, and will by now almost certainly have contributed to free living animals outwith the trial area.
Several farmers had expressed grave concern about the beavers and wanted them removed, but they were wary of the legal implications of doing so themselves, despite ScotGov reassurances. Others were relaxed about the animals being on their property.

Were Animals Deliberately Released?
This is interesting. The initial record of two beavers below Perth in 2008 was considered by the WCO to be a deliberate release, partly because he was unaware of the history before that point. By 20/5/08, he had reported in an email to SNH that one of the owners of private collections had suggested that all the Tayside beavers were the result of escapes from collections, with no evidence of deliberate releases. The WCO had now been convinced of this view, and reported this to SNH.
On 12/2/09, the ScotGov official at Landscape & Habitats informs SNH that “ I am getting the feeling that these are deliberate releases……”
The following day, 13/2/09, SNH replied to say that there is no evidence of this, that deliberate release would involve pairs of new animals, and this was not a pattern they recognised.
Nevertheless, when the 2012 capture programme was imminent, apparently the same official suggested “This is the line to take…… these animals had escaped or had been deliberately released….” This line was apparently based on the “feeling he had”. None of the correspondence refers to any evidence or discussion of deliberate release. It may be there is more discussion of this elsewhere.

What is amazing is that, right up to November 2012, the agencies had persuaded themselves that there were as few as seven beavers in the wild in Tayside and yet, by the following year, they had accepted that the total was probably in excess of a hundred. This appears to be a clear case of employees not wanting to pass bad news up their chain of command, or people not wanting to believe what was unfolding in front of them.
Most people still remain totally confused as to how so many animals could be present in the Tay system, but the timeline involved of 10-15 years, combined with a prolific species in virgin territory, can very easily account for the numbers we have today, without any “topping up”. We don’t know for sure whether deliberate releases have ever happened or not. We can just say there is no evidence of this, there was no discussion of this within the files, and the suggestion that this was the “line to take” was made by a ScotGov official in Edinburgh because of a feeling that he had - and nothing more.

The Legal Position
Tayside Police had already described the legal position of beavers as “a grey area”.
On 24/6/08, RZSS had been advised, to its dismay, that it needed to apply for a licence to catch the Tayside beavers, quoting the EU Habitats Directive. SNH’s view was that if the parent animals had originated from an EU country after 1994 (The date of the Directive) that their offspring may be subject to that legislation. It makes the case that the Norwegian beavers at Knapdale, being outwith the EU, would not be subject to this.
If this is the case, why then was a licence required to capture beavers in 2010, but in 2014, ScotGov advise that lethal force without licence or permission is deemed appropriate on those same animals? There is a clear contradiction in this. Furthermore, on 13/1/09, Landscape & Habitats asked SNH why a licence to catch beavers was required when…. “We had agreed in the context of Knapdale that beavers are not protected?” The point does not appear to have been answered. It suggests a degree of unconnected thinking/advice at the heart of ScotGov and its main advisor on such matters. The advice given in 2005 that no legal provision had been identified to allow the lawful implementation of a beaver exit strategy for Knapdale has been over-turned, but the reason why has never been given.

2012 Onwards
By 2012, SNH had decided to act, or had possibly been told to act. It apparently won unanimous support from the National Species Re-introduction Forum (NSRF) to remove the Tayside beavers, although a number of the Forum members subsequently withdrew from this position. As Tayside Police had suggested previously, we can speculate that NSRF support was sought to provide “top cover”. The new Minister had been briefed earlier in the year. She wanted the animals to be trapped, not killed. Her special advisors had attended meetings, suggesting the political risk had been recognized.
beavers_001The objective was clear, “To recapture ALL escaped beavers on Tayside and Inverness-shire”.
In the lead-up to the capture being launched in November 2012, SNH was still seeking advice on traps, trying to work out where the animals were and carefully making sure that they “got their lines right”. ScotGov appears to have taken the lead on this. It is clear that it was not ready to undertake such a project, but felt pressured to do so. Preparations had been poor. The capture quickly became a “trial capture”.
This appears strange in that SASA and RZSS had been trying to trap beavers for three years at that point and had surely learned the necessary lessons. A small £5,000 budget was agreed. One beaver was caught, which subsequently died, and it did become a “cause celebre”. The PR campaign was lost in a spectacular fashion, and in a more damaging way than the agencies had ever anticipated.
SNH had acknowledged on 23/8/10 that the public would struggle with the concept of removing animals from Tayside but releasing them in Argyll. But it also felt then that if it left the Tayside beavers, then what purpose was the Scottish Beaver Trial then serving? As previously stated, protecting the trial was paramount. The Tayside beaver issue was “very, very sensitive” (27/4/09) for this reason.

And Finally...
Within the file is a description of efforts to catch a beaver on 27/28th November 2012, which gives a very clear account by an SNH employee of how things were progressing. He was reporting his efforts of trying to catch the animal in a driving blizzard at 10 pm on a winter night. Two email chains are titled “Houdini” and “It’s getting personal”.
A beaver had managed to escape a trap three times. The email to SASA ends,
“I am going to persist as I am not letting a beaver get the better of me”.
It appears the beaver did (get the better of him).
In January, SNH was still checking trapping protocols and asking how it might best transport beavers.
On 26/1/11, Tayside Police asked that their logo be removed from any traps so that they would not be associated with them. They felt this would cause problems for their force executive.

No more animals were caught.
On 16th March 2014, Stewart Stevenson MSP, the Environment Minister, decided that the Tay beavers should remain until 2015 when the official trial was scheduled to end. During the summer of 2014, a number of beavers were recorded as having three or more kits. Beavers have been recorded within the Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park for the first time, and the wildlife charity in charge of Knapdale (Scottish Wildlife Trust) now has Tay beavers on its property at the Loch of the Lowes as well.
A Study Group has been set up to monitor the beavers on Tayside through to 2015.
The Scottish Government still maintain it is open minded about whether beavers should be re-introduced to Scotland or not, and that the beavers in both Knapdale and Tayside (and elsewhere if they can find them) may still be removed in 2015.

What do you think?

Victor Clements
is a woodland advisor working in Highland Perthshire


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