The Beaver – A Political Animal (Why you should give a dam.)
by Louise and Paul Ramsay
In 1992 the Habitats’ Directive of the European Union recommended that member countries should consider the reintroduction of native species that had been extirpated from their territories in the past. This is clearly something that should be done worldwide if we are to reclaim our planet from the exploitation and environmental degradation of the past, and we in Europe must not expect the rest of the world to restore unless we do it ourselves..
The Eurasian beaver has now been reintroduced to 23 countries. including the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and Germany – countries with a great deal of intensive agriculture, fishing and forestryIn all cases there has been some local opposition from farmers and others, but the ecological drive to rewild the countryside, to reverse the process of environmental degradation in this way, has won out over the forces of reaction. In addition to this, ways of mitigating local problems have been devised and implemented where necessary.
However, here in the UK we are more cautious. Back in 1998 Scottish Natural Heritage proposed a beaver reintroduction and a Poll was conducted by Scott Porter1 in Scotland. This was the first time that the reintroduction of a mammal into the UK had been considered. 63% of the public was in favour. But a number of organisations such as: The National Farmers Union for Scotland, (NFUS) and the Landowners’ body then known as SLF, the Scottish Gamekeepers’s Association (SGA) and the Tweed Foundation lobbied the government so hard that SNH had to water down their proposal from an actual reintroduction to a carefully monitored and restricted trial on a peninsula.
Then the first proposal in 2002, was rejected by the Scottish Government on the grounds of, – amongst other things – “No legal exit strategy,”. This was no surprise because the European beaver Castor fiber is a protected animal, and EU member countries are obliged to afford it protection under European law once it is established in the wild in its natural range. Actual reintroduction still seemed politically impossible in 2007, by which time SNP had formed a minority government at Holyrood, but the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) and Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT) put another proposal together and managed to get the go-ahead for the trial reintroduction in Knapdale, to be supervised by SNH. (A different legal opinion apparently took the view that there was a legal exit strategy after all.)
This was an achievement in the circumstances, but it is worth noting that no other country in Europe has seen the need to conduct a trial. There is already a vast body of research on beavers as a result of which it is well known that they are hugely beneficial in the big picture (flood and drought mitigation, water purification and multiplication of biodiversity) but that their impacts sometimes need local mitigation, all of which is perfectly possible. But here in Scotland, that research was not enough to satisfy the individuals opposed to beaver reintroduction and the pressure to thwart the process continued unabated.
Considering the fact that there are beavers in most of Eurasia (Castor fiber) and most of North America (Castor canadensis), and they haven’t yet caused the collapse of fisheries, forestry or agriculture, (indedd that are used to improve salmon numbers in some North American rivers) and are not suspected of being responsible for the credit crunch, climate change or global terrorism, it is surprising how worried the various opposition groups are about their reintroduction to Great Britain
While all this was going on a population of Eurasian beavers, originating from escapes from a wildlife park in 2001 and 2004, had begun the process of reintroduction all by themselves in the Tay and its tribuatries. As an embarrassment to the bodies involved with the official trial they were –for some years – referred to only occasionally as “a few feral beavers” and largely ignored – apart from a couple of times when beavers were trapped and moved to other places.
To address their worries about efforts by conservation bodies to do positive things about Scotland’s ecosystems – (instead of pushing ahead with their members’ traditional work of pillage and destruction – by trapping , poisoning, shooting and setting fire to things) SRPBA (as was) got SNH to put together a body called the National Species Reintroduction Forum. This body (consisting of organisations largely opposed to species reintroduction, and a few conservation bodies) first met to discuss sea eagles, but beavers were also on the agenda. The question of what to do about the Tay beavers was put to the delegates in August 2010.. None of the delegates objected, at that time, to the proposal that the Tay beavers should all be trapped and removed from the wild and put in zoos – or if necessary killed…
When we found this out we launched our campaign on Facebook, “Save the Free Beavers of the Tay”. SNH were confident then that there were only 7 – 20 beavers but campaigners worked hard through the winter and spring to research the whereabouts and number of beavers living wild in the Tay catchment and found that there were around 80 – 100,. Following a survey of the beaver sites by an SNH spokesperson, guided by our ecologist the number mentioned on the SNH website has now increased to an estimated maximum of 80. It is likely that there are, in fact, more than 100 since this year’s kits were born.
Things have now moved forward considerably, and we are hopeful, but not complacent. Only one beaver was caught last winter before the trapping was halted in the spring for the breeding season, and sadly, she died, in Edinburgh zoo. `One of the options for the Tay beavers that SNH is to put to the new Scottish Environment, minister, Stewart Stephenson, is a study period with legal toleration, including research on the beavers themselves to bring them in line with the terms of the Knapdale trial, and research on their impact on habitat and other species. This is being supported by RZSS, SWT and RSPB – all of whom had stopped supporting the trapping by the last meeting of the reintroduction forum in June..
But meanwhile we find ourselves contemplating the influence of the organisations who continue to support the removal (and now inevitable culling) of the Tay beavers – who – surprise surprise – happen to be the same bodies that have opposed beaver reintroduction in the past, who caused the watering down of the reintroduction to a trial and no doubt would like to see the trial fail. In fact we have heard that they want the Knapdale trial to be the first of a series of trials, rather than the springboard for a full reintroduction. What will the other Europeans think of us if this is the outcome?
The Scottish Gamekeepers Association (SGA) have made it clear that they think there would be no problem getting rid of the beavers if necessary. Looked at one way, this could be seen as good news, because it means that there is no need to wipe them out before we have researched their impacts.
At the Game Fair at Scone last month we learnt from the Landowners body (now Scottish Land and Estates – SLE) that they had managed to persuade Scottish Government under SNP to drop proposed land reform legislation in exchange for being allowed to go ahead with the beaver trial! Can this really be true, or was it that SNP did not really want to pursue land reform anyway? Or have the Scottish Landowners’ shape-changing body, (SLF/SRPBA/SLE) really got this much power over government? We learnt at one point that SNH had had to give strong assurances about this trial to certain individuals – that they would “do it properly” – but to whom? Why is it that the forces of environmental reaction in Scotland appear to hold so strong a sway? It seems that the accidental presence of the Tay beavers caused a degree of concern because they appeared to upset the “propriety” of the trial. And some important people (who, we wonder?) must not be upset in this way.
As it happens we would like to see things done properly as well – but we don’t consider that the removal of a healthy population of beavers, breeding and re-established in part of its old territory is a proper approach to a native animal overdue for reintroduction, voted for by the Scottish public 13 years ago, and beginning to bring about important ecological and climate change mitigating benefits in the Tay catchment. Quite apart from anything else we believe these beavers should be protected under European law – that there is indeed “No legal exit strategy” from the presence of the Tay beavers, or the Knapdale ones, for that matter. But we will accept the government position on this, for the time being, so long as they leave the Tay beavers in the wild and study them rather than trap them out.
Research on the impact of beavers in a Scottish salmon river is one of the things that the beaver sceptics are keen to see, and the Tay beavers offer just such an opportunity.
Please help us support this ecologically useful and politically symbolic animal against the environmental reactionaries in the Scotland and the rest of UK by joining our campaign on Facebook: “Save the Free Beavers of the Tay.” There are 1064 members just now. Lets swell the numbers so that they are even more worried about upsetting us than the opposition. See you there.
1 Scott Porter Research and Marketing Ltd. 1998 ‘Reintroduction of the European Beaver to Scotland: Results of a Public Consultation’ Scottish Natural Heritage Research, Survey and Monitoring Report No 121.