A gnawful mistake… – by Louise Ramsay

Free Beavers of the Tay under Threat of Deportation

In a sadly typical example of human greed, the European beaver was hunted to extinction in the UK – mainly for its valuable pelts – some hundreds of years ago. Although most of them had gone by the 16th century, the most recent report of a native beaver living – as it were – automously in the wild in the UK, was in Yorkshire in the 18th century. Or was it?

In fact, in the last few years it has become apparent that there are around a dozen families living and breeding in the Tay and its tributaries, in Perthshire and Angus, spread around from places as far flung as Glamis and Glen Lyon. Where did these beavers come from? It is not known for sure, but it seems clear that they found their way into the wild from captivity – the first sightings were in 2001.

In response to a European Directive for member states to consider the reintroduction of formerly native species, the Scottish Government licensed the Scottish Wildlife Trust and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland to implement a trial in Argyll. After a number of delays beavers were finally released in Arygll in 2009.

But now, it seems, the free beavers of the Tay have become an embarrassment to those who fundraised over £2 million from public and private sources for the Argyll trial. We have now learnt that Scottish Natural Heritage have contracted the Scottish Agricultural Sciences Agency to trap and remove all the free beavers of the Tay. They claim that they will go to English zoos, but it seems unlikely that 50 and 100 beavers will be needed by English zoos, so many will probably have to be culled. Or do I mean killed? Whatever you call it, it amounts to the same thing: Scottish Natural Heritage wants to annihilate native animals from a part of their native range, because the are embarrassed by their presence.

European beavers, which almost became extinct altogether right across Eurasia, by the end of the nineteenth century, are a species of immense ecological importance – a keystone species. They are creators of wetlands which not only act as sponges to slow down floods, but also filter agricultural pollutants out of the water. Additionally they can multiply biodiversity exponentially, creating habitat for thousands of species: including otters, water voles, herons, trout and eels. They keep water open for wildfowl in the winter and provide hunting ground for several species of bat – to mention just a few examples. They have been successfully reintroduced to over 20 European countries in the last 100 years. UK was very late to take up the idea of reintroduction.

It is difficult to understand how an organisation that is supporting a trial reintroduction in the west of Scotland should be so ready to attempt to wipe out a reintroduction that occurred by a happy accident in the east. Surely a much better response would be to include the Tay beavers in the trial? Since they coexist with farming, fishing and private forestry, researching their impact would add much valuable data to experience with the Argyll beavers that are living on Forestry Commission land.

We have learnt that the trapping of native animals in their natural range may be against European law. (This seems to be a grey area). Another question is, how much is all this going to cost? And who will foot the bill at a time of deep cuts?

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