In our latest blog, Louise Cullen from RSPB Scotland brings you this overview of the reintroduction of beavers to Scotland.
We got some good news last month, some really, really good news in fact: Scotland’s beavers are here to stay. Roseanna Cunningham, the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, announced that these mammals, which are currently living wild in areas like Tayside, would be reclassified as a native species. This means beavers are allowed to stay in Scotland and they will also be given full protected status legally, under the EU Habitats Directive.
Beavers used to be native to Scotland until they were hunted to extinction in the 16th century, primarily for their pelts, meat and perceived medicinal properties. Although fossils have been relatively rare in this country, those that have been found suggest beavers lived here for roughly 8,000 years.
Since the 1920s, 25 European nations have chosen to reintroduce beavers including Sweden, the Netherlands and Spain. And in 2009, a reintroduction project called ‘The Scottish Beaver Trial’ got underway in Scotland. It was managed by The Scottish Wildlife Trust and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland in Knapdale Forest, Argyll, to explore how beavers can enhance and restore natural environments.
That programme came to its successful conclusion following five years of solid evidence-based work into the potential reintroduction of this species, with four Eurasian beaver families being brought in to Knapdale from Norway.
The trial provided a comprehensive understanding of how these mammals can thrive in Scottish ecosystems and we saw no reason why this couldn’t be repeated in other areas. It was at this point that the RSPB announced its support for beavers to remain in Scotland. We wanted to see more beavers living in Scotland and were particularly keen to have them on some of our reserves too. That was in 2014. And what followed was two and a half years of discussions, research, campaigning and waiting – waiting to see if we would get what we were working so hard to achieve: the official reintroduction of beavers to Scotland.
During this time, the beaver population present on the River Tay was increasing, with the last known estimate suggesting around 200 individuals living there. It’s not entirely clear where these beavers came from originally, but we do know that they weren’t part of an official reintroduction programme.
Finally, in November this year, at our Nature of Scotland Awards, Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham announced beavers were back for good. In a nutshell this means that the beavers in Tayside and Argyll will remain and be allowed to expand their range naturally. They will also be given full protected status - however this is not in place legally yet. More work is required by the Scottish Government to see this brought in.
While they remain unprotected in this way, it is not illegal to kill a beaver in Scotland – an action that some individuals have already been taking in Tayside. We want to see an end to this unregulated management; meaning the sooner their legal protection is brought in and an agreed management plan approved the better.
Beavers bring huge benefits to the areas they inhabit and can have a significant and positive impact on ecosystem health and function. In woodland environments, they help to stimulate new growth by coppicing trees and opening up the forest structure. This can help boost the biodiversity of an area and benefit other species including otters, water voles and birds. They rewet woodland, control scrub and also create pools and channels which provide great breeding habitat for invertebrates like dragonflies and refuges for frogs, toads and fish. Beavers are often referred to as a ‘keystone species’ – one which plays a unique and valuable role in the natural environment – and it’s true.
So what happens now? Well, we hope that by spring 2017 beavers will be fully protected and officially recognised as a part of Scotland’s diverse native wildlife once again. In the meantime RSPB Scotland will continue to evaluate our sites for beaver colonisation either naturally through expansion from the Tay and Knapdale populations or perhaps through further licensed reintroductions in the future.
Terrific news, at least the Scottish Government is much more forward looking and supportive of wildlife than the Government at Westminster.