This is an historic day for Scotland, with the Eurasian beaver being granted full citizenship having been hunted to extinction in the UK in the sixteenth century, principally due to the fur trade.
The beaver is now written into law as a protected species, reinstated after years of being absent from our roll-call of native fauna and no longer annexed culturally to a passing mention of fur hats or alluded to within place names.
Significantly, this is the first time that an extinct mammal has been returned officially to our shores, with the milestone following a decade of work.
The very first beavers to set their webbed paws down in Knapdale in 2009, deep in the heart of Argyll, were from Telemark in Norway, where populations once numbering only 30 have now expanded across the whole country.
This reintroduction was carried out under the banner of the Scottish Beaver Trial, a ground-breaking five-year partnership led by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland and the Scottish Wildlife Trust, hosted on land managed by Forestry Commission Scotland, now known as Forestry and Land Scotland.
From a global perspective, the trial joined a growing list of projects working to standards set by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature to attempt the reintroduction of lost species. Examples range from the return of the Iberian lynx to Andalucía and scimitar-horned oryx to the Sahara.
In a small corner of Scotland, the trial beaver population settled into their new home. Many partners and colleagues collaborated, with present day reintroductions drawing on the tools of veterinary science, ecology, sociology, genetics and a host of other disciplines. Scottish Natural Heritage led independent scientific monitoring to assess the effect beavers were having on local environments and people. Tourists gathered to try to catch a glimpse of this new and elusive beast in the flesh.
It was soon clear that the beavers were having a marked effect on their environment, as indeed they do across the rest of their range. They are foresters, builders and hydraulic engineers rolled into one, their actions to dam watercourses and change waterflows in turn increasing biodiversity, enabling invertebrates and amphibians to flourish.
Any situation where a species is busily improving its environment has the potential to produce conflict with neighbours, especially those working the same land. Understandably, many in the farming community had reservations.
Weighing up the impacts of a species reintroduction, measuring its effects, learning from the small scale and replicating to the large are central to modern conservation practice. This is important, both to understand how humans and the species in question can come to a point of coexistence, and for the welfare of the released animals.
Following detailed reporting of the outcomes of the trial, the Scottish Government announced in 2016 that it was minded to allow beavers to remain in Scotland. After much discussion between conservationists, farmers and land managers through the Scottish Beaver Forum, a consensus was reached that their return would require European Protected Species status alongside an effective management framework.
Reaching this point was difficult, with a second population of beavers having unexpectedly appeared in Tayside, causing anger and delight in different quarters. This population today numbers around 450 animals, with some making their homes in areas of prime agricultural land. Lessons on impact mitigation needed to be transferred quickly from other parts of the world where people and beavers are living in close proximity. SNH now provides practical advice and assistance to farmers where required.
At that stage, beavers were still unprotected by law and concerns surfaced that unregulated culling was occurring in ways which were compromising their welfare. Meanwhile, the Scottish Beavers reinforcement project began, a further partnership between RZSS and the Scottish Wildlife Trust to release and monitor beavers in Knapdale, supported by players of People’s Postcode Lottery.
Today, ten years down the line, legal protection comes into force and we welcome beavers back into our natural and cultural heritage. A framework to manage their return has been published, which we hope will allow any economically harmful effects to be mitigated, while enabling beaver populations to expand and the ecological advantages to be gained. In doing so, it is vital that the highest regard for animal welfare is maintained and unregulated culling is prevented.
Conservation is essentially about people learning to live more closely with nature, which needs to be consistently emphasised through environmental education. We face a stark choice – to accept the continued erosion of our natural heritage, or row against the tide to ensure our wildlife is not consigned to the history books.
We would like to thank the players of People’s Postcode Lottery for their generous support which has helped restore beavers to Scotland.