BEAVERS which are now living wild in Scotland, both as a result of official trials and illegal releases, are to remain and be given protection – but farmers and landowners have been comforted with the promise of 'pragmatic' rules allowing control where their activities disrupt productive land.

The decision follows years of Scottish Natural Heritage monitoring of the impacts of beavers at both the official Scottish Beaver Trial site in Knapdale in Argyll and also on Tayside, where the species has become established after being released illegally.

Scottish Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham said on Friday that the Scottish Government was now minded to allow beavers to remain in Scotland, so long as the species was "actively managed in line with practices in other European countries".

Legislative work has now begun to ensure beavers can be added to Scotland’s list of protected species as soon as possible, marking the first time a mammal has been officially reintroduced to the UK.

The outline beaver naturalisation plan is as follows:

• Beaver populations in Argyll and Tayside can remain;

• The species will receive legal protection, in accordance with the EU Habitats Directive;

• Beavers will be allowed to expand their range naturally;

• Beavers should be actively managed to minimise adverse impacts on farmers and other land owners;

• It will remain an offence for beavers to be released without a licence, punishable by up to two years imprisonment and an unlimited fine.

Ms Cunningham said: “I have been determined to find a pragmatic approach, which balances the biodiversity benefits of reintroducing beavers with the obvious need to limit difficulties for our farmers. I want to put on record my appreciation of the efforts of the Scottish Wildlife Trust, NFU Scotland, the Royal Scottish Zoological Society, and Scottish Land and Estates who have worked in partnership to set out a way forward.

“Beavers promote biodiversity by creating new ponds and wetlands, which in turn provide valuable habitats for a wide range of other species. We want to realise these biodiversity benefits while limiting adverse impacts on farmers and other land users. This will require careful management.

“Today’s announcement represents a major milestone in our work to protect and enhance Scotland’s world renowned biodiversity," she said. "But I want to be absolutely clear that while the species will be permitted to extend its range naturally, further unauthorised releases of beavers will be a criminal act. Swift action will be taken in such circumstances to prevent a repeat of the experience on Tayside.”

Scottish Land and Estates welcomed the Scottish Government's ‘pragmatic’ approach to the future of beavers on Tayside. Policy officer Anne Gray said: “The Cabinet Secretary’s decision establishes a pragmatic and rational approach that we have been advocating for a sustained period. Despite being an illegal release, it was unlikely that the government was ever going to advocate the full removal of beavers from Tayside, with competing views from wildlife and land management organisations.

“If beavers were going to stay, we asked the government to commit to a range of tools to be made available to farmers and land managers that would provide advice and strategies to mitigate beavers’ negative effects, both through non-lethal and lethal management. We are pleased that today’s announcement accepts the need for this control to be put in place to ensure that businesses are not adversely affected by beaver populations.

“This announcement not only marks the first mammal to be reintroduced to the UK, but also marks the start of a new approach to the protected species regime in the UK, whereby beaver will not simply be protected but will be monitored and actively managed so that they better integrate with other land uses, and their negative impacts can be mitigated where necessary," noted Ms Gray. "We look forward to working with Scottish Government and other relevant interests to develop the management framework.”

Reacting to the news, NFU Scotland insisted that proper management of the species was 'fundamental' in order to avoid unacceptable impact on agriculture.

Union vice president Rob Livesey commented: “The union is adamant that beavers must be appropriately managed to minimise the risk of unacceptable impacts on agriculture and other land uses – a view that is shared by many within the conservation community.

“NFUS believes the release of beavers into Tayside was illegal, should never have happened, and should not have been allowed to lead to the situation we have today. We expect any future illegal activity of this type to be dealt with as a wildlife crime.

“In today’s announcement by the Environment Secretary, she acknowledged the impacts that beavers can have on agriculture, and accepts the need for a fit-for-purpose management regime. We will work to ensure that the detail and implementation of the regime is in line with its and the Environment Secretary’s ambitions. It is essential that Scottish agriculture is not negatively affected by this decision and its implementation."

RSPB Scotland gave an altogether warmer welcome to the Scottish Government’s decision to reclassify beavers as Scottish natives. The charity's head of species Duncan Orr-Ewing said: “Beavers have become the first species of mammal to be reintroduced to Scotland in what can only be described as a landmark decision from the Scottish Government, and one that RSPB Scotland welcomes and supports entirely. Beavers are incredible mammals that have a crucial role to play in our countryside, as well in terms of promoting the conservation of other native wildlife through habitat creation.

“The Scottish Wildlife Trust and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland have carried out fantastic evidence-based work at Knapdale through the Scottish Beaver Trial and today’s announcement is a credit to their hard work.

“We look forward to the presence of beavers on our nature reserves and the wider biodiversity benefits they bring, as well as working with the Scottish Government, landowning and farming interests, and other wildlife conservation organisations, to secure a viable future for beavers across Scotland.”

John Muir Trust chief executive Stuart Brooks agreed: “We’re delighted that beavers will remain in our lochs and rivers adding to the wildness of Scotland. Recent trials have shown that returning once native species will enhance habitats for the benefit of people and for our natural world. We also welcome the measures to manage the impact of beavers for farmers and other land owners as a sensible and pragmatic approach.”