REWILDING CHARITY Trees for Life is calling for a new, pragmatic approach to the beaver populations now well established in Scotland's countryside, with a fresh emphasis on planning and collaboration.

The charity’s conservation manager Alan McDonnell believes that farmers and conservationists can work together to ensure a more farmer-friendly, nature-friendly long-term solution...

"I cannot pretend to know what it feels like to be a Scottish farmer today, but I can see plenty to sympathise with. Brexit is a huge source of uncertainty, a pandemic has dislocated the economy, and the lack of clarity on agricultural funding over the medium to long term must be deeply unsettling.

For farmers on Tayside, losing crops and tonnes of topsoil to beaver impacts is yet another problem beyond their control. Farmers have not asked to be in this position. Unlike in Argyll, in Tayside beaver reintroduction happened with neither authorisation, nor forward planning.

Clearly, a long-term solution is needed. But at Trees for Life, we cannot see how the Scottish Government’s current policy around beaver management will provide this. So we are seeking a judicial review of the Scottish Government’s approach to beaver management. We are challenging the Government’s nature agency, NatureScot, in court over its failure to make the killing of Scotland’s wild and protected beavers a genuine last resort when the species needs to be managed.

Some of the farmers we’ve spoken to are uneasy about a change to the status quo. However, we see no need for this to lead to a divisive and damaging dispute between farming and conservation. In fact, we believe that beavers – contentious history and all – can be an issue where farming and conservation can find common cause.

Bridge-building between conservationists and farmers is needed because beavers bring benefits and challenges. On the one hand, beavers are superb ecosystem engineers that can create nature-rich wetlands, which help tackle the nature and climate emergencies, improve water quality and potentially reduce flood risk to communities. On the other, the species can sometimes have unwanted agricultural impacts too, causing crop damage and other difficulties for farmers in parts of Tayside.

We believe that adjusting the current approach to increase the scope for beavers to be moved from where they cause local problems, to areas where they would be welcome and where they can help boost biodiversity, could bring wins for all concerned.

Fully enabling the relocation of beavers is a viable and preferable alternative to killing beavers. It could do much to prevent damage to farmers’ fields and ensure farmers are less often put in the unpleasant position of having to shoot beavers, while allowing more areas to benefit from beavers’ positive impacts on our struggling ecosystems.

Unfortunately, it is clear that the Government is unwilling to change approach and properly enable moving beavers as an alternative to killing. This provides a strong legal case that NatureScot has broken the law by failing to make killing of beavers a last resort if they cause serious damage to agricultural land. Hence our court challenge.

If Trees for Life’s court case succeeds, we see real opportunities for collaboration between farmers and conservationists. Trees for Life does not pretend to have all the answers – but we firmly believe that more possibilities for a positive outcome can be opened up.

We are proposing three major steps. The first is to make removing beavers from problem areas – by live trapping – a greater possibility. This is one of the key motivations behind our current legal action: we need to persuade the Government to allow beavers to be relocated to other parts of Scotland where the potential for impacts on farming is low. If our legal challenge succeeds, Trees for Life is prepared to get practically involved in facilitating the trapping and relocation of beavers from lower Tayside. At the same time, we realise that live trapping may not always be effective or practical, and we support the use of lethal control where needed.

Secondly, identifying where beavers can be relocated. NatureScot has already identified over 100,000 hectares of suitable beaver habitat in Scotland. The key is to open genuine conversations with local people about the pros and cons of bringing beavers to such areas. Adequate resources for managing the impacts of beavers on any new area must be in place, with a robust, practical plan for implementing that management. Whilst there are many places that beavers could return to right away, this necessitates a dialogue where everyone’s viewpoints are listened to, with respect and with no sense of a foregone conclusion. If a local community does not want beavers, we must look elsewhere.

Thirdly, we need to create a situation where beaver issues are less problematic. Trees for Life is arguing for an increase in the existing public support for farmers – to deliver valuable public benefits from riverside areas, while creating ‘safe’ spaces for beavers to deliver their environmental benefits at the same time. We support the principle of ‘public money for public goods’ and see both food production and environmental enhancement as the major contributions farming can make to the challenges society is facing. Both of these important contributions should be recognised by the Government.

By respecting the law and prioritising the relocation of beavers to suitable areas of Scotland, the Scottish Government could achieve a nature-friendly, climate-friendly, farmer-friendly win. All of which could provide a strong foundation for new alliances between farmers and conservationists. Perhaps beavers can yet help us all to find ways of moving to a future where farming livelihoods can once again feel secure – and where nature and our climate owe at least part of their recovery to those livelihoods.