Beavers could return to Strathspey this winter after the Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA) submitted an application to reintroduce animals to three sites within the upper Spey catchment. With 75% of respondents saying they would welcome beavers’ return, it seems likely that the application will succeed. However, some farmers have expressed concerns about the plans.

Once again, farmers and the wider public are at odds over beavers. In this article I’d like to examine the conflict, aiming not to pick a side, but instead to seek ways that we might make headway through the Agriculture and Rural Communities (Scotland) Bill.

The first thing that must be said is that beavers matter. Their deadwood-filled wetlands increase insect, bird, bat, and fish numbers. With 1 in 9 Scottish species threatened with extinction, an animal that can boost biodiversity is sorely needed across our country.

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Beavers also help mitigate against flooding at the catchment level. A large body of science, including studies by Stirling and Exeter Universities, demonstrates this fact. We have seen it first-hand on our farm too. When we reintroduced beavers to the hills above Argaty, they instantly set to work dam-building. From one dam alone, Stirling University scientists estimate that one million additional litres of water were stored. When floods eventually overtopped that dam last winter, the animals moved downstream, building more dams, and holding more water on the land.

Long, wet winters are becoming the norm. As the rain lashes down, rivers burst their banks and floodplain fields disappear beneath the waves, I often wonder what might happen if there were more beaver dams in Scotland’s tributaries. Let’s be clear: these animals are not an antidote to climate change. When record numbers of airplanes take off annually and tens of thousands of rainforest acres are felled daily, we cannot expect beavers to wave a magic wand and solve our flooding issues. What they can do is reduce the severity of the impacts. And right now, as problems worsen each year, we need all the help we can get.

More than any other industry, farming relies upon a healthy, stable environment. Beavers help to create that. Why then, is each reintroduction attempt greeted with such wariness by the farming community? It comes down, I think, to the following issues:

- Most farmers have never lived alongside them, may have heard little of the benefits they offer, and a lot about the unwanted impacts they occasionally bring. And yes, in particular circumstances, especially on low-lying fields where farming continues to the water’s edge, beavers can cause problems. But on farms like ours, where the terrain is steep, there is little to worry about.

- We also cannot ignore the fact that farmers make up 2% of Scotland’s population, yet 75% of our land is used for agriculture. Farmers can justifiably say that the general public does not have to deal with the consequences of beaver reintroductions. With equal justification, the general public can say that everyone has to deal with the consequences of not restoring nature on farmland. In this imperfect situation, questions of fair and unfair may always be in the eye of the beholder; I’m quite sure that the Cairngorms beaver debate is a result of it.

- Though some farmers claim not to have been consulted, CNPA’s engagement process was as extensive as any could feasibly be. A lengthy pre-engagement period was followed by 6 weeks of formal engagement, multiple drop-in sessions, site visits, and meetings with farmers. Future beaver translocation applicants will have to go some distance to better these efforts. I wonder if the problem is really that farmers are seeking the one thing that no reintroduction applicant can presently give: a promise that someone will pay if something goes seriously wrong.

At present NatureScot provides government-funded mitigation for many beaver impacts, but if they burrow into a floodbank and submerge a field, no compensation is available. It should be noted that CNPA has agreed to provide short-term grant support, provided that flood banks were previously in good condition and can be proven to have breached as a result of beaver activity, but this will only be in place until March 2026, when new agricultural payments are changed nationally.

Flooding and beavers are both becoming a reality of agricultural life. Privately, most farmers accept that beavers will soon be widespread and, in almost all circumstances, protected to the hilt. We must find a way to live with them and with the weather.

Yet farmers will justifiably ask: “Why should I foot the bill if they flood my land?”

Until now nobody has had an answer to that one. Farmers were expected to endure local pain for the nation’s gain. Handily, we have the chance to change that when the Scottish Parliament begins to put meat on the bones of the Agriculture and Rural Communities (Scotland) Bill.

It was heartening to hear NFU deputy-president Tom Bradshaw talk of the need to pay farmers “for the public good they provide by holding floodwater on their farm.” This is exactly the sort of measure farming unions should be lobbying for at this critical time. One can only hope that his counterparts at NFUS are thinking along similar lines.

Farming faces difficult questions. How do we futureproof our land against climate change? How do we incentivise farmers to make that happen? Are there enough wetlands, bogs, and broadleaf trees in the hills to reduce the risk of flooding more productive land downstream? Would beaver dams in the tributaries help? If riparian buffer strip creation was incentivised, could farmers accommodate beavers more easily, and unleash their many benefits? In these wet winters, will it still be possible to farm certain floodplain fields? And if these fields do become unfarmable, should we dedicate so much productive land to growing crops that will be turned into whisky or biscuits rather than essential foodstuffs?

Were farmers properly incentivised to hold floodwater and boost biodiversity on their land, their best means of achieving the goal would be to accommodate an animal that is coming anyway. Beavers can do things that people cannot. Though they can cause localised issues, and may never be overly welcome in our most productive, low-lying areas, their restoration to our uplands is sorely needed. Overall they are part of the solution, not the problem.