By building dams that flood the land, the beavers have infuriated farmers. Some have been given permits to kill the animals – sparking outrage among conservationists.
EDINBURGH – Wrapped in a brown burlap sack, the baby beaver squirmed as he was carried to an exam table, but gave up the fight when a vet deftly smashed a microchip into his thick fur and removed clumps of brown fur for samples.
“It’s stressful for the animal,” said Romain Pizzi, a wildlife specialist, drawing blood from the scaly flat tail of the male kit caught a few hours earlier. Nevertheless, he added, this was a happy young beaver.
“The alternative,” he said, “is to shoot.”
Four centuries after being hunted to extinction, mainly for their fur, beavers are back in Scotland, and so is their age-old battle with humans.
Gnawing and felling trees, building dams that flood fields or destroy drainage systems and burrow into riverbanks – sometimes collapsing – beavers have infuriated a farming community, which was given the right to apply for permits allowing them to could legally kill the animals.
But the sanctioned killing of an otherwise protected species has outraged conservationists, led to a legal challenge and sparked a polarizing debate about agriculture, biodiversity and the future of rural Scotland.
Although there was an official trial reintroduction of beavers in the west of Scotland in 2009, the return of the animal is mainly the result of previous escapes or unauthorized releases of beavers privately imported, mainly from Bavaria or Norway. The growing population is most evident in the streams of Tayside, north of Edinburgh.
The five-month-old kit in the exam room, weighing about nine pounds, had been caught in a trap in Tayside and rescued from what’s been called a “conflict zone” — where, because of the damage the animals do, farmers have won licenses to to kill them. In 2020, they killed 115 of the animals, about 10 percent of a beaver population that now stands at about 1,000 in Scotland.
Animal rights advocates say the once native species is valuable for creating habitats for wildlife and helping to conserve biodiversity, and they view culling as a symbol of misplaced priorities imposed by intensive farming. But to their enemies, beavers are pests whose largely unplanned reintroduction into Scotland is causing needless damage and financial loss to food producers.
Floods caused by beaver dams recently destroyed vegetables worth about 25,000 pounds, or about $35,000, said Martin Kennedy, the chairman of the National Farmers Union, Scotland, who said barely a day went by without complaints in low-lying farming areas. For some members, it is “bigger than Brexit,” he said.
The issue is so controversial that it deserved a mention in the new Scottish government’s draft policy programme.
In Scotland, beaver territories, which vary in size but are typical of about four animals, have steadily increased – from 39 in 2012 to 251 in 2020-21, according to an official report. In 2019, beavers were granted protected status, albeit that farmers could apply for permits to cull.
Now a charity, Trees for Life, has sued the Scottish government’s wildlife agency, NatureScot, in court for licensing it too easily.
“It’s quite a sad story and one that reflects how difficult it is to have mature discussions about these kinds of land issues,” said Alan McDonnell, the conservation manager at Trees for Life.
In Tayside, some farmers blame the rising beaver population on escapes from the Bamff estate in Perthshire, where Paul and Louise Ramsay run an ecotourism operation. The Ramsays brought the first beavers from Scotland’s recent era to the site in 2002, when there were fewer restrictions, as part of their own beaver ranching project.
The idea was to restore the natural habitats on their lands after centuries of drainage to maximize agricultural yields. A major transformation can be seen in a wild, scenic stretch of the 1,300-acre estate, which has been in the family since 1232.
Tall trees cut by beavers have crashed into pools of water separated by dams. Along the bank of a stream were birches that were almost gnawed through; a few yards away a beaver could be seen swimming with a large clump of foliage in its beak.
Although the entrances to burrows are flooded, beavers burrow up into riverbanks to create chambers above the water level. The dams they build regulate the water level of their aquatic habitats.
The 20 or so beavers that live here have killed many trees, a point of contention for the critics of the Ramsays. But they’ve attracted otters, filled waterholes with trout, frogs and toads, and nested woodpeckers in dead trees, Ms Ramsay said.
She said the problem wasn’t the beavers, but farmers who think any land that doesn’t produce a crop is wasted.
“Their motivation is to drain, drain, drain, so a beaver comes along and wants to make a wet patch here or there — which can be a brilliant habitat — that’s against the farmer’s interest,” she said.
Some beavers have escaped from Bamff, Mrs Ramsay acknowledged. However, she claimed that by the time that happened, others had already escaped from a wildlife park some distance away.
The Ramsays took over management of the estate in the 1980s. In the late 1990s, Mr Ramsay said, he was excited by the idea of introducing beavers at a time when he says the agriculture and fisheries lobby had blocked an official pilot project. He denies suggestions from critics that he deliberately let beavers escape to speed things up.
At his farm not far away in Meigle, Adrian Ivory was unconvinced. “Those animals have now escaped for whatever reason,” he said, “and the financial burden is not on the person who caused the problem, but on us where the problem lies. They are now hailed as heroes for being beavers have been reintroduced and no thought is given to the damage it causes to our livelihoods.”
Beaver dams in a stream on his land need to be removed regularly, Ivory said, as they threaten the drainage system in a nearby field and cause a year’s crop to rot. Burrowing threatens the stability of riverbanks, making it potentially dangerous to use tractors.
Mr Ivory said the damage may have cost him £50,000, including destroyed crops and labor costs. “If you rewild everywhere, where will your next meal come from?” he asked. “Food becomes a lot more expensive, or you have to import it.”
Ivory declined to discuss whether he had cleared the beaver population on his land, but said he allowed the animals to be captured for relocation, a task carried out in Tayside by Roisin Campbell-Palmer, the restoration manager at the Beaver Trust charity.
She works with farmers, gets up early in the morning to check traps, then moves animals to beaver projects in England, where more than 50 have been sent. (Scotland does not allow the animals to be moved within the country.)
Ms Campbell-Palmer said she found beavers fascinating and admired their dam building skills, tenacity and determination. That said, she understands farmers’ complaints and admits that after seeing a particularly destructive felling of trees, she has occasionally said to herself, “Of all the trees that need felling, why did you do it? “
Inspecting a trap of carrots, turnips and apples, Mrs Campbell-Palmer reflected on the savage debate and concluded that beavers had undeniably accomplished one thing in Scotland.
“I think what they’re doing,” she said, “prompts us to ask broader questions about how we use the landscape.”