On the 21st November 2016, rewilding history was made in Britain when the Scottish government officially welcomed back beavers (Castor fiber) to Scotland after a successful reintroduction programme. This is the first formal reintroduction of a native mammal to the UK and a huge milestone for conservationists and campaigners keen to see further lost habitats and species restored to the British Isles.
The beavers, reintroduced from Norway, are to be allowed to naturally expand, and will receive legal protection, the Scottish Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham announced. An official reintroduction pilot began in 2009, when Norwegian beavers were reintroduced in Knapside, Argyll. However, simultaneous illegal releases in Tayside saw a rapid blossoming of beaver populations. Both established populations are to be allowed to stay, although Ms Cunningham stressed that further illegal releases would be met with swift legal action.
Some angry landowners have previously been shooting beavers found on their land, and one report estimated that 21 beavers had been shot in 2010. Although landowners are permitted to manage their property by protecting trees and modifying dams to allow water flow, their new legal protection should deter further shooting.
Historically, beavers were persecuted and hunted to extinction in Britain between the 12th and 16th Centuries, and now for the first time are to be granted official native species status in Scotland. Beaver reintroduction has been successful in many countries across Europe, and the Scottish government will be working under the EU Habitat Directive to ensure that the beavers’ return is harmonious, and limit their possible impact on farmers and landowners.
Ms Cunningham was outspoken in the benefits beavers have brought to Scotland when interviewed about the government’s decision. She said:
‘‘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.’’
Scotland’s move offers hope to conservationists and projects who are working to reintroduce the species in other areas of the UK. The Welsh Beaver Project, or Prosiect Afancod Cymru, are investigating the feasibility of restoring wild beavers to Wales, have applied for a license to release the animals, and are hoping they can secure a release date later this year. The decision of the Scottish government is founded upon the positive impact of beavers on the environment in their pilot study, and may help pave the way for organisations like the Welsh Beaver Project. A partner organisation, the Bevis Trust, have applied to Natural Resources Wales to release ten pairs of beavers in Carmarthenshire. Whilst NRW consider the application, the public can visit the Bevis Trust’s livestock farm in West Wales, for a chance to observe their three beaver families in a large, outdoor enclosure, where they live and behave as they would in their natural environment.