Beavers reappear in Scotland, drawing anger from farmers

By building dams that flood the land, beavers have infuriated farmers. Some have obtained permits to kill animals, sparking outrage from environmentalists.

EDINBURGH – Wrapped in a brown burlap bag, the baby beaver squirmed as he was transported to an examination table, but gave up the fight when a vet deftly shoved a microchip into his thick fur and removed tufts of brown fur for samples.

“It’s stressful for the animal,” said Romain Pizzi, a wildlife specialist, as he drew blood from the flat, scaly tail of the male kit captured hours earlier. Nonetheless, he added, he was a lucky young beaver.

“The alternative,” he said, “is that he’s going to be shot.”

Four centuries after being hunted to extinction primarily for their fur, beavers are back in Scotland, as is their centuries-old battle with humans.

Gnawing and chopping down trees, building dams that flood fields or destroying drainage systems and burying themselves in river banks – sometimes causing them to collapse – the beavers have incurred the wrath of a farming community, which has secured the right to apply for permits allowing them to legally kill animals.

But the authorized killing of an otherwise protected species has enraged environmentalists, prompting a legal challenge and sparking a polarizing debate over agriculture, biodiversity and the future of the Scottish countryside.

Although there was an official beaver reintroduction trial in 2009 in the west of Scotland, the animal’s return is mainly the result of previous escapes or unauthorized releases of privately imported beavers. , mainly from Bavaria or Norway. The growing population is most evident in Tayside Brooks, north of Edinburgh.

The five-month-old kit in the examination room, weighing about nine pounds, had been caught in a trap at Tayside and saved from what is called a “conflict zone” – where, due to animal damage , the farmers got licenses to kill them. In 2020, they killed 115 of the animals, around 10 percent of a beaver population that now stands at around 1,000 across Scotland.

Animal rights activists say the once native species is valuable for creating wildlife habitats and helping to preserve biodiversity, and they see slaughter as a symbol of displaced priorities imposed by intensive agriculture. But to their enemies, beavers are vermin whose largely unplanned reintroduction into Scotland causes unnecessary damage and financial loss to food producers.

Flooding from the beaver dams recently destroyed vegetables worth about 25,000 pounds, or about $ 35,000, said Martin Kennedy, president of the National Farmers Union, Scotland, who said hardly a day went by without complaints in the low-lying agricultural areas. For some members, it’s “bigger than Brexit,” he said.

The issue is so controversial that it was mentioned in the New Scottish Government’s draft policy agenda.

In Scotland, beaver territories, which vary in size but typically number around four animals, have increased steadily – from 39 in 2012 to 251 in 2020-2021, according to an official report. In 2019, beavers were granted protection status, although farmers can apply for slaughter licenses.

Today a regenerating charity, Trees for Life, took the Scottish government nature agency NatureScot to court, saying it licenses too easily.

“It’s a pretty sad story and one that reflects how difficult it is to have adult discussions about these kinds of land issues,” said Alan McDonnell, conservation manager at Trees for Life.

In Tayside, some farmers attribute the growth in the beaver population to escapes from the Bamff Estate in Perthshire, where Paul and Louise Ramsay run an ecotourism operation. The Ramsays brought Scotland’s first recent-era beavers to the site in 2002, when there were fewer restrictions, as part of their own beaver rewilding project.

The idea was to restore natural habitats on their land after centuries of drainage aimed at maximizing agricultural yields. Significant transformation can be seen in a wild and scenic expanse of the 1,300-acre estate, which has been in the family since 1232.

Large trees felled by beavers crashed into puddles separated by dams. On the bank of a small river stood birch trees, almost eaten away; a few yards away, a beaver could be seen swimming with a large tuft of foliage in its mouth.

Although entrances to burrows are submerged, beavers dig up into river banks to create chambers above the water level. The dams they build regulate the water level in their aquatic habitats.

The 20 or so beavers who live here have killed many trees, a point of contention for Ramsay critics. But they have attracted otters, allowed water pools to fill with trout, frogs and toads, and provided woodpeckers with a nesting place in dead trees, Ramsay said.

She said the problem was not the beavers, but the farmers who believe that any land that does not produce a crop is wasted.

“Their motivation is to drain, to drain, to drain, so a beaver comes in and wants to make a little water here or there – which could be a brilliant habitat – it is against the interests of the farmer”, a- she declared.

Some beavers escaped Bamff, Ramsay admitted. She claimed that by the time this happened, however, 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, Ramsay said, he got excited about bringing in beavers at a time when he said the lobby of agriculture and fisheries had blocked an official test project. He denies critics’ suggestions that he deliberately let the beavers escape to speed things up.

In his farm not far from Meigle, Adrian Ivory was not convinced. “These animals have now escaped for some reason,” he said, “and the financial burden is not on the person who caused the problem, but on us, where the problem is. They are now being hailed as heroes for bringing back the beavers and we don’t think about the damage this is doing to our livelihoods. “

Beaver dams in a creek on his land need to be removed regularly, Mr. Ivory said, as they threaten the drainage system of a nearby field and rot a year’s harvest. Landfilling threatens the stability of the banks, which makes the use of tractors potentially dangerous.

Mr Ivory said the damage could have cost him £ 50,000, including destroyed crops and labor costs. “If you run away everywhere, where will your next meal come from?” ” He asked. “Food is getting a lot more expensive, or you have to import it.”

Mr Ivory declined to discuss whether he had culled the beaver population on his land, but said he authorized the trapping of the animals for their relocation, a task undertaken at Tayside by Roisin Campbell-Palmer, head of the restoration of the Beaver Trust charity.

She works with farmers, getting up early in the morning to check the traps, then moving the animals to beaver projects in England, where more than 50 have been sent. (Scotland does not allow the relocation of animals within the country.)

Ms Campbell-Palmer said she found beavers fascinating and admired their dam building skills, tenacity and determination. Having said that, she understands farmers’ complaints and admits that having seen particularly destructive tree felling, she sometimes thought to herself, “Of all the trees to be felled, why did you do this one? “

As she inspected a trap full of carrots, turnips and apples, Ms Campbell-Palmer reflected on the fierce debate and concluded that the beavers had undeniably accomplished one thing in Scotland.

“I think what they’re doing,” she said, “makes us ask broader questions about how we use the landscape.”

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