Bringing back mammal species hunted to extinction would be good for Scotland's economy and eco-systems, argues charity
The reintroduction of beavers to Scotland after almost 500 years is a historic opportunity that could bring major environmental and economic benefits.
That’s the verdict of a leading conservation charity Trees For Life (TFL), which says bringing back the animals could generate millions through eco-tourism.
Scottish Natural Heritage is due to report to the Scottish Government on the Scottish Beaver Trial – a five-year trial reintroduction of the rodents in Argyll’s Knapdale Forest – paving the way for the government to announce later this year whether the species will be allowed to live freely in Scotland again.
TFL says that reintroducing this native animal would allow the UK to play ecological catch-up with other European nations – 25 of which have already reintroduced the beaver, with Sweden leading the way as long ago as 1922.
The UK is one of only seven countries still lacking an officially-sanctioned wild beaver population.
Reintroducing beavers would be the right thing to do and would help restore damaged ecosystems
Alan Watson Featherstone, TFL’s executive director, said: “The beaver deserves to be welcomed back to Scotland with open arms. These remarkable ecosystem engineers can transform the health of our rivers and forest ecosystems, and could benefit communities through an estimated £2 million tourism revenue annually.
“We are legally obliged by European directives to consider the beaver’s reintroduction, and – having caused the animal’s extinction – we have an ethical obligation too. Reintroducing beavers to Scotland would be the right thing to do and a historic leap forwards for rewilding – the restoration of our damaged ecosystems.”
Beavers are a ‘keystone species’, meaning that they play a critical ecological role and provide a range of benefits for other species.
They coppice and fell trees – letting light into the forest, enabling other species to grow.
By damming watercourses they create wetland areas – habitats for amphibians, invertebrates and fish, which in turn attract birds and otters. Their actions can improve water quality and reduce flooding.
The European beaver was present in the UK until hunted to extinction for its pelt, meat and musk oil. The exact date of the animal’s disappearance from Scotland is unknown, but written records indicate that it may have survived in small numbers at a few locations until the 16th century.
In May 2009, following Scottish Government permission for the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland and Scottish Wildlife Trust to conduct a trial reintroduction of beavers, beavers from Norway were released at Knapdale Forest in Britain’s first legal reintroduction of a mammal species to the wild.
Independent scientific monitoring, coordinated by Scottish Natural Heritage, ran until May 2014.
Scotland also has another population of wild beavers, with over 250 animals estimated to be in the River Tay catchment – the result of breeding by beavers that escaped from captivity.
Given consistent widespread public support for the reintroduction of beavers and the multiple benefits that this would bring for both people and wildlife, TFL is urging the Scottish Government to allow the natural expansion of beavers from Argyll and Tayside, and to authorise further licensed reintroductions in appropriate areas, accompanied by carefully considered management and monitoring.
Occasionally, dam building can cause localised flooding and tree felling issues. TFL believes that the concerns of landowners should be addressed, using methods that have worked in other countries.