Trees for Life, the charity that campaigns to rewild the Scottish Highlands, has accused NatureScot (the government agency who (allegedly) “work to improve our natural environment in Scotland and inspire everyone to care more about it”) of failing to protect beavers. NatureScot has been issuing hundreds of licences to farmers and landowners to kill beavers from newly-establishing populations in Tayside, where they were illegally or accidentally released in 2006 and have spread widely along waterways. Trees for Life say that beavers should be humanely trapped and relocated to other parts of the country rather than killed under licences issued by NatureScot to placate farmers and landowners who in turn have lobbied government to insist that “the right to lethally control species that damage crops, stock and farmland has to be defended“.
What these lobby groups really mean is that they want to defend a system that essentially allowed landowners to eradicate species like Wild Cats, Pine Martens and White-tailed Eagles because in their ossified opinions there is no room in the lowlands or uplands for any wildlife that threatens profits or the heavily-subsidised industries they manage. This intransigence has already led to dozens of licences to kill beavers blamed by farmers in Tayside for damaging crops and prime agricultural land. By the end of 2019, it’s reported that 87 beavers had been shot under lethal-control licences issued by the agency. Trees for Life estimate that scores more were issued in 2020.
This is an eradication programme in all but name, an all-out effort by farmers to stop a once-common species re-establishing in areas where they could have hugely positive impacts on biodiversity as a whole – it’s been established for years that where beavers are present their dams create or restore wetlands and whole rafts of species from insects, fish, amphibians, and birds routinely benefit. And it appears that NatureScot (who work to improve the natural envronment yada yada) are enabling that eradication by licencing it.
For anyone following the so-called ‘badger cull’ here in England, this will all be eerily familiar stuff. Remarkable how government agencies across the UK seem happy to work for industry rather than for wildlife or public good.
A legal challenge by Trees for Life to the Scottish Government’s beaver killing policy will be heard by the Court of Session in Edinburgh on Thursday 3 June and Friday 4 June.
Trees for Life says the Government’s nature agency NatureScot is breaking the law by failing to make the killing of the protected species a last resort when management is required.
The rewilding charity says NatureScot must consider moving beavers to areas of Scotland where they would be welcome and can help boost biodiversity, rather than issuing licences for them to be killed when they cause local damage to farming interests.
The case aims to ensure a safer future for beavers, which can help tackle the nature and climate crises because their dams create nature-rich and flood-reducing wetlands. Trees for Life also says any management changes must be practical and effective in protecting farmers’ interests.
“A ruling in our favour could transform the fortunes of Scotland’s wild beavers. But whatever the legal outcome, this case is spotlighting glaring inconsistencies in the Government’s approach to protecting this still-fragile native species – and why a more nature-friendly, climate-friendly and farmer-friendly approach is needed,” said Steve Micklewright, Trees for Life’s Chief Executive.
The Government declared beavers to be legally protected in 2019. But NatureScot has since issued dozens of killing licences when beavers are said to be damaging farmland – even though laws on protected species require management to have the least possible impact on their conservation status.
Given the legal protection afforded to beavers and the logic of taking a precautionary approach to their management, Trees for Life is making a strong case that all viable non-lethal alternatives to killing should be explored so that killing of beavers is genuinely a last resort.
Trees for Life agrees with NatureScot that beaver impacts sometimes need to be managed, but believes NatureScot is legally obliged to consider trapping and relocating beavers as an alternative to lethal control of beavers when it issues licenses – something NatureScot contends.
The court’s view of these arguments will be one of the key points of the judicial review. It is expected that it may be the end of the summer before the court’s verdict is announced.
Lawyer Adam Eagle, Chief Executive Officer of legal specialist rewilding charity The Lifescape Project, which is spearheading the litigation with Trees for Life, said: “We’ve studied hundreds of pages of material obtained from NatureScot through Freedom of Information requests, and we’ve compiled strong arguments that current beaver licensing practices breach the Scottish Habitats Regulations on several fronts.”
A judicial review ruling that lethal control should only be a genuine last resort could allow conservationists and others to identify, with proper community engagement, suitable sites across Scotland to which beavers can be moved and be welcome – boosting biodiversity, creating wildlife tourism opportunities, and preventing potential damage to farmland elsewhere.
Currently the Scottish Government is blocking such relocations, even though NatureScot has identified over 100,000 hectares of suitable habitat. This is limiting the options for Tayside farmers whose land or crops are damaged by beavers, often putting them in the position of having to shoot the much-loved animals.
Trees for Life’s public crowdfunder to cover the legal costs of the judicial review raised over £60,000.
A judicial review – a court review of official decision-makers’ decisions and actions to ensure they are lawful – can only proceed when there is a recognised legal ground and if the applicant has the legal right, known as ‘standing’, to bring a challenge.Press-release, Trees for Life, Trees for Life legal challenge to be heard at Scottish Court of Session