Beavers and the conflict in the Scottish countryside

A story about the first mammals reintroduced to the UK tells us lots about the changing nature of rural politics.

Louise Ramsay
1 March 2016

Isla the beaver

We have beavers on our land, upstream of Alyth, Perthshire. They have built a beautiful wetland with many dams. We also campaign for the whole Tayside beaver population. Surprisingly, these do not originate from us, but that's another story. A recent tale about these rodents seems to me to cast some light on the changing nature of rural politics in much of Britain. 

Last July, Alyth flooded badly and a young farmer started a rumour that the beavers on our land had exacerbated the flood. He tweeted his theory to the media and the story spread like wildfire, though very few locals believed it: apart from anything else, it was clear that upstream beaver dams had all held firm

SNH then commissioned a study that showed the beavers were not to blame. But this month things got even better when research that has been done on our land over the last 13 years by Stirling University was published and the beavers were not just exonerated, but shown to actually slow floodwaters and thus reduce the impact of flooding, as well as increasing biodiversity & soil retention and stripping out pollutants.

The beavers innocence wasn't only established. It was widely publicised, announced hourly on Radio Scotland news on the day it was published (and on the newsagent's billboard in Alyth itself). In point of fact, they were proved more than innocent. They were shown to be actually benefitting the very people who were encouraged to blame them, if only in a small way.

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 00.37.50.png

Billboard in Alyth, Louise Ramsay

This story ran in parallel with another Perthshire beaver tale which gained national prominence. The "pregnant beaver shooting" upset people all over the country, with 35,000 people signing a 38 Degrees petition on the subject.

To summarise, 21 beavers shot by farmers and handed in for autopsy to the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) included some pregnant and lactating females and some shot with the wrong weapons that must have died slowly and painfully. Clearly some newborn kits must have starved to death but this was just considered to be just the tip of the iceberg by RZSS. The farmers had been told that under the current state of Scots law, (ducking through a loophole to avoid EU law) shooting was legal, at any time, but "possession" wasn't. They were told to let SNH know and the carcass would be collected by someone with a license.

This story broke in the Herald on 24th November. The Scottish Green Party’s Alison Johnstone MSP asked Parliamentary Questions, some weeks passed, and the answers to these and a Freedom of Information request revealed the whole story. The Herald ran it again with hard data and increased outrage, the BBC covered it and OneKind picked it up. Word spread around social media and public outrage grew. At the time of writing more than 35,000 people had signed a 38 Degrees petition for legal protection of beavers in Scotland and a poll run by the Herald sat at 98% in favour of protection of beavers and 2% against. A farmer rumoured to be shooting beavers faced calls for a boycott of his farm-shop: many people are furious.

Bafflingly, at the time of writing, the Minister Dr Alieen McLeod MSP is still hanging fire on this issue. She seems to have gone from careful consultation to decision paralysis while the cruelty continues and we enter another breeding season. It is curious and frustrating that the lobbying of the National Farmers' Union of Scotland and Scottish Land & Estates on behalf of a dozen or so farmers (few of whom are likely to be SNP voters) seems to carry so much weight with government.

Of course, for these farmers the presence of beavers is something real in a way that for the majority of people it isn't. They have to deal with beavers busily trying to re-wild their land, to slow the flow of water in their ditches which are meant to hurry water off the fields as fast as possible. They have to confront the beavers’ desire to create wildlife rich, bee loud, water purifying wetland habitat by backing water up into the edges and hollows of their valuable arable fields, and they are not over the moon about it.

So why do non-farmers have so little sympathy for these hard pressed rural businessmen, not only in the cities, but also in the countryside? Why don't farmers attract the political support and solidarity they might expect? Is it because people just don't understand, or is it something more? In truth it's a bit of both. Lots of busy people, particularly in cities, don't have much time to focus on what can seem like obscure rural matters, but they do know how they feel about beavers and other wild animals, and animals in general and it seems obvious that farmers should not be given a free rein to shoot beavers or any other animal whenever they feel like it, breeding season or no, whatever problems they are having.

Many people, some but not all of whom live in the countryside, have a deep sense that much of what goes on in farming, perhaps especially in the arable acres of the low ground and floodplains, is not as it should be. Back in the day when all farming was organic and involved rotation, when crops were fertilised with animal manure and nitrogen was enhanced by growing clover, farming was not just more resilient, better at conserving the soil, less likely to pollute waterways and destroy wildlife habitat, it was regenerative, tapping into nature’s own cyclical rythmns.

People remember more farmland birds in the past, more butterflies, more flowers, more bees. Now they see farming methods which use artificial fertilisers produced by the use of large amounts of fossil fuels, raided from the earth, set alight and polluting the sky. They see huge tractors with deep ploughs churning the earth, and they see brown water flowing off the land in times of flood and brown dust blowing in the air in dry summers. They worry that the very soil on which our food security depends, is in danger of impoverishment, and of being blown away or washed out to sea. They worry rightly. This kind of farming which has been the prevalent kind for the last 50 years, is extractive not regenerative. According to a Sheffield University study published in the Farmers Weekly it has left us with soils that in many cases just have 100 harvests left.

The farmers themselves are not altogether to blame for the situation in which they find themselves – history has after all brought us to this point. And now the growing power of the often badly behaved multinational supermarkets has squeezed their farm-gate prices to a point where many are struggling to make a living, and high percentages of their vegetables are rejected for being the wrong size or shape. But insulated by their self sufficient social lives, sound proofed tractor cabs and selective reading, they perhaps don't altogether realise how fed up people are with subsidising them and listening to their complaints, even if legitimate, about beavers, flooding, supermarkets or anything else.

Meanwhile uphill, on the sheep farms, we landowners are also under scrutiny from the progressively larger sector of the public that is getting its head round the thorny questions of flood prevention and biodiversity loss in the uplands. Sheep farming has been carried out in some of our hills for hundreds of years, often responsibly and with great dedication, and some sheep farmers are not surprisingly upset to be told they are ‘sheepwrecking’ the countryside. But as globalization hits the price the farmer gets for lamb it becomes difficult to justify economically such a highly subsidized traditional activity, and as climate change progresses it becomes harder to defend environmentally, especially in our highest and most vulnerable landscapes.

Monbiot tells us the hills are too bare and lack ‘hydraulic roughness’ for absorbing floodwaters which would also provide more varied habitat for wildlife. The EU's conditions for the receipt of the Basic Area Payment insist on the exclusion of “permanent ineligible features” ie woodlands, scrub, reed-beds etc, and many farmers and landowners, and their trade bodies are still lobbying for, and defending the status quo.

beaver dam.jpg

One of the beaver dams in Perthshire

Sheep farmers know how to create a beautiful grassy sward, and may well be aware and appreciative of the wildlife that exists on their land, but many disapprove of certain forms of vegetation, such as brambles, seeing them as the vegetational equivalent of vermin, rather than hydraulic roughness, habitat for wildlife or nurse crops for naturally regenerating scrub and trees – the beginning of a new succession. It's true that some areas have got a bit bushier as stocking levels have gone down since the bad old days of headage payments, but there is a long way to go. A tradition of treeless hills, previously considered both inevitable and iconic is being seriously questioned on both scores.

Duncan Halley, a former Scotsman who has become Norwegian (possibly in exasperation with just this sort of thing) has recently been giving lectures and taking people on study tours to show how Scotland could be more like Norway and have had  trees on the hills for flood and landslide prevention and habitat, if only our land management history were different. 

With almost identical geology, climate and landforms, steep sided Norwegian glens are covered in vegetation where ours are bare. But with different management ours could be too. These upland wooded areas could then provide habitat for, amongst other species, beavers, which would then help to slow down flooding by building dams, and their bio-diverse wetlands could generally be prevented from occurring in the middle of top notch arable fields by the application of various forms of mitigation. As Skip Lyle, US mitigation expert assumed before he invented his 'beaver deceiver', humans have invented a lot of clever stuff, so it can't be beyond us to outwit the beaver.

Add to this questions  the impact of grouse shooting on both habitat and wildlife, as covered Mark Avery’s book 'Inglorious' and its worst crimes investigated and recorded by 'Raptor Persecution Scotland’s' Blog, and the ways in which dysfunctional deer stalking can push deer number upwards adding to overgrazing, and you have conflict relating to almost all forms of land-use in Scotland and in many parts of England too.

As organisations like Nourish Scotland know all too well, we need to take a long hard look at agriculture and try and be more rational and less traditional in our approach. We need to look back, but also forward to new kinds of farming being tried around the world. We need to consider the true costs of various kinds of farming and see whether they can really justify the impacts they have by the food security they offer us. Ask again whether its true that higher productivity of industrial farming really gives it the edge over organic farming. Look at the possibilities for influencing what people eat and steer them towards food grown in the least extractive, most regenerative ways.

With climate change, its causes and its effects, fossil fuels and flooding, or drought or storms, everything has to change. We can't go on as we are just watching it get worse and we farmers and landowners, who after all have a far bigger impact than most people, a far greater chance to make a difference for good or bad, really need to start listening to what the rest of the population are saying and change our ways before things get any worse. Just for a small but symbolic start let's hope by the time you are reading this beavers will be legally protected in Scotland and the farmers will be applying their pragmatic minds to the question of mitigation rather than getting their guns out of the locked cupboard and heading for the waters edge at dusk.

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData