My dad used to give a simple explanation for why he brought beavers back to Scotland. “What right do we have to criticise Brazilians for chopping down their tropical rainforest if we refuse to restore our temperate rainforests?”.
Beavers were killed off in Britain in the 1600s, trapped for their thick and fashionable fur. Since then, the wetlands, fens and marshes that they maintained have been ditched, drained and ploughed over. Landscapes rich in bugs and fish and mammals, with abundant coppicing undergrowth, meandering streams and cascades of ponds have become regimented monocultures where the rainwater rushes off, stripping topsoil and flooding cities downstream.
Beavers are nature’s engineers. Our plants, animals and fungi evolved alongside the extraordinary dams they build, coming to rely on them to filter streams, prune trees, and maintain a steady water table.
Last night I stood by a pond they’ve created. Where once there was a dead agricultural ditch, now, bugs rippled the water. Trout rose and bats dipped to catch them. Life is returning.
Humanity has a choice. Either we allow the planet’s sixth great extinction to continue, until, probably, our civilisation goes with it. Or we choose to change.
And the power to make that decision isn’t evenly distributed. It is those of us in the wealthy west who have done most to drive the mass extinction. And it is we who must do most to bring back life. It is no coincidence that Britain was the birthplace of the industrial revolution and is one of the most nature-depleted countries on earth.
My dad and his ecologist friends brought beavers back to Scotland because they were fed up with waiting for Scotland’s nature agency to get round to following a European directive which encouraged it.
They brought them to two fenced-off wet woods at our home in the hills above the Tay at the turn of the millenium. A friend further downstream got some too, and a pair escaped from a local wildlife park. Within a few years, the beaver was re-established in Scotland’s biggest river.
There are now around 60 dams at home, the biggest, more than 100m long. Where once there was monoculture, now life is abundant.
Scotland’s nature agency, then called Scottish Natural Heritage and recently rebranded as Nature.scot, took five years to realise that beavers had re-established themselves in the Tay river system.
They did eventually organise their own trial reintroduction on a peninsula on the west coast – which isn’t very good beaver terrain – an experiment which has never really expanded. Almost every other country in western Europe reintroduced beavers in the 20th century, with widespread success and without the need for timid trials, but Nature.scot is a cowardly beast.
Perhaps understandably, some farmers on the Tay’s fertile floodbanks haven’t been delighted by the return of Europe’s biggest rodent. They are, after all, the people who drain and ditch the fields, sending water and topsoil flooding down to Perth below. Beavers do sometimes disrupt their – frankly, unsustainable – methods. But, across Europe, they’ve come up with plenty of mitigation methods, ending, ultimately, with moving them elsewhere. For nature.scot, step one is slaughter.
But beyond the agri-rich of Tayside, the creatures are hugely popular. About ten years ago, Scottish Natural Heritage (as it was then) tried to round up the beavers of the Tay, spurred on by angry agribusiness. The local community was outraged.
One animal was trapped and taken to Edinburgh zoo. Concerned that she would be put down, the junior Scout group in our local town – the Beavers – adopted the animal as their mascot. A gaggle of adorable children showed up at the zoo demanding to see it, and check on its health. Dancers at a club in Perth wore “hands off our beavers” T-shirts. In Blairgowrie, billboards went up.
I should confess an interest. My mum coordinated the campaign to ‘save the free beavers of the Tay’. She was behind many of these antics.
But the people of the mill towns and market towns of Scotland’s rural uplands are the descendants of those who were cleared and enclosed out of the countryside. They have had a ringside seat on the war on nature for generations. And when hunting, shooting, fishing and agribusiness interests team up to try and wipe out wildlife, they know which side they’re on.
Eventually, the Scottish government relented. In 2019 beavers were legally declared native, and protected by European law. And the body responsible for protecting them is the newly renamed Nature.scot.
You might imagine that a nature agency would be excited by the successful return of a native and ecologically vital species, beyond its own half-hearted experiment. You might imagine that they would invest time and resources into protecting this protected species, as the law requires.
You might imagine that, when beavers do cause problems, they would gently mitigate these, or, eventually, live trap and move them, as across Europe. You might be wrong.
The main thing Nature.scot has done is train 205 people in how to kill them, and granted them accreditation to do so. Of the roughly 450 beavers in Scotland, 87 have already been killed by people trained and licenced by those charged with protecting Scotland’s wildlife. Only fifteen have been trapped and moved.
And that doesn’t include those killed unofficially, which Nature.scot appears to have done nothing to protect. No one, yet, has been arrested by Police Scotland for an illegal killing of this protected species.
This week, the slide show used to train those hired by farmers to kill beavers – often gamekeepers – was finally ferreted out of the agency by Scotland’s leading environmental journalist, Rob Edwards.
The tone was revealing. If professional gunmen with night-sights and high velocity rifles already had the advantage in their desire to extinguish the beaver once again, the nature agency gave every impression of cheering them on, with careful instructions about how to kill most efficiently.
The final picture in the presentation summed up the attitude – two young girls in North America, grinning as they hold up a dead beaver, caught in a lethal trap that would be illegal in Scotland. Someone who attended one of the talks describes the Nature.scot staffer giving the presentation joking with shooters about beaver pie.
The story is far too familiar. When poor and Black people rub up against the law, the police come, sirens blazing. When the landed and powerful rub up against the law, a stuttering bureaucrat from some quango pops up: perhaps someone they bullied at school. Sometimes, there’s a slap on the wrist. More often, a slap on the back, and a license to continue, ‘so long as you do it like this’. It’s called regulatory capture, and it’s one of the ways the rich get their way.
And one of the ways the planet dies.
Nature.scot denies it is trying to wipe out beavers, telling me they “are ecosystem engineers that provide huge benefits to people and nature, however their burrowing and dam building activities can also cause significant problems, especially on farmland.”
But there’s that thing about actions and words. Speaking to The Ferret, leading ecologist Derek Gow condemned Nature.scot for its “strong bonds of cultural loyalty to a tiny hardline cartel of killers who in no way represent the ideals of wider society.”
He said: “This presentation aptly demonstrates just how waywardly pitiful the official nature conservation body has become.”
There will be those at Nature.scot who think they’re the wrong target. They will point to the National Farmers’ Union of Scotland, the fishing industry lobbyists, or Scotland’s notorious minister for the rural economy, Fergus Ewing. And of course in a sense they are the real villains here. But wildlife haters are gonna hate. And so it’s sometimes important to call out not just the bullies, but also the cowards who flinch from their job of protecting the planet.
The SNP like to see themselves as competent helmspeople, balancing different interests to ensure the ship doesn’t veer too much to port or starboard. But sometimes, a skilful sailor has to pick a direction. It’s time for Nicola Sturgeon to choose a side: life, or extinction.
Beaver-created wetlands at home. Video and music, Dave Maric.