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A single beaver recently escaped from captivity and damaged an apple orchard in Alyth in Scotland and another was shot near Perth after felling trees into a fishing loch now a further escape has been reported into the Tay river system. My first-hand experience on a recent visit to Latvia may help people decide whether or not beavers should be re-introduced into Scotland as has been suggested.  I took part in a trip to investigate wildlife management techniques in Latvia which was organised by ARCH network and funded by The Leonardo da Vinci Initiative of the European Union.

Beavers became extinct in Latvia around 1870 primarily due to over-hunting for their meat, fur and castoreum (a product from their glands used in perfumery and medicine). Between 1927-1952 twelve European beavers were re-introduced to Latvia from Norway , Sweden and elsewhere and some immigrated naturally. The Latvian beaver population is now officially put at 66,886 animals but informed estimates suggest it has actually risen to well over 100,000. Beavers mainly eat the bark of deciduous trees and other ground vegetation close to rivers but they will occasionally fell pines. Farming in Latvia is largely extensive and pastoral and with 47% of the country afforested quite a lot of tree damage can be sustained before foresters complain.

However the management of the re-introduced population was not started until 1980 when beavers were put back onto the hunting list. Each year the State Forestry Service (which coordinates all hunting in Latvia) issues a quota to the 1000+ hunting clubs and the hunting clubs send back consolidated cull totals at the end of the season.  Currently the beaver cull is running at about 9860 (say 10% of the population) whereas the animal’s ecology suggests that a cull of more than 20% is needed just to stabilise the population and more than 30% to reduce it. So despite predation by large carnivores like wolves and lynx and hunting by man, beavers are now out of control in Latvia – is that a good or bad thing?

Some Latvian conservation organisations welcome the beavers because they dam up ditches and streams and so maintain the water levels in wetlands and encourage the development of ecologically valuable raised bogs. Most hunters obviously welcome beavers not only as a hunting quarry but because their dams also create attractive flight ponds for waterfowl.

But foresters and others are not so happy. Latvia is a very flat country and the beavers carry out their dam-building activities enthusiastically often in remote areas far from hunting pressure. By blocking the drainage systems, they can flood large areas of native forest which kills the trees particularly pine. Beavers also undermine river banks by burrowing and so cause erosion and flooding. While salmon fishing is not a big industry in Latvia , beaver dams block headwater feeder streams and cause silting-up of fish spawning beds.

Latvia ’s State Forest Company does not pay for rangers to control animal species as our Forestry Commission does in UK . After the annual hunting quota is set, the shooting is entirely left up to the hunting clubs and individual members. This works well for large carnivores, deer and wild boar so why beavers are not better controlled? Firstly they are mainly nocturnal and are difficult to shoot unless on dry land out of the water. EU law also forbids the use of night shooting with a spotlight and no exemption or derogation has been granted to this bureaucratic restriction. Finally there is little financial or other incentive for hunters to go out of their way to kill a large number of beavers. The hunting is not very exciting; their fur has gone out of fashion and their meat and castoreum are not as popular as they were before the introduction of fast food and modern scents and medicines.

In my view, the answer is clear – beavers would only be acceptable in Scotland in controlled numbers provided they stayed in the right places. When they reproduced and spread (as they surely would), they would pose problems which would be very hard to control. For once Scottish Natural Heritage appears to have done the right thing when its original decision to release beavers onto the Kintyre peninsular was rescinded. It is sad that someone who should have known better chose to ignore their example and allowed his beavers to escape. The apple trees which were destroyed are a small price to pay for confirmation of the folly of introducing any exotic species to UK even if it was present here many hundreds of years ago.

© Huge Rose 2008