Be afraid … Beavery afraid?

27/11/2016: I once broadcast to every other news programme producer at BBC Scotland a highly amusing but rather vulgar conversation between myself and a well-known presenter about beavers. Remember to press the mute button if you’re chatting while holding for a conference call…

Damage caused by beavers. Probably in the States so a different species, but you get the picture...
Damage caused by beavers. Probably in the States so a different species, but you get the picture…

I think of that every time beavers are in the news, as they have been this past week, but I’m also thinking about the consequences of the Scottish Government’s decision to grant protected status to the beavers living in the wild in Scotland.

The population in Knapdale is part of a deliberate Goverment-backed reintroduction experiment – it was a report about the beginning of that that started my ill-fated chat at BBC Radio Scotland – and those in the Tayside catchment are the descendants of accidental or illegal deliberate releases.

The designation, according to the Guardian,  makes them legally the same as native animals.

Frankly there was never much chance that the Scottish Government would be able to say “No, Knapdale hasn’t worked, get rid of them, and while you’re at it shoot the ones on Tayside.” There’s been beaver tourism in Knapdale (stop giggling at the back…) and though the beavers in Tayside have been less than popular with landowners for cutting down trees and blocking burns to make lakes, animal enthusiasts would have made life pretty tough for any Government minister who announced a cull.

The deal that’s been struck with landowners to allow the beavers to stay lets them disrupt beaver dams where they cause a nuisance and cull them in some circumstances with a licence. Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham also said that any future releases would be met with the full force of the law.

That last is a bit weird, isn’t it? How on earth will they know if it’s a release? And if they are just the same as native animals, isn’t that like saying releasing red squirrels into the wild will be clamped down on, or voles or otters or red deer? Sounds like stable door, horse, bolted kinda country.

They will spread: numbers in Tayside are said to have reached 250 already, and that’s with farmers “controlling” them. There will be conflict between them and people, because they alter the environment in a very obvious way and we often want to control that for ourselves.

The big reintroduction success of recent years has been sea eagles, and they are amazing to see, but farmers have concerns about predation on stock, so none of this stuff is easy.

And I suppose I also have this idea at the back of my mind about how dependent the Highlands has become on the tourist dollar. What we’re saying is some damage to forestry and farming interests – and it could be a lot or it could be a little – is OK because people want to see these attractive, charismatic creatures in the wild, and that helps the hotels and tearooms.

But not everyone wants to work in a hotel or tearoom. There’s an argument to be had about the romantic dream many of us have for the wild land that makes up much of Scotland and the conflict that creates with development and jobs – dare I say industry?

It’s a bit like folk in the UK telling Brazil not to cut down all their trees, when we did it here about 300 years ago so we could get rich quick. The other side of the coin of course is the alleged impact of industrial-scale fish-farming on the west coast rivers where even young lads like my brother and I with an old cane rod and a  fat worm could hook the occasional sea-trout back in the 19longtimeagos. Not very likely now, I gather.

Is more protection for more species, making the land (and water) less available, less useable, the right way to go?