ANIMAL welfare charities have criticised the Scottish Government after a decision on the legal protection of wild beavers was postponed until after the Holyrood election.

Environment Minister Aileen McLeod has been considering a report on the reintroduction of beavers in the Knapdale forest in Argyll, and on wild populations living on Tayside, since last June.

However, in an update released yesterday she said that no decision on their status would be released until later in the year.

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The decision comes amid growing public concern over the shooting of the animals on Tayside, where a population of feral beavers has been living since at least 2006.

Earlier this year internal emails released by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland highlighted a series of “disturbing findings” from post-mortems of beaver carcasses culled in the area.

One adult female was found to have recently given birth to four young, which RZSS said would have subsequently starved to death.

Another report on a female beaver from July 15 2015 found that it had been shot from too far away to ensure an instantaneous kill, and may have taken several minutes to die.

Beavers in Scotland are subject to a loophole whereby those introduced through the scientific trial in Knapdale are protected, but animals living in the wild elsewhere are not.

More than 30,000 people have signed a petition calling for the loophole to be closed and for legal protection to be extended to all.

The National Trust for Scotland urged for a full decision on the species’ future in Scotland to be made as soon as possible.

Nature Conservation Advisor Mr Lindsay Mackinlay said: “The conservation sector has been waiting for a decision on this issue since last year and we are disappointed it has taken so long.

"While we welcome this interim reassurance, a final ruling is overdue and we would urge any incoming Scottish Ministers to resolve the matter, this summer at the very latest.”

Harry Huyton, Director of the charity OneKind Scotland added: “This weak response further delays a decision on the future of Scotland’s beavers until after the elections and will do little to protect them from continued persecution in the meantime.

"The revelations earlier this year that pregnant and lactating beavers were being killed and that inappropriate firearms and munitions were being used were shocking.

"They demanded an immediate and firm response, but instead the Scottish Government have merely offered further advice to land managers who are affected by the animals."

The Scottish Government's update said that they would continue to provide information to landowners on the beaver breeding season, but stopped short of banning lethal methods of controlling their numbers.

However, it did raise the possible use of Nature Conservation Orders, where evidence emerges that welfare concerns are being ignored.

Environment Minister Aileen McLeod said: "We are aware of and share the concerns raised by the recent information about the killing of beavers during the breeding season and we ask all land managers to heed the advice set out regarding when there are likely to be dependent young and shooting is particularly discouraged.

"The use of Nature Conservation Orders are available to us and should evidence emerge that welfare concerns for beavers are being ignored, we will look to use these powers to protect beavers in specific areas.”