MORE than 20 beavers have been shot and killed in one region despite farmers and landowners being asked to "tolerate" the animals until a decision is made on their reintroduction.

Local farmers and estate owners have long complained of the damage the beavers are causing in Tayside, particularly through the construction of dams.

There have been suggestions that they have been given the green light unofficially to despatch the animals, although there is no confirmation of this and conservationists are said to be furious that 21 beavers have been killed in the area.

A licence is not needed to shoot beavers because they have no legal protection in the UK. However, possessing and moving a dead beaver is not legal without a licence.

Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) has licensed the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS) to collect any beaver carcasses from Tayside and examine them. The society is also contracted to advise how to manage beavers' impact in Tayside.

David Bale, SNH’s Tayside & Grampian unit manager and former TBSG chair, said “We don’t encourage lethal control. Instead, we advocate other solutions such as protecting trees and discouraging dam building.

"Removing a beaver simply leaves the territory open for another beaver to move in, so shooting tends to be a short-term solution.”

Beavers were hunted to extinction in Scotland about 400 years ago, and the UK is currently one of only seven European countries with no officially-sanctioned wild beaver population. They are legally protected in all parts of Europe where they are within their native range.

An official scientific trial saw 16 introduced into Knapdale Forest in Argyll between 2009 and 2011, and monitored by scientists. While several died, others bred successfully and produced a litter of kits within a year.

In June SNH submitted its comprehensive 'Beavers in Scotland' report on Knapdale to the Scottish Government which is currently considering an official reintroduction programme.

But in addition a population, now more than 150, has been growing in the wild in Tayside for a decade. Thought to originate either from escapes or illegal releases from private collections, they have been found in waterways from Kinloch Rannoch, Kenmore and Crieff in the west to Forfar, Perth and Bridge of Earn in the east.

The NFU Scotland said farmers fear beavers' impact on productive farmland reliant on complex drainage systems. The costs of removing dams and pipe blockages and repairing flood defences was already significant in Tayside, a spokesman said.

He added: “We have a number of members who are affected by the illegal reintroduction, with one member whose flood bank collapsed due to burrowing of beavers; and another who has had to remove 35 dams from his farm.”

When the Scottish Government established the Tayside Beaver Study Group (TBSG) in 2012, land owners were asked to tolerate them, until a decision on the future of beavers in Scotland was made.

However RZSS has now confirmed 23 beavers from Tayside have been examined since the end of 2012, and 21 were shot and two were killed on the roads. It is understood at four other sites the carcasses could not be retrieved or were too far decayed for post-mortem examination.

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “There is currently no legal protection for beavers in Scotland. We are aware that farmers on Tayside are experiencing issues with beavers and would encourage land managers to consult with SNH on mitigation measures.”

But one leading conservationist, who preferred to remain anonymous, condemned this approach. He said: “The couple of hundred beavers in Tayside have clearly been abandoned to the type of landowners who see a problem and immediately try to shoot or poison it.”