MORE than 30,000 people have called for wild beavers to be given legal protection by ministers after more than 20 were shot by landowners and farmers.

Thousands have signed a petition backing moves to close a legal loophole and safeguard the aquatic mammals amid reports that pregnant beavers and two nursing cubs, known as kits, were among those culled.

The petition was launched by the campaigning website on Monday and immediately attracted huge interest from concerned animal-lovers across Scotland.

One person who signed said that MSPs should put compassion "above all other considerations, especially money and profit", while another said that Ministers should move to "cease cruelty to these endangered species immediately."

A third added: "They are wonderful creatures that have only recently been reintroduced to the wild up here in Scotland. They are innocent, doing only what comes natural to them. Give them a reprieve."

HeraldScotland: Beavers at Knapdale Beavers at Knapdale

Beavers were once native to Scotland, but were hunted to extinction in the 16th century.

The Tayside beavers are thought to be descendants of animals that escaped from the homes of private collectors, which have gone on to thrive in the Scottish countryside.

They are distinct from the beaver colony at Knapdale in Argyll, which were released as part of a scientific monitoring programme, as they have not been 'formally introduced' to Scotland and are not protected.

Some landowners view them as a pest as they build dams on watercourses and fell trees, altering the landscape.

The slaughter of the animals dates back to at least 2010 and was revealed in a series of internal emails from the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland released under freedom of information laws which highlighted a series of “disturbing findings” from recent post-mortems of beaver carcasses.

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.

HeraldScotland: Beaver cubs are known as kitsBeaver cubs are known as kits

Stewart Kirkpatrick, of 38degrees, said: "We know from our previous petitions that wildlife welfare is very important to our members, and there has been a huge response to this petition.

"Getting so many signatures in such a short space of time is quite exceptional. It is not about stopping farmers from managing their land, but there must be better ways of doing it."

The petition has been backed by the Edinburgh-based animal welfare charity OneKind, whose Director Harry Huyton said: "The huge support for immediate protection from persecution to be introduced for Scotland’s beavers demonstrates the strength of public feeling on this important issue. Regardless of how they got here, the beavers are now here to stay.

"Leaving them in this legal limbo which is allowing them to be cruelly and indiscriminately killed is no longer an option."

He added: "We have written to the Minister and to Scottish Natural Heritage urging them to announce as a matter of urgency that beavers will be formally introduced to Scotland as this would lead to them being protected from further persecution.

"However, even if initiated promptly this process may not be completed in time to protect this season’s mothers and kits. We have therefore also called on them to identify an interim means of introducing a closed season on shooting beavers this year.

"The public are showing overwhelming support for Scotland’s beavers. We only hope that the Scottish Government respond with the urgency and decisiveness that these animals and their supporters deserve."

A wide-ranging report into beaver populations in Scotland, which suggested there were around 38 families living wild in and around Tayside, was released last year.

HeraldScotland: Beavers are quite at home in Scotland Beavers are quite at home in Scotland

A government spokesman said it does not encourage or condone the shooting of beavers in Scotland.

He added: "Advice has been available throughout on alternative measures to tackle beaver problems and we encourage farmers and other land managers to explore those options.

"The potential formal reintroduction of beavers raises complex issues around their management and legal protection. The Minister for the Environment is considering these issues carefully before making a decision on the future of beavers in Scotland.”