THEY have been called “ecosystem engineers” for their incredible construction skills and are seen as a potential solution to flooding and wetland loss.

But dozens of beavers were shot last year to prevent damage to agriculture, sparking fears for the future of the species in Scotland.

Figures from Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) revealed 87 animals were culled in Tayside in the eight months after they were given official protected status.

This is around one-fifth of the estimated population in the Tay and Forth area based on 2017/18 data.

All lethal control licences were issued to avert serious damage to farming, while all but one of these related to prime agricultural land.

Eighty-three beaver dams were also removed, with 15 animals live-trapped and translocated.

The SNH report said far fewer beaver territories had been affected than previously feared in a “worst case” scenario and stressed that the population had increased significantly in recent years.

However, conservationists said the latest figures were evidence of deep flaws in the licensing arrangement.

“Such a heavy cull has almost certainly had a negative impact on the conservation status of a protected species,” said Sarah Robinson, director of conservation at the Scottish Wildlife Trust. If lethal control continues at this level, we would have grave concerns for the future of beavers in Scotland.”

She added: “Scotland’s people and wildlife would benefit greatly from a thriving population of beavers. To achieve this goal we urgently need a robust national strategy that helps the species to spread into the 100,000 hectares of core habitat that have been identified.”

In a statement, the Scottish Wild Beaver Group said: “The licensed killing of 87 beavers, a species widely recognised to bring multiple environmental benefits, undermines the Scottish Government’s commitment to tackle biodiversity loss and protect nature.

“The favourable conservation status and genetic diversity of Scotland’s beavers has now been potentially put at risk by the ease with which lethal control licenses have been granted.

“The threat to the population is compounded by the current government policy which blocks translocation of beavers from low-lying agricultural land in Tayside to suitable habitat outside their existing range.”

And Dr Helen Senn, head of conservation and science programmes at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, said: “With lethal control at this scale, it is clear that the conservation status of beavers in Scotland comes under question. Answers are now needed on the effects that this level of control will have on population numbers.”

There are two distinct beaver populations in Scotland – in Knapdale, Argyll and Tayside and Forth.

They were introduced into Knapdale under licence as part of the Scottish Beaver Trial in 2009.

The Tayside beavers were first recorded in the wild in 2006 and are thought to be the result of escapes from captive collections or unauthorised releases.

On May 1 last year, beavers were given European Protected Species Status, making it illegal to kill them or destroy established dams and lodges without a licence.

Farming representatives said the SNH update showed that the system was working well.

“In its first year of operation, the accreditation, management and licensing framework for managing beavers, as established by all key stakeholders including Scottish Government and SNH, is proving effective and fit for purpose,” said NFU Scotland President Andrew McCornick.

“It has allowed the management of beavers in those areas of productive farmland where the species has had a clear impact. The report notes that more than 90 percent of beaver territories have been unaffected by the licensing system.”

SNH bosses said they had begun trialling mitigation measures, including water-gates which aim to exclude beavers from areas of land where conflicts are arising or likely.

“As we work with farmers to trial new and innovative measures for reducing the impacts of beavers on this type of ground, we hope to see less need for control measures in the coming years,” said Robbie Kernahan, SNH Director of Sustainable Growth.

“We also expect to see the beaver population expanding away from high conflict areas and into suitable habitat.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Beavers are a protected species and a valued part of our biodiversity. We recognise they may need to be managed in certain circumstances and the licensing system for control of beavers, which is operated by Scottish Natural Heritage, complies fully with all relevant EU and Scottish wildlife legislation.”