Absent for 400 years, Scotland's beaver populations are thriving once more – with NatureScot wildlife ecology manager Jenny Bryce optimistic  over the species' vital role in restoring the nation's biodiversity

The Herald:

IT is exciting to see beavers returning to new areas and starting to play their part in nature restoration, says NatureScot’s wildlife ecology manager Jenny Bryce. 

Earlier this year, a family of beavers took up residence in their new home at Loch Lomond National Nature Reserve, with the granting of the licence by Scotland’s nature agency marking a significant milestone in the restoration of the species.

“Loch Lomond is the third new site approved for the release of beavers in Scotland, following the initial reintroduction trial at Knapdale in Argyll and the release at Argaty, near Doune, last year,” explains Jenny.

“There has been a lot of enthusiasm around the release.

“Now, as populations continue to expand across suitable catchments elsewhere in Scotland, the emphasis is on learning to live with beavers, which are expected to deliver a range of benefits for nature and for water resource management.”

Beavers have been absent for 400 years and Scotland’s wetlands and rivers have been shaped by this absence. But now the population is growing and, if current trends continue, is forecast to double every three years.

It’s expected that Scotland will be home to several thousand beavers by 2030, as work continues under the Scottish Government’s ambitious new strategy to halt biodiversity loss by 2030 and reverse it with large-scale restoration by 2045.  

“Beavers fell trees, dig burrows and canals, build dams on smaller rivers and, once they are more established, create lodges,” explains Jenny.

“In some places these effects can create problems, but in general beaver impacts need not be viewed as negative. 

“On the contrary, scientific studies have demonstrated the many benefits brought about by these changes for both nature and people – for example wetland creation can create habitats for many other species, from bats to insects, as well as reduce flooding downstream.

“Beavers can therefore play an important role in helping to restore biodiversity and respond to the climate emergency in Scotland.”

She adds: “Co-existing successfully with communities will require working together, developing an understanding of what beavers do and what advice and support is available as we learn to live with beavers once again.”

A newly established Scottish Beaver Advisory Group, made up of key stakeholder organisations, is central to that approach. The group will meet quarterly to help take Scotland’s beaver strategy forward.

Engaging with communities about translocation is also essential to the success of further proposals, says Jenny.

“Following the release at Loch Lomond, many people will be keen to see further releases as soon as possible and might wonder where these will be,” she says.

“We have been working very hard to put in place the support and resources to enable others to take forward well considered translocations.”

NatureScot has already carried out modelling of all 138 river catchments in mainland Scotland, looking at where the best opportunities for beaver restoration are likely to be, and also where the potential for conflicts may arise.

A number of potential sites are already in the running. Trees for Life, along with landowners and Forestry and Land Scotland, have recently held a consultation on a proposal for the Glen Affric area and are now working towards an application for translocation.

The Herald:

Above, a guided group on the Scottish Beaver Trail walk to Loch Coille-Bharr, Knapdale


Meanwhile the Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA) has committed to taking a lead role in bringing beavers to the park and community consultation events took place in March in the Strathspey area. NatureScot has also recorded expressions of interest in other new areas.

For projects to be successful, they must follow the clear process set out by the Scottish Code for Conservation Translocations, including appropriate engagement with those most likely to be affected so the potential benefits and risks, and likely need for mitigation, can be properly understood. 

Assessment of the environmental effects of beaver translocation into new catchment areas is now being carried out, in a bid to assist decisions on future applications.

Reflecting the current public engagement underway, NatureScot is assessing the potential effects in the River Beauly and coastal catchment and the River Spey over the spring and summer.  

NatureScot has also carried out an assessment of its own land. A significant proportion is not suitable habitat for beavers, because it is coastal, peatland or mountain, but a few sites that are deemed suitable for beavers lie in relatively high benefit, low risk catchments that are already under active consideration.

“We’re hoping to see a new phase of further releases into new catchments in Scotland later this year,” says Jenny.

“We are entering the period when beavers may have young kits, so no trapping takes place at this time of year. 

“The next window for beaver translocations will be from late August until March.”
As this work progresses, NatureScot will continue to provide advice and support for managing and mitigating beaver impacts, and work with organisations to ensure the necessary research and innovation is developed.

“There is guidance available to applicants and to those with an interest in translocation proposals and we encourage those with an interest to participate in the opportunities for engagement. There is also guidance for land managers on the advice and support available,” explains Jenny.

“Learning to live with beavers will take some adjustment. We know there will be some impacts experienced by land managers and not all will welcome the return of beavers. Where there are issues, we want to work together to resolve them.

“However, in deciding to move beavers from one area, there are strict licensing tests that need to be met, regarding the seriousness of the impacts and the interests they are impacting on, whether there are alternatives to beaver removal and what impact the removals would have on the species conservation. 

“So, moving beavers is unlikely to be the answer in many cases where beavers are just doing what beavers do.”

Click here for more information


Public encouraged to search for signs of beaver activity

THE Scottish public has a role to play in the restoration of beavers, explains NatureScot’s wildlife ecology manager Jenny Bryce.

“As beavers move in to more and more areas, we want to encourage people to look out for signs in places where the species may be present,” she says. 

The Herald:

“If anyone spots a sign, or if they’re really a lucky, a beaver, we hope they’ll report it to help us build a better picture of where the animals are.”

The most common signs can include: cutting or gnawing of woody vegetation such as shrubs, saplings and trees; dams, digging or burrowing; lodges or tracks.

Jenny adds: “Foraging on woody material and trees is likely to be one of the first signs people will see if there are beavers in the area. 

“Our native woodlands have evolved with beavers and although it can look dramatic where large trees are felled, most broadleaved trees should coppice and roots will continue to bind soils and over time, riverside woodlands are likely to develop a more mixed age-structure than in the absence of beavers.”

If you spot signs of beaver activity, report them on www.mammal.org.uk/volunteering/mammal-mapper/ 

NatureScot also recently worked with the Beaver Trust to produce a leaflet to explain a bit more about beavers and their effects. 

Did you know, for example, that beavers can weigh up to 30kg and grow as long as 1.5m (five feet)? Out of 4,660 known species of rodent, the beaver is second only to the capybara from South America in size.

Although short-sighted, it is believed beavers can see colour. They also have a third, clear eyelid, which allows them to see underwater.

Beavers have excellent hearing, both on land and underwater, which allows them to identify predators and family. The inner ear is full of dense fluffy hairs which trap air and prevent water from getting in.

A beaver’s sense of smell is, however, its strongest sense, vital for finding food, identifying family members and detecting danger.

Their teeth are reinforced with iron, which gives them their distinctive orange colour and allows them to gnaw through wood, and with a lung capacity roughly three times that of an adult human, they can remain underwater for up to 15 minutes at a time. 

One of the most noticeable features of a beaver is its large, flat and scaly tail, which is mainly used as a rudder when swimming.  

It is also used to slap the water's surface to deter predators and notify other beavers of danger.

Hand-like forepaws allow beavers to easily grasp food and materials. Unlike humans, it is the outer digit of the hand which is opposable.

Beavers are fast swimmers (they can reach up to speeds of five miles per hour), thanks mainly to their large webbed hind feet which propel them through the water.

Scotland is one of 27 European countries to reintroduce beavers since the 1930s. The European population is estimated at 1.2million, with the population in Scotland estimated at more than 1500. 

Beaver fossils and other archaeological remains have been discovered at 104 different sites across Britain.


Fresh strategy is set to steer beaver expansion

ONCE common in Scotland, the Eurasian beaver was hunted to extinction here more than 400 years ago. 

Since the mid-1990s, the reintroduction of beavers has been a major topic of interest and debate. 

The Herald:

A national consultation on the feasibility and desirability of reintroduction was held in 1998, and in 2009, beavers were released at the Knapdale trial site, the first licensed reintroduction of a mammalian species in Britain. 

At the same time, there were increasing numbers of reports of beavers in Tayside, resulting from accidental or unauthorised releases. 

Scottish Ministers announced in 2016 that they were minded to allow the Tayside and Knapdale populations to remain. This was formalised in 2019 when the Scottish Parliament approved legislation that made the Eurasian beaver a European Protected Species in Scotland. 

The decision was made alongside the launch of a Beaver Management Framework that set out approaches to mitigation, support, licensing, translocations and other issues. 
Before November 2021, an approach of allowing beavers to spread naturally was favoured over moving or “translocating” beavers to new areas outside Tayside and Knapdale.

This changed when Scottish Ministers announced a new approach allowing translocations to take place across Scotland. 

Many supporters of beavers have highlighted the environmental and socio-economic benefits the species can bring and there has been frustration at the slow rate of progress in reintroducing the species across Scotland. Others have voiced their concerns over the impacts of beaver activities on certain land uses, fisheries and some conservation interests, and there have been significant challenges for some land managers in low-lying areas in Tayside. 

Scotland’s Beaver Strategy, published last year, brought together more than 50 stakeholder organisations in a collaborative process to set out a long-term vision for beaver restoration in Scotland to 2045.

The strategy will steer efforts to identify and actively expand the population to new catchments, alongside ensuring there is appropriate management and mitigation, and necessary research and innovation.