IN mid-March, a beaver named Fig was released by the SSPCA on to my family farm, Argaty. To see him taking his first steps to freedom, enjoying his first nibble of a water-side tree, brought a lump to my throat. Fig had been the victim of an act of shocking brutality. He was lucky to be alive.

In January, he was found in pain and distress wandering a Perthshire roadside. Rescued by the SSPCA, he was taken to its National Wildlife Rescue Centre where staff realised he was missing his upper two incisors. An x-ray revealed the shock truth. The beaver had been shot, and shot badly. Shrapnel was lodged in his head. His top teeth had been blasted out.

Fig (as the SSPCA dubbed him) endured weeks of gruelling rehabilitation. He was fed on wood and carrot shavings, the only things he was capable of eating. Vets had to sedate him several times and file down his bottom teeth, preventing them from growing through his upper palate. Meanwhile, his top incisors began to grow back from bloody stumps.

Fit at last for release, unable (for obvious reasons) to return to where he had come from, we contacted the national nature agency, NatureScot, offering Argaty as a release site. (Between November 2021 and the summer of 2022, 12 beavers had already been relocated from conflict sites in Tayside to unenclosed ponds on our farm). 

Long-term, beavers do not fare well in captivity. Fig needed to be back in the wild and we were grateful that NatureScot swiftly agreed to the proposal.

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He was released here on March 18. A female companion, safely trapped and removed from a lethal control area by Beaver Trust, was released with him. The shards of shrapnel, which vets deemed too dangerous to remove, will remain lodged in his face forever.

Beavers are superb ecosystem engineers. Their deadwood-filled wetlands boost insect, bird, bat, fish and amphibian numbers. Their dams store water in times of deluge and of drought. They are an ally in the fight against climate change and biodiversity loss.

Yet between 2019 and 2021, 268 beavers are said to have been culled in Scotland, under licenses issued by NatureScot. The true number is actually unknown. Once a licence has been issued, lethal controllers can shoot as many as they wish on the land that the licence covers; it is up to them how many they report dead. Most of the cull licenses have been issued when beavers cause unmanageable impacts upon Prime Agricultural Land.

NatureScot requests that carcasses are handed in for post-mortem, to ensure that shooters followed best practice guidelines; however, according to research carried out by investigative journalists at The Ferret, only four of those 268 bodies were handed in, all by members of the public rather than by lethal controllers.

Fig’s story raises many uncomfortable questions. How frequently do incidents like this happen and go unreported? How often are beavers shot at half-light in deep water – when the chances of a clear shot are slim – and left either to sink and drown or to die in pain from their injuries?

Why, when many beavers are shot in agricultural drainage ditches, has NatureScot blithely accepted shooters’ excuses that recovery of the body was too dangerous? And what is happening to the bodies? Are they buried? Or incinerated perhaps? Few people, least of all the authorities, could answer these questions. The only ones who know are those who pull the triggers.

Sadly, Fig’s story is not uncommon. In recent years, Beaver Trust and Five Sisters Zoo have received and treated several animals with gunshot wounds. Fig was just the latest victim, not only of a bungled shooting attempt, but of the lax system that allows such acts to happen.

The authorities must not continue to turn a blind eye to this. They must accept that the system as it stands – where the onus for honesty lies entirely with the shooters – has failed. Lethal control regulations must be tightened up.

If beavers really have to be culled, if their potential to damage highly valuable farmland or important infrastructure genuinely cannot be mitigated against and the animals cannot be safely trapped and relocated, Scotland’s beaver-supportive public deserves to know both how many were killed and how they died.

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As a mandatory condition of licencing, all bodies must be handed in for autopsy. And if the bodies aren’t handed in, licences should be revoked. Recovery would be made entirely possible if the shooting of beavers in water was banned – a recommendation made in the Scottish Government’s own Animal Welfare Commission report, published last December.

If animals were shot solely on land the chances of bullets ricocheting and causing non-lethal injuries (as they do on water) would be markedly reduced.

Prospective lethal controllers must also be made to pass a marksmanship test before they are granted accreditation. Under the present system, controllers merely have to attend a training course and Q&A session. We cannot continue simply to issue licenses to anyone who wishes to kill a beaver, regardless of whether they can shoot in a straight line.

As society continually develops, and notions of what we deem acceptable shift, we must stop periodically and ask ourselves what sort of nation we wish to be.

Are we a country that turns the other way and refuses to see the brutality inflicted on wild animals by a small percentage of our population? Or do we look it full in the face, and demand better?

That is the question now facing Scotland, on so many fronts. That is the question now facing NatureScot on the beaver front.

Since his release, Fig and his partner appear to be settling well into their new home. The Scottish SPCA deserve huge credit for saving him. He is lucky to be here, lucky to have survived. Under the current system others will not be so fortunate. It is time for change.