Judge rules NatureScot issued beaver-killing licences incorrectly

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Scotland’s agency for wildlife and habitats unlawfully allowed beavers to be killed, a judge has ruled.

NatureScot has been ordered to stop issuing licences to cull the animals without first giving its reasons in writing.

The rewilding charity Trees for Life challenged the beaver-killing policy at the Court of Session, saying too many licences were being issued.

Out of five complaints from Trees for Life, four were rejected by the court. NatureScot said the decision, ‘for the most part’, vindicated their approach. The ruling applies to all European protected species in the UK.

In a written judgement, Lady Carmichael said all killings authorised by NatureScot had been unlawful and it must in future fully set out the reasons why it believed beavers should be killed.

‘In approaching matters on the basis that it has no duty to give reasons for granting a licence, the first respondent has erred in law,’ she wrote. ‘The contention is that the licences should have been reviewed and revoked because they should never have been issued in the first place.’

But Lady Carmichael added that she was ‘not satisfied’ with some of the arguments put forward by Trees for Life about NatureScot’s ‘generalised unlawful practices’, adding that some ‘criticisms are misconceived’.

Alan McDonnell, Trees for Life conservation manager, said: ‘With Scotland hosting what could be the most important summit on climate breakdown in our lifetimes, this result offers a better future for Scotland’s beavers. The Scottish Government must take this ruling seriously, and it means that from here on in there can be no more rubber-stamping of licensed killing of beavers.

‘This is an important victory for accountability and transparency, which will benefit everyone, including conservationists and farmers.’

Now that beavers cannot be killed under licence without a full explanation of the reasons, Trees for Life says NatureScot needs to rethink its approach to beaver management, with the killing of beavers only carried out as a last resort. The charity is calling for beavers to be relocated to areas of Scotland where they have been missing for centuries, instead of being shot.

‘By moving rather than shooting beavers, we can help them get to work boosting biodiversity, tackling climate breakdown and creating wildlife tourism opportunities,’ continued Alan McDonnell.

‘The Scottish Government has been blocking relocation of beavers to areas of Scotland where they belong but are missing, but today’s ruling creates hope that this will change so that farmers will no longer be put in a position where they have no choice but to shoot much-loved animals.’

Following the ruling, NatureScot’s director of sustainable growth Robbie Kernahan said: ‘We welcome the court’s decision which, for the most part, vindicates our licensing approach. We have been successful on all points of law except that we should have issued written reasons with each licence to explain why it had been granted.

‘Of the five complaints under consideration by the court, four were rejected entirely. The court found only one complaint to be well founded – not issuing written reasons with licences – on what amounts to a technical point of law.

‘Most importantly, the criticism of our underlying licensing decisions was entirely rejected by the court and this does not affect the legality of any acts carried out under the affected licences.

‘We have been working with partners for 25 years to bring back beavers to Scotland because of the many benefits they bring to both people and nature, particularly in this crucial time of climate emergency. In certain circumstances, beavers can cause problems.

‘In those specific situations where beavers pose a risk of serious damage to farmland or where they occasionally cause a public health and safety concern, we issue species control licences accordingly.’

The president of the National Farmers Union in Scotland, Martin Kennedy, said: ‘We welcome the recognition by the courts that, for the most part, the beaver management framework and licencing system, as established and developed by Scottish Government, NatureScot, land managers and wildlife organisations is appropriate and proportionate.

‘In our opinion, the framework remains a positive platform to review, balance and resolve conflicts between the growing population of beavers and land management in a pragmatic and sensible way.

‘To those impacted by beavers on their land, the licence system has been a valuable way of protecting their farm from economic and environmental damage, with lethal control remaining a last resort.

‘We will now look to work with NatureScot and other stakeholders in the coming days to assess the implications of the ruling. However, we welcome the clarification from NatureScot in its statement that the ruling does not affect the legality of any acts carried out under the affected licences.

‘We also welcome its statement that in those specific situations where beavers pose a risk of serious damage to farmland or where they occasionally cause a public health and safety concern, NatureScot will issue species control licences accordingly.’