Scotland is once again ahead of the game (or at least ahead of England) as far as legal protection for wildlife is concerned.
Scottish Environment Minister, Roseanna Cunningham, announced recently that Beavers would be given the strict protection afforded other European Protected Species (EPS), under the EU Habitats Directive.
These species are mostly those for which the UK has particular, international responsibility, and include everything from Bats to Harbour Porpoises; the Large Blue butterfly to the Lady’s-slipper orchid.
Having EPS status means that the individuals are legally protected from persecution or killing; and their habitats are also protected, to a greater or lesser extent.
This means that Beavers and their habitats will receive legal protection too - although newly-built dams (less than two weeks old) can still be legally dismantled, without a licence. And capturing or, in the last resort, killing Beavers will still be allowed, under licence.
Now, of course, there’s a certain irony that Beavers will become a European Protected Species in the UK on the 1st May 2019 - which will either be a month after the UK formally leaves the EU, or perhaps 4 weeks beforehand, depending on whether a short delay to Brexit day is confirmed (I still have my doubts). Because of course the legal protection they will receive is based on EU law and that EU law is ultimately founded on the decisions of the Court of Justice of the European Union - something which Brexites have been obsessed with and enraged by, for years.
Once we leave the EU, there will still be domestic laws (known as the Habitat Regulations) which provide legal protection for EPS, at least for a year or two.
A most peculiar argument
During our time as an EU member state, if an EPS was being persecuted, or its habitat being destroyed, the UK Government could be taken to the EU court, which could impose very heavy fines, until the persecution or damage was remedied. This acted as a very effective backstop (in that the court’s decision was final) and a deterrent.
Once outside the EU, that backstop disappears along with the deterrent effect. So conferring the status of EPS on the Beaver may not be, in reality, quite as strong a signal that the animals will be given protection as it would have been, had we continued to be an EU country.
Now that Scotland has decided that its Beavers are a proper native mammal, it’s going to be pretty difficult for officials in England and Wales (where they have also been reintroduced) to argue that Beavers are not native there. After all, they were native across Great Britain until about 1600, and for the previous 7 million years or so.
While the benefits of beavers are well established, there are still plenty of beaver naysayers. Some in the farming community argue that the landscape has changed beyond all recognition over the past 400 years and there is now no room for Beavers. This is a most peculiar argument since it implies that everything that is here now in Britain is as good as it can be and nothing must change. In that case, should all new land-uses be stopped? Maize grown purely to feed the biogas industry didn’t exist 10 years ago and now covers 60,000ha of England’s farmland. Did anyone say: “there’s no room for that biogas Maize, we need that land to grow food?”
If they did, I didn’t hear them. And of course the anglers - ah the anglers. Many (not all) don’t want Beavers back because they are worried that Beavers will affect Salmon and Trout populations. They don’t seem quite so bothered about other fish species, or fish diversity in general. That smells a bit fishy to me - it may even qualify as being ‘fishist.’
While the return of a native animal and legal protection being conferred upon it is generally welcomed (with notable exceptions), at the same time some people are up in arms over plans to stop a very popular, cute and cuddly, but exotic invader from being released into the countryside. This is the Grey squirrel.
Introduced into Britain in the 1870s, the Greys have been relentlessly spreading across Britain and have been blamed for the near extinction of the native Red squirrel - by acting as a host for a virus which kills the Reds, but leaves the Greys untouched. They also damage trees, especially planted ones - and are thus hated by foresters.
But most people (who aren’t foresters) enjoy seeing the Greys - in the local park or in their gardens. And in urban environments, Grey squirrels might be the only wild mammal, people ever see.
Compassion for any suffering animal is natural, and has led to injured or orphaned Grey squirrels being rescued and taken to special Grey squirrel rehabilitation centres. Here, the Greys are restored to health and then released back into the wild, where it’s considered they belong, despite having been introduced - and having caused the problems I mention above.
Now, the Government has decided that the law needs to change, making it an offence to return a captive Grey Squirrel back to the wild. The Sunday Times newspaper created a bit of a stir by claiming that Environment Minister Michael Gove’s department was going to force rehabilitation centres to kill all of their captive Grey squirrels, which, in turn, forced Defra to issue a rebuttal. It does feel like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut though - there are around three million Grey squirrels wild in the UK - how many do rehabilitation centres release every year - a few thousand at most?
As the secretary of the Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals, Samantha Chandler, said: “Surely even invasive species deserve the right to humane treatment if they are sick or injured?”
Well yes. And here’s the rub.
Allowing a few hundred Beavers in Scotland (and a few tens in England) to return to the wild has caused huge controversy - remember this is an animal which lived here for millions of years and is an essential component of our wetland ecosystems.
Changing the law to prevent a few thousand (at most) non-native squirrels go free when there are three million already out there, seems to me to be a bit of overkill.
But allowing 35 million non-native Pheasants to be released every year without any licencing requirement…
Pheasant which cause significant environmental damage, road traffic accidents, disease - never mind the birds’ own welfare.
Released just so they can be shot, for fun or profit?
Yes, of course, that’s fine, go ahead. No problem.
Miles King is an Ecologist, founder of People Need Nature and a regular columnist for Lush Times. These are his own views. Follow him on Twitter @MilesKing10