Wildlife reintroductions can ignite outrage between social groups, turning conservation goals into major conflicts. Understanding different stakeholder perceptions of beavers holds the key for those hoping to bring back this ecosystem engineer to the rivers of Scotland.
Beavers are ecological engineers. That is to say, they are animals that significantly modify the landscapes they inhabit. By modifying landscapes, beavers confer a number of vital ecosystem services that benefit many other species, including humans. The service they are best known for is, of course, their penchant for building dams. These dams in turn promote a myriad of biodiversity, reduce erosion and improve water quality, highlighting the crucial role of beavers for healthy river environments.
Historical overexploitation of beavers for traditional medicine and clothing items has significantly reduced their natural population size and geographical range. Under the growing conservation movement of rewilding, whereby nature is left to self-manage, conservationists today argue that beavers should be reintroduced into their former landscapes. But, differing perceptions of beavers has clouded this increasingly contentious idea.
Whilst scientific evidence overwhelming points to the positive ecological role of beavers within an ecosystem, many people still contend that they are pests and should be removed from our landscapes. Some erroneously believe that beavers are competitors for important fish stocks such as salmon (they are in fact entirely vegetarian animals), whilst others find the dynamic riverscapes created by beavers problematic when located near managed areas, such as farmlands.
The spectrum of different perceptions surrounding beavers is no wider than in Scotland. The last native Eurasian beavers (Castor fiber) were hunted to extinction during the 16th century, however trial reintroduction programmes have been established legally in Knapdale Forest, Argyll, and illegally on the River Tay in Perthshire. In May 2019, the Scottish government sanctioned that beavers were to be protected by law. Yet, in the same year 87 individual beavers were legally killed, representing one fifth of the country’s population.
One of the unique aspects of wildlife introductions, is that conflict can occur before animals are even present within a landscape. Therefore, whilst beavers are currently in only two locations within Scotland, the potential for wide-spread restoration has ignited fierce debate across the country. Undertaking a wide-ranging survey, Roger Auster and colleagues attempt to investigate the complex social dynamics of beaver reintroduction across Great Britain.
A Polarised Great Britain
Across the 2,759 questionnaire submissions completed, those respondents with an occupation of “Farming & Agriculture” or “Fisheries & Aquaculture” were significantly less likely to have a positive view on beaver reintroduction. In contrast, retirees and those working in the arts or environmental sectors were much more likely to support such a notion. These groups would interact quite differently with beavers, underlying an increased risk of polarisation and conflict between these societal groups. Open conversation is of course a key requirement for democratic resolution of conflict. However, it is important to note that over 60% of respondents indicated that they did not feel that there was an adequate platform available for them to express their opinions. Without the possibility of open conversation between groups, it is likely that different stakeholders may become further entrenched in their own viewpoints and closed to the perspectives of others.
Interestingly, those who considered themselves to have “strong knowledge” of beavers were much more likely to have a positive view of beaver impacts. This indicates that enhancing the foundation of knowledge surrounding beavers may help to increase the wide-spread desire of beaver reintroduction across stakeholder groups. Education is a key path that conservation groups must follow to enhance their goal of rewilding.
Wildlife management decisions often occur reactively to conflicts that occur. In the case of reintroductions, however, there is abundant time available to proactively ensure that pragmatic decision making can be made with the full expression of all stakeholder groups. Although a challenging endeavour, this approach will more likely garner the public support required to successfully reintroduce Castor fiber back into the Scottish wilderness.
Edited by: Lindsay Green-Gavrielidis