Legal Position of Beavers in Mainland Britain
The European beaver is currently listed on Annexes II (animal and plant species of Community interest whose conservation requires the designation of Special Areas of Conservation) and IV (animal species of Community interest in need of strict protection) of the Habitats Directive. This confers wider protection on the European beaver where it is currently resident on the Continent but does not oblige protection in Britain for a non-resident species. Should a trial be successful then it may become appropriate to add the species to the appropriate schedule of the Conservation of Habitats & Species Regulations 2010. This would be required to implement the obligations of the Habitats Directive for a resident species. Once established in the wild any fully reintroduced beaver population would be subject to the provision of the Habitats Directive (92/43) and would be fully protected. At this time a licence may no longer be required to release beavers into any other part of their former British range. However as the European population of beavers continues to increase it is likely that the species could be removed from the strictly protected category in the future. This move would allow member states to decide their own level of protection and/or legal control. There are established licensing routes already in place within the Habitats Regulations which allow for a broad range of proactive beaver management techniques where no alternative options exist. Decisions on this matter would be a subject for Government to consider.
Re-introduction of the European beaver to the British countryside would require a licence under section 16(4) of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Such powers to grant licences under section 16(4) are the prerogative of the statutory nature conservation bodies – Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Countryside Council for Wales. Any trial release of beavers would require a licence from the statutory authorities. A licence can be issued for “whole project” works to ensure coverage of all likely activities. This legal mechanism – which already applies in Knapdale – would allow derogation for capture, culling or any other reasonable intervention. Dams and lodges would not be protected unless they are a specific place of abode. It is likely that Natural England would be minded to facilitate the forgoing in a pragmatic manner in the event of a successful licence application. Although the licence application for Knapdale in 2009 offers a blueprint for this process the experience gained from this project would simplify the requirements for a trial licence in England. It is likely that a licence will only be granted for a low number of beavers (circa 12 -20). The holder of the project licence will be the body responsible for the trial.
It is likely that any licence application for a beaver trial would require a 6 month period of consideration and consultation by Natural England. This process would require the inclusion of a public consultation exercise as a component of the application. While it is likely that Natural England will solicit the national views of other land-use organisations and stakeholders a key requirement will be the demonstrable support of local landowners and the wider community.