BEAVERS are to be reintroduced to the Scottish countryside for the first time in almost 500 years.
The board of Scottish Natural Heritage narrowly voted yesterday to bring back the beaver in a pilot project.
The seven-year study will be launched early next year in the Highlands with a group of 12 animals. The Scottish Landowners Federation, however, has branded the move as "foolhardy".
Dr John Markland, the SNH chairman, said the project, which will cost about £400,000, would be a positive contribution to the environment. He said it followed the organisations success in reintroducing other species to Scotland, including the red kite.
The beaver, famous for building intricate river dams, used to be a common sight in Scotland several centuries ago. However, numbers dwindled and the beavers finally died out in the 16th century after they were targeted by man for their pelt, a gland sought after for medicinal uses, and the tail which was commonly eaten.
Experts believe the initial animals, which will be imported from Scandanavia, will breed a community of about 30 to 40 by the end of the pilot. The animals will be released in family groups in secret locations in the Highlands to protect them from hunters.
Dr Markland said: " There will always be people who will oppose it [the project]. There was opposition when it was first raised two years ago. What we have done is to try and involve as many people as possible in the discussions."
He said the project would almost certainly be carried out with the close co-operation of Forestry Enterprise.
The SNH decision will now be referred to Donald Dewar, the First Minister, for formal ratification.
The public agency will fund up to 50 per cent of the costs, with a ceiling of £250,000 while private sponsorship will also be sought.
It was also agreed that if the programme is a failure the beavers would be returned to Scandinavia or humanely culled as a last resort.
Expert papers put to the meeting said it was almost impossible to state what the potential health risks attached to reintroduction are.
A water-transmitted disease, called beaver fever, can be passed to humans, but a scientific report to SNH said it already exists in Scotland and was not likely to be increased by a small number of beavers.
The SNH report has called for further investigation into beaver fever and suggested health warning signs be put up at release sites.
Opponents of the scheme fear fish stocks and bankside woodlands could be irreparably damaged.
Andrew Bradford, a member of the executive committee of the Association of Salmon Fishery Boards, said: A pair was introduced in Bavaria several years ago and now there are 5,000. They are living in the middle of Munich and munching their way through trees in the parks there. They succeed far too well and they would thrive quite as happily in Scotland.
Salmon would be stopped migrating up river because of the dams being built and their offspring would not be able to return to the sea once they had spawned because of the dams.
Dr Steven Tapper of the Game Conservancy Trust said there was not enough information and a pilot trial of a small number of beavers with radio collars was needed to study their behaviour and find out what sort of damage they are doing.
The Scottish Landowners Federation attacked the SNHs decision. A spokesman said: It is understandable why the beaver has been identified as an opportunity for SNH to fulfil part of its biodiversity obligations but in our view reintroduction is likely to prove foolhardy and expensive in the long-run.
After a gap of 400 years, former habitats are unrecognisable. We cannot simply recreate a bit of the past within the present demands on our countryside and expect this to be sustainable.
In essence this proposal is an introduction of a now alien species, not a reintroduction.