Politicians and landowners unite to block the beaver's return to the wilds of Scotland

Dam shame » Public support reintroduction, but farmers say rodents would damage farmland

A landmark project to reintroduce beavers into the wild in Britain, hundreds of years after they were hunted into extinction, is facing collapse after fierce opposition from landowners and politicians.

The £500,000 project – the first attempt to reintroduce mammals into the wild in Britain – was widely expected to be approved after being supported by local people, the Government's conservation advisers, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), and the Forestry Commission.

But it has now emerged that ministers in the Scottish executive are preparing to reject the proposal, which involves releasing a dozen beavers into Knapdale forest in the western Highlands next spring, because of fears they will damage farmland and salmon fishing in the area.

Environmentalists such as the World Wide Fund for Nature are furious at the about-turn. The pilot project is seen as a crucial test case for attempts to reintroduce mammals such as beaver, wild boar and lynx in Britain.

Beavers once lived throughout Britain but were hunted for their rich pelts, meat and oils. Critics of the proposal claim they were also shot because they were pests – a claim disputed by naturalists.

Scottish Natural Heritage and the Mammals Trust, which is putting in £150,000 for the project, argue that beavers will restore the health of Britain's waterways and forests by slowing down rivers, recreating wet woodlands, thinning out forests and building up sediment and insect populations.

But fears are growing that ministers have been heavily influenced by local farmers, landowners and the National Farmers Union, who have complained the beavers will wreck salmon fisheries, damage forests, escape into surrounding farms and cause flooding with their dams.

Two-thirds of locals have backed the scheme, but the local MP, Alan Reid, and the local member of the Scottish Parliament, Jamie McGrigor, have urged ministers to reject it after being lobbied by local landowners.

Mr Reid said: "A tremendous amount of money, time and energy would be put into this study, which could be better put towards other environmental problems like Japanese knotweed, escaped mink and discarded fridges."

Scottish ministers are to spend the summer consulting other conservationists and environment ministers in London before making a final decision.

Simon Pepper, director of WWF Scotland, said beavers had become a symbol of the attempt to rebuild the environment. "If landowning interests have a greater influence over ministers than the will of the people, then the consultation process will have been reduced to a costly sham."