Animal welfare and conservation charities have voiced disappointment after the Scottish Government said a final decision on the reintroduction of beavers to Scotland will not be taken until later in the year.

The five-year Scottish Beaver Trial brought the creature back to Scotland after a 400-year absence.

The country currently has populations living at Knapdale Forest in Argyll and in Tayside.

A report on the trial's results was sent to Scottish ministers in June last year and they initially said they would decide later in 2015 on whether beavers will remain in the country.

But Holyrood's Environment Minister Aileen McLeod has announced that, with "complex issues" still being considered, "a final decision on beavers within the context of Scottish wildlife and land management" will be taken later this year.

Wildlife organisations described the move - which comes amid fears that beavers are being culled indiscriminately because they have no legal protection - as "weak" and said a decision was overdue.

Duncan Orr-Ewing, head of species and land management at RSPB Scotland, said: "We are extremely disappointed by this further delay in ratifying the presence of Eurasian beavers in Scotland.

"The situation of unregulated culling and an absence of coordinated management support will now continue until after the election, to the detriment of the environment, landowners and of course the beavers themselves. We encourage the new or re-appointed minister to endorse the return of this iconic species to our rivers and lochs as soon as possible after the election."

Harry Huyton, director of OneKind Scotland, said: "This weak response further delays a decision on the future of Scotland's beavers until after the elections and will do little to protect them from continued persecution in the meantime."

The National Trust for Scotland called for a decision to be made as soon as possible.

Nature conservation adviser Lindsay Mackinlay said: "The conservation sector has been waiting for a decision on this issue since last year and we are disappointed it has taken so long.

"While we welcome this interim reassurance, a final ruling is overdue and we would urge any incoming Scottish Ministers to resolve the matter, this summer at the very latest."

The Scottish Government pointed to measures, such as the possible use of Nature Conservation Orders, to protect beavers.

Dr McLeod said: "We understand that there are those for whom beaver activity can pose problems - particularly farmers with low-lying areas, often with highly productive farms but which are at risk of flooding or water logging from the damming activities of beavers. We are working closely with SNH (Scottish Natural Heritage), who are providing advice on mitigation and alternatives to lethal control but also guidelines regarding welfare considerations arising from the shooting of beavers, where this is the only option available.

"We are aware of and share the concerns raised by the recent information about the killing of beavers during the breeding season and we ask all land managers to heed the advice set out regarding when there are likely to be dependent young and shooting is particularly discouraged.

"The use of Nature Conservation Orders are available to us and should evidence emerge that welfare concerns for beavers are being ignored, we will look to use these powers to protect beavers in specific areas."