1994-2009: Wildly ambitious – debating the species to be reintroduced to Britain

Large blue butterfly The precise time when the large blue butterfly can be seen depends to a great extent on the weather, but the main flight period is from mid-June to early July each year; Photograph: David Tipling/NPL/Rex Features

All photographs and text from the Guardian.

Great Bustard performing the courtship display A male great bustard makes a courtship display. Great bustards disappeared from the UK in 1832 after game shooters made it extinct. This emblem of Wiltshire and the heaviest flying bird in the world (it can weigh up to 20kg) was reintroduced to Salisbury Plain in 2004, with eggs rescued from farmland in Russia. Great bustards need open grassland and arable fields where they feed on grasshoppers and cereal seeds; Photograph: Erich Kuchling/Rex Features

Beavers Are Released Back Into The Wild A beaver swimming in a Scottish river. Beavers were hunted to extinction in the UK by the end of the 16th century for their fur, glands for medicine and because their building of dams interfered with other land uses. Proposals to reintroduce this famous wetland engineer to Knapdale Forest in Scotland began in 1994. This was turned down in 2002 and again in 2005. A licence was granted in 2007 and the first beavers to return to Scotland for 400 years will be released this spring. Other proposals for reintroduction in England and Wales are being considered. The first beavers arrive in Scotland for the reintroduction programme that has started at a secret location. The beavers have all been electronically tagged; Photograph: A.Good/Rex Features

It’s been over 400 years since a wild beaver roamed an English river, but freedom will probably be short-lived for the lone male still at large after escaping – along with two rapidly recaptured females – a few weeks ago from an enclosure in Devon.

Unlike some parts of Europe, where beavers have been reintroduced by being chucked out of the back of a van, the return of once-extinct wild animals to the British countryside is treated with Byzantine feasibility studies, public consultations, legal wrangling, interminable arguments and meticulous planning. For example, it has taken since 1994 to reach acceptance on beaver reintroduction to Knapdale Forest, in Argyll and Bute, Scotland, with the first releases due this spring.

Ecologist and beaver reintroduction specialist Derek Gow, from whose enclosure the three beavers escaped, says: “It has been a long and tortuous process, and the success of reintroductions of beavers will be because of the ability to manage the species and habitats. We are involved in a feasibility study with South West Water. Beavers could help water filtration, removing pollutants and conserving water supply to reservoirs. They are ideal for ecosystem engineering, and they bring real environmental benefits.

“That’s how you sell the idea of reintroduction and persuade landowners. It’s all very well talking about conservation in cosy meeting rooms, but any landowners think conservationists are a devious lot. If we can’t engage with landowners and show them the benefits, reintroduction will be dead in the water. Nature conservationists have to get gritty and realistic.”

Also preaching realism is Tim Coulton, professor of population biology at Imperial College London, although he’s talking about probably the least realistic of the reintroduction targets: the wolf. “The reason for our report [a joint UK and Norway report on wolf reintroduction in Scotland for the Royal Society in 2007] was to look at the effect of wolves on the deer population of Scotland by simulating what had happened elsewhere. The debate on wolf reintroduction had been driven by anecdote and we wanted to inject some science to provide a more informed debate.”

Coulton appreciates that the motivations of many who support animal reintroductions may be aesthetic or romantic, and he does not believe that, even with economic subsidies, there will be strong enough support from sheep farmers for the reintroduction of wolves. However, he does see reintroductions as an important means to an end. “We have to decide what we want from our open spaces – large fields or diverse ecosystems, tourism, water quality,” he says. “Reintroductions can be a tool to achieve these ends. I suspect science rarely drives reintroductions, but it’s the role of science to provide data for a debate and raise warnings, not to decide. That requires a wider public platform.”

Steve Carver, senior lecturer in geography at Leeds University and a coordinator of the Wildlands Network, agrees. “Reintroductions must have grassroots support and cannot work as an authoritarian, top-down process,” he argues. “The reintroduction of the white-tailed eagle on Mull [in Scotland] has developed an industry around wildlife watching. People need to see the benefits of re-wilded landscapes.” He says different landscapes need different policies, with subsidies for restoring habitats.

The current reintroductions, and many of the candidates for a future return, do not require landscape-scale ecological restoration for their success. For example, the red kite has the highest population for 200 years in the UK. White-tailed eagles too can float over the existing landscape without its modification, while wild boar have introduced themselves to the English countryside very successfully, and great bustards like Ministry of Defence grassland and arable fields on Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire.

The most iconic candidate for reintroduction, the lynx, could also arrive without any landscape restoration. This big cat seems happy to live in broadleaved woodland or conifer plantations, and it is estimated that the Scottish Highlands could support a population of 400 lynx. Its selling point is that it would keep down roe deer numbers, as well as foxes, the notorious predators of ground-nesting birds.

Carver says: “The reintroduction of lynx will depend on the success of the beaver, so I’m hopeful that, within 10-15 years, they may be reintroduced. Personally, I’d be happy going to my grave knowing they were back.”

Behind the reintroduction and the re-wilding agenda there is an important shift going on in the conservation world. “Traditional conservation has potentially seen its day,” Carver claims. “The old guard was focused on sites and species, and managed reserves for one species, not the whole landscape. There’s a reason for rarity. If we lose a few species, does it really matter if they’re common in other locations? The new paradigm in conservation is about habitats, landscapes and whole ecosystems.”

Facing a list of 1,149 priority wildlife species and 65 priority habitats that need concerted action to save them, the government’s chances of fulfilling its commitment to stop the loss of biodiversity before 2010 is hopeless. A new target of 2020 is being proposed, but that is likely to be just as hopeless. As traditional conservation becomes more difficult, with less money available and less public support in the current financial climate, the reintroduction of charismatic fauna offers conservation bodies a chance to engage with the public in ways that obscure species of plants and invertebrates in isolated nature reserves unfortunately don’t.

Defining moment

As well as this utilitarian approach to the value of animal reintroductions as economic tools, and the enhanced products and services of ecosystems, Andy Evans, head of the RSPB’s terrestrial research section, says: “There is a moral imperative to correct anthropogenic harm and a moral obligation to maintain habitats, and to improve them from damage caused by, for example, agriculture. Conservation, which has always been scale-dependent, is facing a defining moment.”

Ecologist and author Peter Taylor says: “The reintroduction of charismatic species is also a way of re-wilding the human mind, engaging people with nature on a deeper psychological level. But these reintroductions won’t happen unless all the community is involved, including hunting, shooting, fishing and farming interests.

“This kind of conservation is not helped by the dead hand of computer simulations, government consultations and accounts of the lynx being good for eco-tourism. In early natural history, there was a spiritual connection with nature. As a scientist, I think we need to reclaim something lost from scientific conservation. The lynx, the beaver and wild boar have become iconic emblems for that.”

Comeback contenders

Lynx
The Eurasian lynx, a secretive, powerful cat, is the most likely mammal predator to be reintroduced to the UK – although many say it is already here.

Eurasian lynx A Eurasian lynx mother sits in the grass while her two pups play in their outdoor enclosure in Germany. This secretive, powerful cat with tufted ears and a short tail weighing 25kg survived in Britain until 180AD. The Eurasian lynx is the most likely mammal predator candidate for reintroduction, although many say it is already established in some areas. It is estimated that the Scottish highlands could support a population of 400 lynx, where they would control roe deer and foxes; Photograph: Ronald Wittek/Corbis

Beaver
Hunted to extinction here by the end of the 16th century. A proposal launched in 1994 to reintroduce it to Knapdale Forest, Scotland, was turned down in 2002 and again in 2005. A licence was granted in 2007 and the first beavers to return to Scotland will be released this spring.

BEAVERS ARE RELEASED BACK INTO THE WILD

White-tailed eagle
By 1916, this huge bird, sometimes called the sea eagle, became extinct here through persecution. It was reintroduced to Scotland from Scandinavia in 1975 and there are now 42 breeding territories there. A study is being carried out on proposals to reintroduce it to East Anglia.

A White-Tailed eagle A white-tailed eagle seen in Scotland. In 1700 there were 200 pairs but by 1916 this huge bird, sometimes called the sea eagle, became extinct after persecution in the UK. It was reintroduced to Scotland from Scandinavia in 1975 and there are now 42 breeding territories there. A feasibility study is being carried out on proposals to reintroduce it to East Anglia;Photograph: /RSPB

Great bustard
Last year saw the first egg laid by a great bustard – the heaviest flying bird in the world – in the UK for 175 years. It was reintroduced to Salisbury Plain in a project that began in 2004 with eggs rescued from farmland in Russia.

A handout picture obtained 24 July 2007 Pictured here is the first female great bustard to lay eggs in Britain in 175 years; Photograph: HO/AFP

Wild boar
After an absence of 400 years, they have reintroduced themselves by escaping from boar farms damaged in the 1987 storm. Now well-established in south-east England and the Forest of Dean.

Wild boar return to England After an absence of 400 years, wild boar have reintroduced themselves by escaping from boar farms damaged by the 1987 storm. There are now populations in south-east England and the Forest of Dean; Photograph: Solent News/Rex Features

Grey wolf
The last wolf in the UK was killed in Scotland in the 17th century. Experience in other countries shows that reintroduction would help to regenerate vegetation and woodland.

Mother Grey Wolf Howling The last wolf in the UK was killed in Scotland in the 17th century. According to recent population modelling if wolves were reintroduced to Scotland, their population would stabilise at 25 wolves per 1,000 square kilometres. Although wolf populations would have an impact on the high red deer population, experience in other countries shows the wider effect would be to regenerate vegetation and woodland, benefiting wildlife and helping to restore ecosystems; Photograph: Robert Pickett/Pickett

Large Blue butterfly
One of the most vulnerable butterflies in the world, it became extinct in the UK in 1975, but was reintroduced to Dartmoor in 2000 from Sweden.

A large blue butterfly which has grown in numbers The large blue butterfly became extinct in the UK in 1975 but was reintroduced to Dartmoor in 2000 from Sweden. This is one of the most vulnerable butterflies in the world. It lays its eggs on wild thyme, then the caterpillars are adopted by red ants who take them into their nests, where the butterfly caterpillars become predators of ant grubs before pupating and emerging as spectacularly bright blue adults; Photograph: Emma Daniel/PA

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