Rewilding Britain; Pondering the Possibilities.

Alas Britain stands on the precipice of real change, a change that could have exponential and in some cases slightly mind boggling impact on the ecological makeup of our dear country. Those looking to “rewild Britain” would see large, charismatic and in some cases rather fearsome animals returned to country following their extirpation at the hands of man. Now more than ever the prospect of rewilding Britain seems not only feasible but also highly likely. Finally it seems that we, the dominant species on our fragile, degraded planet have the potential to rectify the mistakes of our forebears, to sooth at least one of the wounds inflicted upon Mother Nature in recent times. I for one welcome the notion of rewilding Britain though the extent to which we are able to do so remains far from clear. Amid all the clamor regarding bears, wolves, Lynx, beavers, boar, and elk it is surely necessary to stop for a minute, pour a cup of tea and ponder whether or not modern day Britain truly is a place where such beasts could survive.
Lynx - Bernard Landgraf

Lynx – Bernard Landgraf


As a young naturalist (well I’d like to think 22 was still young) I have grown up with the idea of rewilding. I looked into the topic at depth at university and have a profound interested in the subject. Indeed both Beavers and Boar have both made resurgence during my lifetime and species such as Pine Marten and Polecat have made localised comebacks following certain acts of “covert rewilding”. All of this I applaud. Without the zealous campaigning of people like George Montbiot and Paul Lister the former two creatures may not have returned to Britain at all and the attitudes of the British populace may not have shifted so virulently in our favour. Rewilding is now a concrete, plausible and very real thing, proven to work and proven to benefit both man and beast. With upwards of 150 Beavers living in Tayside alone, seemingly without (too much) conflict it seems that rewilding can indeed work. This has given rise to the possibility of reintroducing a host of creatures far removed from the aforementioned furry timber munchers and the Boar of Southern England. But first, a quick refresher on the history of big game in Britain..
Britain as we know it is actually a rather dull place when compared to other European localities including as Italy, Germany and the Baltic states, all of which still show case some large and fairly impressive animals. Yes Britain boasts some lovely butterflies, beautiful birds and a few moderately inspiring mammals but truly the UK has lost a great proportion of its wild allure. The bears, wolves, lynx and large ungulates that add both excitement and uncertainty to woodland ventures on the continent have long since departed our shores. Shot, snared, trapped and in some cases eaten into localised oblivion. The Eurasian Lynx (Lynx lynx) was the first to go, at least in a more modern sense, driven to extinction around 450. The Brown Bear (Ursus arctos arctos) fell next, meeting an untimely demise as a result of sustained hunting and persecution. Though the European Beaver (Castor fiber) has recently returned to our shores the initial British population was wiped out in its entirety by the 16th century. Preceding this, the European Wolf (Canis lupus lupus) eventually faded into the abyss, extinct by 1680 following centuries of pressure at the hands of the romans, the Normans and proceeding generations. These enigmatic beasts are only the latest in a long line of British mammals that have fallen foul to the needs of mankind. European Elk (Alces alces) and even the Gray Whale (Eschrichtius robustus) were also wiped out in the UK, all be a tad earlier. Purportedly before the birth of a certain messiah. All of this fills me with a great sense of shame. Why must humans continuously impose their will over other species? Surely exploiting a “resource” to the point of extinction is a little counterproductive? Whatever the case, all of these species once inhabited the British Isles and now (excluding the Beaver and Boar) do not. All because of us. Surely this means we are morally obliged to correct our mistakes and bring these species back? Many it seems agree with this notion, I know I do.
Grey Wolves - Taral Jansen

Grey Wolves – Taral Jansen

Both Beavers and Boar have recolonized Britain with gusto in recent years. Though Britain’s Boar (and many of our Beavers) stem from illegal reintroduction’s or “escapes” as they are more often referred it seems that both species are now here to stay. Hurrah! These species are both relatively unobtrusive and both are ecosystem engineers with the ability to greatly improve the British ecosystem for other species. Boar via their persistent rooting and Beavers by altering the flow of our waterways. Admittedly both species have caused a stir on the odd occasion but both, on the large part have slotted into our landscape with relative ease. This is no doubt due to their fairly basic habitat requirements with neither species holding particularly large territories and neither species being overly fussy when it comes to their choice of abode. Britain it seems has not yet been ruined to such an extent to too prevent these species once again taking hold. What remains to be seen however is whether Britain is still a suitable home for all together larger and more imposing species. Lynx have been a much talked about one in recent times and rightfully so. They offer a solution to Britain’s deer problem and could, like beavers and boar have a profoundly positive impact on the sites in which they live. Does Britain have enough room to sustain a viable population of Lynx? Well, yes. In my opinion. Our little island will never hold a population to rival that of the continent but in places such as Kielder Forest and the Scottish Highlands Lynx could well be introduced successfully. Again the same could be said for Elk if the idea was ever broached though I am dubious as to whether Britain could handle such large grazers whilst the ones we have; Roe, Red, Munjac and Fallow Deer continue to have such a blatantly negative effect on our island flora and fauna. Wolves and Bears, that is a different subject entirely. Though I long to be serenaded by howling wolves as I traipse across the remote regions of Britain the fact of the matter is (in my opinion) that we do not have any areas of suitable habitat left. Britain is not Yellowstone. Where would we put such animals? The Lake Distinct? No. Northumberland? No. Even the Highlands would struggle to hold a viable population. Sadly Britain has lost her grandiose forests, her huge tracts of wilderness and with them any hope of returning Wolves and Bears to our shores. With this in mind however there is always the option to fence off areas of land for the release of such species. Such an idea is indeed favored by Alladale Estate owner Paul Lister though for me such places would be nothing more than glorified zoos. Places for children to ogle captive animals. Habitat restoration is the only way forward for rewilding, at least when it comes to the larger species. This is indeed doable but will take time.A long time.
Though I mentioned earlier the change in attitude towards rewilding there will always be those that oppose it. Some people do so on justifiable grounds. We would be foolish to ignore the fact that wolves, bears and even Lynx would surely predate livestock. Wouldn’t you if given the choice between an agile, speedy deer or a clumsy lump of mutton? With opposition comes prejudice and with prejudice comes persecution. Given the state of raptors in the UK is really fair that we subject additional predators to the perils of angry landowners, gamekeepers and farmers? I’m not stereotyping by a long shot, there are examples of both good and bad in every community but one need only look at the state of the Hen Harrier to see that something is terribly amiss in the UK. At present our government has failed to protect many of the species we still possess. As such is it truly fair to subject such creatures to a nation where intolerance and persecution yet go unpunished? Not in my book. I fully support the reintroduction of Lynx though this would have to coincide with much stricter legalization designed to protect the animals from those that would do them harm. At present our Tory government will not provide this. A trail would of course be necessary to gauge the viability of any Lynx reintroduction, as was the case with the Scottish beavers. This may run smoothly, radio collars and remote cameras ensuring the protection of the first few animals but as for large scale rewilding, I fear Britain is not ready. Education is the only way forward in this regard.
Eurasian Beaver - Harald Olsen

Eurasian Beaver – Harald Olsen

As I have said before I am a firm supporter of rewilding and I greatly admire those pushing it forward. I agree with the introduction of Beavers, I agree with the reintroduction of Boar, I support the reintroduction of martens and polecats and I may even support the reintroduction of Gray Whales if ever anyone sees fit to hump one of the blubbery leviathans across to our shores. I agree fully with the notion of rewilding Britain with large predators though I believe things must change substantially before such a thing is possible. Wolves and Bears, they are a pipe dream, a figment of the minds of we wistful conservationists. Species that may only return once the British landscape and populace are changed to a suitable extent. Lynx? Well Lynx are a more complicated issue. Yes a reintroduction would be possible, plausible even. It would surely be morally right and I would give my right arm catch sight of one of the fantastic felines prowling the wilds of Kielder forest. I cannot help but feel that such ideals are unjustifiable until we pull together and address wider issues. Lynx reintroduction would be costly and to have even one of the animals fall victim to illegal persecution would be unforgivable. This is the issue we must address first. Of course there are always ways around problems. Pay outs, handouts, bribes, subsidies, the possibilities are endless. Reintroduction of any of these species could indeed go ahead if the right set of stars aligned. The opinions listed here are mine and mine only and I apologize if I have “gone against the grain” so to speak and trod on anyone’s toes. I love the notion of rewilding and I fully indent to dedicate my life to the protection of British wildlife, I do however feel that those backing rewilding campaigns must pick and choose their battles and those rallying to support such schemes must consider the wider implications. Dreams of turning Britain into a primeval wilderness are all well and good but are they feasible in the short term?

 

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James Common
James is a nature writer, conservationist, blogger and birder; holding an MSc in Wildlife Management and working previously in the fields of ecology and practical conservation. He maintains a popular natural history blog at commonbynature.co.uk, writes regularly for Northumberland Wildlife Trust and, as its managing director, runs New Nature - the youth nature magazine.
James Common

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