Rewilding in the UK

grey wolf. (Sas, R. 2012)

grey wolf. (Sas, R. 2012)

Rewildling has been debated in Britain for many years now, but recently it has taken on more force. Rewildling is the term used for the reintroduction of various species to habitats they can no longer be found in and in the UK there are three main species at the forefront of the argument: Beavers, Wolves and Bears. It almost sounds like the stuff of fairy tales but you could see these animals roaming the British countryside sooner than you think.

Those in the pro camp believe that these species would only make our ecosystems stronger. We no longer have any megafauna in the UK and the reintroduction of certain animals could help to manage some of our current species which have become out of control.

Knapdale, Scotland is leading rewilding in the UK. In 2009 the Scottish Wildlife Trust released 15 Eurasian Beavers (Castor fiber) into a secured area to monitor the effects they would have on the local environment and to see if it would be viable to release the species across the UK. The Eurasian Beaver was hunted to extinction in the 16th Century for its meat and fur and hasn’t been seen in the wild in Britain for nearly 400 years.  It is thought that Beavers would have a positive impact on the environment as they help to naturally coppice trees, encouraging different flora species to grow and flourish. Beaver dams can also have a positive effect on their surroundings, causing new waterways and wetlands to be developed, which in turn will encourage biodiversity and support invertebrate and fish species. The Beavers at Knapdale have had a lot of success, welcoming three litters and providing positive results after a 5 year study. The Trust say they have changed the landscape for the better and increased tourism, as many people really want to see the species back on our lands, with over 60% of people saying they supported the trial.

But not everyone has been pleased to see the rodents back in the British countryside. Some people fear the negative impacts the beavers could have on the countryside, potentially causing mass damage. The other concern is that, apart from weasels or mink taking a few kits, the Beaver has no natural predator in the UK so they have the potential to become over populated. But for some, this only strengthens the argument to introduce some of the Beavers’ predators: Wolves and Bears.

Both Grey Wolves and Brown Bears once roamed our countryside and there are many people who support the idea of them returning to our landscape. Wolves were wiped out due to hunting and the Brown bear due to bear baiting and at the time, many were pleased about this as people feared both, with lots of reports of kings supporting and advocating the killing of both species. However, wolves are the next species to become the main rewilding focus and it is Scotland again who are at the forefront of the campaign. The Alladale Estate in Sutherland is owned by Paul Lister, a man who plans to reintroduce the European Grey Wolf or Eurasian Wolf (Canis lupus lupus) to the Scottish countryside. In fact, Lister has already been preparing his fenced-off 23,000 acre estate by planting various native trees across the landscape, although he hasn’t been given the go ahead just yet and his plans have caused much debate. There is a high population of Red Deer (Cervus elaphus scotius) in the area, too high in fact and it is hoped the wolves would help to manage the species as the deer have been causing major damage to woodland. One argument in support of the reintroduction of Grey Wolves is Yellowstone Park. Back in 1995, 14 Grey Wolves were reintroduced to the American nature reserve and a further 17 were released in the following year and so far, the results have all been positive. It is thought the wolves have been the cause of less damage to trees and vegetation, due to them forcing deer to be more mobile. This has caused more flora to grow and resulted in the stabilisation of soil along river banks.  It is important to remember however, that Yellowstone National Park is over 2 million acres in size, much bigger than the 23,000 acres Lister owns and many farmers and livestock owners do not relish the idea of the reintroduction of wolves to the area, as wolves could prey upon local sheep and deer. Some people also fear the impact it would have on the wolves themselves, would the species do well in the UK? And what about human safety?  Taking on board all of these fears, Lister is planning a 6 month study into the socio-economic impact of rewilding. As well as the wolf, Lister is also pushing for the reintroduction of bears, bison and Lynx. He released Wild Boar and Elk into his land a few years ago and it has already been reported that the boars have destroyed some of the landscape. Whilst Lister is back on the campaign to rewild his land, it seems that it will not be happening any time soon.

As the rewildling debate rages on, we have to consider all the positives and negatives of the idea of reintroducing extinct species. Our environment evolves all the time and whilst many of these species were wiped out through human behaviour, is it really in their best interests to reintroduce them? Our current wildlife has adapted to life without such species, would the outcome be positive if certain species were amongst them once more? And after all the damage we have done, is it not better to focus on supporting and encouraging the current wildlife we have before we see more wonderful British species go extinct? The Beaver trial has shown positive results, but we will have to wait and see what the overall impact will be and whilst it would be amazing to see many species back in our landscape, we need to consider carefully what the long term impacts will be on all our wildlife.

Knapdale Beavers – http://www.scottishbeavers.org.uk 

Alladale Estate – http://www.alladale.com/

UK Wolf Conservation – http://ukwct.org.uk/

Scottish Wildlife Trust – http://www.wildlifetrusts.org/rewilding

 

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