Call of the wild – native species back from the brink and where you might see them…

Thanks to James  Waller for our latest guest blog. James is a writer, Green Party volunteer and supporter of environmental causes. He has recently rediscovered his connection with nature after living London for three years…

Image: Tony Hisgett

Lynx
Tony Hisgett

“Believe it or not, up until fairly recently, in ecological time, Britain was home to a much vaster array of impressive wild creatures. Some of these included top predators such as wolves, lynx, bear and wolverines, as well as different types of eagles and other birds of prey, wild boar, elk, beaver, and a variety of small mammals, birds, reptiles, and insects.

However, since the Neolithic revolution and the introduction of agriculture, subsequent waves of human expansion have gradually eroded their once pristine natural habitats and/or caused conflict with people. Thus their numbers massively declined, in many cases into extinction.

On a more positive note, over the last twenty years a variety of national conservation projects have successfully reintroduced various native British species back into the wild. In areas where rare animals had become extinct or where the survival of local populations was severely threatened, sanctuaries of protected natural habitat and release/breeding programs were set up, in an attempt to preserve and rebuild their presence in the ecosystem.

Just some of the animals and insects that have been reintroduced back into Britain’s natural landscape include mammals such as the beaver, wild boar, sea otter and red squirrel, and birds like the great bustard, black grouse, white-tailed eagle, osprey, goshawk and red kite, plus several species of butterfly.

Here’s where you might see a few of them…

Image: Per Harald Olsen

Beaver – Per Harald Olsen

Beavers: These large, aquatic, dam-building rodents have been cautiously returned to a couple of select sites. As a keystone species they have an important influence on the rest of the ecosystem, creating habitat for smaller river-dwelling creatures with their dams and lodges. So far they have been released in Scotland at Knapdale Forest, Lower Mill Estate in Gloucestershire and at Martin Mere in Lancashire, and recently a totally wild beaver was spotted in a river in Devon. There are also plans to release beavers in Wales very soon.

Image: PD-User

Wild boar – PD-User

Wild boar: Ater 700 years of absence this large, powerful member of the wild pig family has made a strong return to Britain. What’s truly remarkable is that their reintroduction was not planned and has happened purely by accident. There is a sizeable population in the Forest of Dean in the West Country and have been sighted across the south of England, they are also as far north as Yorkshire and Lancashire. There is division between supporters of the wild boar’s return and those concerned about its impacts.

Image: Takkk

Great bustard – Takk

Great bustard: This large native bird, which is in fact the heaviest flying animal, weighing up to 21kg and standing one metre tall, is found across rolling grasslands in Northern Europe. After going extinct in Britain in 1832, a breeding program was set up in 2004 in Wiltshire. Bustards transported from Russia were reintroduced to the landscape. The project’s first breeding pairs have successfully hatched chicks and a great bustard sighting has now been reported 50 miles away in Dorset. The can currently be seen roaming wild on Salisbury Plain.

Image: Администрация Волгоградской области

White tailed eagle – Администрация Волгоградской области

White tailed eagle: Once a common sight in the skies over Britain’s wilderness, these magnificent birds-of- prey were persecuted over past centuries by landowners who saw them as a threat to their livestock and gamebirds, and in 1970 they became critically endangered. After reintroduction in the 1980s there are now over 50 breeding pairs around the west coast of Scotland. There has also been a recent reintroduction in Ireland of two pairs that have produced chicks.

Image: Pline

Glanville fritillary butterfly – Pline

Glanville fritillary butterfly: An extremely rare species with beautiful white and orange markings, previously it could be found all over southern England. It only lives in specific habitats of exposed chalky undercliff and grassland where lamb’s tongue, the plant it feeds on as a caterpillar, is abundant. Now they survive just in the Isle of Wight and Channel Islands, but have been reintroduced at sites on the Somerset and Surrey coast.

More to come?

Following EU legislation passed under the Habitats Directive, EU member states have an obligation to explore and attempt reintroductions of native flora and fauna. In Britain this means that more consideration and attention is being given to conservation and rebuilding ancient ecosystems.

A significant and controversial proposal in this process is the idea to reintroduce native predators like the Eurasian lynx, grey wolf and brown bear. A range of recent studies has declared that there is a strong possibility these animals could be sustained by, and benefit, the environment.

Also, as Britain currently has an out-of-control deer population that is destroying habitats by ‘overgrazing’ vegetation vital to the ecosystem. The reintroduction of predators is being viewed as a potentially natural and effective solution.

Scientific research in Scotland has suggested the idea to reintroduce wolves there could be successful. Public support seems fairly strong, as the exciting opportunity to see wolves running wild could provide major development for ecotourism.

It seems like the future of Britain’s wildlife is starting to look positive. So maybe it’s time to answer the call of the wild and get out there and see them.”

James Waller

About Kay Haw

Assistant Conservation Adviser, Woodland Trust. Nature is my passion, especially woods and trees which are just amazing elements of life. One day (soon) I hope we humans learn to work in harmony with Mother Earth.
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11 Responses to Call of the wild – native species back from the brink and where you might see them…

  1. Tim says:

    One of the Isle of Wight’s best kept secrets is that we have a small number of Red Deer living and breeding in the wild. They are very shy and secretive and far more difficult to spot than any farmed deer. Scientific studies have shown that when deer are at low density such as we have on the island their browsing and grazing can enhance biodiversity by creating valuable woodland edge mosaics of grassy and shrubby understorey favourable to some of the other rare mammals that we have here including red squirrels, hazel dormouse and woodland bats

    Unfortunately the very existence of these creatures is currently under threat from an ongoing extermination campaign lead by the public authorities and backed some conservationists who have apparently chosen to disregard the EU Habitats directive. The general public have neither been informed of nor consulted about this extreme and disproportionate measure

  2. David Blake says:

    James’ article makes it all seem Easy Peasy Lemon Squeezy, but reintroductions are Difficult Difficult Lemon Difficult; and then some. The idea of reintroducing predators has got “fairly strong” public support because the people who will have to live with them have not been properly consulted. Until there are definite proposals we cannot evaluate how people will react to any specific reintroduction of species and place. Organisations representing farmers, landowners and land managers are generally opposed to introductions of predators, as are many nature conservation organisations. The current proposals to reintroduce pine martens in Dorset has met with a great deal of opposition and not just from people who one might expect to be unwelcoming. Most reintroductions fall foul of the Law of Unintended Consequences. Great Bustards are being released into an area where Stone Curlews still flourish. Bustards are large predatory birds with a highly catholic diet, so Stone Curlew chicks and other ground nesting birds are on the menu. having beavers in your forest ecosystem sounds great, having them burrowing into your flood defences is not such a great idea.
    Lastly I have to say that James has been disingenuous on a number of points. When he describes wild boar releases as being “by accident” (many of these were entirely deliberate) and the beavers as being “totally wild” (they weren’t wild until someone made them wild by releasing into the countryside) he is ignoring the facts of the cases. These introductions are massively irresponsible and cause the individual animals huge amounts of stress and often pain as they typically have short lives terminated by road traffic. Releasing mammals without proper biosecurity is a recipe for utter disaster and a ban on any further release programmes. The Habitats Directive does not require Member States to “attempt” reintroductions as James claims. Article 22(a) requires that Member States study the desirability of reintroducing species listed in Annex IV of the Directive (‘Species of Community Interest’) that are native to their territory where this might contribute to their conservation. It recognises that reintroductions may not be feasible and even if they are, may not be desirable. Anyone reading James’ article should bear in moinmd that “accidental” release are offences under Section 14(1) of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 and there may also be offences committed under the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2000. This may be the case even if the animal is released into an enclosure.

    • Dan says:

      @ David Blake.
      You say that James is ignoring the facts however this could also be said about your arguments. With a little research you could see that European Beaver and it’s associated environmental impacts are easily managed with a whole host of tried and tested options for mitigation available from experience on the continent. The official Beaver reintroduction at Knapdale was of wild beavers trapped in Norway and any animal that is not domesticated is still ‘wild’. Both James and yourself also fail to mention the population of approximately 150 wild European beavers in the river Tay catchment in North East Scotland. These animals have been there for at least ten years and have so far caused virtually no problems even at this population level. I should know, I conducted my masters thesis on the attitudes of anglers in the region to beavers presence there. Many locals have also commented on the increased business in the area deriving from interest in the beavers.
      Regarding the reintroduction of predators there is now a wealth of information on the positive effects of top predators on ecosystem function. Quite often these relationships are not obvious until after the reintroduction has taken place. The famous example is the impact of wolf reintroduction to Yellowstone National Park. With the presence of wolves the deer were unable to safely graze for extended periods in one area resulting in regeneration of vegetation. This regeneration led to a positive cascade through the entire ecosystem. The reintroduction of wolves also led to suppression of smaller predators such as coyote, resulting in hugely increased survival rates of antelope which were suffering terrible infant survival rates from coyote predation. This suppression of smaller predators by larger predators is a common effect yet is scarcely quoted in media articles. A lynx reintroduction for example, the most likely top predator reintroduction in Britain in the near future, would lead to a suppression of fox populations in those areas, possibly benefiting many species. You mention the Great Bustard but have obviously taken no time to actually investigate the ecology of the animal in question. A 5 second search revealed this link http://greatbustard.org/about-the-birds/ . As you can see they eat predominantly plants and insects, with the odd predation of small mammals, lizards and chicks when the opportunity arises. Hardly a highly carnivorous animal. Finally, frankly, any objection the reintroduction of pine martens to an area is just ridiculous and could only be based on ignorance or vested interests (shooting estates). What about the recent research which showed that the presence of pine martens in an area can benefit red squirrel populations at the expense of grey squirrels. The pine martens seem to have a disproportionate effect on the grey squirrel populations. Surely a very positive reason for reintroduction across the entire country!
      In the future I encourage you to actually read about the animals and ecosystems you are talking about before making an informed decision. If you have any further questions feel free to ask.

      ‘As the facts change so does my opinion’: Keynes.

      • Liz says:

        To David and Dan,
        I appreciate both of your comments and feel I know a lot more about the issue with your input, but something still concerns me. If these species were extirpated before (not extinct as is written in the article), isn’t there a chance they will be extirpated again without proper measures being taken? If a rancher or someone perceives a threat by a species, he is going to kill it unless given an incentive to do otherwise or does not perceive it as a threat any longer. So what is being done to ensure a successful reintroduction? Are bear killing livestock? Are there measures being taken to protect people’s livelihoods to minimize conflict? Are these “conservationists” a bunch of city dwellers that have no idea the whiplash they will create by reintroducing “wild” animals? I appreciate your feedback.

        Also, am I the only one bothered by the fact that James Waller would rather misuse a term (extinct) than explain the proper term (extirpate)? Because I instantly lose respect for an author when these things slip. And what happened to proof reading? Did I waste my time reading an article by an amature?

        • James says:

          Liz,

          Although it’s true that ”extirpate” means that a certain species has disappeared from particular geographical area by effect of an external agent (usually man-made) whilst the species still exists in other areas, the word ”extinct”, which does typically mean that a species has disappeared from the planet in completely, can also be used to describe the removal of a species from a specific area . This would be known as a ”local extinction”.

          I chose to use the word ”extinct” in this article as it’s simply intended to raise awareness about some of our wonderful native animals and provide a basic overview of rewilding for the general public, not just scientists. So I felt using more familiar vocabulary was appropriate.

          The article was edited and presumably proof read by the web master at Woodland Trust as well as myself prior to it’s publication.

  3. Christine says:

    The deer problem is close to a woodlander’s heart. Is control by wolves any more acceptable than a gamekeepers accurate shot?

  4. Finn says:

    I would love to see some of these creatures successfully reintroduced to the UK. In fact I’d love to see all of them successfully reintroduced. But I wonder if wolves and bears would cope here in East Anglia? But on a serious note, if we can learn to cope with the reintroduction of apex predators we would need to ensure the lower echelons of the food chain are also in order. Which would be a good thing.

  5. Lyndal Breen says:

    Reminds me of a fabulous story of how wolves plant trees – by removing the deer which eat all the saplings!

  6. Ash says:

    A good read & thought provoking. Try also Jim Crumley’s books The Last Wolf & The Great Wood.

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