Guest blog – rewilding a step too far? by Ian Carter

There is much discussion about the potential for restoring species lost as a result of human persecution. Some have already made their return and our landscapes are all the better for it. After only a few decades since their reintroduction, a trip to the Chilterns without seeing Red Kites or to north-west Scotland without seeing (or at least having a chance of seeing) White-tailed Eagles would be all but unthinkable. But is it possible to get carried away with this approach and propose something that would risk undermining support for conservation and turning people away from the concept of rewilding?

For example, how about welcoming back a species that regularly kills young livestock and domestic poultry, occasionally kills domestic pets and has even been reputed to attack small children. It frequently predates threatened species and, in its native range, is often trapped, shot and fenced-out by conservation organisations desperate to protect vulnerable wildlife. It would be madness to bring this animal back wouldn’t it?

Or, if that sounds problematic, how about a species whose burrowing behaviour can result in significant damage to expensive flood defences, undermine buildings and damage archaeological sites. Not only that but it is a predator of vulnerable, declining, ground nesting birds and their eggs, and is apparently very fond of ripping up Hedgehogs, one of our best-loved mammals. There is also evidence to suggest that, in parts of its range, it can facilitate the spread of a deadly disease to livestock. Surely this would be a step too far?

If you canvassed public opinion about bringing back species with these characteristics, the results would be predictable. Most people would believe that we should leave well alone. It would be madness to try to reinstate them in our modern landscapes. There is, of course, no need to reintroduce these animals. As I’m sure you’ve worked out I’m describing some of the attributes of the Fox and Badger, species that are, thankfully, very much still with us.

If human persecution had managed to eliminate Foxes and Badgers from large parts of the country along with the kites, eagles, Pine Martens, Lynx, Beavers and others, we would have virtually no hope of getting them back because public opinion would be strongly against their reintroduction. Yet if you ask people whether it would be acceptable, now, to try to eradicate Foxes and Badgers the response would be equally overwhelming but in the opposite direction. They are two of our best-loved and most highly valued species. Even culling or legal killing on a local scale is deeply unpopular.

As with many things it seems we are fans of the status quo and fret disproportionately about anything that is unfamiliar or represents change – even when that change seeks to restore a more natural situation following a previous intervention. No conservationist and (I hope) not many farmers would want to rid the country of Foxes. Yet many individuals in both categories were against plans to reinstate White-tailed Eagles in England (and ultimately succeeded in scuppering the project) citing concerns about potential impacts on wildlife and livestock.

This in-built resistance to change is a huge challenge for conservationists looking to re-wild existing landscapes or restore lost species, one for which arguments based on logic and common sense may not always have much impact.

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15 Replies to “Guest blog – rewilding a step too far? by Ian Carter”

  1. I have always had a rather uncomfortable feeling when I have looked at the losses incurred by local people ( often living on subsistence levels of agriculture) in Africa and elsewhere to iconic animals we in the west pay lots of money to gawp at.

    Elephants, lions, leopards, hyenas, warthogs, tribes of baboons and several species of monkeys would seriously compromise my vegetable gardens and my neighbours farm and frankly I can do without that sort of problem, so how can we expect some of the poorest people in the world to put up with it just so we can get a nice warm glow and another full memory card?
    I recall a trip to Canada where I found what would have been the most perfect ringing ( or should that be banding??) site, only to change my views when I realised it was home to a family of black bears!! My local host said , 'we just avoid them where we can', but attitudes were a lot less tolerant towards one of my favourite animals, the racoon, which was met with universal exasperation.

    It would be really nice to see the world returned to some kind of pristine nirvana, but we live in a small island n a crowded planet and most people do not see any reason why they should be inconvenienced by nature.

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    1. Unfortunately the world is crowded with the most territorial and dangerous mammal ever known - man. We are creating the crowding, not the animals , by our failure to keep our population and needs in line with the carrying capacity of the planet.

      The animals were here first, not us, so morally we should do our very best to adopt practices that allow us to live alongside wild animals.

      You can see examples of best and worst practice close to one another. On one walk in the mountains here we heard about a local farmer who in an attempt to kill woves that are living nearby laced a dead sheep with poison. That sheep killed 6 Griffon vultures, wandering from a successful reintroduction site in France, where they help to draw tourists and create economic opportunities.

      A week later in another part of the Alps having passed notices advising us that local herds were protected by guard dogs and setting out how we should behave when meeting grazing animals and their protectors we found a herd of goats with two large dogs ahead of them advancing up the valley.

      We clambered on the rocks above the path to let the animals pass. Some of the goats also climbed the rocks and came down just past us. While one dog went ahead with the main body of goats the second stood two metres away from us, barking like mad until the last goats had passed safely by.

      One of our group was afraid of the dogs but we sat still for 10 minutes or so and were glad to have been reminded that some shepherds are prepared to adopt measures made available to them rather than poison wolves, foxes, wild birds pets or anything esle that might take the baits left out to kill wildlife.

      People can live with dangerous wildlife and do in many parts of the world. It is amazing that there is so much opposition to the reintroduction of relatively innocuous species here in Britain. However the opposition is not by the majority of the population but by vested interests with friends in high places.

      Most people who know what wildlife there was fifty, a hundred and a hundred and fifty years ago in Britain and how sanitised our countryside is now and why it is so empty would embrace the return of Lynx and maybe more provided it were done in such a way as to address real not exaggerated concerns.

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      1. Absolutely. There isn't much opposition - that's a myth. There are a few very noisy and influential groups and people hell bent on dictating land use in the UK, but the broader public, whether living in country or town, are shown to be in favour of reintroductions when we think to ask them.

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    2. I think you highlight a genuine issue that cannot be just dismissed out of hand, Norman. That does not mean that we should not contemplate reintroductions of animals such as lynx, beaver or wolf but it does mean that we need to be mindful of the possibility that some people may suffer some adverse consequences and be prepared to manage that.
      I do believe the net consequences of having populations of lynx and beaver established in this country would be positive (economically as well as ecologically) and I believe that any local negative impacts are readily managed.
      In a wider context I recognise that subsistence farmers living in East Africa cannot be expected to view the 'charismatic megafauna' with the same positive feelings that we do if their crops have been destroyed by elephants or their livestock killed by hyenas or other predators. I would nevertheless hope that we are all agreed that the lions et al should be strongly protected and we should be doing everything we can to prevent them declining further. That of course presents us with an apparently intractable conflict. It is not realistic to simply say 'there are too many humans' or 'the animals got there first' - in many cases the people we are referring to have very few economic options open to them and can't simply choose to be somewhere else and they certainly cannot choose to not exist. The only solution, therefore is to ensure that as much as possible of the income generated by the wildlife tourism actually reaches the poor communities who live cheek by jowl with the wildlife. That and working with local communities to help find non lethal ways to protect their crops and livestock.
      Of course most farmers and other land-users in the UK are not at all in the same subsistence mode as poor farmers in rural Africa but even so they cannot be expected to accept potential economic losses without demur. In this case I think we need to provide reassurance that the level of losses will be substantially less than they fear and, as in Africa, provide methods to manage the interactions between the introduced wildlife and the farmers.
      I imagine that the prospects of getting the NFU to see things this way are infinitesimal but I think it should be possible ultimately to persuade government that the overall benefits of reintroducing species such as these make it worthwhile and that these benefits outweigh the - manageable - downsides.

      PS I hope you managed to find an alternative site in Canada where you could ring birds without being troubled by those pesky bears!

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  2. I believe in fact most samples of public opinion find a majority in favour of lynx reintroduction.

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    1. Yes, it's far more likely that lynx would save a human life by cutting deer numbers and thereby the chance of serious road accidents than there would be of them posing a threat to people in any form. Disgusting how little attention there is on the loss of life and health caused by the deliberate maintenance of a vastly bloated red deer population in the highlands just for the convenience of open hill deer stalking - yet the same people who tell us that the country is too small for lynx have no problem with 1.5 million plus deer.

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  3. You're absolutely right, Ian. We hang onto the notion that we have to be 'in control' of nature to our cost - and to the peril of the earth as a whole. In another forum dedicated to rewilding, a - generally 'progressive' - gamekeeper argues that the reintroduction of the White-Tailed Eagle was a mistake because he thinks they may be out-competing 'his' Golden Eagles. Evidently, the thinking goes something like - 'This land belongs to me - I must 'look after' everything on it - change that i don't control is always bad'. It's the same mentality that causes my next-door neighbour to pave his front yard and grub up any shrub over 4 foot high in his back.

    In the UK currently, the reintroduction of the manifestly beneficial beaver is progressing at a snail's pace (here in Wales, a modest reintroduction proposal was submitted to NRW in 2015 and is still yet to find its way through the bureaucracy). Meanwhile, wild boar - with some witting and some unwitting assistance - haven't bothered with all that faff. A thoroughly good thing too. We need to grow up and recognise that we don't know what we are doing half as well as nature does.

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  4. Foxes 'regularly kill young livestock....' do they - I thought the evidence suggests otherwise? 'Reputed to attack small children....'? Maybe it's just a relative's pet dog that attacked the child and they're trying to protect them by blaming foxes? I've seen no convincing evidence at all that a fox would enter a house, run up stairs and attack a baby in its cot, while the parents are downstairs watching TV. And much of the evidence suggests that livestock movements, rather than badgers etc, have spread Tb and that culling short of complete eradication from vast areas would disrupt badger social patterns and cause more problems. Why do we entertain such myths designed to demonise wildlife? I don't share your conviction that 'the public' would be against fox of badger re-introduction were we in that position - just as 'the public' is overwhelmingly in support of lynx reintroduction. Don't equate the scuppering of eagle reintroduction into East Anglia with 'public opposition' - it was, and always is, a vanishingly small number of individuals and vested interests.

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    1. We'd need to reduce badger numbers first. Oh, that's in hand isn't it.

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  5. As David Shaw says, the most urgent need for the health of the planet is to reduce human population (as well as reduce material consumption). We need to increase accessibility to women's education, family planning and change our attitudes worldwide to support small families. Not forgetting we should applaud and support those who choose not to have children at all. Unfortunately some of our celebrities and royals are not good role models. Let's not just leave things to wars, famine & disease.

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  6. Have to declare that I'm in favour of wilding. Its time we put back things that will both feed us spiritually and contribute to the ecological services that we have disrupted in the past couple of hundred years. To do otherwise is to head towards the mindset and position of The Donald who thinks that letting California's rivers reach the sea is a waste of water!?!

    "Governor Jerry Brown must allow the Free Flow of the vast amounts of water coming from the North and foolishly being diverted into the Pacific Ocean. Can be used for fires, farming and everything else. Think of California with plenty of Water - Nice!"

    "...bad environmental laws which aren’t allowing massive amounts of readily available water to be properly utilized. It is being diverted into the Pacific Ocean."

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  7. There’s another aspect to this, which is about political control, or at least influence. It’s about power and who has it, which is why the NFU/CLA always feel so knee-jerk threatened by the idea that anyone else might have a say about how the countryside should be managed.

    Re-introductions for nature conservation reasons have been opposed by established commercial rural players, regardless of popular sentiment and often regardless of evidence or sometimes even basic factual knowledge – the CLA/NFU originally objected to beaver re-introduction because they assumed they ate fish! Regardless of their ignorance, their objections carry considerable weight because they are allowed to frame the conversation as if they represent rural people and wider rural business interests. London-based establishment politicians have consistently bought into this misrepresentation.

    Contrast the decades long, painful story of beaver reintroduction to the UK with that of how mink got loose in our country. Mink are a non-native predator species that everyone knew would get out of their cages, and which always bound to cause considerable damage to native wildlife. The people who wanted to introduce mink were farmers, of sorts - commercial anyway – so they had the power because they represented something seen as real and important (making money) while the environmentalists and animal welfare advocates who objected were seen as unimportant (they don’t make money, at best they represent an emotive hobby of some kind) and were therefore ignored. Farmers were not just allowed to introduce mink, they did so with the active support of government. (Ironically the animal rights activists then speeded up the inevitable by letting them out and made the whole fiasco much worse than it might have been. An odd alliance in pursuit of ecological disaster, but that’s another story).

    Or contrast beavers with wild boar – again bound to get out and, while native, known to cause significant difficulties in continental Europe and carrying a clear human and livestock disease threat. Again, the people who wanted to reintroduce these animals were farmers seeking to make money and therefore seen as important in the usual self-fulfilling way. It’s an experiment we can never run now, but I bet if instead in 1985 the Borsetshire Wildlife Trust had proposed reintroducing wild boar for conservation reasons the NFU/CLA would have been the first to ridicule the proposal and the licence would never have been granted.

    If I want to import wild boar to make money, I get an import licence from MAFF/Defra and provided I can say I fulfill a few basic conditions Bob’s your uncle, I have my beasties sitting in Kent or Gloucestershire or wherever waiting for a tree to fall on their fence. Any costs of dealing with their escape will fall to the taxpayer, not to me. I just make the money, taxpayers and neighbours pick up the bills.

    If however I want to reintroduce a native species for a reason as outrageous as *not* making money, the layers of delay, risk assessment, trials, Habs Regs Assessments, mandatory impact monitoring, and the rest will drown any but the most determined and deep pocketed of would-be re-naturalisation projects. Charities and public donations must pay for the whole shebang, including the gold plated monitoring requirements, and I’ll need really good third party insurance too in case “my” beavers damage a neighbour’s property. Because this project is designed to deliver public goods, I must privately bear all the costs; this isn’t business venture where the taxpayer will pay all the costs for me and probably give me a grant to get started to boot.

    The whole thing is topsy -turvy madness. It’s not surprising that there are more beavers in the wild in the UK thanks to illegal free lancing than there are from legal re-introductions. In all this the bureaucratic, risk adverse culture of our statutory agencies have been amongst our worst enemies. The regulatory system for conservation re-introductions is designed to prevent them happening, or at least to delay them as long as possible, whereas the regulatory system for commercial reintroductions designed to facilitate innovation and new markets. The whole system is fundamentally unbalanced BY DESIGN – and that’s why the likes of the CLA/NFU are never held to account.

    It is notable that Gove is the first national politician to pull his finger out and be proactively supportive of more beavers. Say what you like about Gove, but he’s not from the traditional landowning classes and doesn’t take their word as gospel. Let’s hope the change in attitude outlasts his tenure at Defra.

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    1. That may be the best comment I've ever read on this consistently excellent blog. Thanks, Jbc

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  8. Sorry for being late to the party on this discussion which I have picked up on after reading the thought provoking article by Ian Carter in the most recent (October 2020) copy of British Wildlife. In that article Ian lists a number of species for which licences are or are not required, but gives no explanation that I can see as to the reasoning behind each. The list is far from comprehensive but is puzzling why one should be required for Osprey but not for Wildcat for example or for Common Crane but not for White Stork. This makes no logical sense unless I am missing the obvious. Ideas anyone?

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