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.