If you go down to the woods…
Support is growing for ‘rewilding’, which could see bears, wolves and elk roaming Britain
Jonathan Leake, Environment Editor
You are on safari amid lynx, bears and elk. The wetlands around you are dominated by small lakes created by beaver dams. In the distance a wolf howls.
Nothing unusual perhaps – except that this is not northern Canada but Scotland sometime in the near future.
Down in the Lake District, the neat fields and walls that make the area one of Britain’s most manicured “wildernesses” are also changing. The native woodlands of the Ennerdale valley are spreading, Highland cattle have replaced sheep and there has even been talk of reintroducing beaver and bison.
Welcome to rewilding, a movement that is radicalising conservation biology, turning what had been a scientific backwater into one of its most controversial areas. What the rewilders want is nothing less than the reversal of thousands of years of domestication, returning vast tracts of countryside to the way they looked thousands of years ago. They believe the best way to achieve this is by bringing back the biggest and fiercest animals of all – the elk, wolves, lynx and even bears that roamed Britain 10,000 years ago at the end of the Pleistocene era.
It sounds extreme but some of Britain’s most respected wildlife and conservation organisations, including the National Trust, are buying into the idea.
This week the People’s Trust for Endangered Species, which already supports the reintroduction of beaver to Scotland, will suggest northern Britain could support about 450 lynx.
Early next year Natural England, the government’s conservation watchdog, will ask its board to consider making rewilding part of its formal policy for protecting our natural heritage.
“Rewilding is an idea whose time has come,” said Keith Kirby, a woodland and forestry officer for Natural England. “For a long time conservation has been fighting a rearguard battle, simply trying to save species threatened with extinction and reduce the damage caused by humans. Now we need to look at things more holistically, preserving and recreating entire landscapes and habitats.”
Such ideas may sound attractive – but they raise many questions, especially in a country as crowded as Britain. Will the public really accept sharing the countryside with potentially dangerous mammals?
Some of the answers may be emerging from Alladale, a 23,000-acre estate in Sutherland, northern Scotland, where Paul Lister is creating what he hopes will become one of Europe’s best wildlife reserves.
Lister, a multi-millionaire, has already released wild boar on to the estate and earlier this year imported two young European elk from Sweden to found what he hopes will become a breeding herd. In coming years, he wants to reintroduce beavers, wolves, lynx and brown bears.
Lister has found himself facing powerful opposition. Farmers worry that his animals will escape; ramblers fear they will be blocked from Alladale’s footpaths or attacked by wild animals. It shows that in Britain we may profess a love of wildlife – but the idea of dealing with a real wilderness is highly controversial.
“The Highlands are considered one of Europe’s last great areas of wilderness, yet much of the flora and fauna that once thrived here has been driven to extinction by the activities of man,” said Lister.
Even the beautiful mountain-scapes of northern and western Britain are unnatural, a result of ancient forest clearances. Bears disappeared 900 years ago; lynx died out in medieval times; and the last wolf was shot in Scotland in 1743.
The inspiration for rewilding comes largely from America, where in one scheme wolves have been reintroduced to Yellowstone national park. However, the much larger open spaces of the US mean animals can roam without coming across humans.
A more comparable example lies in the Netherlands. Oost-vaardersplassen is a 14,000-acre tract of uninhabited fen, scrub woodland and wild grassland that was reclaimed from the sea just 40 years ago and set aside for wildlife. The reserve offers Europe the best glimpse of the Pleistocene it might wish for, with ancient breeds such as Heck cattle and Konik horses already living there and plans to introduce European bison.
In Britain, private landowners have been keenest to adopt such ideas. In West Sussex, the 3,500-acre Knepp castle estate, owned by Sir Charles Burrell, has abandoned modern farming methods and removed nearly all the fences to allow Old English Longhorn cattle, Exmoor ponies, Tamworth pigs and fallow deer to roam at will through the spreading undergrowth.
Conservation bodies were a little slower climbing aboard but the National Trust, Britain’s largest landowner, is adopting the same “let nature take its course” approach. At Ennerdale it is working to replace sheep with hardy cattle, remove exotic trees and push for a switch to organic farming, while in Cambridgeshire it is trying to recreate ancient wetlands around Wicken fen.
The one thing played down in most of these schemes, however, is any mention of the reintroduction of wild animals, especially large predators.
The experience of people around the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire shows why. They have been pestered by growing numbers of wild boar, whose population has grown rapidly after a handful of animals were released into the wild. Some churned up the turf of a football club’s pitch, others attacked passing horse riders, and one had to be shot after its visits to a primary school became aggressive. The Forestry Commission last week announced that it had sent rangers from the area to Germany, where there is greater experience of dealing with boar.
Concerns about similar problems have affected Britain’s most ambitious rewilding project, the release early next year of four families of beavers into the countryside in Knapdale forest, mid-Argyll.
Beavers were once common throughout Britain but were exterminated for their fur and because their dams and tree-cutting make woodlands awkward for humans. For rewilders, they are an important species – their engineering opens up woodlands, creating glades and encouraging the growth of fruit-bearing bushes needed by other creatures. If they survive in Britain’s woodlands, then eventually many other species might follow.
It has taken 10 years to persuade the Scottish executive and local people to accept the idea of beavers being introduced – and most rewilders are understandably cautious about talk of wolves. Some, however, cannot restrain their enthusiasm.
David MacDonald, director of the wildlife conservation research unit at Oxford University, said: “The reintroduction means we could see beavers impacting woodland ecology for the first time in 400 years. It is very exciting to think of the other species for which they could pave the way.”
This week the People’s Trust for Endangered Species will publish a report by MacDonald showing that Scotland could support a population of 450 lynx, a medium-sized cat that preys on small mammals and deer, in northern and central Scotland. The prospect of lynx roaming wild is far less frightening than it may sound. Such creatures seldom cause problems for humans.
For true rewilders, the real aim is to restore all lost species – including dangerous ones. Peter Taylor, a founder of the Wildland Network, which campaigns for the reintroduction of larger creatures, said: “The most wild experience available for a human becomes the unarmed walk into territory where humans are not only not in control, but also not the top predator. That frisson of risk and vulnerability marks the transition from a tame landscape to a truly wild one.”
With leading organisations backing rewilding, that may not be as wild a prospect as it seems.