Tim Bonner explains that, while the re-wilding theory has its good points, taking it to its conclusion is both impractical and potentially problematic
The debate surrounding re-wilding in Britain has been growing for some time now. As a result, the support for the theory has never been higher, no doubt helped by certain institutes and journalists praising the idea. The definition and background to re-wilding is an extremely large topic, but is summed up by ‘the return of habitats to their natural state’. Sadly I am, as the majority of people are, a firm believer that this is plain outright stupid. During my ecology lectures at university I was always fond of arguing that there is no such thing as a natural habitat, which quickly resulted in my eco-warrior classmates hating me.
When theory was put into practice, the believers in re-wilding had no other option but to choose the least populated area of the UK, the Cairngorms, as their designated re-wilding area. As of now, they are ready to block it off to tourism and begin the process, not even batting an eyelid at the thoughts of the local farmers and residents of the area. Or indeed the enormous price of any large-scale project.
From an ecological point of view, my overriding problem with the re-wilding theory is the lack of space available to leave apex predators with their prey, resulting in the fox and rabbit population dynamic. Saying this, there are parts of the re-wilding theory that work well, for instance, wildlife corridors. Be it a single beetle bank or a whole woodland, wildlife corridors are always hugely beneficial, and prevent genetic isolation. In addition, the simple idea of protecting key areas of wilderness, such as the Cairngorms, is superb and much needed. Yet neither of these are fundamentally re-wilding.
The idea of re-wilding has already taken over Europe. On the continent, they have chosen five key areas to re-wild, from western Iberia to the Carpathians, and securing the populations of apex predators is key to all five areas. This includes Iberian lynxes in Spain and wolves in the Ukraine and Romania. Those in favour of re-wilding in Britain state that we are the only country in Europe without an apex predator. They have obviously forgotten the Scottish wild cat, top of the food chain and in dire need of help. Yet these ‘conservationists’ are concentrating on bringing back a bear, because it would be a larger statement, an ‘iconic’ species, and as such would ultimately bring in more money for any charity involved.
As a completely separate issue, there is the lack of space in the UK to contend with. There are an increasing amount of problems in countries like France and Belgium, where the wolves’ distribution is expanding from re-wilded regions into more densely populated areas.
Recent re-introductions in Britain have a mixed story to tell, yet the punchline is if enough effort is put in the success is high – in some cases unnaturally so. Take the red kite
for example; the kite was close to extinction, the numbers were below 50 pairs in the woodlands of mid-Wales. Ten years on numbers have now reached over 1,600 pairs, an increase of over 1,000 per cent. This is great news; no one wants to see another species head close to extinction, yet here we have an exceptional example. Anyone who has driven through the Chilterns or seen the kites in mid-Wales has to understand that this is as far from a natural population dynamic as any. As has been seen with the buzzard egg debacle, mention the control of any raptor and you are in for trouble.
A second example is the wild boar. ‘Conservationists’ call it a success, but within Europe and increasingly in the UK, farmers and landowners call it a pest. Boar shooting in the likes of Germany and France used to be a luxury; now it is a necessity.
Instead of continuingly focusing on re-introducing species, why not focus on helping the species that need it? We all know that the landscape in Britain is at a tipping point, species are either declining or increasing faster than ever and re-introducing animals should not be a priority.
The re-wilding debate has come to light recently, with Paul Lister of the Alladale Estate in the Highlands wanting to have bears and wolves in his fenced-off estate. My response is that if he is willing to pay for it, then why not. But, we have to ensure that we make him pay the price when one escapes and finds easy pickings on neighbouring farms and in the local town.
The general obsession with bringing back the apex predators and large antelope is an interesting one. People advocating it seem intent on investing their money into species that went extinct thousands of years ago, yet stand idly by when the endemic species such as the Scottish wild cat disappears. Thinking about it, it is probably because seeing a wolf in the wild would be pretty spectacular, I think we all agree. However if they really want to re-wild an area, the last thing a natural place requires is a highway of vehicles driving through it taking pictures.