Why we should reintroduce lost wildlife to Britain’s broken ecosystems
Britain’s wildlife has been destroyed by centuries of hunting, fishing, poaching and large-scale fashion trade. Whilst we are blessed with an array of natural fauna from the tiny pipistrel bat to the mighty red stag, only 50.3% of our biodiversity remains, which is shocking when we compare to countries like Canada and Finland which boast 89.3 and 88.6% of theirs respectively. Britain was once host to grey wolves, bears, great auk and even tree frogs; all of whom are now functionally extinct on our island. However, there is a lifeline to restore some species in the form of rewilding.
Rewilding Britain is an organisation founded in 2015 aiming to not only restore wildlife already lost, but also to preserve declining populations such as plankton and songbirds. An essential part of protecting these vulnerable species is to reinstate the habitats and animals on which they once relied on. This is where ‘keystone species’ come in, which “drive ecological processes from the top of the food chain to the bottom”. One such creature, that one may not expect, is the humble beaver, which once roamed our wetlands before falling foul of both the fur trade and the desire for its scent glands. For further information on the beaver’s past and history in Britain Derek Gow’s Bringing Back the Beaver is an insightful, whimsical and at times incredibly emotive read.
The Scottish Beaver Trial, approved in May 2008, saw these large aquatic rodents swimming in our waters once again and the implications are huge. Otters – a species suffering from a slump in their populations – were found to be far more plentiful in the beaver release sites than in control areas, which is thought to be due to beavers blocking up waterways, creating ample fishing opportunities. Their trickle-down effect does not stop there because cleaning and maintaining our polluted and abused waterways has been a lifeline for waders, frogs, dragonflies, and water voles, all of whom have been impacted by human activity. The reintroduction of beavers was in my opinion a huge turning point for Rewilding Britain because it proved the idea worked and opened the door for more projects like it.
Lynx, to my eye, have a huge advantage here in that they are small, shy, nocturnal and are thought to be little to no threat to humans.
A more recent reintroduction, which may also come as a surprise, is the bison – a formidable creature which went extinct in Britain around 6,000 years ago along with many other megafauna. Introduced this year, bison is another keystone species which helps to set them apart from the UK’s other native grazers: deer. Whilst deer overpopulation is creating uniform habitats, killing young trees, and causing other species to suffer, introducing bison (a competing animal) would help to boost other wildlife. Rewilding Britain notes that bison “play an important role in dispersing seeds that stick to their fur” as well as creating “niche habitats for pioneer plants, insects and lizards”. Whilst this project was only launched this year and bison populations in Europe are currently very small, reintroducing such a large and potentially dangerous animal is bold. Their true effects on the landscape of Kent are yet to be seen but it is hoped they will prove themselves as an essential tool in woodland recovery.
The last proposed reintroduction that I am going to talk about is one yet to take place and has been mired in controversy. As previously stated, deer (particularly roe and sika) populations have run rampant unchecked by a natural predator, as have other small predators like foxes. This has caused ecologists to consider the possibility of bringing back a larger carnivore to Britain. The current top candidates for this are lynx, which has recently made a reappearance in Norway, and grey wolves, which have foundered great results when brought back to Yellowstone National Park. Lynx, to my eye, have a huge advantage here in that they are small, shy, nocturnal and are thought to be little to no threat to humans. Meanwhile, wolves have been known to attack humans, even if those numbers are very low, and could also present a threat to the newly instated beaver. However, their “ecology of fear” has proved to be very effective and they have a greater keystone effect than their feline competitor.
Now we come to the controversies surrounding reintroduction programmes and the reason that these projects take years to put into effect. Of course, there are always going to be concerns about the potential effects on the local wildlife whenever we change an ecosystem. However, usually public outcry and government disapproval come from a more selfish place of fears of how human lives may be changed. The reason I call this selfish is that rewilding and reintroduction would not be necessary if humans hadn’t driven our native wildlife to extinction in the first place. There are usually worries about attacks on humans, which I can understand even if they are not necessarily well founded. However, the main resistance to bringing back fauna is usually centred around profit.
These experiments are carried out by passionate wildlife lovers in the hopes of saving species not condemning them
The prime example here is the beaver, which poses no threat to humans but had a faction dead against the notion of seeing these rodents back in Britain. Some anglers do not take kindly to beavers as they worry about the effects that they may have on fish populations. In a controversial The Times article in 2021 entitled ‘Shoot beavers if they spoil our fishing’, this extreme hatred was brought to light but anyone who has done research into the species will know their concerns are questionable at best. There is a common myth (which some say Lewis Caroll’s Narnia has to answer for) that beavers eat fish when in fact they are herbivores. Yes, they may encourage species like otters which do hunt fish. However, as a keystone species, this balance has been brought into serious consideration.
These experiments are carried out by passionate wildlife lovers in the hopes of saving species not condemning them and to suggest that a hobby should come first over conservation is exactly how we ended up decimating our nature in the first place. Similar thoughts can be expressed towards fears of the effects of predators on livestock, a human investment. During the cost-of-living crisis, this opinion may be subject to derision but during similar programmes in Europe, farmers were compensated for lost animals/profits and I would encourage similar parameters for British programmes.
I hope this article will open some minds to the possibilities of lost species making a return to our island even if you may not agree with everything that has been expressed. Far too many misconceptions stand in the way of vital ecology work and I can only wish that in the future perhaps public perception will change and we will all come to put a little more value in our nature.