Take a journey back a few hundred years or so and British wildlife would be profoundly different. Encounters would be possible with a whole host of creatures which can sadly no longer be glimpsed on this island. Spying a grey whale emerging from the deep or witnessing a lynx blending into shadowy woodland would surely cause a surge of excitement in anyone. Despite the current absence of species such as these, there is a possibility that they may return in the future, at least if organisations such as recently-launched Rewilding Britain get their way…
As the name suggests, this is a charity involved in rewilding: restoring British ecosystems, for example by protecting existing species and reintroducing those which have become extinct. It is hoped that these efforts will help in “bringing nature back to life” by engaging our interest in the natural world. On top of this, there may also be positive environmental impacts. Ecosystems are highly dynamic, meaning that introducing a single type of organism can have multiple knock-on effects throughout the food chain. Of course, while the hope would be for these to be beneficial, it is imperative to bear in mind that a new species could instead have no effect, or even cause harm.
One group of animals which the charity hopes could one day return to our landscapes are wolves. More specifically, by releasing populations into areas of Scotland, it may be possible to transform grasslands, replacing them with native woodland. The theory behind this is that the carnivores would prey on deer, causing a reduction in grazing and allowing plants to grow and form woodland: a habitat for numerous species. Despite this all sounding very positive, careful thought will be needed before deciding if this is a practical plan. While wolves are creatures which humans seem to be particularly enthralled by- consider for instance their roles in folk law and literature, it may be that we would be uneasy sharing our lands with them. Understandably, there may be concerns for human safety and livestock. However, Rewilding Britain doesn’t seem to share these reservations, describing wolves as “shy creatures that avoid people where possible”, although it does admit that their presence would require farm animals to be managed differently.
Take a look at the impact reintroducing wolves had in the Yellowstone National Park….
Another ambitious goal would be to return grey whales to British waters. Although once common, these were locally hunted to extinction around 400 years ago. In other areas where they do still exist, they have proven to be a popular species of whale watchers. As a marine enthusiast myself, I can understand the thrill of being granted a glimpse of any ocean giant. However, for all that grey whale reintroductions may delight the public, I am sceptical that they are likely to become a reality. While Rewilding Britain briefly mentions that transporting the animals to our coastline could be problematic, more can be learned by reading information provided by National Geographic. As the magazine explains, a single individual may measure up to 50 feet in length and weigh up to 40 tons. Imagine the process of moving such a beast from its migration route in the Pacific Ocean to Britain. Now consider scaling this up enough to establish a functional population. Hopefully you can see my point!
While thriving local populations of grey whales may still be a futuristic notion, trial reintroductions of other animals have already begun in some areas. One project which I for one hope will prove to be a success is the Scottish Beaver Trial. Perusing their website, it is easy to become absorbed watching videos of the charming critters- like I have just been while trying to write this article! Hunted for their meat and fur, Beavers had become extinct in Britain by around the sixteenth century. However, they are beginning to make a comeback. Beginning in 2009, the Scottish Beaver Trial released four pairs of Eurasian beavers into lochs in the Knapdale Forest, Argyll. Over the course of the next five years, the animals raised young and altered their surroundings by building damns and digging burrows. As quoted in The Guardian, project manager Simon Jones believes the trial to have been an “outstanding success”, although he also notes that re-establishing such animals must be carefully managed since there is a fine line between beavers’ activities being beneficial or destructive to the environment. Because of this, the trial’s organisers are currently facing an anxious wait to discover whether or not Scottish government will allow the beavers to stay.
The species mentioned here are merely a selection of the candidates for reintroduction into Great Britain. Other contenders range from mammals such as elk to certain fishes and various species of bird. Although this article has focused on returning lost species, rewilding involves more than just this and has the potential to cause large-scale transformations in the natural world. Of course, there are obstacles to overcome and it may be that, with all the developments to our countryside, there is simply no longer a place for certain species. Nevertheless, at a time when scientists believe humans are pushing the Earth into a sixth mass extinction, it will be interesting to follow the progress of rewilding organisations and to see whether any of the damage we have caused can be reversed.
Header photo courtesy of Serge Melkl, Flickr