Tuesday, 11 May 2004

Wildlife introductions and other ramblings

We in Britain, together with most of the developed world, are fairly good about preaching wildlife conservation ethics. But how many of the British public who so warmly respond to fundraising appeals to save endangered tigers or elephants actually give a second thought to the villagers and livestock in the Sunderbans who are killed by tigers? And the elephants that draw so much public attention do trample on subsistence crops of poor villagers with no other means of livelihood. Having turned most of our forests into farmland or plantations of conifers we condemn anyone else for cutting down rainforest.

Britain’s fauna is not particularly rich - but it was once considered richer than now. Within historic times we have lost bears, wolves, wild boar, beaver, cranes, storks and other species such as polecats, pine martens and wild cats have been reduced to a few remnant populations. Going back even further there are recent prehistoric extinctions such as bison, elk, reindeer and eagle owl, but the case for reintroducing these is even more controversial. I am not advocating a programme of mass introduction or reintroductions, but I am suggesting much more serious consideration be given to it. Wolves in Europe are teetering on the brink of extinction in most places. Perhaps some could be introduced into the Scottish highlands? Beavers have been widely and successfully reintroduced into Europe in recent years but it took over 40 years of campaigning before small-scale introductions were even considered in Britain. The success of the recent reintroduction of otters is a tribute to the extremely thorough preparatory work undertaken by the Otter Trust and English Nature – and it also shows that where there is a will, there is a way.

What should be the criteria for reintroductions? Reams of paper have been written relating to this subject, but perhaps the most important factor should be that the original cause of the species’ demise must have gone, otherwise any reintroduction is doomed from the start. Sea Eagles are probably succeeding in western Scotland, because they are no longer persecuted on the same scale as in the 19th century. But what of some of the other species? Sea eagles in remote Scotland are one thing, but what about the wildlife of lowland England? Every year pigs were put out to pannage in the New Forest and many people have suggested that boar could live in the New Forest - I do not know if they could, but I would like to see a feasibility study. And having been just an idea in a few naturalists’ brains, boar took the matter into their own hands in the 1987 hurricane, escaped from farms and are now colonising southern England – they will probably soon be common in the New Forest.

The case for reintroducing the pine marten is one of the strongest. It was hunted for its valuable pelt, and finally extirpated by gamekeepers. Both causes are largely gone, and furthermore since it frequently preyed on squirrels it may have benefitted by the spread of the alien gray squirrel. Also, it is already slowly spreading from its few remaining enclaves, but will probably not be able to cross such natural barriers as the Midland urbanisation, or even motorways. But in fact the habitats in modern Britain are actually more suited to the closely related stone marten, which occurs just across the Channel. Similarly, the polecat once so widespread that the first one exhibited in London Zoo came from Regent's Park (1824), could do with a helping hand.

I once did some very superficial research into the possibility of reintroducing some of our lost animals; I concluded that bears were not feasible - there was nowhere in Britain with a sufficiently large area for even the tiniest population to live without coming into too frequent contact with humans. Even Beinn Eighe NNR and adjacent areas in Scotland, which, together form one of the largest areas of nature reserves and lands with some form of protected status, probably could not support a viable population of brown bears. But most other lost animals of Britain could perhaps return . . .

It is not at all fashionable to support introductions, or even reintroductions - in fact, most conservation bodies are firmly opposed to introductions. But at one time everyone was at it - from hunters to conservationists. Richard Fitter's ‘Ark in Our Midst’ chronicles the numerous attempts which included wapiti, mule deer, axis deer, chamois, mouflon and bob white quail, all of which ultimately failed, and Sir Christopher Lever's ‘The Naturalised Animals of the British Isles’ (1977) summarised all those that were successful. I confess I still have an ambivalent attitude. While on an international scale, I agree with the hard-line scientific ecologists who resolutely oppose all introductions, I have a sneaking suspicion that at least as far as Britain is concerned, there is a tendency to be a little bit too rigid. After all, there is very little left of Britain that can, by any stretch of the imagination, be called 'natural'. Most of the trees we see in towns and even on a country walk are introduced, and many of our commonest flowering plants are aliens. The well established alien animals include brown rats, house mouse, grey squirrel, marsh frog, pheasant, mandarin duck, ring-necked parakeet, Canada goose, Egyptian Goose, muntjac, fallow, Chinese water and sika deer, mink, and a large number of insects and some molluscs. In fact the ‘natural’ landscape is a man-made artefact, and Britain now has the highest recorded ‘biodiversity’ ever recorded.

Some of these introductions are alleged to cause 'damage'. But is it not time we really questioned what we mean by 'damage'? Copyu ate a few sugar beet, and occasionally tunnelled into a river bank, so they were exterminated at great cost. Deer may graze on monocultures of winter wheat and eat a few exotic conifer seedlings. This is 'damage'. But at the same time water authorities destroy waterside vegetation and turn a blind eye to nitrate pollution; some farmers spray with pesticides which do not distinguish between harmful or beneficial insects, others have grubbed out hedges and drained marshes - I call that 'damage'. In fact, if the choice is between even larger agricultural surpluses and wildlife I know which I prefer. And I believe that the majority of people in Britain would prefer fewer surpluses and more wildlife too. Even the government has at last recognised public opinion and introduced payments for farmers managing land in sympathy with wildlife, and setting aside land out of production. Economic benefits do not have to be measured entirely in terms of bags of corn, board feet of timber, or sacks of potatoes. But benefits do have to be looked at from a broad perspective. I have been involved with many projects demonstrating the 'value' of wildlife, and mountain gorillas are now 'worth' considerably more than the pyrethrum crop that much of their habitat was destroyed for. The avocets at Minsmere are undoubtedly 'worth' far more than the crops that could be grown on the land they occupy. The jocotoco antpitta has the potential of generating far more revenue from birdwatchers than the destruction of its habitat for timber and cattle pasture would ever generate.

An argument often made against reintroductions is that they are costly. But then so are Rembrandt paintings and Porsche cars. If we decide we want them we have to raise the money to support them. Conservationists will then assume that such a project will then drain money from programmes they consider much more important. But there is absolutely no evidence for this, as far as I am aware. In fact, probably the truth is the opposite. the active involvement of organisations with high profile reintroductions of species which the general public like creates a greater support for the less spectacular but nonetheless important ongoing conservation work.

In conclusion, I would emphasise that I am not suggesting that there should be an irresponsible rash of introductions or reintroductions. But I do strongly advocate a major effort to re-establish, under carefully monitored conditions, as much of our extinct wildlife as possible. In so doing, we should not be over-pressured by economics. Britain can easily ’afford’ to devote much more land to wildlife - if we expect the third world to suffer the depredations of wildlife, for us to go on holiday to gawp at - it is surely not too much to expect some of our vast agricultural subsidies to be used to compensate farmers who lose the odd sheep to wolves or sugar beet to a wild boar?

These are just a personal view, but I would be interested in any feedback

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