Re-wildling for the environmental educator
It’s tempting in environmental education or sustainability education to get enthusiastic about new and revolutionary ideas about sustainability and start to promote them; ideas like the palaeo diet to reduce our agricultural drain on the environment, or re-wilding to bring nature back into balance. As wonderful as it would be to see animals such as the beaver, wolf and lynx living wild in the UK again, what I’d like to do here is to explain, from the perspective of countryside and environmental management, how re-wildling might work and why it wouldn’t be quite so simple as it might sound.
The principle behind re-wildling is simple; there is a long list of species which have become extinct since the last glaciation, not just in the British Isles but all over the world, some of these are global extinctions such as the Dodo (Raphus cucullatus) or the Elephant Bird (Aepyornis maximus), but where such animals are only locally extinct or may still exist in zoos or collections there is a strong argument to reintroduce them to areas where they once would have lived and in so doing ‘re-wild’ the areas where they were once found.
At this juncture it’s important to realise that not all the extinctions that have taken place can be blamed on humans. The Irish Elk (Megaloceros giganteus) was one of the largest deer ever to roam the earth but when it became extinct, around 10500 BC in the British Isles with populations clinging on in places like Siberia until 7000 BC it was not down to human pressure but down to climate change which caused deterioration in the vegetation they relied on as food due to drought and colder weather during spring/summer which may have caused massively increased mortality among fawns (Chritz, et al., 2009). All this took place long before climate change could be blamed on accelerated global warming due to pollution. Likewise the demise of the cave lion (Panthera leo spelaea) and several other species which became extinct either globally or locally, also can’t be blamed on humans.
There are plenty of British extinctions which can be blamed on our species though; beaver (Castor fiber), Wolf (Canis lupus), Roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) and wild boar (Sus scrofa) have all become extinct in the UK in the last thousand years; primarily due to a combination of a loss of habitat and hunting, whether for food, fur, sport or to preserve livestock from predators. It has been many years since we lost a species in the UK due to pressure from hunting (except perhaps the Copyu which was an introduced invasive species and was deliberately eradicated during the 1970s) as we now have a much better understanding of the need for sustainability and responsible management of wildlife. Some of the species named above have already been successfully re-wilded, and I’m not just talking about the currently small scale beaver reintroductions in Scotland and Devon. By the 18th Century, Roe deer were extinct in England and Wales. This may be due to a number of reasons but largely because they were not afforded the protection of the Forest Charters of the medieval period, or the laws which followed, as they were not deemed ‘noble quarry’ or ‘beasts of the chase’. As such, they were not jealously guarded as the property of the crown and could be hunted by almost anyone. This led to extinction but despite that, they are now the most widespread of all the deer in the British Isles, with a population of around 500,000 individuals (GWCT, 2015) since reintroductions during the 19th Century from surviving populations in Scotland and the abundant populations in France. Roe deer were never threatened with extinction in Europe and on a global scale are considered a ‘species of least concern’ (IUCN, 2015).
So re-wilding is by no means a new thing, but it has garnered a lot of attention ever since the re-introduction of large carnivores like lynx and wolf has been suggested, and the popular writing of authors like George Monbiot and Marc Bekoff has popularised the subject.
Since its popularisation in the media, it seems that a lot of people underestimate the difficulty of these re-introductions. Successful re-wilding is not a case of just stepping back and letting nature take its course. We have already disrupted nature’s course so severely that if we are going to ‘re-wild’ we need to carry out some pretty major management to return things to a state in which they would manage themselves. The reintroduction of species already extinct from an isolated area (such as the UK) is an example, and as we can’t take an area of land and expect species to reintroduce themselves, we have to be heavily involved and committed (financially as well as emotionally) to projects of this size. Species need to be reintroduced from other countries which requires licences and lots of money and expertise, and there may even be a need to selectively breed species to produce an animal that will match the fauna historically found in the area, as has been attempted with the Heck Cattle which were introduced to the Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands. In addition to the need to manage a re-introduction very carefully there is then the question of how to manage the area once it has been re-wilded. The Oostvaardersplassen, which was hailed as a great success for re-wilding in its early days, has been the target of increasing amounts of criticism over the last few years over concerns for the welfare of grazing animals which are starving to death during winter because of depleted food resources. The original populations of 32 Heck cattle (and 20 Konik Pony’s introduced during the 1980s and 54 Red Deer during the 1990s) have exploded to a total population which now numbers in the thousands.
After the difficulties of making the re-introduction, the next major issues are how the reintroduction is going to be managed beyond the initial release, and how is the welfare of those animals going to be ensured in an ecosystem that will be completely alien to them. For example, the current discussion on the release of lynx (Lynx lynx) in Thetford Forest has met with great support in public polls, but there seems to be little consideration of the fact that the huge territories of lynx will have them roaming well outside the boundaries of the Forest and into farmland to which they are not at all adapted. Lynx became extinct in the UK a little over a thousand years ago, long before the agricultural and industrial revolutions completely changed the British landscape. So what would be done to manage these animals once they are released? Yes, they will be monitored, but lynx are notoriously difficult to observe in the wild due to their large territories and elusive behaviour. While Dr Paul O’Donoghue, the chief scientific advisor to the Lynx UK Trust that is supporting the re-introduction, has said that the re-introduction will help farmers as the lynx will eat deer, surely there will still be conflict with people? Whilst the argument may be there that lynx, and perhaps wolves and other large predators, are conditioned to take deer as prey rather than domestic livestock, a lynx would normally eat smaller deer species such as roe, and none of the material I have read put out by the Lynx UK Trust makes this distinction and rather lumps all ‘deer’ together as potential lynx fodder. Surely lynx will prey on any of the deer species now found in Thetford Forests, which includes several species which have been artificially introduced since the extinction of lynx from the UK. If we expect them to eat ‘deer’ of any shape and size surely they will as easily adapt to eat sheep, they occasionally eat them in the wild as it is, add to that the fact that these sheep will be conveniently fenced in and not as wary as their wild counterparts and a lynx will have a very easy meal. As soon as this happens there will be outcries from farmers as their livelihood is affected. However, if this is not the case, and the newly released lynx do exclusively feed on roe, the five remaining deer species, untouched by the fussy lynx, will still be free to damage farms and forests, despite the reduction of damage to forests and agriculture being a big part of the argument for a re-introduction.
So you see it’s a tricky one, and re-wilding is perhaps not the best name for it, releasing one species into an otherwise unaltered modern British landscape is not re-wilding, it is a re-introduction that may, if successful, lead to the creation of a completely new ecosystem. Releasing beaver and lynx will not return things to the way they were in the 800s but it may well change our current landscape.
True re-wilding probably needs to be carried out on a much larger scale; hundreds of thousands or millions of acres, that would have to include the reintroduction or relocation of predators and prey, a total absence of human interference once the landscape had been returned to the required condition, which means no culling of deer for ‘welfare’ reasons, no feeding during colder winters, no medication or supplements if they need worming or are short of nutrients. This raises a lot of other issues and potentially means re-wilding projects suffer from animal welfare issues; as with the Oostvaardersplassen or fall foul of zoo and access legislation.
For example the Alladale wilderness reserve in Sutherland, Scotland has struggled with opposition to it’s plans to release wolves and bears. It has needed to gain a zoo licence to allow the estate to keep ‘dangerous animals’ such as European Elk (moose), wild boar and wolves but even this licence does not allow the area of land which the estate owns to be used for a release of these animals as they would have to inhabit the same enclosures and zoo regulations do not allow predator and prey to be kept in the same enclosures, even if the areas are huge, Alladale estate totals around 23,000 acres. Another obstacle has been the open access to the highlands which The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 provides for anyone who wants access. There has been huge opposition to the project from mountaineers and walkers as Paul Lister, the owner of the estate, plans to fence large parts of the estate to facilitate these limited re-introductions. Without licences from the appropriate agencies, Natural England in England, and its equivalent bodies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, re-introductions into the wild can’t take place, but on a private estate there is a little more flexibility but without the fences and enclosures, the elk and boar they already have at Alladale would not be allowed. The issue that campaigners for access have is that these fences restrict access to parts of the highlands. Personally I can’t see why people shouldn’t go there if there are plenty of styles or gates as no one in Sweden complains or refuses to go to an area where there are bears or wolves, and no one in North America refuses to go outside for fear of being trampled by a cow moose protecting its calf. Fences are necessary to manage the release of reintroduced species, but you can still grant access to people. The problem with Alladale may be the owners’ apparent reluctance to provide this level of public access.
So you see re-wilding is complex and the subject of intense debate. Whilst it would be lovely to see what the British Isles would have looked like with its full complement of wildlife, it is just not possible to return to that state, our countryside has evolved and been managed so intensively that many re-introductions or re-wilding projects are doomed to failure as they just aren’t compatible with our modern regime of land management. There may be an argument that nature is more important than the current land uses: agriculture, forestry etc, but how do you justify reducing agricultural or timber output to make way for a re-wilding project which would only ever be funded through donations?
As environmental educators we are in the enviable position of being able to help people engage with the habitats we do have, get outdoors, understand the ecosystems and environments we have and see what nature and wildlife has to offer. We don’t need gigantic Eurasian Elephants (Elephas antiquus) to engage with nature, a patch of weeds or a dry stream or canal (Pyle 2011) is enough. Re-wilding will have its place, and there have been successes here in the UK and elsewhere, but perhaps the biggest lesson that it provides which may be useful for the environmental educator is the complexity of nature and the environment and how important it is to be aware of our impacts on it and just how easy it is to have those impacts and the things that have to be considered when planning re-wilding make these impacts very clear.
Chritz, K. L. et al., 2009. Palaeobiology of an extinct Ice Age Mammal; Stable isotope and cementum analysis of giant deer teeth. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, Volume 282, pp. 133-144.
GWCT, 2015. Roe deer Capreolus capreolus. [Online]
Available at: Roe deer Capreolus capreolus
[Accessed 30 November 2015].
IUCN, 2015. Capreolus capreolus. [Online]
Available at: http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/42395/0
[Accessed 01 November 2015].
Pyle R (2011) The Thunder Tree; Lessons From an Urban Wildland; Oregon State University; Reprint ed.
You can see other contributions from Geoff here.