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Rewilding the UK | Wildlife Matters

Rewilding the UK

wolves

Is the sight of wolves and lynx in the British countryside really a possibility for the future? The reintroduction of lost species is increasingly being researched and pushed for by scientists and conservationists. But what is rewilding and what would be the consequences of such a movement?

The term itself rewilding is young one, having only been referred to for the first time in 1990. As such, the exact definition of the term is highly debatable amongst the scientific community. I define rewilding as the mass restoration of ecosystems by means of species reintroductions. The reintroduction of keystone species to a particular ecosystem can lead to trophic cascades. By this, I mean the ecological process of a species at the top of the food chain including apex predators such as wolves and lynx having continuing effects that tumble down the food chain and effect every trophic level. These trophic cascades even have the potential to alter the physical geography of a particular ecosystem and so this begs the question, why rewild especially since it has the potential to alter an ecosystem for the worse if reintroductions are not carefully engineered.

The dewilding of the UK was and still is mostly due to the human persecution of wild animals. Brown bears, lynx and wolves all once roamed the British Isles until man considered them to be a threat to themselves and/or their livestock. Through the compulsory hunting and bounties placed on wolves as ordered by past British monarchs, the species became locally extinct around the 18th century. Numerous other species had similar fates due to a lack of scientific knowledge regarding their behaviour. For instance, we now understand that lynx pose no threat to people and a minimal threat to livestock. To that end, perhaps it is our moral responsibility to learn from our mistakes and reintroduce these species back to the British countryside which was once their rightful home.

Additionally, we now realise that these predators perform vital ecological functions. A prime example that demonstrates this is the 1995 reintroduction of wolves to the Yellowstone National Park in the United States. During the 70 year absence from the park; the lack of hunting from wolves led to deer populations growing to an all-time high and vegetation was grazed away until barely anything was left. The reintroduction demonstrated what was lost. As wolves began to control deer populations again, this allowed for vegetation to regenerate and in some areas, the height of the trees quintupled in just six years. The newly regenerated forests attracted greater numbers of songbirds and became a hotspot for migratory birds. Moreover, as a result of the greater presence of trees, the number of beavers increased. Beavers are ecosystem engineers and as such their dams created habitats for numerous species across the vertebrate classes. The beneficial changes to the ecosystems went on and on with increases in the number of bears, foxes, weasels, badgers and so on. The reintroduction was a huge success and an example to the world of what is possible with careful planning.

We now have an opportunity to reconstruct food chains and trophic levels through the reintroduction of lost predatory species. However, farmers pose the biggest threat in ending the rewilding of the UK before it has even begun. Food production is increasing in the UK and rewilding is understandably a serious concern for farmers. Farmers tend to be stuck in their ways and maintain the view that the reintroduction of predatory species will lead to numerous deaths of their livestock. I believe there is potential for them to adapt in order to coexist with reintroduced species. However, they will require long-term reassurances for instance, subsidies for predated livestock. The EU already subsidises prevention methods for the depredation of livestock and for predated livestock in several countries in Europe such as Sweden, Norway, and Finland. This needs to be pushed for in the UK under the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy. I believe discussions must take place in rural communities and in their town halls rather than solely in urban areas. After all, they are the ones who will be most affected by rewilding. To that end, there are ways to help farmers deal with the reintroductions should they take place and long-term reassurances could open the doors for rewilding in the UK.

Let’s not forget natural capital since the government is effectively run for big business. Rewilding will only be a vision unless ecological recovery and economic revitalisation can both be achieved. Well I am of the opinion that rewilding will produce not only monetary values through increases in ecotourism but also non-monetary values such as national identity – we could represent a nation that has not just held the line in conservation but thought more radically and taken steps to recover its lost wildlife. This would truly be great!

So how far is too far? Introducing species that have never previously been endemic to the UK would not be rewilding, rather building new ecosystems which carry very real problems. These introductions can be particularly invasive such as the introduction of signal crayfish in the UK which carry the crayfish plague and in turn are wiping out the native crayfish. European forests are typically engineered to be safe for us and so likewise ecosystem engineering is necessary for rewilding to take place. To address this issue, rewilding in the UK will require careful planning and management. The term ‘wild’ may suggest no management should be involved but conservation is management whichever way you look at it – this must be accepted.

To conclude, with careful management and by learning from reintroductions taking place around the world; rewilding could revitalise ecosystems in the UK and make for a more biologically diverse country.

– Jessen

3 thoughts on “Rewilding the UK

  1. bhavik

    Let’s not forget the EU through CAP also subsidises uneconomical hill sheep farming leaving our hillsides bare and bereft of trees thanks to subsidies it gives to hill sheep farmers (e.g. in Wales)

    1. JessenJessen Post author

      You must remember that the CAP was put in place in order to stimulate further growth of the agricultural industry. This will inevitably lead to further environmental degradation. The irresponsible payouts through subsidies in most cases do not take into consideration the environmental damage that will be caused. For example, the EU still pays for building greenhouses that impinge upon wildlife sanctuaries and for drainage of wetlands. This is why a reform is required and one that includes legislation regarding potential future rewilding in the UK.

  2. Pritimasi

    Hello Jessen

    This is an enlightening article on rewilding and dewilding and the effects that both have had and can have for future of this country. I fear that farmers will need a lot of coaxing in the re-introduction of rewilding as they have very deep mindsets, and may be difficult to persuade in changing the situation.

    The government also have a vital role to play, along with the EU members as policies will have to be formulated and lessons learnt from countries which have already followed the path of rewilding and improving the ecosystems.

    Keep researching for updates and continue to inform us of further developments.

    Well done for writing such an excellent article and helping us to think about how each and everyone of us affects the environment as to how we live and treat it. It certainly has made me think about things and brought ideas to the forefront of my mind which I took for granted all this time. Of course, we cannot change ideas and the situation in a short space of time but as you write more articles and speak to more people, you will create more awareness of the plight of wild animals and their necessity to the ecosystem for all of us to survive alongside each other.

    Well done again, Jessen.

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