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Radical policies

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November 14, 2019

The red kite is a beautiful, imposing bird, rust-coloured, fork-tailed; it’s big, with a wingspan of up to six foot. They were driven to extinction in England — nests raided, birds shot — in the 19th century, but in the late 1980s and early 1990s some birds from Sweden and the small surviving population in Wales were brought to Buckinghamshire, with a similar programme in Scotland; a total of 93 birds were released.

Now, more than 1,000 breeding pairs are believed to live in the Chiltern hills and around. When I drive back to my parents’ place in Oxford, I often see 20 or 30 between crossing the M25 and reaching the Oxford ringroad. They ride the thermals gracefully, looking for roadkill. In the Cotswolds once I saw one taking off a few yards in front of me; it had been feasting on the carcass of a fox, I think. It was huge, like an eagle, and thrilling to see.

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Red kite are not the only successful reintroduction of a formerly native British species. In Scotland, the sea eagle — also driven to extinction in this country 100 or so years ago — was reintroduced in the 1990s, and have started to breed. Ospreys returned naturally to Scotland and have been reintroduced to England, after being driven extinct in the 19th century.

Perhaps more spectacularly, beavers have been reintroduced in Gloucestershire, Devon and Scotland; they had been extinct in Britain for at least 250 years. Their revival has changed the waterways around there: the dams they build filter the rivers, removing silt from the water; they create big, still pools that fish, insects and amphibians can breed in and waterbirds feed from. The Devon reintroduction saw a 1,000% increase in frogspawn levels and a growth in local bat populations (they feed on the insects that bred in the ponds). Beaver dams also reduce the risk of flooding further downstream, by breaking up the flow of the river.

These species, though, could be just the start. Beavers, red kite, ospreys and sea eagles are all relatively recent losses to Britain’s natural heritage: we were, once, a nation of incredible wildlife. Perhaps it is time to be more ambitious about what we bring back.

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Ross Barnett’s marvellous book The Missing Lynx tells the story of Britain’s lost megafauna, and it gets much more dramatic than red kite and beavers. There were hyenas in Yorkshire, which coexisted with humans. There were cheetahs, and lions (the bones of which were found when Trafalgar Square was being excavated); there were giant Irish elk, six foot tall at the shoulder. Mammoth, of course. Woolly rhinos. Sabre-toothed cats. Aurochs: vast great deadly wild oxen that could look a tall man in the eye. Hippos in the Thames.

Humans killed them all, as we did in so many places, all over the globe. Clever, cooperative tribes of humans, innovating in spectacular ways — developing lethal spear-throwers that could put a killing length of sharpened wood through an elk’s shoulder-blade from a safe distance, or driving great herds of animals off cliffs and harvesting the bodies. Barnett thinks that much of the northern part of the northern hemisphere was essentially a mammoth-based economy. People have tried to argue that all the extinctions were due to ancient climate change, but they all happen in a geological eyeblink after humans reach a new area; the evidence strongly suggests that we did it.

I don’t think anyone would suggest that we reintroduce hippos to the Thames now, or hyenas to Yorkshire. They may have coexisted with humans, but they were driven locally extinct around 10,000 years ago.

Other species, though, were more recent victims. The lynx — a beautiful big cat, shy, about the size of a labrador, with gleaming eyes and a shimmering, multicoloured coat — still lived in the forests of Britain around the time of the Norman conquest. There are serious conversations being had about reintroducing it here.

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Of course, reintroducing red kite (diet: mainly dead squirrels), ospreys (fish) and beavers (mainly tree bark) is one thing. Sea eagles, too, although they are rumoured to take young lambs and are therefore not universally popular with Scottish farmers. Making the case for apex predators may be more difficult.

I think it is a case worth making, though. There’s reason to think that reintroducing lynx would be a popular move. Barnett, in his book, says that about 65% of poll respondents were in favour. There’s no risk to humans — Eurasian lynx are still extant from Norway to Siberia, including large parts of western Europe, and there have been no recorded attacks. Recent reintroductions to Switzerland have been a success.

We could go even further, though. If lynx are reintroduced successfully, and Britons grow used to sharing these islands with proper predators again — not just foxes and wildcats and birds of prey — then we could think bigger. Wolves lived in Britain, not that long ago. They probably went extinct around 1700; there were deliberate drives to kill them.

They are widely feared. The Big Bad Wolf, and so on. But again, the risk to humans is minimal. There are a few attacks reported every year worldwide, very occasionally fatal, but humans and wolves coexist in huge areas of both the New and Old Worlds; the number of attacks is tiny.

Wolves are generally shy of humans. There are thousands living in Spain, Germany, France, Italy, Portugal, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Poland, Russia and elsewhere. In some of those countries, they are protected as endangered species; in others, they are not, and in Bulgaria they have a bounty on their heads as though it were the late middle ages all over again. (In Russia, wolves in the south-east are under pressure and occasionally eaten by the increasing tiger population, because Russia is extremely hardcore.)

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Sea eagles, ospreys and beavers have driven tourism to the areas they are introduced; people would be even more likely to visit for the chance of seeing a lynx, or a pack of wolves. And just as beavers have improved their local ecosystems, so would these great, beautiful creatures. Much of Britain has a problem with deer — they have no natural predators, so they need to be culled; if they are not, they damage young trees. Apex predators — lynx and wolves — would help reduce their numbers, improve the health of Britain’s forests and increase the variety of species that live in those forests. An ecosystem with no top predators will always be incomplete. And healthier forests capture more carbon; it would have genuine global benefits.

There are obvious risks — not to human life, really, but to farm animals. There are ways around that, though. Barnett suggests that compensation for farmers could be established — the government could simply pay a bounty for each sheep mauled, but a better way to do it would be to pay farmers for keeping areas of their land wild and suitable for these incredible creatures. (This could actually be a benefit of Brexit, if we change our system of farming subsidies once we leave the Common Agricultural Policy.)

Still, it won’t be universally popular. I spoke to a former Forestry Commission worker in Scotland recently who was unconvinced that beavers had been a good thing, because their dams flooded some fields; farmers are nervous about lynx. The wild boar that have been accidentally reintroduced in Scotland and the Forest of Dean are controversial — they cause damage to gardens and farmland, although they also improve forest health and attract tourists. But broadly speaking, the reintroductions that have already happened have been successful, and Britain’s wildlife — and humans — benefit from them.

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I’ve written this from quite a stark, utilitarian point of view — it will improve ecosystems, attract tourism — but I also think there’s something good for the soul, something quasi-spiritual, about watching big animals in the wild. Those red kite make my heart leap when I see them, and that’s when I’m looking out of my windscreen while driving a pair of fractious children down the M40.

Years ago, I did a safari in the Kruger National Park in South Africa, and saw lions eating a giraffe, a jaguar sitting quietly in a tree, elephants and rhinos and hippos, and it was one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever done. Imagine seeing comparably cool animals in Scotland or Northumbria, the thrill of knowing you share your home with these majestic things.

So red kite and beavers are just the start. Let’s go for lynx, and if lynx work out, wolves. And then, maybe, if wolves work out, one day we could be really brave, and reintroduce bears.