The Wild Beasts Trust

Restoring Britain’s wild indigenous species: ... e-mail: ... tel: +44 (0)1750 52326 ... address: Kirkhope Tower, Ettrick, TD7 5JW

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Restoring Britain's Extinct Species

Britain's fauna used to be far more diverse and exciting before agriculture and hunting marginalised then obliterated many species.

The Wild Beasts Trust is a network of enthusiasts who want to repair our damaged habitat.

Vast acres of the UK are ceasing to be cultivated. Former landscapes are emerging again from wetlands to native woodland. These are incomplete without the original inhabitants returning too.

Our candidate species for rebuilding the habitat range from the grey whale to the dormouse, carnivore to herbivore. We include the wolf, the lynx, the bear, the wolverine, the beaver, the moose, the boar, the walrus, the bison, the mouflon, the lemming, the dormouse and one non-mammal - the sturgeon.

WBT groups support different species in finding locations and preparing locations for release.

A number of members have already acquired sample populations prior to a full return to the wild. At a location in Tayside members can visit our thriving beaver colony which has passed the simple test of environmental harmony - they are breeding. No beavers have been present in Britain since the mid Seventeenth Century.

The WBT is part of an informal network of kindred European groups that have reintroduced extinct species or plan to do so.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Lost Beasties of the Borders

Across the Border counties there are few signs that we had animals roaming free we would regard as aliens. The only clues are a few place names and a few bones retrieved. Berwick is Bearwycke. Its civic emblem is a bear. Bears from the Tweed hinterland were exported to appear in the Coliseum in Rome. There are many wolfcleuchs in the Border glens, a faint echo of residents long gone. At Chillingham in Northumberland its herd of wild white cattle are living relics of the auroch that used to graze through the vast Ettrick Forest. The skeletal remains of beavers, boars, reindeer, bison and lynx have been excavated in every location. On the Farne Islands we can add the walrus too.

Inspired by the restoration of the osprey, red kite and capercailzie to Scotland groups of activists are attempting to restore our lost fauna. Many are concentrating their efforts to the north and west - the Highlands. Yet many of these evangelists regard the Southern Upland hills as ripe for species restoration. In every case the animals extinct in the Borders survive on the Continent. Indeed they have been widely restored or re-introduced. The only endangered European beast is the brown bears of the Pyrenees. Hunters killed the last native mother bear illegally two years ago but the outrage was such that cousin bears (ursus arctos) have been brought in from the Alps and Dolomites.

Those locations may serve as a lightening conductor to those who fear bears would be dangerous. Nobody can argue the Alps, Italian Apennines or Pyrenees are denuded of people. Rather than tourists being driven away the romance of possibly encountering a bear they seem to find an enhanced mystery or romance in the presence of these brave survivors.

The largest European native animal is the bison. It was thought to have gone extinct on two occasions in the 20th Century - during both World Wars they represented steaks to hungry partisan populations. A tiny number were found deep in the primeval Bialowieza Forest in Poland. We do not know when bison bonasus last munched its way across the Borders. It is smaller than the North American bison that features in cowboy films. In every European nation, save Scotland, the bison has now been restored. Roaming entirely free may not be immediately possible but they could be happy in parkland or in the extensive Forestry Commission tracts - notably the Craig Forest.

Sir Walter Scott had a beaver skull from Galashiels brought to him and expressed the view it would be good to see the beaver back in the Tweed catchment area. Almost two hundred years later we are near success. Several colonies of beaver (castor fiber ) are already present in Scotland mostly in Tayside. It seems to me the beaver would be one of the happiest restorations. They enhance their countryside. As Nature's civil engineers they enhance the landscape. They also invite a companion species. The moose (alces alces) is the largest European deer. We do not know when the last one was killed in the Borders. My hunch is they were too tasty to survive long. I can imagine a group of hunter gathers piecing its heart with their arrows before the arrival of the Roman legions. Moose artefacts were still in use. These are gentle comical creatures which enjoy the pondweeds of the beaver-created pools. The presence of these companions, beaver and moose, seems to be ideal for plant diversity.

The two most contentious candidate species are the lynx, the European mountain cat (Lynx lynx) and the wolf (Canis lupis). We still carry a vague folk memory of these two carnivores as dangerous to humans and to farm stock especially sheep. There can be no doubt farmers will complain yet the evidence from the Continent is this is a mirage. Wolves are the natural prey of deer of which it is agreed there is a surfeit that needs to be culled. A starved wolf of lynx may come down from its hill territories to take a sheep. It seems they will always select an animal already ailing. The hint a lynx may pounce and eat a rambler is a happy romance but infact they are happier hunting rabbits and voles.

It is my view that ecologically these creatures would find their niches quickly and not be a threat to humans in any sense. It is an important or subtle claim but I think the howl of a wolf pack over the Cheviots or the possibility of seeing a lynx on the Eildons transforms the souls of these locations.

To many, including official bodies, these ideas sound outlandish and impractical yet it is Scotland that is entirely out of step with every other European nations. I know of no species restoration on the Continent that has not been acclaimed and enjoyed. Even the densely-populated Netherlands has hosted the restoration of many animals.

I have concentrated of four-legged hairy candidates - mammals. There are further bird and fish species and one sensational mammal species that looks more like a fish. The Eagle Owl has escaped from private aviaries and seems to be surviving well in the Borders. A group of enthusiasts has placed token populations of sturgeon in the headwaters of the Tweed. The sturgeon is not technically extinct. They are often found on the sea shores of the North Sea. They cannot defeat weirs and other man-made impediments. As the Russians and other Caspian Sea nations push the sturgeon towards oblivion I think it important they be nourished in new and protected locations. I like the notion that in a few years visitors will be able to enjoy Borders caviar.

The boldest proposal is to restore the Grey Whale to the waters of the Solway. The monster is thought to have been harpooned to extinction by the 16th Century. They survive now only in the Pacific. It is suggested they be airfreighted back, as in the film "Free Willie".
You see, my modest proposals are mild and sensible compared to the more exuberant proposals.

Are these notions merely harmless curiosities? I think they are substantive ideas to change the personality and reputation of the Borders. If we were the first place to have, say, bears, wolves and lynx in Britain we would steal a march on the Highlands. There is no shortage of wild space in the Borders - I include Dumfries and Galloway. Having banned fox hunting, in my view in a bout of foolishness led by Glasgow councillors, who can doubt wild boar hunting would not be greater fun. You cannot eat a fox. Wild boar supply delicious dishes. Borders boar would add to the romance and mystery of our Border hills. The Roman soldiers at Trimontium seemed to concur. They chose the boar as their emblem. Let it be ours again.