Barriers to reintroducing missing species
In most cases, there are few ecological or geographical barriers to the re-establishment of missing species. There is plenty of suitable habitat and food even for lynx and wolves. The barriers tend to be legal, social and political.
We respect the concerns of those who oppose reintroductions. We believe that missing species should not be re-established unless there is widespread public consent and support. In some cases this has already shown itself (for the beaver, for example). When it hasn’t, we should not proceed until it is clear that they would be widely welcomed. We should also continue to work with people who oppose rewilding, even if there is majority support.
Legal constraints to reintroductions are the trickiest to overcome. There are three key legal constraints in Britain
1. Designated sites
A highly prescriptive set of rules governs the management of conservation sites in Britain. These rules define the ‘interest features’ and ‘favourable condition’ of the sites. These often demand a fierce regime of cutting, burning and grazing to maintain an arbitrary assemblage of living creatures. They maintain degraded ecosystems, where important top predators are absent.
Elsewhere in the world – the Amazon rainforest, for example – conservationists work to prevent the cutting, burning and grazing of ecosystems. We believe that in some sites in Britain, especially in the uplands, these rules are long overdue for challenge and review.
2. Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976
This Act insists that certain species are released only into enclosures. Taken in conjunction with the UK’s zoo legislation, which forbids the release of predators and herbivores into the same enclosure, it makes reintroductions almost impossible.
3. The Infrastructure Act 2015
This Act defines species that have recently become extinct in the UK as non-native and potentially subject to control and destruction.
Other arguments are often made against reintroductions. For example:
Rewilding poses a danger to livestock
Wolves and lynx would be a danger to livestock in some places, although they tend to prefer deer to farm animals. Farmers would have to be compensated for any losses. This happens in Europe where licence fees from hunting provide the necessary funds. In France, sheep farming is more viable in regions that have wolves than in those that don’t.
The impact of wolves on livestock is small. In the United States, wolves kill less than 0.1 per cent of sheep in the areas they live. In Italy, that figure is 0.35 per cent. Sheep do have to be managed in ways that kept them safe – for example, by using guard dogs or protection collars. Sheep farmers would need to make changes to the way they farm. Some could even be paid to restore ecosystems as an alternative business model.
We’re a small over-crowded country
Some people say that Britain is too small and crowded to have flourishing nature and wildlife. The Highlands of Scotland alone are actually bigger than Slovenia. We can live right alongside forests and birds and wolves and lynx as they do in other countries.
The population density of several parts of Europe (such as eastern Germany and the Apennines) is much higher than that of many parts of Britain. Yet populations of beavers, wolves and lynx are thriving. Belgium and the Netherlands have far less uncultivable land than we do, and hardly any places with low population density, but the return there of wolves, boar, beavers and other species is widely welcomed.
The cost is too great
Cost is sometimes used to argue against reintroductions. Some people have claimed that Britain cannot afford to restore missing species. But the cost has not stopped much poorer nations in Europe, such as Romania, Bulgaria and Ukraine.
We see the reintroduction of keystone species as supporting the wider health of ecosystems and natural processes. We believe that some of the current expenditure on conservation should be directed towards rewilding. After all, keystone species would drive ecological processes for nothing.
Having dangerous animals roam free is crazy
Many people are understandably afraid of the idea of having lynx, wolves and even wild boar in the British countryside. They perceive them to be a danger to people. But these animals pose little risk to humans and are a natural part of our heritage.
That doesn’t mean there’s no risk, though it’s a very small one. The balance between danger and joy is subject to constant public negotiation, and the outcomes vary. For example, fewer people would die in traffic accidents if there were no trees beside our roads. But no one is proposing to cut them all down in the name of public safety. We allow roads and cars to be part of our everyday lives, despite the thousands of deaths they cause every year.
There is, quite rightly, a strong public desire for safety and protection. But there is also widespread rejection of the idea that health and safety should override all other values. A world in which the only recognised public good was security would be a world with little freedom or delight.