Michael Gove, the new Northern Forest, and innumerate beavers.

Somewhat overshadowed by the recent and momentous Cabinet Reshuffle – and the news that Larry, the Number 10 Downing Street Chief Mouser, remains in post – was a little reported item that the ever eager and cherubic Michael Gove has worked a blinder. He has announced that millions will be spent in creating a new Northern Forest along the M62 corridor. So we will have lots more trees planted and everything in the garden will be lovely. Doubtless the rewilders will be anxious to append the label “#rewilding” to this activity, but the reality is that planting trees is just another land management option that happens to have a longer cropping interval than, say, wheat or potatoes.

In principle, I have no difficulty with lots more tree planting. Like most people, I like trees. But I also like to see open spaces and skies and the bare bones of the land as well. So my general view of large scale tree planting in Britain is that it should follow  at least four rules:

  1. The trees should be native species.
  2. They should be native species of genuine British provenance, to reduce the risk of importing yet more exotic tree diseases.
  3. The species planted should respect the local species mix (let us call this the Rackham Rule [2]).
  4. They should be planted in areas which are appropriate to trees and not used to cover historically open landscape.

It is the last point which I will explore in this article.

The route for this exploration is a roundabout one and begins with an earlier debate with Dr Steve Carver of Leeds University, in which there was an exchange of views about the sizes of areas and how this influences ecosystems within them. My point was that the boreal rainforests of British Columbia are much bigger than a grouse moor in the UK and that ecological lessons in one are not always immediately transferable to the other. Dr Carver argued that size did not really make a difference and so the two areas are roughly comparable. He wrote: “Scale. Yes, size really does matter! But as a Geographer and a landscape ecologist I know that many, indeed possibly all, processes scale. This is true from the physical (e.g. drainage patterns) to the ecological (e.g. predator-prey relationships).” At this point, I was unsure what Steve Carver meant when he said “scale”, but he went on to say: “..the thing about area to edge ratio is geometrically interesting since a circle of 18,000 km2 has the same proportion of edge as a circle of only 18 km2 and even one as small as 1.8 m2.”

This caused me to take a sharp intake of breath. I tweeted to Steve that he might like to check his mathematics on the latter statement, but he responded that there was no need – that for any given geometric figure, the ratio of perimeter to area is constant regardless of its area.

So who am I – a mere knuckle-dragging prole – to question the authority of a senior lecturer at a Russell Group University?

Except that echoes of ‘A’ Level Biology lessons taken 45 years ago reverberated inside my head. Furthermore, before becoming a farmer, I spent 20 years as a quantity surveyor in civil engineering. Most days were spent measuring lengths, areas and volumes. And – you know how it is – when you’ve spent a while earning a living in a profession, you tend to get a bit of a feel for the principles of the thing.

So, like engineers, scientists and surveyors the world over, I started to write on the back of an envelope. And this is what I wrote:

Figure 1 – Calculation of circumference:area ratios

Screen Shot 2018-01-12 at 13.43.19At this point, we are left to wonder if the Geography Department at Leeds University runs on a different kind of mathematics from everyone else, or whether Dr Carver is like the beaver in Lewis Carroll’s The hunting of the Snark. In this extract the butcher and the beaver find themselves thrown together when walking down an increasingly steep and narrow ravine, when the air is split by a dreadful shriek. The butcher recovers his nerve and says:

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If I have difficulty with Dr Carver’s mathematics, I have similar difficulty when he   says that symbiosis and predator-prey relationships are the same thing, because “they are all part of a continuum”. Well, red and violet are at opposite ends of the visible part of the light spectrum (or “continuum”), but most people consider them to be completely different colours. Also, Dr Carver’s repeated contention that managed grouse moorland, in ecological terms, is MAMBA (Miles and Miles of Bugger All) is equally open to question. I will leave it to the reader to decide whether “Landscape ecology” is a real subject, or whether it just involves making stuff up as you go along.

All this talk of ratios, perimeters and areas may leave many readers rather cold: and the debate which gives rise to it, to be little more than an argument between an academic and a cynical, grumpy old fart on the internet. But if you are about to plant millions of trees and alter the use of large tracts of land, an understanding of these principles becomes very important – so bear with me a little further:

Imagine a large wood of beech trees. The core of the wood is composed of many tall, straight trees which reach up to the sunlight. The canopy is far above your head. There are very few shrub layer plants such as Hazel; and the woodland floor is almost bare except for bluebells which grow in densely packed profusion. As the leaf mosaic of beech trees is extremely efficient at trapping light, the lack of light within the wood during the summer explains the lack of vegetation at lower levels. However, Beech is very late to come into leaf in the spring and so this is the only time when light reaches the woodland floor at the same time that temperatures are rising. Bluebells are one of the few plants which grow and flower at this early part of the year, and so that is why they grow in such profusion.

At the edge of the wood, the canopy slopes down towards the ground, but is nothing like as complete and shading as it is in the core of the wood.  Light is now able to reach the woodland floor at all times of the year, because it comes in from the sides. Here, Hazel, Hawthorn and perhaps Elder grow, and under them might be brambles and so on. The Bluebells are shaded out by the shrubs and more competitive field layer. This outer part of the wood is a manifestation of the edge effect.

Now imagine a much smaller beech wood – a little spinney perhaps. Here the Beech canopy cannot close over enough of the ground to produce sufficient shade. The dense carpet of Bluebells seen in the large wood is missing – there may be some Bluebells, but not as many or as densely packed as in the large wood. In this case, the woodland floor is much the same as the edges of our large wood – it contains a shrub and field layer with much greater variety because light can penetrate all round. The ‘edge effect’ has eliminated the core or centre part of the wood. This is shown diagrammatically in Figure 2 below:

Figure 2 – Plans and cross-sections of idealised large and small Beechwoods, showing the increased proportional influence of the edges of the wood, as the area of the wood gets smaller.

Screen Shot 2018-01-11 at 13.54.37This idea is of considerable importance in ecology, as the following quote from Sutherland (2000) [1] suggests:

“Small areas have a relatively large edge with a high proportion of individuals occurring near the edge, and this may lead to extinction. The climate may be different along the a habitat edge….or there may be increased herbivory or predation or reduced seed germination…..”

We can also see from Figure 2 that the core of the beechwood (or any other type of habitat) diminishes to zero as the habitat gets smaller. The core is eventually overwhelmed by the edge. Species which are dependent upon the habitat core become increasingly imperilled. This is taken up by Sutherland again here:

“Thomas and Hanski (1997) showed that the emigration of butterflies occurred simply due to individuals wandering off the habitat patch and then being unable to return. This emigration was greater in small sites and could then be too great for the population to sustain. Similarly, for various carnivore species, the mortality is considerably greater once they step outside the park… so that population survival is dependent upon the protected area being sufficiently large. Across species, the extinction probabilities are correlated with the home range, so that nomadic species like Wild Dogs Lycaon pictus can survive only in huge reserves while the comparatively sedentary Jaguar Panthera onca often persists in protected areas under 100Km2. Thus, for both butterflies and carnivores there is a size below which the species is unlikely to persist due to a loss of individuals along the edge. However, the scale varies enormously: Wild Dogs require minimum reserves of 3,600 Km2, while Silver-spotted Skippers Plebejus argus require an area of only 0.0005 Km2.”[1]

So we can conclude that as habitats become smaller in area, they are increasingly and disproportionately influenced by their edge effect. This decrease in area renders those species which are dependent upon the conditions in the core of the habitat to be increasingly vulnerable, reduced and perhaps even eliminated.

This all considers conditions as they vary inside the boundaries of a given habitat – we might call this the internal edge effect. But many habitats also influence events beyond their own boundaries. They may provide shading, or alter the chemistry or flows of watercourses for example. Or they may harbour predators which range beyond the habitat and affect species that dwell outside. Let us call this the external edge effect.

To examine what might happen if we start to plant or rewild patches of uplands with trees, let us consider the case of the Lapwing – a bird whose decline nationally makes its upland strongholds even more important.

Figure 2 – Avoidance of woodland for nesting by Lapwing (Source: Graham Appleton; wadertales.wordpress.com)

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Here, we are given a figure of 500 metres away from a clump of trees as an exclusion zone for nesting Lapwing. Lapwing do not like trees because they harbour predators such as Carrion Crows, Buzzards and Foxes etc so they nest as far away as they can. This is one reason why they like to nest in fields of sugar beet in the Fens – there are few trees and the growing crop provides suitable cover.

So imagine an idealised piece of moorland, completely devoid of trees, which is circular in plan and 2 kilometres in diameter (or 1000 metres radius). The total area of that moor will be 314 hectares. Let us also imagine that it is a haven for Lapwing and that there are 150 pairs that regularly nest upon it. This gives an average of 2.09 hectares per pair. In fact, Lapwing will nest in loose colonies or associations with territory sizes between 0.4 and 0.8 hectares, but we must acknowledge that the reality of habitat variation will mean that some places on our imaginary moor will not be suitable for them. Nevertheless, a rough figure of two hectares each looks reasonable.

Now imagine that we wish to plant (or rewild) a small circular piece of woodland on that moor of six hectares (approx 15 acres). By calculating the radius of that wood and then adding the additional 500 metres, we arrive at an area which we can call a “Lapwing Exclusion Zone” or LEZ. Alternatively, we could opt for a single smaller wood of two hectares; and there might be a further option of three small woods of two hectares each. We can then calculate the effect upon the numbers of nesting Lapwing for each option:

Figure 3 – Calculation of numbers of Lapwing on a 2 km diameter (314 ha) moor: with no woods, and combinations of two and six hectare woods.

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The single new wood of six hectares reduces the Lapwing nesting from 150 down to 89 pairs. This is a huge cut, but at least there are some left. The two hectare wood gives a slight improvement and allows 100 pairs to nest. But this is the point of the principle of perimeter to area ratio effects being disproportionately high for smaller areas. If the ratios were constant, as believed by Dr Carver, then we would expect the 2 ha wood to exert an effect of one-third of the six hectare wood. In other words, we would expect there to be approximately 130 pairs of Lapwing. Instead, a single 2 ha wood allows only 100 pairs.

The effect of splitting the original six hectare wood into three equal plots and spreading them evenly over the moor is disastrous for the Lapwing and they are eliminated completely. Following my own particular interests of upland birds, I suggest that the exclusion zones for Curlew, Golden Plover, Merlin, Red Grouse, Common Sandpiper, Dunlin, and Greenshank will be of a similar order of magnitude as the Lapwing.

In theory, this kind of calculation could be carried out for many plants and animals. The distances of effect reaching beyond the new wood(s) could be calculated in the same way. As indicated by the quote from Sutherland above, the critical size of habitat or micro-habitat varies enormously depending upon which species is under consideration. Sadly, we do not know enough about the hundreds of species involved to do this exercise. But the above method is the kind of consideration that should be given by conservation or environmental scientists when considering changes of use of the uplands (or even other farmland) when large scale tree planting or rewilding is being considered. In other words, there should be a systematic environmental impact assessment for such changes.

It should not be taken as incontestable that more trees are necessarily always good. Back in the 1960s and on to the 1990s, there was a rush by the Forestry Commission to plant commercial woods of exotic conifers all over the country. Then, as now, the uplands of Britain (and the heathlands of lowland southern England) were considered to be largely empty and of little commercial use. The result was a rash of woodland that is now reaching harvestable age, but where the the timber produced is often of dubious quality and difficult to extract without considerable environmental damage. The impact on our upland birds by this planting has never, to my knowledge, been calculated. And what applies to the planting of exotic conifers, also applies to rewilding by native species. Carrion Crows and Buzzards will use both sorts of trees from which to watch and plunder the nests of ground-nesting birds. The quotation below from the late, great Oliver Rackham [2] illustrates another problem with large scale planting using the wrong species in inappropriate places.

An example of the grand design of post-war planning in forestry will be found on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall. The construction of Collyford reservoir, farming improvement, forestry planting and china clay extraction have all nibbled away at the moor. Johnson and Rose [3] record that 2,700 hectares have of moorland have been lost since 1946, 714ha to forestry. Bodmin Moor is estimated to have shrunk  to a mere 41% of its size since 1800.

Today, a walk upon the moor will reveal a landscape which is full of ancient archeology. It is almost impossible to walk more than a few yards without crossing or stumbling over lines of stones, field boundaries, dwelling boundaries and other artefacts, which are Neolithic, Bronze Age, Early Medieval and later. This is a landscape which has been open, and essentially treeless, for thousands of years. It was shaped originally by the underlying dome of granite; and then grazed and modified and utilised by humans for 4000 years or more. Unlike the hills and mountains of the north of England, Wales and Scotland, Dartmoor and Bodmin were not glaciated during the last ice age. Their ecology has developed along with their human occupation and use. That occupation and use is still visible today, where it has not been planted over with alien clumps of conifers. Modern farmers continue to graze the moor with sheep, ponies and cattle in much the same way that they have done for millennia.

Figure 4 – A small block of exotic conifers near Brown Willy, Bodmin Moor. A haven for predators and a disaster for ground-nesting birds. (Source: the author)

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The Curlew, Golden Plover, Snipe and Dunlin which once bred on Bodmin Moor have all long since departed as breeding species. Most of the Lapwing have also gone. Neighbouring Dartmoor, which is a similar but much bigger lump of granite, still has a tiny number of Dunlin – the most southerly breeding population in the world of this trans-Arctic species – but they are hanging on by a thread. Most of the other species are in a similar precarious position, except for the Golden Plover which have gone [4].

The usual explanation provided by environmentalists for this declining or local extinction of breeding species is that it is the result of “agricultural intensification”. But this is as lazy as it is gratuitous. A glance at the map of Dartmoor reveals an area of 954 km2 which is roughly circular and intersected by a couple of minor roads, Princetown, Postbridge and the Dart valley. Large blocks of commercial coniferous plantations are at Fernworthy Reservoir, Bellever Tor and Burrator Reservoir. But this leaves two large areas of contiguous moorland, each roughly eight by twelve kilometres across, which are otherwise uninterrupted by forestry or small plantations.

By contrast, Bodmin Moor has an area of 208 km2 (Dartmoor is 4½ times bigger). The southern one third is split from the rest by the A30 – the major arterial route into Cornwall. The surroundings to Colliford Reservoir are not afforested, but nearby Smallacoombe Downs are surrounded by two large blocks of forestry. The smaller Crowdy Reservoir to the north has a large block of forestry nearby. But the body of the moor has 17 small blocks of plantation – Figure 4 shows one of them – which splits the moor in a north-south string. The tops of Brown Willy, Cathole Tor, Leskernick Hill, Buttern Hill and Rough Tor enclose an area which is a mere two to three kilometres across of uninterrupted moor.

By comparing Dartmoor with Bodmin Moor, we can see the two effects of internal and external edge effects at work. On the one hand, Bodmin is much smaller than Dartmoor and so its core is also smaller and greatly influenced by its outer edges. This core is the part in which the upland birds would breed, given the chance. This might be considered to be the internal edge effect. Unfortunately, this already small area has been further broken up by the string of small plantations. These contain the predators which ensure that ground-nesting birds are unable to cope with. And this is where the external edge effects of the plantations manifest themselves.

In many ways, it really does not matter if the trees in the new Northern Forest are to be native hardwoods of local provenance, or if they are to be dark and alien conifers. As far as Curlew and Lapwing are concerned, lots of new trees in the wrong places will be a threat and a disincentive to breed. At a time when suitable nesting ground, and successful brood-rearing, are at an all-time low, we should be very careful before committing to grand political gestures – leaving our stamp upon the landscape – without first looking at what we might lose.

It is likely that there is not a square inch of land in the British Isles that has not been touched by human hand. Even the remotest corners of these islands can only be described as “semi-natural”. Most of it has been touched, felt, burnt, turned over, tilled, fertilised, grazed, planted, cropped and built upon many times over. There is a current fashion amongst environmentalists to condemn this human activity as being always destructive, and this is one of the driving forces behind the rewilding movement. It is as if these people really hate their fellow humanity and view any activity, such as farming, as somehow abhorrent; and they look upon farmers and others with complete disdain.

But I disagree with this unpleasant nihilism. Human activity in the landscape is not always something to be deplored. Indeed, much of it is to be celebrated. Humanity will always bring changes to biodiversity and the landscape, but often this can be beneficial. Much of our landscape has been modified by and for the many animals that live with us – and many others who find our activities useful to them. The Lapwing and Curlew of the moorland would not perhaps be there at all if it were not for the activities of the farmer and gamekeeper. And those things which we bring with us are also the things which we love. It would take a stoney heart indeed to listen to the thrilling, bubbling call of the Curlew on a misty spring moor, without marvelling at its beauty.

Only if we cover the landscape in concrete and tarmac will nature be excluded. As we have already built the M62, then a new forest around it will help to mitigate some of the noise and pollution and perhaps some of the losses of farmland. But, despite the exhortations of the environmentalists, trees are not a panacea. In some places they are a positive menace to some of our best loved animals and plants, as this article has pointed out. The lessons of the dismal forestry of the 1960s which swamped fen and moor have not yet been learnt.

So be careful, Mr Gove, to remember to ask your eager civil servants this simple question: “Where, precisely, do you intend to plant trees; and what will be the losses of your doing so?”




[1] Sutherland W, (2000): The conservation handbook: research, management and policy. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford.

[2] The ‘Rackham Rule’ (H/T David Lovelace @boscinet)

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[3] Johnson N and Rose P (2008): Bodmin Moor: An archeological survey, Vol. 1: The human landscape to 1800 (page 4). English Heritage, Swindon.

[4] Balmer DE, Gillings S, Caffrey BJ, Swann RL, Downie IS & Fuller RJ (2013): Bird Atlas 2007 – 11: The breeding and wintering birds of Britain and Ireland. BTO Books, Thetford.





Posted in Conservation, Environment, Livestock, Rewilding | 5 Comments

What are the ecological benefits of rewilding?

To be honest, I do not know the answer to my own question. It isn’t as if I haven’t looked for the answer. I have asked the rewilders to provide hard evidence for the support of their claims, and I have received none. I have speculated here, for example, as to what the changes might be to our upland landscapes. My own suggestions, which are founded on basic, known habitat requirements of upland birds, have received no substantive response from the rewilders. It is true that there has been a lot of waffling, hand waving and so forth, but nothing of any substance.

Occasionally, Yellowstone Park is cited as an example of a ‘rewilded’ landscape; of what happens when you re-introduce a keystone species. But Yellowstone Park is not the north of England, the Black Mountains or the Highlands of Scotland. Yellowstone Park is an area of nearly 9,000 Km2, nearly four times the size of our largest national park – the Lake District. Yellowstone receives 3.4 million visitors a year, but the Lake District receives 15.8 million a year (and day visitors number 23.1 million). Yellowstone is 80% forest cover, and most of that is Lodgepole Pine. The Lake District is 12% forest cover – which is high for England. The woodland is both coniferous and broadleaf. The whole park is extremely varied in its biodiversity. But it is not for ecological reasons that the Lake District has been awarded a UNESCO World Heritage status – the award was made for cultural reasons.

The impact of the reintroduction of wolves back into Yellowstone has been heralded as an un-alloyed good and that everything is now balanced and beautiful, where before it was deteriorating without the wolves. Actually, wolves have done so well that they are now raiding cattle ranches outside the park and the ecological impact inside the park is a little more complicated than the rewilders would like to admit. One reason for this is perhaps that when the park was first established, not just the wolves, but another keystone species was removed from the park in order to give the impression that this was a ‘pristine’ landscape. In fact it was humans who are the other keystone species – the Native American tribes who were forcibly removed. Whilst the wolves have been brought back, the Native Americans have not. As a result of this omission, the ecological dynamics have been a little more unpredictable than anticipated.

But still we get the rewilders telling us that everything will be hunky-dory once we get rid of those horrid hill farmers. The photograph (Figure 1) below is typical of the rewilders’ ideas that fencing off an area from human interference (in this case by grazing cattle) brings about an ‘improvement’ in ‘biodiversity’. Professor Alastair Driver has kindly provided the image and his view that this provides an example of what is meant by rewilding. The picture is of a corner of an exclusion area and shows just how quickly trees will take over once grazing is stopped.

On the right-hand side of the exclusion fence, we can see young trees growing cheerfully in an ungrazed environment. The heather is becoming tall and bushy. In a year or two, it will become leggy. As the tree canopy closes, the heather and mosses will gradually die out. It is fair to observe that many of the trees inside the exclosure are non-natives. I am not too good at identifying young trees – the broadleaves look like a mixture of Birch and Rowan, but the conifers are Norway Spruce.

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Figure 1 – Grazed and ungrazed uplands. (Source: Tweet by Alastair Driver)

On the left side of the fence, a broken boulder-strewn hillside is clearly grazed and Prof Driver says it is grazed by cattle. The heather is clearly well nibbled and there are no young trees in the foreground. Although the photograph is unclear, it looks as if some trees in the distance are surviving the cattle.

Using birds as a marker of biodiversity, we can anticipate that exclosure will prompt an increase in numbers of Blue Tits, Great Tits, Long-tailed Tits, Chaffinches, Greenfinches, Robins, Blackbirds along with the possibility of Linnets (or Twites in the north) and Siskins. Black Grouse may benefit initially, but will disappear when the canopy closes and the predators move in. The predators will amount to Buzzards, Red Kite and, when the new forest matures, the possibility of Goshawk. Some owls may arrive, but only when the trees have matured. Then there will be the Magpies and Carrion Crows. Jays will only move in when the trees have matured and then only if there are oaks or beech in the species mix. The populations of these birds will be high within the habitat and so the biodiversity can easily be said to have “improved” because both the absolute numbers of birds have increased, and the number of species has increased.

However, along with the gains achieved by rewilding, we have also to consider the losses. In the open landscape of moors and mountains of northern and western Britain, the typical upland bird species are Golden Plover, Lapwing, Curlew, Common Sandpiper (along the streams), Dunlin, Red Grouse, Hen Harriers and Merlin. In the north of Scotland, Greenshank will also be present. Peregrine Falcons and Ravens will breed on the crags and rocky outcrops. In these circumstances, the numbers of birds per unit area will be low compared to the secondary woodland advocated by the rewilders. The species list will also be shorter than the new wooded area. So here is the justification of rewilding – both species diversity and absolute numbers of individuals are increased when trees are allowed to encroach upon open moorland, because the woodland species are higher in number and greater in density. This is the crux of the rewilders’ argument: that biodiversity has been “improved” and thereby provides the justification for the idea of taking large tracts of land outside human use and handing it over to nature.

But there are a couple of problems with this argument.

Another glance at the list of birds involved in both rewilded and moorland habitats reveal that the rewilded birds are rather common, mundane species. By contrast, the moorland birds are all very special. Some are critically endangered, either within the UK or internationally. And this provides the reasons why our moorland and mountain areas are of such considerable conservation importance. It is fair to say that these moorland species are declining, but the reasons for this are several and complex. What is clear is that rewilding large tracts of land, replacing open heather and rough grazing with trees, will only serve to make the numbers of these special species decline even faster. Some species will be eradicated altogether – I suggest that the British breeding population of Dunlin would disappear from England and Wales and probably much of Scotland within a few years.

The rewilders claim that they do not want to rewild all of the uplands – which is very generous of them. However, rewilding ‘patches’ of land has an effect far beyond the actual limits of the rewilded areas. For an explanation of the problems of the ‘edge effect’, see here. The fact is that a pair of Buzzards or Carrion Crows do not just hunt in their new secondary woodland home – they range far and wide beyond it, to the continuous detriment of any ground-nesting bird. That means all of the moorland species mentioned above, except for the Ravens and Peregrines. So even if the rewilded areas do not cover the whole of the uplands, their detrimental effect upon many of our most loved species of birds will reach far beyond the limits of the new woodland.

It happens that there are quite large areas within the UK which have been allowed to grow over in the manner suggested by the rewilders. If asked for instances of this, the rewilders will point to Carrifran in the Scottish Borders, which looks absolutely lovely (see Figure 2). Carrifran is a glen which was formerly managed for sheep, but which is now being planted up with native species of trees. However, there are many other instances of rewilding in the UK – both where entirely natural succession has been allowed to take place and follows its natural course, and also where the process has been helped along by deliberate planting of native trees.

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Figure 2 – Carrifran after replanting. (Source: Tweet by Alastair Driver).

During the 19th century, Britain’s railways were built up hills and down dales. As they crossed river valleys and vaulted over flood plains and delved into the hills, they left behind newly constructed bare embankments. Over the years, these have gradually become covered with many millions of trees (Figure 3). Long-suffering commuters to London will be wearily familiar with the announcement that their train has been delayed because of “leaves on the line”. From the 1960s onwards, a similar process of habitat provision occurred when the motorway network was built. Since the 1980s, highways policy has dictated that large embankments were planted with native species of trees. And so we have a situation similar to the railway embankments, but accelerated by artificial planting. These linear habitats, of both types, have brought into London and other large cities a good deal of wildlife such as Foxes, Badgers, Blackbirds, Robins, Blue Tits, Magpies and Carrion Crows. “Rewilding” has therefore been going on in Britain for well over 150 years.

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Figure 3 – Mature trees on a railway line, Swanage Railway. (Source: Dorset Echo)

Having made this comparison, I anticipate shouts of dismay and denial from the rewilding movement. But, whilst I recognise that there are considerable landscape and aesthetic differences between Carrifran and an average motorway embankment, in ecological terms there is very little difference. Both support a similar range of species and at similar densities. Both are intrinsically dynamic and are not held static at any particular point of ecological development, as is the case of grazed upland pasture or grouse moor. Motorway and railway embankments need periodical cutting to maintain free passage of vehicles. Ultimately, Carrifran will need some sort of management – perhaps grazing – to maintain the open areas if that is what is desired. Neither rewilded areas nor the motorway embankments are of any direct use to humans in terms of output of timber or food. Whilst both will support healthy populations of common woodland species, neither will support populations of Golden Plover, Lapwing, Curlew, Red Grouse or Merlin.

When environmentalists talk blithely of ‘biodiversity’ they are often setting a trap for the rest of us. They imply that ‘more’ is always ‘better’ when that is not always the case. Consider a diamond, which is given much greater value than a piece of glass cut to the same size and shape. There are two reasons for this: The first is that diamonds refract the light in a much more satisfactory way than cut glass, and so are judged to have a greater intrinsic beauty. The second reason is that diamonds are scarce; and so the market determines their price to be much higher than glass. It is the same with some species of animals and plants. Conservationists, correctly in my view, ascribe greater importance to those things which are scarce and/or beautiful. This is not to denigrate the common or mundane, merely that the scarce and beautiful deserves especial care when we interact with it. It therefore becomes apparent that in order to assess whether an area has ‘good’ or ‘poor’ biodiversity, we must use a measure of subjective judgement.

But even before we exercise our judgement on a change of land use (e.g. from managed grouse moor to rewilded moor) we must first of all conduct a survey to determine what is there at the moment; and what would be there if we change our management – a kind of ecological cost-benefit analysis or impact assessment. We need the rewilders to submit their plans for what is proposed, so that we can assess whether their new development is an acceptable replacement for what is there at the moment. Sadly, I can find no evidence that the rewilders have actually done any assessment of this kind. They are like an architect going to a meeting to get planning permission, without any drawings or impact assessment of their proposed development. His assurances that ‘it will all be perfectly wonderful’ is unlikely to cut much ice with the planning committee, who will think that he is wasting their time and will reject his application in short measure.

As things stand, the rewilders resemble our metaphorical architect with no drawings. They are evading any discussion of the potential losses if their plans were put into action. Neither have they acknowledged that their intended replacements amount to little more than the mundane and commonplace. They wish to replace Merlin, Golden Plover, Lapwing, Curlew, Dunlin, Greenshank, Common Sandpiper, Meadow Pipit and Red Grouse with Blackbirds, Robins and Blue Tits.

Their assurances that this is somehow an ecological benefit just does not cut any ice – and should be rejected accordingly.


Posted in Conservation, Environment, Rewilding | 3 Comments

What is ‘rewilding’ and who is it for?

For some time now, I have been searching the fogs and mists in the outer reaches of the conservation movement in an attempt to give shape and meaning to the term Rewilding. In wrestling with the dream-like world of rewilding, the more I read, the more it becomes a fantasy built upon an illusion.


There is a strange fluidity about the distinction between rewilding and conservation. The label of  rewilding seems to  depend upon who is doing the work or who is speaking at the time. As a result there is a lingering suspicion that it may just be a new fad – a new term to describe something that has always happened but is now being given a makeover. It is almost as if the rewilders are the boy-racers of the conservation world. Theirs is all racing stripes, lowered suspensions and noisy exhausts. The rest of us look on and hope that they will grow out of it. Another way of looking at rewilding is that it is just at one end of the conservation spectrum and is nothing to get worked up about. If it is George Monbiot or Chris Packham speaking to a hall full of right-on urban eco-warriors, there will be a whiff of political radicalism along the lines of eradicating sheep and letting it all “go back to Nature”.

Before science or many other day-to-day matters such as law and politics can get cracking, there has to be a thorough understanding of the meaning of words. We must know what each other means, precisely, before we hurtle off in the wrong direction.  Whilst some may leave semantics to the philosophers to work through the tedium of meaning, whenever we decide we want to act in a way which affects our fellow human beings and our surroundings, precision in meaning is important. So the differences in the meanings of conservation and rewilding are vital, especially if it means the possible expenditure of taxpayers’ money or impacting the lives of other people.

The search for meaning in ‘rewilding’

So it is sensible to start with a definition. The website for rewildingbritain.org is next to useless, but Rewilding Europe has this: “Rewilding ensures natural processes and wild species to play a much more prominent role in the land and seascapes, meaning that after initial support, nature is allowed to take more care of itself. Rewilding helps landscapes become wilder, whilst also providing opportunities for modern society to reconnect with such wilder places for the benefit of all life.”

This definition seems to be rather woolly. In the first sentence, there is a general sense that “stuff” is allowed to happen without much intervention from humans. The second sentence uses the word ‘wilder’ without much sense of what it means other than the idea that humans must become more ‘connected’ to it. The subsequent annotations to this definition are a series of ten bullet points which supplement what we must understand about rewilding in order to get a sense of what it is about. The word-cloud below gives the main words within these supplementary notes. If we ignore ‘rewilding’ as self-evident, the rest of it is dominated by ‘natural’ and ‘processes’.

Figure 1 – Word cloud for annotations to Rewilding Europe’s working definition of rewilding (H/T WordClouds.com)

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Despite the hints contained in the word-cloud, none of this is very helpful in reaching a concise definition.

Rewilding Europe

The best place to get an appreciable sense of what rewilding really means, beyond the froth and vague hand-waving, is to look at what it is they actually intend to do and how they intend to achieve it. Buried deep in amongst the lovely pictures of animals and middle class intellectuals with hiking sticks looking happily at the scenery, is  Rewilding Europe’s strategic plan. This is the corporate plan of a burgeoning EU-style organisation, full of the earnestness of their intentions for the betterment of humanity and how they intend to impose it upon us. As well as detailing their growing links with some of the most aggressive environmental lobbyists, like the World Wildlife Fund, it discretely sets out the methods by which they intend to take control of vast tracts of land in Europe, using the co-ordinated pincer movement of land rights and tax revenue with private funding – all backed up by the massed ranks of the European Union. It is a capitalist corporatist’s wet dream.

The main emphasis of Rewilding Europe’s literature is, of course, composed of beautiful photographs of scenery and animals designed to show us all how wonderful this concept is. The land that they intend to utilise is alleged to have been abandoned by agriculture. It is true that there is a fair amount of this in parts of Europe – especially in those countries formerly part of the Soviet Empire. Quite how they intend to gain consent of and integrate rewilding with the small number of peasant farmers remaining in the areas designated for rewilding is not stated. However, it is a pretty good bet that there will be some difficulties.

One of the designated areas is part of Lapland which is extremely valuable in conservation terms, but is also still the home of the Sami reindeer herdsmen. Rewilding Europe considers that the Sami are OK because their nomadic pastoralism has been going on for a very long time. Indeed, to give credit to Rewilding Europe, their emphasis is upon protecting the Sami way of life and there is a program to eliminate forestry and mining in the designated areas. This should help the Sami and allow their lifestyle to continue.

However, if you are a conventional farmer, with a tractor and some sheep or cattle, there is a strong impression that this kind of human activity will come to an end. If you are a forester with a living to make, it is going to be pretty tough until you have moved out of the area and found another job. Within the strategy of Rewilding Europe is mention of conflict resolution. Presumably, they know that not everyone will be supportive of their ideas and will resent their livelihoods being taken over by diktat from a profoundly centralised organisation. They are not doing this with invasion by armed forces. They are doing it nicely, with apologetic smiles on their faces as they show you photographs of lots of cuddly bears and wolves, and tell you how wonderful it is all going to be – and how much happier everyone will be when they have learnt to live with Wolves in their back gardens.

The central philosophical aspect of rewilding is its insistence that an area that will have been ‘rewilded’ is left alone in order for nature to proceed upon whatever path it sets for itself. Only a little bit of hunting or fishing might be allowed – and even then it will be closely regulated. Commercial activities like forestry are to be minimised to the point of zero. Farming of any type is clearly verboten. The only human activities that will be permitted are tourism and photography. In other words, human interaction with the rewilded landscape is to be almost solely that of a spectator. Nothing else. There is to be no actual human extractive utility to the landscape.

Frans Vera and Oostvaardersplassen

A large part of this philosophy seems to have come from the theories of Frans Vera, a Dutch ecologist. Vera postulated that the standard model of pre-Neolithic Europe being covered in little else but trees is untenable. His alternative hypothesis proposes that tree cover was intermittent, comprising a dynamic series of woods and groves interspersed with grassland and all controlled by the large herbivores that were extant at the time. The Dutch Forestry Service allocated Vera a new nature reserve at Oostvaardersplassen to test some of his ideas. This was a polder, reclaimed in 1968, and which was originally earmarked for industrial purposes. Initially, it was used as a nursery for willows, but then converted itself into a wetland of considerable interest. Vera released Heck cattle, Red Deer, and Konic ponies and then sat back to watch what happened. There is no human intervention other than to shoot the occasional suffering animal on welfare grounds. Neither are there any large predators to control the herbivores. The original willow plantations appear to have been eaten and converted almost entirely to grassland. The following figures are all from Google Earth. I am indebted to Dr Steve Carver for recovering and tweeting the images.

Figure 2 – Oostvaardersplassen 2005

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Figure 3 – Oostvaardersplassen 2015, same shot as Fig 2 above.

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Figure 4 – Oostvaardersplassen 2005, close up.

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Figure 5 – Oostvaardersplassen 2015, same shot as Fig 4 above. Note the remaining small blocks of trees have all been fenced to exclude grazers.

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It is difficult to find much literature on Oostvaardersplassen, least of all by Vera himself; but a series of tweets in conversation with Steve Carver, suggest that Vera is attempting to find out what happens when the herbivores regulate their own numbers (because of food availability). It is possible (and I am speculating) that if numbers of grazers decline through natural causes (e.g. a very harsh winter), this will give the spiny thorns that will act as the nurseries to trees, the time to get going and create little thickets. Thus the process will begin of formation of groves of big trees which are unaffected by subsequent populations of grazers and browsers. So far that has not happened and it seems the herbivores have converted a large stand of trees into almost pure, close-cropped grassland. Only time will tell if Vera is correct. But given the number of cattle, horses and deer; the closed nature of Oostvaardersplassen; and the lack of control by either humans or large predators, my suspicion is that the herbivores have converted the area into the most efficient means of palatable biomass production – grass. Only grass will maintain the deer, cattle and horses at the numbers that they are at today.


Whilst rewilding literature is full of predictions of economic gain for impoverished rural economies, their only idea is that tourism will fill the gaps left by conventional agriculture and forestry. Tourism has indeed helped economies of parts of Africa which have established game reserves. But that is in Africa, not Europe. And far less in the UK. European economies and development are very different from many other parts of the less well developed world. We would therefore expect some sort of thorough investigation from Rewilding Europe as to how exactly tourism is going to save the more difficult parts of eastern Europe, for example, by actively replacing agriculture as the principle source of income. However, there is no such calculation to be had. Only wishful thinking and aspiration. Whilst tourism is acknowledged to be the icing on the cake, it is not the substance of the cake itself. The sceptic in me wants to know exactly how they intend to find an income from tourism and photography which will support an entire community in the winter as well as the summer.

Rewilding in summary

We can now attempt to draw together the characteristics of rewilding:

  • Very large areas are needed, on a landscape scale.
  • Nature is allowed to take over and operate without human intervention, except perhaps an initial helping hand of tree planting and reintroductions etc.
  • The only human impact and economic activity upon a rewilded landscape is to be education and tourism (and photography, but that is effectively the same as tourism). No evidence is offered that tourism is sufficient to bring about the economic benefits that are claimed.
  • Large herbivores and predators are to be reintroduced (and/or specially bred) into rewilded areas in the hope that they somehow drive the area into becoming more ecologically diverse. There is little or no evidence that this actually works.
  • The whole thing depends upon these large areas being substantially abandoned by agriculture and forestry. The human population in these areas will already be very low because of that abandonment. Other industries, such as mining, will be very low key or non-existent. Where they exist at all, they are expected to be closed down. No suggestion is made as to how these activities will be compensated.
  • The landscapes concerned will already be relatively untouched and beautiful.
  • Because of the abandonment by agriculture, the rewilded areas will become progressively more forested, regulated only by the interplay of herbivores with large predators.
  • Forest encroachment upon formerly agricultural areas will create large expanses of secondary forest, similar in characteristics to large parts of the eastern side of the USA where large even-aged stands of trees have taken over land that was farmed until the 19th century.
  • As a result of this encroachment, habitats which are themselves of conservation interest because of long term interaction with human livestock etc, will become swamped and potentially lost. There is a strand of rewilding thinking that is prepared to accept local extinctions in the cause of rewilding.
  • No evidence is offered that rewilding will actually bring about any ‘improvement’ in biodiversity.
  • Regulation of the rewilded areas is to be by an EU-wide quango, sub-divided by regional management and scientific support.
  • There is no political or democratic oversight anticipated by Rewilding Europe, but they are nevertheless expecting to obtain land rights and taxes. By implication, they are expecting to get their way within local populations by means of PR only. Whilst they seem to be capable of ‘consultation’, there is no recognition of the need for democratic consent from the people who will be affected by rewilding. There is a sense that rewilding will be imposed upon people, whether they wish it or not.
  • Rewilding is considered by its adherents to be the next big thing in conservation. They view conventional conservation as backward-looking. Rewilding specifically looks to the promise of the future without any evidence that their ideas actually work. Indeed, rewilders eagerly anticipate the chaos of ecological revolution.


Towards a working definition

Rewilding is the deliberate landscape scale abandonment of agricultural land. Deliberate flooding or removal of river or sea defence structures may also be considered to be rewilding provided it is on a landscape scale. Much of this abandoned land will eventually become afforested. This afforestation may be initially planted, or allowed to proceed by succession, or a combination of both. The aim is to create a landscape which mimics what is said to be the primeval conditions before the advent of agriculture. Ecological dynamics are regulated by the release of large herbivores and predators. No human activity is permitted beyond tourism and closely regulated hunting. Administration and regulation is conducted by specialists whose ultimate source of funding is the taxpayer. There is no democratic oversight of the initiation or continuation of the rewilding project.



Whilst I was initially positive about some aspects of rewilding, the more I have learnt about it, the less I have liked it. The rewilders themselves are a strange mix: academics in search of new sources of funding to exploit; journalists in search of a story to keep their names in the public eye; genuine conservationists who think it might be the next big thing; fanatical eco-types who think humans are a really bad thing and the planet would be better off without them; purist botanists who condemn all human activity and influence on ecosystems; animal rights activists who are looking to release more stuff into the countryside to disrupt farmers; and eco-Marxists who want to get rid of anyone who currently earns their living in the countryside because they belong to the ‘wrong class’. And that is just in this country. The European rewilders have other things bound up in the mix.

I was struck early on by the insistence of the European rewilders that hunting should continue in these new secondary forests. Initially, it seemed like an extension to the usual German Jagdkultur (hunting culture) which pervades a lot of Germanic thinking about connecting with the forests and nature. It seemed to conjure up images of lots of lederhosen and felt hats striding confidently through the forest. All of which is harmless enough stuff. But as soon as I read about the use of Heck cattle in attempting to recreate the wild Aurocs, some uncomfortable little bells started to ring in my head.

Heck cattle are a breed of cattle developed by Lutz Heck in the 1930s and 1940s. They were an attempt to recreate the huge wild Aurocs cattle that once roamed Europe. By the Middle Ages, they were becoming increasingly rare in Europe and the last one died in 1627 in Poland. Heck’s attempts to recreate this extinct species were supported by Hermann Göring, Hitler’s second in command. Göring was an enthusiastic trophy hunter (amongst his other interests as a collector of stolen art treasures) and built a hunting lodge, known as Karinhalle within the vast 120,000 hectare Schorfheide-Chorin reserve. At the end of the Second World War, this estate was subsequently sealed off and reserved as a hunting ground for Erich Honecker, the East German leader, who took Göring’s obsession to a whole new level. Schorfheide is now a UNESCO Biosphere reserve.

Goring’s obsessions coincided with those of Heck, in that they are both said to have fantasised about recreating lost species. Whilst Göring was busy shooting magnificent stags, dressing up in hunting costume and fantasising about ancient German legends,   Heck was hard at work attempting to back-cross various breeds of cattle to try to recreate the Aurocs. Once successfully bred, the new Aurocs were destined to be released in Bialoweza Forest in the east of Poland. Briefly, it was taken over as a new hunting ground for Göring and the rest of the Nazi elite. As was usual at the time, the locals were eradicated. Although Heck didn’t quite succeed, he did create a large breed of  cattle whose temperament is sufficiently fierce as to render them too dangerous to farm. That ferocity was one of the main attractions, as implied by this programme made by the BBC in 2014.

Figure 6 – Göring in his role of Reichjägermeister inspecting the Reich Forestry Service.

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Neither Heck nor Göring survived to see the conclusion of their experiment. However, some of the cattle did survive the war and have been used at Oostvaardersplassen as large herbivores. Heck cattle have now been taken up by Rewilding Europe and the Nazi experiment is being rejuvenated to continue the work of Heck to find a replacement that mimics the Aurocs. The point of this, as far as the rewilders are concerned, is that the Aurocs is big enough to act as a proxy for all the other large herbivores that became extinct from Europe over the last 10,000 years or so. In this re-creation, the rewilders hope to have found the answer to their desires to return large tracts of European landscape to its pristine glories as envisaged by Vera and others.

Figure 7: Heck cattle (Source: The Breeding-Back Blog)

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Figure 8: Heck cattle at Oostvaardersplassen – the sharp-eyed will see that the willows in the background are severely grazed to a browse-line and that there is no tree regeneration. (Source: The Breeding-Back Blog).

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Culture and politics.

Looking closely at Rewilding Europe’s website, a number of things spring out of the background;

  • There is a strong appeal to ‘nature’.
  • Much of that nature comprises idealised pristine forests.
  • There is a demand to return to a distant, imagined past before humans began to influence the landscape.
  • There is a strong desire for people to visit, witness and explore this kind of landscape – photography is specifically mentioned.
  • The imagery is often of happy, healthy, outdoorsy couples with their nordic walking poles.

All of this recalls the rambling, hiking and nature loving movements which have as their metaphor the Deutsche wald (German forest culture). This idealises Germanic folklore, history and connection with nature. It provides the basis of the German hiking groups, many of which date from the 19th Century. Much of the imagery of this culture goes back to the Romantic period and much earlier. If you think of Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, or of Wagner, Siegfried, Nibelungenlied and so on, you have the picture. This cultural base was appropriated by the Nazis to add to their already fantastical ideas of racial purity, blood and soil, and so on. (For a much longer discussion of these links, readers are directed to Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory [1]). Most of these hiking clubs were banned during the Nazi era because they often had social democratic or other political affiliations which were anathema to Nazism. The rambling groups were replaced with the Hitler Youth, who not only had the lederhosen and little felt hats, but they had marching songs as well. With this in mind, it is possible to conclude that, in between setting the whole of Europe on fire, the Nazis were deeply caring environmentalists. The Green movement owes so much to history.

Yearning for long-lost nature – a characteristic shared by both rewilding and Deutsche wald – is founded upon an imagined or unknowable past. Both are reaching back into myth and legend. Neither will know if they have got there or not. Forest creeping over abandoned agricultural land produces even-aged stands of trees (assuming no Aurocs to eat them). The understorey quickly becomes shaded out and uninteresting. There has not been the passage of time to encourage lichens, bryophytes and fungi. The bird species will be relatively mundane. Changes will not happen to introduce a great deal of biodiversity for perhaps many centuries.

Vera is bravely trying to find out if his theories work, but within the constraints of a relatively small area and a large population of ungulates. So far, he has produced a lot of grass. The rewilding idea is stitched together with a lot of cod ecological theory – and, so far, no experimental or observational science to back it up. I suggest that there will be a lot of boring secondary forest populated with some made-up animals. We will never know if the resurrected Aurocs are the real thing or not. The whole idea has a very ersatz feel to it.

But there is a a bigger issue than that of the cultural origins of this or that aspect of rewilding. It is only possible to detect by reading Rewilding Europe’s website and finding the things that they do not talk about. There seems to be no mention of what they intend to do with any farmers who have remained within the areas to be rewilded. Neither is there mention of those people who are dependent upon farmers – such as abattoirs, local butchers, cheesemakers etc. All of these people, and the communities which depend upon them, seem to be dismissed as irrelevant because the rewilders say that the land has been ‘abandoned’.

Abandonment may be occurring in all the target areas to a certain extent, but it will never be complete. There are no parts of the world, apart from Antarctica, where there is not some form of native humanity which has dwelt in the area for a very long time. The acquisition of land rights would presumably come about by central legislation from the EU. Doubtless the remaining farmers in an area destined to being rewilded, will be ‘encouraged’ by public money to be ‘compensated’ for their loss of livelihoods – in what I would imagine to be a form of compulsory purchase. In the 21st Century it is no longer necessary for the more direct methods, which were prevalent in the 1930s and 1940s, for the removal of recalcitrant locals. In theory, de-population can now happen by the miracles of huge fund-raising or taxpayers’ money – and the encouragement of large predators to harass the farmers’ flocks.

In a UK context, Rewilding Britain’s plans to rewild one million hectares would take place mostly in the uplands of the UK, because these areas fit the rewilding profile of low population and high scenic value. It would amount to the eviction of large numbers of hill farmers, because the ideological principles which underpin rewilding do not tolerate human ‘interference’ with the landscape. Farming is the first casualty of rewilding. Indeed, this points to the stark difference between rewilding in Europe context and that in the UK. At least in Europe, there are genuinely large tracts of land that have been partly, even if not totally, abandoned by agriculture.

In the UK the hills have not been abandoned by any stretch of the imagination. They have been occupied continuously for more than 4000 years. And still are. But in the interests of rewilding, the farmers would have to go. Tim Bonner, Chief Executive of the Countryside Alliance, has likened this process to a modern equivalent of the Highland Clearances. I think he is right; and I do not think he should be in any way apologetic for this description.

In finding a number of links between rewilding and some of the less savoury characters in 20th Century history, I am likely to be accused of needlessly invoking Godwin’s law. But the echoes and parallels are just too many and too strong. There seems little doubt that the mechanisms that the rewilders intend to use to secure their ambitions are overtly totalitarian. The people most affected by rewilding – the farmers – are told (by way of ‘consultation’) that this is proposed, but are not asked for their consent. The rewilding opening gambit of re-introductions of large predators is simply a ploy to erode the livelihoods of livestock farmers who represent the biggest obstacle to rewilding. The Lynx, Wolves, Bears and reintroduced Leopards will drive the farmers away from their land a little more slowly than enforced eviction, but will drive them away just the same.

The British rewilders are a motley bunch, roughly divided into a respectable group which includes academics, conservationists, journalists and television presenters, all of whom are given to appearing almost sensible. Then there are the eco-nutters which include the rabid Marxists, anarchists and the animal rights movement. This second group have all jumped upon the rewilding bandwagon because its label suits them – they have no interest in conservation or the community. Included within this group are the people who have released mink from mink farms, dug up other people’s grandmothers from their graves, and stolen hundreds of traps from the Randomised Badger Controlled Trial in an effort to disrupt the findings. Whatever else rewilding may be, it is not the pursuit of rational science.

Most modern political movements require two groups of people to further their cause. The first is a Victim Group  (‘the workers’, ‘the poor’ and so on) whom we should feel sorry for. The second is the Hate Group (capitalists, Kulaks, Jews etc) who are held to be responsible for the parlous condition of the Victim Group. The method of our archetypal political party is to pit one group against the other – to divide society along their chosen lines. In the (often bloody) revolution that follows, our political party is there to step into the void created by the bloodshed and then to take power. Power and control is their prime motivation; and their division of society is how they go about getting it.

Rewilding has already gone a long way towards establishing itself as a political movement. Their Victim Group is clearly the Erdmutter (Earth mother or Mother Nature), who has been violated by wicked humans. The exact group of humans who are responsible for this travesty are not specifically named by either Rewilding Europe or Rewilding Britain. However, George Monbiot has made it absolutely clear that he thinks sheep are the problem. It follows that sheep are caused by sheep farmers; and so the Hate Group must be the farmers.

Despite their slick, delicately tinted websites, the rewilders have failed to demonstrate that rewilding is anything other than an idea with cultural, political and quasi-religious roots. It has no intellectual coherence in scientific, ecological, economic, political or social terms.   We know this because they have utterly failed to address any of these issues. Indeed, their deliberate evasion of discussing these matters is profoundly dishonest.

Rewilding Britain have not stated how they intend to achieve their target of one million hectares.  This is  an area which slightly exceeds that of the largest current land-holder in the UK – the Forestry Commission. It exceeds the combined estates of the Crown Estate, the Ministry of Defence and the National Trust. Clearly, their ambitions are enormous, and so we have to ask: cui bono? (who gains?). And, equally, we must ask: who loses?

Let us assume that the rewilders evict the hill farmers over this area. In theory, the taxpayer would thus save the agricultural payments that are made to those farmers. This would be a lot of money and would far exceed the £11 million the National Trust was paid by the taxpayer in 2016. But it is pretty clear that the rewilders will be waiting in the wings to offer their (paid) services to the government, were this to happen. Quite why it is that the natural succession of trees over former agricultural land requires expensive bureaucrats to administer it, is not explained. Neither is it explained how the evicted hill farmers would be compensated for their loss of livelihoods.

At a ‘summit’ sponsored by Lush Cosmetics in February 2017, there was a small meeting about rewilding in which Rebecca Wrigley, Chief Executive of Rewilding Britain, spoke. The two screenshots below of tweets sent by Lush appear to be quoting Rebecca:

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The first tweet establishes ‘Nature’ as the Victim Group. The second speaks of the coming change. There is a sense of inevitability about all this. It is as if the rewilders are singing ‘Tomorrow belongs to me’. There is a sense that they feel that their revolution is coming soon – and they are rushing to establish their own lebensraum.



[1] Schama, Simon (1995): Landscape and Memory. Harper Collins, London.



Posted in Conservation, Farming, Livestock, Lobbying, Rewilding, Socialism, Taxpayer | 3 Comments

Open letter to the Rt. Hon. Michael Gove, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

NOTE: This letter was originally published in Country Squire Magazine here on 2nd October 2017.

Dear Mr Gove,

As you are aware, Lynx UK Trust has recently submitted an application to Natural England for a licence to release Lynx into Kielder Forest. Archaeological and historical evidence suggests that Lynx died out in Britain sometime in the Early Middle Ages – about 1400 years ago [1].

The romantic picture that is painted by those who wish to release Europe’s third largest carnivore back into the UK is a very favourable one. They say that it will solve the problem of too many Roe deer in our woods and forests. It will thereby improve biodiversity by reducing the browsing pressure upon woodland flora. They say that Lynx will serve as a tourist attraction and that the tills will ring and rural coffers will be filled. Their plans for habitat connectivity will be grand as they show how woodland can be joined up across England and Scotland, to allow these beautiful animals to roam from one part of the landscape to another. They will doubtless point you towards the EU Habitats Directive and a chapter on large carnivores to show you the way in terms of conflict avoidance in communities affected by such introductions. They say that the advantages will far exceed the disadvantages.

A rosy picture indeed. And one which will doubtless leave you breathless with enthusiasm and eager to make this happen. So, you will forgive my churlishness if I just point out a few difficulties that may not have been drawn to your attention.

Lynx territories vary considerably in size, from 25 to 2,800 Square kilometres [3]. The smaller territories are held by females when rearing kittens, and the largest by males. The male may mate with several females within his territory. Dispersal by sub-adult Lynx varies from 5 to 129 kilometres [2].

A projection for a viable Scottish population of Lynx is in the order of 450 animals, the bulk of which would be found in the Highlands and a smaller sub-population in the Southern Uplands [4].  Kielder Forest is 650 Km2 in area and about 40 Km across. Lynx UK Trust have suggested that Kielder might support a population of 28 Lynx [11]. This would suggest a population density of 4.3 Lynx/100Km2 which is at the upper limit of known natural populations – e.g 4.2/100Km2 in the Taurus Mountains, Antalya, Turkey [9]. It is approximately twice the modelled holding capacity of Lynx in the Highlands, and five times bigger than the same models for the Southern Uplands [10]. However, most of the uplands of the north of England and southern Scotland are all within reach of an expanding Kielder Forest Lynx population. Despite the earnest exhortations of NGOs and Secretaries of State, it is very unlikely that these Lynx will confine themselves to Kielder for very long. Undoubtedly, they will go walkabout.

The Lynx enthusiasts will suggest to you that Lynx do not leave the cover of forest – but actually they are perfectly happy to hunt in open ground at night [7] [8].  The enthusiasts will also brush aside the possibilities of attacks upon sheep as being of little significance. Norwegian and other studies suggest otherwise. In the decade up to 2005, between 5,462 and 9,862 sheep were taken by Lynx in Norway [5]. In the French Jura, the number of Lynx attacks varied between 60 and 190 per year from 1988 to 1998. Work in the Jura has shown that many of these attacks have occurred in hotspots [6]. Furthermore, the Norwegian study records that many attacks on sheep were believed to be carried out by males, which also carried out multiple kills [5] – much in the same way that Foxes will do when they get into a hen-house. Odden et al. showed that of the monitored attacks by Lynx against all species, 39% of them were against sheep.

The density of sheep in the Norwegian study is about 2.4/Km2 and Jura is about half that. By comparison, the density of sheep in the Scottish Borders, adjacent to Kielder, is about 2.5 sheep/hectare – or an order of magnitude 100 times greater than the sheep density in the parts of Europe where the behaviour of Lynx has been studied. The effect of Lynx upon sheep farming in the UK is therefore completely unassessed and unknown.

Compensation for Lynx attacks is paid to farmers in Europe. If the same system were applied to the UK, then the levels of compensation would amount to the market price for animals going to slaughter. For a ram or ewe, this would be about £70 or £80. However, consider a young ewe killed by a Lynx, but which might otherwise have produced a lifetime crop of 8 to 15 lambs, or a value of £750 to £900. A young ram will cover 40 to 70 ewes in the space of four or five weeks and thereby produce a crop of 80 to 120 lambs per year. Multiply this by a working life of say 4 years and we get a crop of 320 to 480 lambs. At £75 per lamb, that’s a value of £24,000 to £36,000 over his working life. That is a conservative estimate and it depends upon the breed. But this is why rams are sold for hundreds and sometimes thousands of pounds. The value of breeding stock is not in their carcass value, but in their contribution to the future of the flock. The shepherd is paying for the genetic future of his flock. That genetic content of his flock will have been the product of decades of hard work. When a good ewe or ram is lost to an uncontrolled dog attack – or a Lynx – the shepherd is angry for very good reasons. The hidden cost of these losses is many thousands of pounds; the psychological cost unquantifiable. The shepherd will never get adequate compensation.

Any major disturbance or development to the countryside such as wind farms, solar panels and so on require a full Environmental Impact Assessment. This application concerns major risks and changes to the countryside and so should also be subject to a similar EIA. That assessment should include:

  • A risk assessment for Lynx attack upon sheep, given the much higher sheep densities within the UK compared to Europe.
  • A revised projection over the next 25 years for the likely losses of sheep from an expanding Kielder population of Lynx.
  • The proposed scales of compensation that should be given to farmers for their losses to Lynx attack.
  • How long do Lynx UK Trust propose to indemnify themselves against those losses?
  • Details of their recommended prevention strategies for farmers to undertake in order to mitigate their predicted scale of attacks.
  • How will Lynx UK Trust fund the fencing and other mitigation measures that they propose?
  • Lynx UK Trust financial projections for the next 25 years for these mitigation and compensation measures, including sources of funding.
  • A risk assessment for the likelihood of Lynx contracting bovine TB when they come into contact with infected animals such as badgers or cattle – given that Felids are known to be highly susceptible to infection by bovine TB.
  • A risk assessment for transfer of bTB by Lynx from High Risk Areas to Low Risk Areas.
  • An assessment of all the changes and costs to hill farmers to their livelihoods which would result from this introduction.
  • The foregoing suggests that it is the Lynx UK Trust who will pay for the damage or otherwise indemnify themselves against claims. However, if, like a gambler who walks into a casino without any money and who doesn’t have the funding to play, then they need a very good reason indeed as to why the rest of us should fund their obsession via increased taxation.

This application has been prompted by a collection of NGOs, environmental activists and academics, for whom the EU Habitats Directive has provided the lure of a potential gold mine of grant funding and salaried positions. Whilst Lynx UK Trust has gone through the motions of consultation with local people, they have not sought or gained the consent of those people. In particular, they have not gained the consent of those hill farmers who will be in the front line of interaction with Lynx, both in England and in Scotland. In glossing over, or ignoring the difficulties, they have been seriously misleading.

The record of releases of alien species in the UK is a dismal litany of ecological and economic disaster. Even the licenced reintroductions of large avian predators are not without their problems and cost to the taxpayer. Lynx UK Trust is a tiny group of enthusiasts who are expecting to indulge their own passions at considerable cost to others. As things stand, once their animals have been released into the forest, their own legal liabilities come to an end, because their former charges are now wild animals. Ultimately, they are clearly expecting the taxpayer to pick up the tab for the cost of an animal which will very rarely be seen because of its nocturnal and wide-ranging habits. But the farmer will find the progress of the Lynx marked in corpses the following morning.

British farmers have endured decades of terrible events, few of which are of their own making: Salmonella in eggs, BSE, Swine Fever, Foot and Mouth Disease, almost annual epidemics of avian influenza, Bluetongue Virus, Schmallenberg Virus and bovine TB. The record of successive governments in dealing with these assaults on British livestock farming has not been a happy one. In the case of bovine TB, Foot and Mouth and BSE, government policy has either exacerbated the cost to farmers or actually caused and multiplied the problem many times. Over the years this has caused bankruptcies, suicides, depression and break up of families. This application for the release of a large predator into the midst of hill farming country has the potential to add yet another onslaught onto the viability of British livestock farming.

I hope you consider this application with all due care and consideration.

Yours sincerely,

David Eyles


[1] Hetherington DA, Lord TC and Jacobi RM (2005): New evidence for the occurrence of Eurasian Lynx (Lynx lynx) in medieval Britain. Journal of Quaternary Science, Vol 21, Issue 1.

[2] Schmidt K (1998): Maternal behaviour and juvenile dispersal in the Eurasian Lynx. Acta theriologica. DOI: 10.4098/AT.arch.98-50.

[3] Foster H (Date unknown): Lynx lynx – Eurasian lynx. Animal Diversity Web, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology.

[4] Hetherington DA and Gorman ML (2007): Using prey densities to estimate the potential size of reintroduced populations of Eurasian lynx. Biological Conservation Vol 137, Issue 1. Elsevier.

[5] Odden J, Linnell JDC, Andersen R (2006): Diet of Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx), in the boreal forest of southeastern Norway: the relative importance of livestock and hares at low roe density. Eur J Wildl Res DOI 10.1007/s10344-006-0052-4

[6] Stahl P, Vandel JM, Herrenschmidt V, Migot P. (2001): Predation on livestock by an expanding reintroduced lynx population: Long-term trend and spatial variability. Journal of Applied Ecology Vol 38, Issue 3.

[7] Heuric M et al. (2014): Activity patterns of Eurasian lynx are modulated by light regime and individual traits over a wide latitudinal range. PLOS ONE. DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0114143.

[8] Filla M et al. (2017): Habitat selection by Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) is primarily driven by avoidance of human activity during day and prey availability during night. Ecology and Evolution, 7:6367-6381.

[9] Avgan B, Zimmermann F, Guntert M, Arikan F and Breitenmoser U (2014]: The first density estimation of an isolated Eurasian lynx population in southwest Asia.Wildlife Biology 20: 217-221.

[10] Hetherington DA and Gorman ML (2007): Using prey densities to estimate the potential size of reintroduced populations of Eurasian lynx. Biological Conservation Vol 137, Issue 1.

[11] White C, Convery I, Eagle A, O’Donoghue P, Piper S, Rowcroft P, Smith D, van Maanen E (2015): Cost-benefit analysis for the reintroduction of lynx to the UK: Main Report, Application for the reintroduction of Lynx to the UK government, AECOM.


Posted in Environment, Farming, Livestock, Rewilding | Leave a comment

The Unintended Consequences of George Monbiot.

NOTE. This article was originally published in Country Squire Magazine here, on 21st March 2017.


Don’t get me wrong about all this – I’m rather fond of George Monbiot’s writing. It is always entertaining and there is plenty to get your teeth into to get the argumentative juices flowing. His book – Feral – is just as you would expect. It is well written, almost poetic in places, spattered with knowledgeable asides about ecological systems and natural history. In many ways, it is a series of anecdotes in which the intrepid Monbiot paddles in tidal rivers, spears flounder with a home-made trident and generally does things reminiscent of the tight-shorted Ray Mears.

He tells us about an excursion into the Cambrian Mountains near his former home in Machynlleth – and it quickly becomes apparent that George doesn’t like the scenery. First, he doesn’t like the wood, because “The forest floor had been scrubbed clean” and was covered only in “moss, sheep shit and mud”. And then he leaves the wood and describes the treeless mountain landscape as “flayed” and “dismal, dismaying.” He sits down to eat his lunch by a reservoir and “glares” at the landscape and five Canada geese, the only birds he has seen since leaving the wood. So overwhelmed is George with this mournful scene that he gets up and runs all the way back to the wood: “When I returned to the glowing hearth of the wood, with its occasional birds calls, I almost wept with relief.”

These dismal ramblings have so grievously wracked George that he plans to change absolutely everything about many of the most beautiful landscapes in the country, using a concept known as “rewilding”. The first part of his plan is to remove the sheep. George does not like sheep and says as much, with a whole chapter entitled “Sheepwrecked”. He blames these mild-mannered creatures (whose meat, milk and wool have sustained and clothed us since the Bronze Age) for having eaten our uplands into a treeless desert.

Having removed the sheep, he contends that native woodland would be greatly extended into the hills and mountains. The awful bare landscape would be banished under a leafy green cover. The new woods would be teeming with game. Large predators like wolves and lynx would be re-introduced. These “keystone species” would keep the deer under control and stop them from eating all the young trees; and so there would be simply oodles and oodles of “biodiversity”.

The unfortunate sheep farmers, whose livings would now be extinguished under this scheme, would be amply compensated by the increase in tourism that would immediately ensue because millions would want to trek miles into the new forests and spend hours in a chilly hide, waiting to see a lynx.

This idea is so deceptively simple that it has attracted a number of credulous acolytes who have been inspired by George’s revelations and seem to have adopted Feral as a kind of manifesto. A new charity – Rewilding Britain – has been set up and it now has funding, staff and a pretty website. A conference has recently been held, funded by a cosmetics company. This attracted celebrity speakers such as the ever-fragrant Chris Packham who, channelling his inner Monbiot, declared that the Lake District was “a sheepwrecked holocaust”.

But let us stand back from this and take a little time to reflect upon the consequences of the Monbiot Plan. To do this, we need to consider a couple of the things which have upset poor George so much.

The ancient wood that he visited was, most likely, a Sessile Oak wood pasture for which the Welsh uplands are noted. These wood pastures, as their name suggests, are periodically grazed by sheep and cattle. As well as large numbers of bats and fungi, they are famous for two species of birds: Wood Warbler and Pied Flycatcher. Both of these birds need a high tree canopy, a mid-layer of branches from which to sing and feed from leaves, and a reasonably clear woodland floor from which they also feed. Both are migratory, breeding in these habitats only during spring and summer, and then migrating to Africa for autumn and winter. The dung from sheep and cattle ensures that plenty of invertebrates are there for each of these species. If the woods were to have the grazing animals removed, they would regenerate with young trees. A dense undergrowth would form and this would exclude our two iconic species.

Likewise, the treeless moors are the breeding grounds of such birds as Golden Plover, Curlew, Dunlin, Red Grouse, Merlin, Meadow Pipit, Whinchat, Wheatear and Ring Ouzel. These species all demand open ground or a mix of low shrubs such as heather or tussocky grasses. They feed on the invertebrates provided by the sheep dung. Except, of course, for the Merlin which feeds upon the Meadow Pipits; the Meadow Pipits feed upon the invertebrates; and the invertebrates feed upon the sheep and cattle dung.

These distinctive moorland species are relict populations which originally followed the retreating ice which covered the northern two-thirds of the British Isles ten thousand years ago. For example, the Dunlin is a small pan-Arctic wader which breeds in the tundra, mostly within the Arctic Circle. The young Dunlin gorge themselves upon the ephemeral bounty of Arctic mosquitos, then fledge in late summer and follow the adults to coasts much further south. In the autumn and winter, they gather in great numbers on our estuaries. The tiny British breeding population of Dunlin is the most southern population of all. It continues to exist because the sheep-mown upper pastures mimic the summer super-abundance of the Arctic tundra and the clear, unobstructed views needed for spotting incoming predators.

Except for the Red Grouse, by August most of the upland birds will have left, either for the coast or for sunnier lands. This is why George Monbiot did not see any birds near Llyn Craig-y-pistyll, because he went there in the autumn – long after they had left.

It is possible to forgive George his occasional errors, such as his assumption that our native Red Grouse Lagopus lagopus scoticus (which is unique to the British Isles) is exactly the same as its continental cousin, the Willow Grouse Lagopus lagopus lagopus.

It may be possible to forgive him for his unwillingness to recognise that our landscape in the UK is entirely man-made. The lowlands are much as they have been since the early Middle Ages; and similarly, our uplands since the Neolithic and Bronze Age. Our upland landscapes have been forged almost entirely because of grazing by sheep and cattle over the centuries; and this has maintained a landscape which would have been recognisable 4000 years ago. The diversity of landscape has brought with it a unique flora and fauna which has given these islands the vast range of habitats and ecosystems we now enjoy. These range from the near Arctic in the uplands, the steppe-like grasslands of Salisbury Plain, to the near-Mediterranean in the south and the south-west.

We could, I suppose, recognise that George’s preference for heavily wooded landscapes stems from what appears to be a mild form of agoraphobia – some people prefer to walk in the sanctuary of tree cover and find vast open spaces more problematic. We could also recognise that George’s almost paranoid contempt for sheep is psychologically unusual – perhaps a result of deep seated childhood fears – but can be taken in our stride on the grounds that it takes all sorts….

But I do not see why we should forgive him for his sweeping assumption that everyone should be like George.

I do not forgive him for his complete failure to recognise that his proposals, if carried out, would result in the losses of livelihoods for thousands of farmers and their families, as well as the communities which support them. Neither can I forgive him for his attempts to diminish the production of sheep to a calculation of mere calorific values just to  show how dispensable they are.

I have difficulty in maintaining my equanimity in the face of his outrageous claim that tourism to a “rewilded” landscape will replace the economic, social, ecological and food value of lost farming. Given that the Peak District, the Lake District, Cornwall and much of Wales already have tourist industries which are at saturation point already, I await George’s calculations showing exactly how the extra revenue will be generated.

And I have no patience at all for his Victorian Romantic enthusiasm for the introduction of Wolves and Lynx back into our tiny and overcrowded country. Their absence over so many centuries make them as alien as the Sika and Muntjac deer which have eaten entire woodlands in Dorset almost into ecological oblivion; or Grey Squirrels which have displaced our native Reds; or the American Mink which have reduced our beloved Water Voles almost to the point of extinction; or Japanese Knotweed which will render a house un-mortgageable.

Monbiot’s evangelical zeal may have proselytized some of the more vulnerable and suggestible television presenters, but the rest of us should not be like George.

We really should not.

Posted in Environment, Farming, Rewilding | Leave a comment

Should Wolves and Lynx be re-introduced into the British Countryside? – Part 2: Lynx and Wolves – a Brief Biology and Discussion.


Part 1 of this series discussed the generalities of introductions into the British landscape and the problems that they have usually engendered. This brings us to consider the specific issues surrounding the possible future introductions of Lynx and Wolves into the UK. The case for Lynx has advanced to the point whereby an application for a release in Kielder Forest has been made to Natural England by Lynx UK Trust.

Eurasian Lynx (Lynx lynx)

The Eurasian Lynx is Europe’s third largest land predator after Wolves Canis lupus and Brown Bear Ursus arctos. Lynx are thought to have died out in Britain about 1400 years ago. They weigh 18-36 Kg [4]. Their prey are principally small ungulates – Roe Deer Capreolus capreolus and Chamois Rupicapra rupicapra. However, they will also take animals as large as Red Deer Cervus elaphus, Moose Alces alces and Reindeer Rangifer tarandus if they are slowed up in deep snow. When these are absent or at very low densities, they will take smaller prey such as Mountain Hares Lepus timidus, Fox Vulpes vulpes, Rats Rattus norvegicus, mice Muridae and Edible Dormice Glis glis. When their territories encroach upon farmland, they will take sheep Ovis aries [5] [6]. Whilst they specialise in Roe Deer in forested areas and Mountain Hares in more open areas, they are essentially an opportunistic generalist predator [6]. They are mainly nocturnal or crepuscular in their habits, which coincide with that of their prey [7].

Their habitat is usually understood to be heavily forested areas, however, it will readily utilise areas of mixed forest and farmland, especially where numbers of Roe Deer are high. Lynx are capable of occupying much more open habitats such as the boundary between Siberian Taiga and Tundra, where the principal prey are Mountain Hares. Territory sizes vary enormously from 25 to 2,800 Km². Generally, the females hold smaller territories of 15 to 20 Km across when rearing young. The males hold much larger territories and may seek to mate with more than one female. Dispersal of the young Lynx from their natal area varies from 5 to 129 Km, with the males travelling the greatest distances. Rate of travel varies from 4.6 to 11.2 Km per month [8].

The conflict between Lynx and farmers arises when the Lynx encounters sheep in the course of its travels, and an opportunity to take an easy and naive prey is presented. Males are more likely to take sheep than females. They are also associated with multiple kills of sheep [5]. The Odden et al. study was in southeastern Norway, where sheep are grazed in higher pastures without fencing and amongst trees. The number of sheep lost was very high. By contrast, the kill rate in Sweden of sheep is much lower, because sheep are grazed within fields which are fenced [9]. A further aspect has been highlighted in the French Jura, where attacks upon sheep sometimes aggregate into hotspots [10].

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Lynx attacking lamb, Norway (Source: Thornews.com)

To understand the likely impact of Lynx upon sheep depredation in the UK, it is necessary to look in further detail at the known biology of Lynx and Roe deer, their principal prey and their incidental effect upon the sheep which impinge upon their territories.

  1. Population density of Lynx: This varies according to which part of Europe the study has been undertaken, the suitability of the habitat and the density of prey species. It ranges from 1 – 2 Lynx per 100Km² in the Swiss Alps [11] to 0.34 per 100Km² in south-eastern Norway [5]. The highest published recorded density of Lynx is 4.2 per 100 Km² [16]. Other estimates have been modelled for Scotland and these suggest a density of between 2.63 per 100 Km² for the Scottish Highlands, to 0.83 per 100Km² for the Southern Uplands [13].
  2. Territory size and dispersal: A general summary of Lynx biology gives a territory range of 25 to 2800 Km², with averages of 100 to 300 Km² [4]. There are differences between the males and females, in that the adult females with kittens restrict their territory size to approximately 150 Km² in Bialowieza Primeval Forest, Poland [8]. This study recorded the females gradually extending their range as the kittens matured. Dispersal by the young adults ( 9 – 11 months old) away from their natal areas was greatest (about 30 to 140 Km) for the young males than it was for the young females (5 to 10 Km).
  3. Territory size (or home ranging size) dependent upon prey density: Comparison of Roe deer density with Lynx home range size in south-eastern Norway and ten other sites in Europe produced a clear negative relationship between prey density and Lynx density i.e. the greater the density of Roe deer, the smaller the home range of the Lynx [14]. This is a classic demonstration of density dependency.
  4. Hunting and habitat selection behaviour: Lynx are predominantly nocturnal and crepuscular at medium latitudes. In high Arctic latitudes, their activity is modified by continuous daylight in the summer to becoming more willing to hunt during daylight hours. This modified behaviour is largely regulated by the increased Reindeer activity whose grazing habits are modulated by their rumen cycle, rather than day and night. However, at mid latitudes such as those of the UK, very little activity is recorded during daylight hours [7]. This strict circadian rhythm is modified by the pattern of the behaviour of their main prey and also by human activity and infrastructure. By day, Lynx will seek dense understorey cover and rugged terrain away from human activity. Night ranges exceeded day ranges by more than 10% and readily  included open habitat, including meadows, associated with high prey abundance. Even within forested areas, those parts which are heavily utilised by humans are avoided [15].
  5. Depredation of sheep: In the French Jura, depredation of sheep was monitored for of fifteen years – five years before lynx reintroductions and for ten years afterwards. (1984 – 1998) [10]. In this study area, the numbers of Lynx increased rapidly from 1988 and levelled out from 1990 onwards. Over the study period, a total of 1,132 attacks upon 206 flocks resulted in 1,782 animals killed or wounded (1,620 killed; 162 wounded). Of these, 1,587 attacks were on sheep and 33 attacks were on goats. The majority of these attacks were between April and November when sheep were grazing pasture both day and night. The distance from human habitation varied from a few metres to 6 Km. This study demonstrated that hotspots of Lynx attacks occurred, often involving multiple kills. Lambs were most likely to be taken. There was a weak relationship of attacks with sheep density. Where sheep numbers were lowest, no attacks occurred. Where sheep density was at medium levels, attacks occurred, but no hotspots were manifested. At high sheep density, attacks included hotspots. This suggests that there is a density dependent relationship between sheep density and Lynx depredation, albeit a weak one. Another study in southeast Norway [5] in an area of low Roe deer density (0.3/Km²), but (relatively) high sheep density (2.4/Km²), lynx attacks upon sheep were common. In the ten years up to 2005, between 5,462 and 9,862 sheep were were compensated by the Norwegian government as having been killed by Lynx. One reason for the frequency of attacks is that sheep are released to graze in the mountain pastures and woodland borders unsupervised and unfenced. However, the Roe deer to sheep ratio is 1:8 which the authors comment: ‘…high rates of depredation on sheep in our study area are at least in part a response to the low densities of Roe deer, although the degree of ‘switching’ is far lower than would be expected from their relative densities.’ In Table 2 of this paper, 36% of the kills recorded were of sheep.

Lynx can therefore be summed up as being highly efficient predators, which will actively seek out Roe deer as their preferred prey even when Roe are at quite low densities. Females with kittens will travel quite long distances to kill a Roe, perhaps even avoiding nearby sheep. However, the males and yearling Lynx will range far wider and are much more likely to come into contact with sheep and so kill them on the basis of ready availability. Where sheep densities are high, this means that the sheep casualties will also be high.


Wolf (Canis lupus)

Well known as the immediate ancestor to the domestic Dog Canis domesticus, the Wolf is Europe’s second largest predator. The last Wolf in Britain was killed in Perthshire in 1680 and was eradicated in England some time in the 16th Century.

Wolves have been intensively studied in North America and a fair amount of their ecology has been learnt. The Montana State official guide to the Wolf gives a good overview of their ecology and behaviour. Most important from the viewpoint of this discussion are the habitats occupied and their ranging behaviour. It is clear from the list of habitats in the guide that Wolves occupy a huge range of natural and semi-natural habitats ranging from woodland to grasslands and marshland. Whilst in general Wolves are shy of human activity in North America, they will nevertheless utilise waste dumps for foraging. Forestry roads are used preferentially for swift movement from one part of their territory to another. Linear features such as roads or railways can also be used as territory boundaries [17]. As well as their territories, the immature individuals will disperse and average of 113 Km from their natal site. In a European context, the Wolf seems to be adapting very quickly to much higher densities of human activity. Wolves are now within 30 miles from Hamburg and have returned to France, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. They have also been seen in The Netherlands. It is clear that wolves are returning quickly across western Europe, occupying any habitats which provide cover and plenty of prey in the form of deer, sheep and cattle.

The following photographs all speak for themselves in terms of Wolf attacks. My thanks go to @A_Girl_Insane and to the Facebook page of Wolf – Nein Danke.

Wolf attacks, France:

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Wolf attacks, France:

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Wolf attacks, France: 

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Wolf attacks on cattle, Stevens County, Washington State:

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Wolf attacks on guard dogs:

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Discussion and Conclusions

Our knowledge of these two large predators is bounded by the context in which they have been studied. In North America, tree cover is an important factor in the size and availability of their prey. Forest cover in the states and provinces which include the Rocky Mountains and their offshoots is often well over 50%. That of the Province of Alberta for instance, is about 62% of its land surface, not including tracts of open water. Germany is lower at 32%, France at 27%; whilst Finland and Sweden are roughly 70%. This compares with the UK at about 10%. As far as Wolves are concerned, they seem to be perfectly happy with mixed wooded and open habitat. If there are human settlements nearby, it does not seem to matter much to them. Lynx are altogether shyer of humans and more reluctant to cross  open country during the daytime. At night, it is a different matter. Dense forest would therefore be their preferred habitat for resting up during the day and for breeding. However, they are perfectly capable of crossing wide tracts of open ground and killing any sheep that they encounter at night. In Lynx attacks, most sheep are killed by males [5] [12] which are also responsible for multiple kills on the same night [5]. This is a behaviour trait that is notoriously shared by the Fox. In the case of both Lynx and Wolves, population density of the predator is dependent upon the population density of their prey – whether that is Roe Deer, cattle or sheep.

The UK has the largest population of sheep in Europe. And, because in area terms, we are one of Europe’s smaller countries, this means that the density of sheep is very high. Most of Britain’s sheep are concentrated in the uplands, so the local sheep density is even higher. For example, consider the proposal to release Lynx into Kielder Forest in Northumberland. To the north of Kielder Forest is the Scottish Borders. This is within range of a small but healthily expanding population of Lynx (and well within a night’s trot for a pack of Wolves). The Scottish Borders have a population of approximately 1.1 million sheep in an area of 4731 Km², or a density of 2.5 sheep/hectare. Compare this to the density of sheep in the Norwegian study of about 2.4 sheep/Km², i.e. the density of sheep in the British uplands is about 100 times that of the Norwegian study. Then consider that Norwegian Lynx are known to have killed between 5,462 and 9,862 in the decade up to 2005 [5]. Furthermore, this study (Table 2) demonstrated that of the Lynx attacks that were monitored against all species, 39% were upon sheep.

Wolves will not only take sheep, they will take cattle. They do so regularly in North America and losses to cattle farmers are considerable in places where ranches are close to wolf territories. International borders are little obstacle to wolves, as this story of a Washington State farmer who is affected by wolves which live in British Columbia shows. Meanwhile in Europe the spread of the wolf across the more heavily populated parts of Germany, France and Denmark are bringing them into much closer contact with human activities on farms and domesticated animals.

This website, details the travails of cattlemen in the Washington State when dealing with the consequences of wolf attacks. Many of these images show the pure savagery of Wolf attacks. It seems that Wolves leave terrible wounds upon animals. One photograph shows the extent of bruising left in animals thus attacked. If there was bruising, then the sheep was still alive when they were inflicted. There is a theory that Wolves (and dogs and badgers)  will leave an animal wounded but alive and seriously weakened so that there is still fresh meat when the predator returns in a couple of days (they do not return the next day because they have eaten and are sated). Death for the wounded is therefore very slow and desperately painful unless they are found. Wolves are protected in Washington State and so the response of the State is to provide “non-lethal” means of deterrence. Only rarely is an individual “problem wolf” actually shot. However, this manifestly does not prevent attacks. The frustration of the cattlemen is evidenced in the website. Law-abiding farmers should not be subjected to this kind of distress – but that is what happens when the legal agenda is run by ideologues who have no personal responsibility for the welfare of animals in their care.

There is an argument advanced by animal rights groups, that the lives of livestock should not be taken into account when wild animals lives are also at stake. This is the situation in the debate over culling Badgers and bovine TB in the UK. The Badger groups argue that Badgers should not be killed, regardless of the cost to cattle. The cattle that are slaughtered to try to counteract a preventable disease are not considered important. “The cattle are going to die anyway” is the cry from the zealots. The situation in Washington State with Wolves is an exact parallel to the situation in the UK with bovine TB.

The only utilitarian argument in favour of reintroducing large predators to Britain is that it will solve the problem created by the apparent over-population of various species of deer. The rewilding lobby point to Yellowstone Park and the success of reintroduced  Wolves in reducing the number of Elk. This was expected to help Aspen and Willow to recover. This is perfectly true in the broadest sense, but is also a little over-simplistic. Whilst the number of Elk has been reduced, the number of Wolves has increased to ten good-sized packs. These have now turned their attention to Bison within the park, and to cattle outside the park. Yellowstone Park is now a safe haven for wolves, who use it as a base from which foray further afield. The park authorities are now in a cleft stick, where control of Wolves is increasingly necessary, but are constrained because the park Wolves are now so habituated to humans that they have become a major source of tourist revenue to the park because they are much more visible. Furthermore, whilst willow has recovered from the over-browsing by the Elk, Aspen has not recovered as well as was hoped. As usual, despite the rules set by ecological theory, Mother Nature has proved to be a lot more chaotic than expected.

It is perfectly true that we now have more deer in Britain than we have had since before the Middle Ages. Our tree cover has expanded rapidly over the last century since the Forestry Commission was formed in 1919. Our wooded areas have expanded from 5% of land surface area at the end of the First World War, to about 10% now. The result has been that deer have also increased dramatically in numbers. In the Scottish Highlands, even where there are no trees, Red Deer have multiplied to the point where, in some places, their browsing is actively preventing any kind of woodland regeneration. The Red Deer Commission have been aware of this problem for years and have attempted to encourage estate owners to do more in the way of culling. But the response has been patchy because of an apparently conflicting demand by the sporting estates to have as many deer as possible. So it can be argued, quite strongly, that we have a problem with too many deer – in some places.

The rewilders are now pitching the Lynx and the Wolf, themselves and their ideas, as the solution to the problem. They say that large predators are the answer to our difficulties and will thereby correct over-browsing and regeneration problems in woodland. The word “biodiversity” is bandied about a lot. There is no doubt that this is a very high risk option, with the possibilities of more than one unintended consequence. The cost to the taxpayer is likely to be high, but has not been calculated in any way by the rewilders.

However, there is another option for dealing with too many deer, and that involves shooting them in much greater numbers than is currently the case. The cost of hundreds of kilometres of fencing, free Llamas, guard dogs or other mitigating measures needed to exclude Wolves and Lynx is avoided. There is a bonus in that venison is highly nutritious and a valuable commodity. Much of the UK production of venison is exported to Germany and Belgium at the moment, because they eat far more of it than British households. With better handling, processing and marketing, the UK household would probably eat a lot more. Whether for export or home consumption, venison would add a great deal more to the rural economy than a few tourists who turn up to see Lynx and then go home disappointed without having seen any.

The argument that deer culling strategies have been tried and have failed (because of insufficient cull rates) begins to fall apart when examples of Scottish estates which cull hard but sustainably, are considered. Although there is a controversy (created by Scottish Natural Heritage) about the number of Red Deer in the area, the Assynt estate, run by the crofters and the local deer managers, is an example where venison provides an income and where tree regeneration is also successful. Another example is in South Dorset, where numbers of Sika deer rose to such a level that heathland on the RSPB reserve at Arne were devastated. Crops were being raided on a nightly basis by herds of Sika which were travelling several kilometres to eat and then departing back onto the military ranges from whence they came.  Matters came to a head and landowners and tenants demanded action. I understand that the situation is now back under control after some very heavy culling.

Wild claims by the rewilding and Lynx lobbies that Kielder Forest (for instance) is in some way ecologically dead because it is heaving with too many Roe deer, are exaggerated. My own personal experience of Forestry Commission deer management policy is that their rangers are very efficient when it comes to culling deer down to levels whereby damage to trees and other vegetation is minimal. Whilst Kielder did have a problem with too many Roe in the late 1980s, they adopted a severe culling program and reduced the Roe from a density of 12/Km2 down to 3/Km2 [18]. However, the Forestry Commission only cull on their own land and so deer from neighbouring properties tend to replace those culled within the forest. But this problem can be quickly overcome by co-operative neighbours, as has been shown by the South Dorset case.

It shows that if the will to deal with the problem is there, then there are solutions which are selective, simpler and profitable. The  release of large predators into the environment is expensive and risky because of a complete lack of any understanding of the consequences. By contrast, deer managers do not shoot cattle, sheep, goats, guard dogs or llamas. Wolves and Lynx are much less selective.

Over the last thirty years or so, British livestock farmers have been appallingly treated by successive ministers, Secretaries of State and governments, many of whom have been overtly hostile to the farming and countryside communities. If Lynx and Wolves are released into the UK, it will amount to yet another onslaught upon farming – perpetrated by the ignorance of politicians and civil servants. There will be inevitable conflicts between farmers and large predators. Despite any sweeteners in the form of compensation, those conflicts will inevitably spill over into politics.



References (Continued from Part 1)

[4] Foster H (Date unknown): Lynx lynx – Eurasian lynx. Animal Diversity Web, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology.

[5] Odden J, Linell JDC, Andersen R (2005): Diet of Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx), in the boreal forest of southeastern Norway: the relative importance of livestock and hares at low roe density. Eur J Wildl Res DOI 10.1007/s10344-006-0052-4

[6] Krofel M, Huber D, Kos I (2011): Diet of Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) in the northern Dinaric Mountains (Slovenia and Croatia). Acta theriologica DOI: 10.1007/s13364-011-0032-2

[7] Heurich M, Hilger A, Kuchenhoff H, Andren H, Bufka L, Krofel M, Mattisson J, Odden J, Parsson J, Rauset GR, Schmidt K, Linnell JDC (2014): Activity patterns of Euasian Lynx are modulated by light regime and individual traits over a wide latitudinal range. PLOS ONE, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0114143.

[8] Schmidt K (1998): Maternal behaviour and juvenile dispersal in the Eurasian Lynx. Acta theriologica. DOI: 10.4098/AT.arch.98-50.

[9] Milner JM, Irvine RJ (2015): The potential for reintroduction of Eurasian lynx the Great Britain: a summary of the evidence. British Deer Society Commissioned Report.

[10] Stahl P, Vandel JM, Herrenschmidt V, Migot P (2001): Predation on livestock by an expending reintroduced lynx population: Long-term trend and spatial variability. Journal of Applied Ecology Vol 38, Issue 3.

[11] Presenti E and Zimmermann F (2013): Density estimations of the Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) in the Swiss Alps. Journal of Mammology, 94(1):73-81.

[12] Herrenschmidt V, Vandel J-M, Migot P (2001): The effect of removing lynx in reducing attacks on sheep in the French Jura Mountains. DOI: 10.1016/S0006-3207(01)00054-4

[13] Hetherington DA and Gorman ML (2007): Using prey densities to estimate the potential size of reintroduced populations of Eurasian lynx. Biological Conservation Vol 137, Issue 1.

[14] Herfindel I, Linnell JDC, Odden J, Nilsen EB, Andersen R (2005): Prey density, environmental productivity and home-range size in the Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx). Journal of Zoology, Vol 265, Issue 1.

[15] Filla M et al. (2017): Habitat selection by Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) is primarily driven by avoidance of human activity during the day and prey availability during night. Ecology and Evolution 7:6367-6381

[16] Avgan B, Zimmermann F, Guntert M, Arikan F and Breitenmoser U (2014]: The first density estimation of an isolated Eurasian lynx population in southwest Asia. Wildlife Biology 20: 217-221.

[17] Kittle AM et al. (2015): Wolves adapt territory size, not pack size to local habitat quality. Journal of Animal Ecology, 84, 1177-1186.

[18] McIntosh R, Burlton FWE, McReddie G (1995): Monitoring the density of a roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) population subjected to heavy hunting pressure. DOI.org/10.1016/0378-1127(95)03623-7.

Posted in Farming, Livestock, Rewilding, Uncategorized | 10 Comments

Should Wolves and Lynx be released into the British countryside? – Part 1: Introductions and Re-introductions.

An integral part of the rewilding agenda is that of the release or encouragement of large predators back into environments where they have been absent for a long time. In the European scheme of things, this means Wolves, Lynx, Bears and Wolverines. The British rewilders are a little more modest in their ambitions and will settle for Wolves and Lynx.

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Eurasian Lynx (Lynx lynx) (Source: Speakzeasy.Wordpress.com)

The theory behind this ambition is the concept of Keystone species – that is, those top-of-the-food-chain predators that are said to regulate the rest of the food chain by virtue of controlling the numbers of herbivores below them in the food chain. This has a knock-on effect on the vegetation in the habitat and so also regulates all the other species in the habitat, in what is known as a trophic cascade. The rewilders assert, with very little evidence, that the release of large carnivores into the British landscape will correct the many ecological wrongs they they believe have been perpetrated upon Britain since, say, the Middle Ages.

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European wolf (Canis lupus) (Source: wolf-wisper305.tripod.com)

This article has been split into two separate blog posts. Part 1 (this post) will concentrate on the effects of historical acts of releasing species, both alien and formerly native, into the UK environment. Part 2 will deal specifically with Lynx and Wolves.

Introductions and re-introductions into the UK

Table 1 is a list of introductions of some of the plants and animals that have been introduced into Britain over the last 150 years or so. It is far from exhaustive – I have mentioned only five plants introduced, when in fact there are many hundreds. Plantsmen and gardeners have been the most prolific of rewilders since the 18th Century. The bulk of the list comprises mostly mammals and birds which have been deliberately or accidentally released into the British landscape. I have assessed whether each of these releases are harmful, benign or beneficial and given a starred rating to the degree to which they may be thought of as harmful. The purpose of the Comments column is self-evident. These are my assessments and could be disputed by enthusiasts for the particular species concerned. There is an official and much more comprehensive list of non-native and invasive species. This is a guide to identification, but little more. Most surprisingly, the Grey Squirrel is missing from this list. The official strategy for dealing with non-native invasive species is here.

Table 1 – List and assessments of principal uncontrolled alien releases into the UK.

Species Introduced Harmful or Benign? Harm Assessment Comments
Wild Boar Sus scrofa Harmful, but can be considered beneficial in some cases. Technically not alien, as it was native to UK until Medieval times. ** Damages crops, especially maize, digs up pastures, lawns and playing fields. Potentially dangerous to humans, but attacks are rare. Can cause serious accidents on roads. Thought to help woodland regeneration by disturbing ground, allowing tree seedlings to develop. Population is increasing in density and distribution.
Sika Deer Cervus nippon Seriously Harmful **** Breeds quickly and overwhelms habitat with very heavy browsing. Population in south Dorset is huge and troublesome to farmers and conservationists, but is being controlled by heavy culling. In Scotland, it interbreeds with native Red Deer and reduces sporting value.
Muntjac Muntiacus reevesi Very Harmful *** Can reach high densities in woodlands and clear all vegetation below their browse line, thus damaging flora and fauna in native woodlands. Can damage gardens and allotments. Spreading rapidly.
Chinese Water Deer Hydropotes inermis Potentially harmful * Habitat of reeds and tall grasses in wet areas has restricted its range in the UK.
Fallow Deer Dama dama Generally benign Introduced by the Romans and possibly again by the Normans. Does not appear to be increasing as rapidly as many other deer species; and does not seem to be as damaging.
Edible Dormouse Glis glis Benign Currently limited in its range around Hertfordshire. Can damage orchards.
Coypu Myocastor coypus Seriously harmful **** Severely damages wetlands by extensive burrowing and feeding on surrounding vegetation including roots and rhizomes. Reedbeds are destroyed and converted to open water. Damage is intensified because they feed continuously throughout the winter and so vegetation is unable to recover. Eradicated from the UK by 1989 after an intensive trapping campaign.
Grey Squirrel Sciurus caroliensis Seriously harmful **** Has completely displaced the native Red Squirrel within its range and is increasing that range across the UK. Bark stripping habits are particularly damaging to native trees as well as commercial forestry.
American Mink Neovison vison Seriously harmful **** Responsible for elimination of Water Voles from many rivers and waterways. Moorhens, Coots, Kingfishers, ducklings, waders and all other waterside dwelling species are all subject to heavy predation by Mink. They can also cause considerable damage to poultry.
Signal Crayfish Pacifastacus leniusculus Seriously harmful **** Carrier of Crayfish Plague which wipes out all native Crayfish in the vicinity.
Rose-Ringed Parakeet Psittacula krameri Nuisance * Confined to mostly urban areas in London and the south-east of England. Defra have designated them as pests and they can be shot without a licence.
Monk Parakeet Myiopssitta monachus Nuisance * Mostly confined to urban areas in SE England. Can damage electricity substations and are potentially to native wildlife. Defra has instituted a cull to attempt to eradicate the wild population. Can be shot without a licence.
Eurasian Eagle Owl Bubo bubo Potentially harmful ** Whether it has been introduced or arrived naturally is unclear. UK population is small and scattered but appears to be naturalising and increasing. Occupies similar ecological niche to Buzzard, but is much bigger and more aggressive. Can take medium sized domestic animals.
Ruddy Duck Oxyura jamaicensis Very harmful *** North American close relative to European White-Headed Duck Oxyura leucocephala whose aggressive mating techniques meant it would rapidly hybridise with the European species. A Defra instituted cull has reduced the UK population down to less than 200 individuals. It is hoped to eradicate it completely.
Japanese Knotweed Fallopia japonica Seriously harmful **** Highly invasive and difficult to eradicate with herbicides. Creates dense stands which eliminate native species. Rhizomes can extend to 3 metres deep. Disposal of material from excavated Knotweed is classified as controlled waste. May cause difficulty in obtaining a mortgage to buy any property upon which Japanese Knotweed is present.
Himalayan Balsam Impatiens glandulifera Very harmful *** Invasive weed, naturalised in many parts of the UK. Aggressive seed dispersal and high nectar content allows it to create dense stands which out-compete native species.
Spanish Bluebell Hyacinthoides hispanica Very harmful *** Hybridises with the native Hyacinthoides non-scripta and also shades the native Bluebell out. Vigorous and spreading into many parts of Britain.
Giant Hogweed Heracleum mantegazzianum Seriously harmful **** The sap causes phototoxicity of the skin, inducing a serious rash, inflammation, blisters and black or purplish scars which can last many years. It should only be handled with protective clothing. Ecologically, it forms dense stands and thereby excludes and smothers native plants.
Rhododendron Rhododendron ponticum Seriously harmful **** Highly invasive and grows rapidly to an almost complete canopy, thereby shading out native species of plants and animals. Causes land abandonment in extreme cases.

The above is just the more obvious species in terms of size and impact. It should be noted that very few are classified as “Benign”, and the rest are harmful to some degree. 63% are  either “very harmful” or “seriously harmful”, None of them have been ecologically beneficial to the environment in which they live. All of the above have been introduced by humans without any thought that they may damage the natural or man-made environment. Some, like wild Boar or Mink, are escapes from farms or where they have been deliberately released by animal rights activists. So far, no large mammal carnivores have been released into the British countryside.

By contrast to the unofficial releases, there have been a number of releases which have been officially sanctioned and done under carefully controlled conditions by various NGOs such as the RSPB. Figure 2 below is a list and an assessment:

Table 2 – Recent controlled and officially approved re-introductions.

Species Re-introduced Harmful or Benign? Comments
European Beaver Castor fiber Benign? Said to be beneficial by beaver enthusiasts. So far, only subject to small reintroductions in limited areas. Said to improve water retention on a landscape scale to help flood prevention, as well as improving biodiversity. But some are opposed to beavers because of potential adverse effects. So far, claims on both sides of the argument are unproven.
Reindeer Rangifer tarandus Benign Only one small herd in the Cairngorms.
Common Crane Grus grus Benign Returned naturally to Norfolk in 1978, but numbers have since been supplemented by hand rearing and reintroductions to the Somerset Levels and other places. Population now estimated to be about 160 birds (2016).
Great Bustard Otis tarda Benign Small population of 50+ hand reared birds plus some wild bred birds on Salisbury Plain.
Red Kite Milvus milvus Whether benign or harmful is completely un-assessed. Traditionally thought of as a carrion eater, but very wide range of prey means it is harmful to ground nesting birds. Competes with Kestrels Falco tinnunculus and Barn Owls Tyto alba for voles and small mammals. The very small Welsh population has been supplemented by releases of Spanish and German birds in the Midlands and the north of England. Now common in many counties.
White Tailed Eagle Halieetus albicilla Probably harmful to sheep and fish farms. Reintroduced to north-west Scotland using Norwegian birds. Now nest mostly on Mull and Skye. There is a big reintroduction programme for the east of Scotland, another in Ireland, where it is not at all popular. Estimated to be 106 pairs in Scotland (2015). Food is mainly fish, but also takes carrion, birds of all descriptions, occasional lambs and fish from fish farms.

Here, the picture is a little better with most being classified as benign. However, Red Kite and White Tailed Eagle are both large raptors and so are also highly effective predators. With that ability also comes their potential capacity for doing harm to human activities such as farming. There is also the capacity for altering the balance of the ecosystem once numbers have increased.

Tables 1 and 2 above suggest that the damaging effects of many of these species have much to do with the interloper competing with native or local species.

Lessons from Kestrels and Buzzards.

The Bird Atlas 2007-11 [1] says this about the Kestrel:

“The breeding range has contracted by 6% since the 1968-72 Breeding Atlas, with losses occurring in south-west and central Wales, in western Scotland and sparingly through the midlands and the north of Ireland. These relatively small losses [in range] conceal a larger population decline: numbers in the UK declined by 32% during 1995-2010…part of an overall decline of 44% since 1970. ….. The abundance change map shows that Kestrels have declined in abundance in many parts of Britain and Ireland…..

Causes of decline are unclear and possibly complex, although agricultural intensification, the impact of second generation rodenticides, damping of the vole cycles and competition have all been proposed. Petty et al (2013) gave good evidence that direct predation by Goshawks had contributed to the decline in Kielder Forest, Northumberland, and Shrubb (2004) considered this likely to be occurring also in Wales.”

The population of Kestrels has declined considerably since 1970. Although the causes are noted as being unclear, there seems to be recognition of competition as a possibility. One possible competitor for the Kestrel is the Buzzard. In contrast with the Kestrel, the Buzzard has increased its range and population density considerably [3].

The Kestrel is a predator of small mammals, birds and sometimes Dor beetles, depending upon the time of year and locality. In the UK, voles, Wood Mice and shrews form 60-85% of the diet [2]. The Buzzard is a much larger generalist predator and consumes a very wide variety of prey, within certain size and weight limits. They will use different techniques, depending upon what is available within the habitat: perching to scan ground and then planing onto the prey; surprise flights using intervening cover; soaring over the territory; hanging in the wind; hovering; walking on the ground to pick up invertebrates and variants of all of these. Voles and rabbits are important parts of their diet; nidifugous chicks of pheasant, partridge, waders etc are all taken. The list of food items is long and varied [3].

Consider a Kestrel which has maintained a territory for voles and mice. The arrival of a Buzzard into that territory now puts pressure on the supply of voles. However, the Buzzard will also take many other items, such as rabbits which are outside the size range that can be taken by a Kestrel. The result is that the Kestrel now finds its food supply depleted by a much bigger neighbour. The Buzzard, having reduced the voles, can switch to other forms of prey much more easily than the Kestrel. So the Buzzard survives and the Kestrel either moves or cannot breed because the territory will not support a mate and young Kestrels to fledging. This kind of scenario is fairly typical of many situations where a generalist predator squeezes a specialist predator out of a habitat. This is particularly a problem where the generalist predator is both novel to the habitat and bigger than the specialist. Inevitably, the native specialists suffer the consequences.

The Red Kite is an example of a species which has now built up to sufficient numbers and population densities to act as an additional competitor for resources such as small mammals which have hitherto been the preserve of the Kestrel and Barn Owl. These two species have already come under a good deal of pressure from the Common Buzzard, which is exploiting parts of the same ecological niche. The effects of the addition of the Red Kite into the mix is unknown, principally because the work has not been done to find out. Additionally, changing agricultural methods mean that there are fewer small mammals such as voles, because there is less suitable habitat for them. So the supply of voles is far from being sufficiently elastic to supply the increased demand. In the absence of hard evidence, common sense has to be brought into play – where there is intense competition for limited resources, then it is most likely that the bigger generalist predators will win; and the smaller, more specialised ones will lose. This means that the Kestrels and Barn Owls will lose out to Buzzards and Red Kites.

We know enough about the changes in populations of Buzzards, Red Kites and Kestrels over the years because they are diurnal birds of prey and there are plenty of birders in the country to monitor their numbers. So we can see, at a very superficial level, changes in their respective populations to be able to speculate that there might be some inter-specific competition between them. But when species are more difficult to find or observe, it is often difficult to see what is going on until numbers have reached a point where changes can be seen from casual observation. This can be benign or even positive in some way, but in the instances in Table 1 above, the effects of the alien species are nearly all negative – either in an ecological or in an economic sense, or both.

Lessons from Alien Species already released into Britain.

From all of the above, we can draw several general lessons from releases of alien species into the British landscape. We can also draw lessons from what is known about the expansion or contraction of well known native species such as Buzzards and Kestrels. These can be listed:

  • Ad hoc and illegal releases of both plants and animals into the UK have had a very unhappy history of ecological and economic damage. Much of that damage (or harm) has been considerable.
  • The history of official re-introductions has been better, but large avian predators are either unknown in their effects (Red Kite), or are known to have some negative economic effects (White Tailed Eagle).
  • The reintroductions of Red Kite and White Tailed Eagle are not known to have any beneficial effect upon the ecology of the ecosystems into which they have been released.
  • The motivation for the release of large raptors has been based upon aesthetic, cultural and emotional/nostalgic reasons. Or, put another way: they have been released for their own sake and for the pleasure of those who wish to see them.
  • Generalist predators are better able to compete with specialist predators, especially when the generalist is able to exploit the specialist niche – disadvantaging the specialist – and then swop prey to other species where the specialist is unable to do so. A bigger generalist may also prey directly upon smaller specialists.
  • The effects of an apex predator (e.g. Buzzard or Lynx) often means either competition or direct predation upon meso-predators (e.g. Kestrel or Fox/Badger/Pine Marten/Wildcat). These interactions are often unknown and unpredictable until numbers of the introduced species have reached the point whereby their effects are obvious even to the most cursory examination.
  • The ecological harm done by the uncontrolled releases has only become noticeable when numbers of the alien species have built up to a point where, for most of them, it becomes a huge and expensive task to remove them from the landscape. The effects are often only noticed after the situation has reached a point where  it is already too late to do anything other than keep the situation under control and prevent further spread. In many cases, even preventing further spread is an uphill battle with serious risks of losing altogether. The Signal Crayfish and Grey Squirrel fall into this category.

In summary, the history of releases into the British landscape has been especially poor. In almost all cases above, the risks to the environment and to agriculture have not been assessed in any way by those who have made the releases. The results have been completely unpredictable and often extremely damaging to everyone.

If the rewilders wish to convince us of the benefits of releasing lynx and Wolves into Britain, then they need a lot of hard evidence to prove their case. So far, they have produced nothing but some poorly expressed ecological theory and a lot of aspirational statements with nothing to back it up.



[1] Balmer DE, Gillings S, Caffrey BJ, Swann RL, Downie IS and Fuller RJ (2013): Bird Atlas 2007-11: The breeding and wintering birds of Britain and Ireland. Kestrel pp. 316-317. BTO Books, Thetford.

[2] Cramp S and Simmons KEL (eds) (1979): The Birds of the Western Palearctic, Vol II. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

[3] Balmer DE, Gillings S, Caffrey BJ, Swann RL, Downie IS and Fuller RJ (2013): Bird Atlas 2007-11: The breeding and wintering birds of Britain and Ireland. Buzzard pp. 308-309. BTO Books, Thetford.


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