Where the rewilded things are

By Andrew Knapp

A Eurasian beaver, Castor fiber. Image used under a CC BY-SA 4.0 licence from Wikimedia.

A Eurasian beaver, Castor fiber.
Image by Per Harald Olsen, used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 licence from Wikimedia.

In the not too distant past, many seemingly exotic animals, from brown bears to beavers, and pelicans to wolves, have called the British Isles home. Further back still, lions and hyenas once stalked the plains of Norfolk and hippos wallowed in the Thames. But what makes a ‘native?’ Generally speaking, a species is native to its habitat if it occurs there naturally has not been introduced, either deliberately or accidentally, by humans. Should we think of bears and hyenas as native? And if they’re native, should we bring them back?

Nobody would seriously argue that we should release large African mammals to roam the fields and hedgerows of England, but many are calling for the reintroduction of some more recent inhabitants to our shores. This idea is known as rewilding and has been implemented in many places around the world, often with striking results. But why should we care, and how would rewilding improve anything? To answer this, let’s look at the case of the Yellowstone wolves.

The last wolf in Yellowstone National Park in the USA was probably shot in 1923, following a long period of persecution by farmers and landowners, and deliberate removal by the park service. The disappearance of this top predator was followed by an explosion in the numbers of elk; large deer which browse on saplings. Consequently, the number of deciduous trees within the park began to fall, leading to soil erosion and negatively affecting other animals that depended on these trees. In an effort to counter these effects, the park management implemented a 30-year culling programme to control the elk, but this did little to restore the park’s condition and was eventually abandoned.

It seemed that Yellowstone would never return to its natural pristine state. Then, in 1995, 21 wolves were captured in Canada and released into the park in an attempt to control the problem. The wolf population has since risen to around 100 individuals, and the results have been remarkable. Not only have elk numbers been drastically reduced, but their behaviour has changed, driving them to higher ground and allowing trees in the park the chance to regrow. The increase in waterside trees has benefitted beavers, and reduced soil erosion and water runoff. In an unexpected turn of events wolves have also helped to control coyote numbers, which has in turn benefitted many other smaller mammals and birds. The reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone has led to an increase in the numbers of moose, otters, water birds, eagles, wolverines, grizzly bears and many more iconic animals to the park, and has vastly improved the biodiversity of the entire area.

A European Grey wolf, Canis lupus lupus. Image

A European Grey wolf, Canis lupus lupus.
Image by Mas3cf, used under a CC BY-SA 4.0 licence from Wikimedia.

Yellowstone has shown that a relatively small change can have far-reaching consequences for an entire ecosystem. After all, these organisms have been evolving alongside each other for millions of years; it seems obvious in hindsight that removing one would affect the others.

It may be surprising to learn that wolves have been missing from the British Isles for just 230 years. Could bringing the wolf back to mainland Britain have similar effects to those seen in Yellowstone? It is certainly true that we have our fair share of large herbivores with no natural predators. Red and roe deer exist in large numbers and, along with invasive species such as Chinese water deer, cause extensive damage to crops and woodland. Millions of pounds are spend every year in mitigating this damage.

Wolves may seem a somewhat extreme example of rewilding, but reintroducing some smaller species could have equally dramatic effects. The Eurasian beaver became extinct in Britain in the 16th century but has recently been re-established in Scotland and Southwest England, partly due to deliberate reintroduction. It is hoped that their dams can help manage flooding and erosion, and provide wildlife habitats, as they have done in Yellowstone.

Rewilding Britain has identified 22 species of birds and mammals that may thrive in the UK if reintroduced. The benefits are widespread, and, aside from the control of herbivores, include benefits to conservation, tourism, not to mention an increased sense of connection with nature, surely a vital goal in our ever-insulated modern life.

But the benefits are not just restricted to the introduction of large, iconic vertebrates. Recently, efforts have been made to reintroduce the short-haired bumblebee to Britain, in the hopes of boasting crop pollination. Studies in the USA have shown that high biodiversity among pollinating insects improves total pollination efficiency, an important consideration when an estimated 30% of our crops rely on insect pollination. Improving the overall biodiversity of our countryside would be to the benefit of all.

Of course, there are many obstacles to rewilding. Ultimately, the biggest barrier may be nature itself. The countryside has changed immeasurably in the past few hundred years and would be unrecognisable to the last British wolves. Fields have grown, hedgerows have disappeared, and busy roads criss-cross the land. Many formerly successful species may struggle to survive under these conditions. Only time will tell, but I, for one, hope that we get the chance to see for ourselves.

Further Reading

  • Goulson, D (2014), A Sting In The Tail. Vintage, ISBN-10: 0099575124
  • Monbiot, G (2013), Feral. Penguin Books, ISBN 978-0-141-97558-0
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