Mike Russell on the reintroduction of native predators

In time, Winnie the Pooh might not be the only bear in Ashdown Forest...Mike Russell of Sussex Wildlife Trust debates the loaded issue of reintroducing native predators

In the last issue, I talked about some of the species reintroductions taking place in the UK and promised to come back to the thornier subject of large predators, or ‘apex’ predators, as we call them in conservation circles.

Centuries ago, wolves, lynx and brown bears inhabited our forests, beavers would have made dams in our wetlands and eagles patrolled the skies above our forests and uplands. As apex predators, they controlled populations across the landscape and a natural ecological balance was maintained. That is until we humans started to increase in number, which directly impacted upon them. Humans adopted a view of zero tolerance towards competitive predators and gradually they were all eliminated. No-one knows when bears officially became extinct here but it is thought they were certainly long gone by the time the Normans arrived. Lynx were originally thought to have disappeared about 5000 years ago, although the latest evidence shows that they may have in fact survived here until as late as the 6th or 7th century. Wolves lasted officially until the late 17th century, when the last one was shot in Scotland, while the white-tailed eagle survived until 1917 before it was finally blasted out of existence.

All these species managed to survive in the rest of Europe, though hunting and habitat loss has severely reduced populations. But recent good news from some analysis undertaken by the Zoological Society of London, Birdlife and the European Bird Census Council reports that some of these key species are making a comeback. Statutory protection, habitat creation, hunting regulation and rural depopulation has led to the doubling of brown bears, grey wolf numbers increasing by 30 per cent and the European beaver population has, in the last five decades, increased by 3,000 per cent. But you must remember that this increase comes from a very low base. Sadly this doesn’t apply to the Iberian lynx, currently hovering on the verge of extinction.

For those of us who work in the field, it shows that conservation can work, a welcome relief from all the negative problems that our wildlife has to face.

Here in the UK, these animals can’t come back naturally as we removed them all, so we have to think about reintroduction. There has been a long-term project since the 1970s to bring back white-tailed eagles to Scotland which has been relatively successful, to the extent that it now brings in £5m a year in wildlife tourism to the Isle of Mull alone. Trials for reintroducing beavers are currently taking place in the UK, but now we are starting to get into the realms of concern about these programmes, and in some quarters experiencing downright hostility.

Bringing back wolves, bears and lynx is beyond comprehension for many people: no room in this crowded island; the effect on livestock; eating family pets; and being frightened to go out in case we all get attacked are just some of the objections thrown into the debate. From the conservation prospective, the amount of available habitat is the big issue; there are places for all these larger animals to be reintroduced but once an optimum population had been reached where could that population expand?

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But it is happening in Europe; there are issues with the predators coming up against rural communities and loss of livestock, but the idea shouldn’t be dismissed in the UK. It could help deal with some of the ecological problems we have at the moment such as far too many deer and it could also check the smaller predator populations such as foxes and badgers.

Big carnivores roaming Sussex? Not in my lifetime I expect, or for the foreseeable future sadly, but it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. In parts of Europe it is becoming a reality and who knows, attitudes may change. The fact that positive news is coming from across the continent does give the merest glimpse of encouragement that there may be a future for apex predators in our world.

Sussex Wildlife Trust- Woods Mill, Henfield, West Sussex, BN5 9SD, 01273 492630; www.sussexwildlifetrust.org.ukWildCall (wildlife information service) - 01273 494777