On Sunday night’s episode of Countryfile, the BBC programme visited Bodmin Moor in Cornwall. While Matt Baker visited a farm where a trial programme involving native Tamworth pigs hoped to create habitat which would encourage more wildlife to the farm, presenter Charlotte Smith explored what she called another way to ‘kick-start the return of some animals’ – namely species reintroduction.
The ‘beast’ she examined returning to Bodmin was a predator that has been ‘missing’ from Cornwall for over a century – the wildcat. The South West wildcat project are behind the plans to reintroduce wildcats to Cornwall, with their representative explaining that the animals have ‘been persecuted or seen as vermin since the mid 1500s, a long history of being misunderstood really’.
While the project is still in its very early stages, with the group examining the impact cats might have in the area, as well as prey availability and habitat, they seemed to believe that hybridisation with domestic cats was a problem that could be overcome, citing mainland Europe as an example. One of the main barriers to increasing the population of the Scottish wildcat in the highlands has been the issue of them breeding with domestic or feral cats – so one wonders what solutions to this they might have in Cornwall that haven’t already been explored in Scotland.
It was interesting to see someone else appear in this segment of the programme; Derek Gow, who is working alongside the South West wildcat project. Described as a ‘farmer turned nature conservationist’, according to Countryfile, Gow is an ‘expert in reintroducing native species in the UK’.
Derek Gow is certainly famous for being at the forefront of many rewilding projects; but his history is far from squeaky clean. In 2020, former Defra board member Ben Goldsmith was probed by the police over claims he broke rules over the release of deer and wild boar at hisDevon farm. Who was the keen rewilder who helped Goldsmith with his plans? No other than Derek Gow, whose disdain for the rules surrounding the release of animals is well known. He has had many run-ins with local farmers and the NFU, whose viewpoint is that any species introduction, can have a massive impact on the many benefits that the countryside and farming delivers.
This potential impact needs to be fully understood before any reintroduction can be considered. Gow, on the other hand, believes that we need to get on with things, and is at the forefront of a group referred to as ‘guerilla rewilders’, who would rather crack on with things than stick to the rules and jump through the red tape.
In the Countryfile segment, when queried by Charlotte Smith on how reintroducing an animal such as the beaver could change the landscape, Gow argued that the problem was a lack of tolerance. It’s ‘learning to look at animals like beavers that have no real impact on most of the agricultural land’s operation here’, he said – which would likely come as a surprise to the farmers and landowners whose operations have been affected by the damage beavers can inflict on farmland, trees and crops.
On the topic of the wildcat, it’s no surprise that Gow again downplayed the impact that their reintroduction might have, stating that they eat ‘the things that are common – grey squirrels, field voles, wood mice, rats’. That may well be the case, but is it right to push on with wildcat reintroductions without analysing the impact they might have on ground-nesting birds or farming interests. Gow would say yes; as he says himself, ‘I’ll have my way when beavers are everywhere.’