Repopulating Britain’s lost species
Updated: Feb 5, 2020
A recent poll by YouGov found that 82% of Britons are in favour of reintroducing species that are extinct in Britain. 36% of people surveyed said they wanted wolves and lynx brought back, while 24% rather liked the idea of seeing brown bears pottering through Britain’s woodlands once more.
The enthusiasm is admirable but, as we have discussed in a previous article, somewhat misplaced. Not only are top predators like wolves and lynxes incredibly dangerous to livestock, they’re also not even top conservation priorities: listed as species of ‘least concern’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. This is to say nothing of bears, which, as any visitor to the Canadian Rockies will know, warrant serious precautions for human safety.
But the popularity of reintroducing species as part of conservation efforts shouldn’t be so easily dismissed. Rather, conservationists should channel this enthusiasm into more viable schemes for repatriation, some of which have already seen brilliant results here in Britain.
One such contender for national sympathy ought to be the capercaillie. Driven to extinction in Scotland in the 18th century – about the same time as wolves by some estimates – the largest and most majestic member of the grouse family is once again clinging on in highland outcrops, thanks to a donation of several breeding pairs from Sweden in the last century. The species’ population has since plummeted from its high in the 1960s, with just over 1000 birds left in 2017.
Another refugee recently returned to Britain’s shores is the white-tailed eagle, which initially went extinct in this country in the 19th century. Like the capercaillie, the white-tailed Eagle was reintroduced to Scotland from Scandinavia and is currently on the RSPB’s ‘red-list’ of endangered birds. The eagle can admittedly be troublesome, occasionally snatching lambs from hillsides, but with only a few thousand breeding pairs left in the world it is in desperate need of conservation.
Both these species would make ideal candidates for repatriation campaigns that could capture the public attention without endangering life and limb. Though admittedly lacking the dramatic flair of wolves and bears, capercaillies and white-tailed eagles are charismatic birds whom conservationists would do well to shine a light on as poster-children for sustainable attempts at reintroducing native species. With that attention would come funding and the results would surely follow.
Conservationists would also do well to remember that moorland managers can be their greatest allies in the fight to preserve formerly-native species. An article published in Scottish Field over the weekend chronicled the successful attempt to translocate four golden eagles from Pitmain and Glenbanchor Estate in the Highlands, south to the Moffat Hills near the border. The birds have since flourished in their former habitant and are testament on a local scale to what could be achieved nationally. Managed moors frequently act as havens to otherwise-struggling species, such as curlews, golden plovers and oystercatchers. With the proper cooperation and funding, these reserves could become incubators for other struggling species to once again thrive in Britain.