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“Simon Says” – Should we reintroduce nature?

November 2, 2017

Ladybird Spider 1 © James Hitchen

(Above: Ladybird spider © James Hitchen)

Back from the brink

Much as the future of nature on our planet depends on the wealth of biodiversity, which includes creatures of all shapes and sizes from viruses to blue whales, it is often the charismatic megafauna that grabs our attention and spurs us to action.  Most people are far more likely to support the protection of giraffes than a cryptic wasp species.

Yet when you look at the range of species reintroduced by conservationists, they tend to be iconic, charismatic, sizeable beasts.  Here I am talking about restoring creatures back to where they once lived, rather than new introductions for a variety of well-meaning or dubious reasons, such as foxes for hunting into New Zealand, rabbits into Australia and cotoneaster to a lot of British gardens.  Nor am I talking about accidental introductions or invasives such as rhododendron, signal crayfish into Dorset rivers or japweed that clogs up the coasts.

All sorts of species have been reintroduced, including lynx, bison, beavers, wild boar, red kites, great bustards, sturgeon, brown trout, sand lizards, the large blue butterfly and ladybird spiders.  Some successfully, some less so.

The successful introduction of a species, such as the large blue butterfly, takes a great deal of work and resources: studies of habitat and food needs; impact assessments; disease risk implications; ecosystem impacts; garnering community support; licencing; monitoring; to name just a few.  With so many of our native species in trouble, why then are conservationists so keen on reintroductions?  This is a question that I have struggled with for many years.  Are reintroductions just a profile-raising gimmick? Are they a cost-effective means of repairing degraded ecosystems? Are we choosing iconic species when we should be reinstating something less charismatic?

The answer to these and other such questions is no doubt species and context specific, but many of you will have different answers and views.  Here are my views which you are most welcome to disagree with.

Otter 1 © Paul Williams

(Above: Otter © Paul Williams)

Why reintroduce?

So what are the reasons that we would want to reintroduce a species?  When I was in my first job working for The Vincent Wildlife Trust in East Anglia trying to find out why otters had died out in the area, my boss the famous Don Jefferies, gave me some good advice I’ve kept throughout my career.  I asked him why we spent so much money restoring otters to an area, when we could be looking after them better where they flourished.  He replied that you have to work the hardest at the fraying edge.  This is because that edge will always be frayed and will work its way back, just as the end of a rope unfurls.

This fraying edge principle is perhaps why birds and butterflies are reintroduced.  The red kite for example was persecuted by gamekeepers down to just 2 pairs in 1932.  In 1989 100 birds were reintroduced from the continent and legislation was tightened, so that there are now many kites, often seen down the M4 corridor.  Otters too, after misguided river management and hunting with hounds, slumped to dangerously low numbers and small isolated populations in the UK.  Now they are found in all of Dorset’s main rivers from the Fleet to the Avon.  Personally I think these types of reintroductions were more than justified as they link up isolated, genetically at-risk populations and reduce the risk of a local perturbation damaging the whole population.  DWT’s own work with partners to reintroduce the ladybird spider in Purbeck should help to safeguard the population possibly at that fraying edge in Dorset.

Another reason for reintroductions is that they are keystone species – that is they provide a critical role in the function of the ecosystem or provide a service, either to the ecosystem or mankind.  Included here might be lynx, wolves and beavers.  Usually hunted to local extinction, these species once thrived across the UK and since their loss the natural environment has changed, often for the worse.  The story of the introduction of wolves back into the Yellowstone Park causing the rivers to clean up, is famous.  The wolves caused the lazy elk population to keep on the move and not browse away most of the bankside willows that beavers needed.  The beavers made dams which changed the hydrology and improved the water quality.  There were some downsides, but a lot of benefits.  Anybody for a pack of wolves along the Stour Valley Way?  That would liven up a Sunday walk with the kids.

red squirrel tree © Paul Williams

(Above: Red Squirrel on Brownsea Island © Paul Williams)

Closer to home, beavers have been reintroduced into small areas of Devon and we are considering it here in Dorset.  Initial results have been amazing.  Providing they are in the right location so they don’t damage crops or housing, they have already been shown to reduce flooding downstream, substantially improve water quality and produce diverse habitat for everything from water plants and insects to fish.

I suspect though that some species are introduced for other reasons either instead of, or as well as, those above.  Several species are blatantly charismatic such as red squirrels, osprey, beavers, otters and lynx. They can tell a great story and gain media attention as well as support.

The pros and cons

There are several debates in the conservation community.  How far back do you go?  Should we seek aurochs grazing across Salisbury Plain – or rhinos?  What is the balance between funding reintroductions and protecting the species we already have and are trying to hang on to? Are reintroductions a key part of rewilding?

I believe if there is a clear ecological benefit, or you are seeking to restore that fraying edge, then reintroductions can be hugely valuable.  Only as a spin-off might they benefit conservation as a profile-raising figurehead.  I think also that there must be community support, and that means conservationists not taking too worthy a view, so that people impacted do not accept them – possibly leading to poaching at worst or a lack of support at best.  Beavers are a good example of this.  They can, if located correctly, have huge ecological benefits, but landowners are unlikely to be welcoming if they feel that once introduced they can never be touched or managed.  In some cases it may be necessary to relocate an over-industrious beaver.  If that is what is needed to get landowner support, then so be it.

What do you think?  Do reintroductions have a place in our countryside, or are we just hanging on to the past? What is your red line – squirrels, beavers, lynx, wolves, aurochs or velociraptors?  Do you have good or bad experiences of reintroductions?  Let us know on DWT’s Facebook or Twitter pages.

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