Science Articles

A walk on the wild side

Tue, 9th Dec 2014

Restoring wildlife to its natural state...

Isla Hodgson

The latest hot topic to sweep conservation circles is the concept of re-wilding. The practice – which essentially allows nature to take its course – has rapidly grown in popularity over the last decade following a wealth of success stories hailing from Yellowstone National Park to continental Europe.

Proposed plans to re-wild Scotland have been greeted with mounting enthusiasm. With support for the cause spreading rapidly across the UK, it seems like re-wilding is here to stay. But is Scotland ready?

Brown bear

Grey Wolf

Lynx

What is ‘re-wildling’?

Reintroductions – the process of releasing species into an area they were previously eradicated from – is a common tool of conservation biology, typically used to help conserve threatened species. ‘Re-wilding’ aims to restore entire areas to their natural states through the reintroduction of key plants or animals.

Certain species - mainly top predators - are often labelled as ‘keystone species’ or ‘ecological engineers’, meaning their presence or absence can have a knock-on effect throughout the food chain. They have the potential to modify or create new habitats for other species and therefore have can have a strong effect on the structure of an ecosystem. For example, sea otters protect their habitat by consuming sea urchins. If these urchins were left unchecked they would consume all the kelp in the area, upon which many species rely. Furthermore, large carnivores have been proved to predate on nuisance invasive species – essentially an ecologically-friendly pest control service. These species can thus be used to restore damaged ecosystems back to their natural, fully functioning states.

Advocates of re-wilding see it as a chance for humans to rectify our past mistakes. In the human-dominated landscapes of the present day, extensive deforestation and urbanisation have reduced nature to tiny patches of untouched habitat. Isolation has pushed many of our most-loved species to the brink of extinction, and caused others to reside only within the plexi-glass world of your local zoo. In the words of Guardian columnist Monbiot, re-wilding offers us the chance to ‘reverse destruction of the natural world’ by stepping back from nature and allowing it to become ‘feral’ once again.

Many agree with this notion and feel a responsibility to restore some of the wilderness our predecessors stripped from the countryside, especially in Britain. With continuously growing urban areas and farmland, nature is constantly competing for space against an army of concrete.

Scotland is no exception. Much of the idyll depicted in the Visit Scotland adverts are man-made; landscapes transformed by centuries of over-grazing from deer and sheep. The popular recreational sport of grouse shooting requires land that is intensively managed, and occurs at the expense of numerous species of birds of prey. Furthermore, Scotland’s native habitat – the Caledonian Forest – is one of the UK’s most endangered, restricted to just a handful of nature reserves. Re-wilding has been heralded as the solution. Many believe the reintroduction of species that once roamed the Scottish wilderness will help expand its natural forests and restore natural processes to the area.

Coire Loch

If you go down to the woods today…

Attempts have already been made to reintroduce some of Scotland’s historical beasts back to their rightful place. The sea eagle, osprey and European beaver are amongst those who have now been re-established. However, a more ambitious goal is to reintroduce the large predators that once roamed the highlands. The grey wolf), , Eurasian lynx, and even the brown bear have all been proposed as potential candidates. Thanks to their mass appeal and charisma these plans have been met with growing enthusiasm from the public, cemented by various success stories from across the world.

Yellowstone National Park is perhaps one of the greatest advertisements for re-wilding. Since re-introducing wolves to the reserve, ecosystem function has been fully restored to its former glory. By predating on the over-heavy elk population, wolves indirectly contributed to the new growth of certain endangered plant species, and alleviated the predation pressure put upon the beaver and red fox populations by native coyotes.Gray Wolf

It is hoped that wolves would play a similar role in Scotland’s ecosystem. In the absence of predation, red deer numbers have catapulted to such an extent that the ecosystem is suffering; new saplings are consumed before they have chance to grow, and little sustenance is left for the deer themselves and other species. Efforts to cull the population have been made, but at considerable expense. Wolves specialise in killing deer and so could naturally regulate these deer numbers. Furthermore wolves would be an enormous pull for tourists, benefiting economy as well as ecology. Paul Lister – manager of Alladale estate – even believes that bears could also adapt to the deer diet; an even greater draw for the tourism industry.

A win-win situation…?

With all these benefits to ecology and society, re-wilding seems like a pretty sweet deal. But before we release grizzlies back to the highlands, the bigger picture must be considered. Whilst the vision of a re-wilded Scotland is an attractive prospect (who doesn’t want to see these enigmatic, beautiful creatures in scenery that could rival the Canadian wilderness?) it may not be an entirely realistic prospect. Places where the reintroduction of these carnivores have worked - like Yellowstone and parts of Scandinavia – consist of vast open spaces, which Scotland lacks. These animals would inevitably come into contact with humans thus creating the potential for conflict. Despite the support of the general public for re-wilding, tolerance towards wolves and bears would soon be diminished if agriculture and human safety were put at risk. Many farmers would shoot a wolf on sight, a problem that has arisen in other areas that have recently reintroduced these creatures. A social animal by nature, wolves hunt in packs and easily become habituated to human presence. Direct attacks on humans could be rare, but the odd attack on livestock, or even a child, could lead to a very strong backlash. After all, no one likes to be part of the food chain.

The controversy surrounding the return of the wolf is substantial, but a more feasible option could lie with a much less controversial species – the Eurasian lynx.

Eurasian Lynx

Unlike the wolf, the lynx is a solitary animal and notoriously elusive. In areas where it is still present (mainly northern Europe) there have been no reports of anyone being attacked by a lynx. Alan Watson Featherstone, the founder of Trees for Life, believes we could see the lynx in the highlands as soon as 2025, an option that could give people a chance to become accustomed to living alongside a carnivore once again. When speaking about re-wilding, Featherstone argues: “The wolf is not the one to begin with, because it comes with tremendous prejudice: the Three Little Pigs, Red Riding Hood; it gets the works thrown at it.” Perhaps after the lynx, the proposals for wolf reintroduction could be re-opened.

A wild future

The concept of a re-wilded Scotland is a great one which, done in the right way, could help Britain to re-connect with nature. But first we need to understand the conflicts that might arise from these reintroductions and how to mitigate them. By starting small and moving forward with care we can ensure that there still is room for wildlife on this crowded island, with the hope that people could learn to live alongside it. Some re-wilding has already taken place; tree-planting (mostly of the native Scot’s pine) has contributed to the restoration of the ancient Caledonian pine forest and has seen a return of many native birds and mammals. But still, we have a long way to go before Britain truly runs wild.

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