Rewilding Britain: hungry for a home

The idea of wolves wandering a windswept landscape is one straight out of a George. R. R. Martin novel, an image now synonymous with the northern reaches of Westeros and the Starks of Winterfell. However, as the topic of ‘rewilding’ Britain has once again raised its furry head, the cinematic northern wilderness depicted in the TV series Game of Thrones could soon be witnessed a little closer to home.

There was once a time when apex predators, such as wolves and bears, were prominent features of a wild and untamed British countryside. But as human civilisation increased and expanded within Britain, these animals were targeted and, ultimately, eliminated from our shores. Today, ecosystems within the UK continue to experience declines in biodiversity, a situation indicative of a growing global problem. As a result, most of our large mammals and the majority of our native forests have now been lost.

This has prompted a growing interest in rewilding initiatives as potential tools for improving the biodiversity of natural habitats. The basic principle of rewilding involves the reintroduction of formerly native plant and animal species, to return the land back to its historic wild state. This is by no means a new concept, with its potential application in Britain previously discussed on numerous occasions during the last 15 years. However, the well documented success of the Yellowstone rewilding project, and the consequent film How Wolves Change Rivers has given more weight to its argued implementation.

The rewilding of the Yellowstone National Park, which is situated in the United States, first began in 1995 when large scale carnivore restoration was implemented. The project saw the reintroduction of wolves, as well as increased numbers of grizzly bears, to control the feeding habits of the elk population within the area. Extensive scientific research has shown that the project has been successful in increasing biodiversity, with the reassertion of a dominant predator in the area allowing local plants and tree species to re-establish. This process, known as a trophic cascade, has allowed different species of flora and fauna, which would have otherwise not survived during increased elk grazing, to be successful.

Closer to home, there have been positive early re-introduction trials for numerous species within the European Union, including the likes of wolves, bears and bison. Although it is too early to tell what level of success will be achieved, these positive moves have been attributed to the growing collaborative efforts for wildlife protection experienced in Europe. These joint endeavours have, understandably, drawn attention to conservation within the UK.

European bison (Bison bonasus) at Armenis, Tarcu Mountains, southwestern Romania. They were brought to Armenis in May as part of a rewilding project. © Bogdan Cristel/Reuters
European bison (Bison bonasus) at Armenis, Tarcu Mountains, southwestern Romania. They were brought to Armenis in May as part of a rewilding project. © Bogdan Cristel/Reuters

Well known author, journalist and environmental activist George Monbiot has become the unofficial figurehead behind the move towards rewilding, following his latest book, Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding, published in 2013. In a recent interview with National Geographic he stresses, ‘By bringing back what biologists call keystone species – species that have an impact on other species and are ecological engineers, creating habitats for other species – you kick-start these dynamic ecological processes.’

His high profile support of rewilding has played a vital role in promoting the growing discussions within the UK, spreading its message to members of the public previously missed in past years. Clearly the UK has been left wanting, compared to the rest of Europe, with regards to biodiversity; a point recently highlighted in last month’s Environmental Audit Committee’s report, which gave the area a damning review. It would therefore be fair to suggest that Britain has excelled at talking the talk, but been found lacking in the walking department. But, as Monbiot maintains, ‘Talk precedes action’.

The rewilding of Britain would focus on unpopulated areas of highland, currently low on biodiversity. Any projects undertaken, especially those involving apex predators, would involve local communities throughout the process. This will ensure that concerns over their livelihoods and, perhaps more importantly, their safety are properly attended to. When thoughts turn to wolves and bears roaming the countryside, fear is an understandable emotion to have. However, why should we be scared of animals in their natural habitat? With a proper understanding of their behaviours, and appropriate monitoring, there is no reason why the UK cannot begin to reproduce the success experienced at the likes of Yellowstone.

As the nights begin to draw in, the words of Ned Stark become fitting, ‘winter is coming’, though it still begs the question: will the wolves be joining as well?


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Dougie Philips


Feature Image: The Guardian 


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