Our megafauna have gone but so has the infrastructure on which they relied: rewilding begins with more trees.
Extinct British animals
The elk, aurochs, brown bear, lynx and wolf all became extinct in Britain some time in the last three thousand years. These megafauna, together with others such as the woolly rhinocerous, cave lion and wolverine, fell victim to the deadly combination of climate change and humans, at a time when we were doing little more than fighting for survival in a brutal, unforgiving world. The science of ecology was understood only in terms of making the world safer for people.
We understand now the vital role such keystone species play within the ecosystem as a whole. But has our behaviour changed to match? Bereft of large mammals, the way we currently manage our natural environment is steadily wiping out many of the smaller ones, but there is still hope.
The wildcat, pine marten and red squirrel are hanging on, despite millennia of various forms of human persecution.
One of the main threats to the wildcat, the UK’s most endangered mammal, is extinction through hybridisation with the domestic cat. However, efforts are now underway to establish and maintain a large “wildcat haven” in Western Scotland, where any feral cats are humanely neutered. Even so, the wildcat’s future hangs very much in the balance.
Pine martens & squirrels
A little further back from the brink, the pine marten and red squirrel have an interesting association with a third less welcome species, the grey squirrel. Although pine martens are partial to both species as prey, greys seem to come off worse, possibly because their larger size makes them less able to escape than the smaller, more agile reds.
Research in Ireland suggests that as pine marten populations recover, grey squirrel populations decrease and red squirrels bounce back. The Woodland Trust is working with the Vincent Wildlife Trust to help re-establish pine martens in parts of Wales.
Whilst this year has seen much discussion around the possible re-introduction of some of our larger predators, such as the lynx and the wolf, there is already re-integration work underway for many other species.
It’s notable that wild boar populations, themselves the result of both official and unofficial releases, are increasing rapidly. In places such as the Wye Valley they are significantly modifying their surroundings, often without the approval of their human co-habitants.
Vehicle collisions with wild boar look set to increase, presenting us with an interesting choice. Is this a risk we are prepared to live with in return for a slightly more “natural” natural environment?
Willingness to tolerate risk is implicit in the conservation of any large or dangerous animal, something that we haven’t had to consider in the UK for many hundreds of years.
Beavers have also made something of a splash, having recently been declared permanently re-established by the Scottish Government. Beavers are true ecosystem engineers, able to transform huge areas of riparian land into their preferred watery habitat. Bringing them back has come at a price to a limited number of landowners, but it seems a small price to society for what it brings in return.
Supporting natural processes
All of the above species, together with countless others – birds, amphibians, insects, plants and fungi – form a rich, interconnected mosaic of life of which we are only one element. Trees are an integral, often essential part too: for all the drama that the prospect of bringing back large carnivores entails, we have to get the basic infrastructure right first.
At its core, the process of rewilding is far more mundane than releasing lynx, bison and wolves. It’s about enabling and supporting natural processes, reducing the intensity of pressure on the land. A good place to start is through that most joyful of activities, planting a tree.