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Bringing Back the Big Guys

24 February 2014 | Posted in Conservation ,

Author Mike Russell

lynx / Tom Bech / Foter / CC BY
lynx / Tom Bech / Foter / CC BY

Centuries ago, wolves, lynx and brown bears inhabited our forests, beavers would have made dams in our wetlands and eagles patrolled the skies above our forests and uplands. As an 'apex' predator, they controlled populations across the landscape and a natural ecological balance was maintained. That is until we humans started to increase in number and directly impact on their numbers and a view of no tolerance towards competitive predators was adopted. Gradually they were all eliminated. No-one knows when bears officially became extinct in the UK but it is thought they had certainly long gone by the time the Normans arrived whereas lynx were originally thought to have disappeared some 5000 years ago, although the latest evidence shows that they may have in fact survived until as late as the 6th or 7th century. Wolves lasted officially until the late 17th century when the last one was shot in Scotland, while the white-tailed eagle survived until 1917 before it was finally blasted out of existence.

All these species managed to survive in the rest of Europe, though hunting and habitat loss has severely reduced populations. But recent good news from some analysis undertaken by the Zoological Society of London, Birdlife and the European Bird Census Council says that some of these key species are making a comeback. Statutory protection, habitat creation, hunting regulation and rural depopulation has led to the doubling of brown bears, the grey wolf increasing by 30% and numbers of European beaver have, in the past five decades, gone up by 3000%. All this though, it has to be remembered, is from a very low base. Sadly this doesn't apply to the Iberian lynx that is hovering on the verge of extinction.

Here in the UK, these animals can't come back naturally as we got rid of them all so we have to think about re-introduction. There has been a long-term project going on since the 1970s to bring back white-tailed eagles to Scotland which has been relatively successful, to the extent that it now brings in 5 million pounds a year in wildlife tourism to the Isle of Mull alone. Trials for re-introducing beavers are currently taking place in a few places in the UK, but now we are starting to get into the realms of concern about these programmes, and in some quarters there is downright hostility.

Bringing back wolves, bears and lynx is beyond comprehension for many people; no room in this crowded island, the effect on livestock, eating family pets and being frightened to go out in case we get attacked are just some of the objections thrown into the debate. From the conservation prospective, the amount of available habitat is the big issue; there are places for larger animals to be re-introduced but once an optimum population had been reached where would that population expand into.

But it is happening in Europe; there are issues with the predators coming up against rural communities and loss of livestock, but the idea shouldn't be dismissed out of hand in the UK. It could help deal with some of the ecological problems we have at the moment such as far too many deer; it could also check the smaller predator populations such as foxes and badgers.

Big carnivores roaming Sussex? Not in my lifetime I expect or for the foreseeable future sadly, but it shouldn't be dismissed outright. In parts of Europe it is becoming a reality and who knows, attitudes may change and the fact that there is positive news coming from across the continent does give the merest glimpse of encouragement that there may be a future for apex predators in our world.

beaver / Taraji Blue / CC-BY-NC-SA
beaver / Taraji Blue / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA


  • 27 Feb 2014 12:32:43

    Thanks for writing & posting this article. The question arising immediately in my head after reading your article is ‘why not in your lifetime, unless you don’t envision living for the next 30 years?’ Why not envision a return of the top predators in the next 30 years? Reality after all is a construct of our imagination. I could very well see the Lynx and Wolf roam around the healthy woodlands of Sussex in the next 30 – 50 years.

  • Rachael Swift:

    27 Feb 2014 13:47:07

    Some years ago I spotted a Lynx sitting in sun on top of rabbit infested railway embankment just north of Patcham and thought I was dreaming. So, I never discount stories of large predators roaming Sussex.
    Reading the local press in French Pyrennees bears get shot by shepherds on grounds of self-defense. They do get paid by their Government for livestock killed so, no doubt, the real number of so-called kills is vastly over-rated! Wolves are really spreading and do pose more of a risk as they seem to breed more successfully.

  • Dean Morrison:

    27 Feb 2014 14:27:03

    There are other smaller predators which I think would be good candidates for re-introduction to Sussex.
    In particular I’m thinking of the Pine Marten. The reason for its disappearance from most of England was down to persecution by gamekeepers rather than habitat loss, so there should be no problem there. Pine Martens are now spreading from their Highlands stronghold into the Central Belt of Scotland – but it will be many generations before they are able to re-colonise Sussex from such a distance.

    One of the really interesting things about their spread south is that there’s evidence that they a preying heavily on Grey Squirrels – a very easy animal for them to catch in comparison to the native Red, and a substantial meal. This it is said, is having a major impact on Grey populations.

    If so that suggests a god ecological reason for re-introducing Martens here – perhaps re-introduction of Pine Martens would open up the possibility for a sustainable re-introduction of Red Squirrels. It would certainly be beneficial for foresters, whose efforts to re-stablish commercial broadleaf forestry are severely hampered by Greys. A downside would probably be Martens preying on other things, in Scotland they’re not averse to taking Black-Throated Diver eggs, even on floating platforms in the middle of lochs. Perhaps we could gauge their possible impact in lowland environments by looking just across the Channel where Pine Marten and its close relatives the Beech Marten are fairly abundant.
    It’s a shame we don’t have the latter in the UK – they often hang around human habitation, especially farm building where they’re a great biological control for rats!

  • Beatrice Claire Potter:

    27 Feb 2014 18:10:53

    I have recently returned from Manas in Eastern Bhutan and Bardia in Nepal. People in both these areas live side by side with many different felines such as tigers, leopards, golden cat etc… plus bears, one-horned rhinos and elephants. I have walked within 30 yards of a tiger. No-one seems to mind as they feel that they have always co-existed with some of these top predators and other wildlife. In B.C., Canada bears line the highways and people picnic alongside them. Respect of the animal is the main thing and I, for one, having lived in mainland Europe alongside the lynx, feel no fear for the animal and welcome it. Perhaps the English are just too scared and full of pre-conceived ideas to make room for our fellow, ex-indegenous creatures. This is a shame as they were once part of our glorious biodiversity and should be allowed to be once more. Enlightened thought is required.

  • Bob:

    27 Feb 2014 18:27:30

    Technically, aren’t humans an “Apex Predator”?

  • Desmond Gunner:

    28 Feb 2014 08:33:30

    When Lynx and Wolves were eliminated, humans took their place as Top Predators and kept down the numbers of Foxes and Badgers. Now Badgers are protected and Fox Hunting is banned they are increasing enormously and will continue to do so. They are now becomming pests and some change in the regulations is needed to restore the balance.

    When I started farming 50 years aog, Badgers were rare because they were enthusiastically hunted and I had to protect them against poachers. Now I have five sets.

    TB is a disease of overcrowding, and overpopulation is a major cause of its spread.

  • Pat Sexton:

    28 Feb 2014 15:58:22

    Very interesting.Pine martins etc would be welcomed especially as we have a lot of grey squirrels!

  • Pat Sexton:

    28 Feb 2014 15:59:45

    Welcome back pine martins sort out grey squirrels!

  • Brian Brown:

    01 Mar 2014 21:21:27

    I’m surprised that many people say that things on the other side of th Channel are so much better than the UK for reintroducing the predators you talk about. In France, where I live at present, many (but not all) people say things like “what purpose do those animals serve?”. When Wolves reappeared briefly in the Alps some years ago, many people were aghast because they are dangerous because they eat sheep and might attack their children! The last known bear was shot in the Pyrenees a few years ago but I’m glad to say the shooter got a prison sentence for it. Other countries like the Netherlands and Belgium are very crowded although the latter has space in Province Luxembourg (yes it is in Belgium) where you do find large animals. I’ve also seen magnificent herds of red deer in Luxembourg proper and in Germany they are pretty interested in keeping the countryside as countryside (with animals). Back to my comments about France: they are destroying the countryside at an alarming rate and building all the time – new towns and suburbs – (hideous) out of town shopping centres “because we ‘ave so much space!” Yes, they have a lot of space, but how long is going to last?
    Ok, maybe I haven’t directed addressed the subject under discussion but I hope it’s obvious which side I’m on. On the other hand I think my comments are relevant in the sense that many people other than the British need to be persuaded!

  • Eileen Sephton:

    05 Mar 2014 09:29:36

    I remember a conversation on an aeroplane between a Canadian man and an english one.
    “So you don’t have guns? What do you do if a bear comes into your garden?”
    Would bringing back fierce predators also mean bringing back guns?

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