Author Mike Russell
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.