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Re-wilding our nature reserve?

Written by: Stewart Borland
Published: 3rd December 2014

On the question of re-wilding, Neiztche said only humans suffer from ‘the malady of history’. By that he meant only we (as far as we know) have the knowledge of what went before, the need to compare the past with the present and (ecologically speaking) to find the present wanting.

So it is, detractors would say, with those who want to re-wild the landscape. Re-wilding campaigners want to re-introduce sometimes controversial species previously extinct in the UK, especially larger mammals. People like Paul Lister, the MFI heir, who is attempting to fill his Scottish estate with, among other creatures, wild bear and wolves, much to the discombobulation of locals. But who are we to say what should be native and what should be eternally banned? That’s an easy question: we are the ones who got rid of them all in the first place.

Re-wilding, the Grey Wolf

The Grey Wolf. The last one was killed in Scotland in 1621.

When the foundations of Trafalgar Square were laid in the 19th century, builders found deep below London the ancient bones of elephant, rhinoceros, hyena and even lions. They are thought to have roamed Britain until around 10,000 years ago. As the oceans rose and severed Britain from the continent, British large mammals  remained forever un-replenished by migrations from the East. Those already here were finished off by hunters.

In Britain we have become, in the words of eco-journalist George Monbiot, zoophobic. In Europe they still have large mammals roaming wild, always have had them, and don’t give a monkeys. Monbiot says the fact that the British make such a fuss today about a few wild boar in the woods is acutely embarrassing in the face of French indifference to their million strong wild boar population, Italian nonchalance towards wild bears in their Alpine region, or the European’s collective ‘meh’ to wolves, which roam everywhere from the Russian Steppes to Spain.

re-wilding, Italian Alpine Bear

Italian Alpine bear

In Britain someone sees a large unidentified cat on the moors and there is wide spread panic. Re-wilding campaigners are basically saying: get a grip – there are lion bones under Trafalgar Square for goodness sake!

Re-wilding Beaver

If you wanted to dip your toe into the scary waters of re-wilding you could do worse than start with a smaller, less ferocious variety of mammal, the very useful beaver. But even this is controversial. In Scotland and England Beaver died out sometime in the 18th century, after humans hunted them to extinction for their meat, fur and castoreum, a secretion used in perfume and cosmetics. Even in Europe a hundred years ago beavers had reached a dire population of about 1200. But thanks to conservationists European beavers now number about 300,000.

Re-wilding, European beaver

European Beaver

Beavers are known as a Keystone Species. The presence of beaver in the landscape enables the survival of many other species including water voles, frogs, varieties of fish and freshwater shrimp, as well as the larvae and insects that amphibians feed on. Beavers drag logs into the rivers to make their dams and these provide a safe harbour for smaller creatures. Beaver dams also act as water filters keeping the rivers cleaner. In parts of America streams on which beavers live support up to 75 times as many waterbirds as those without. This all sounds wonderfully compelling. So why has there been such a delay in re-introducing them to Britain?

Ask the Angling Trust. For a long time they had successfully lobbied the government to block beaver re-population, complaining that the rivers were more or less exactly as they liked them and beavers would only mess it up. That wasn’t exactly what they said. They said that because man-made structures already caused blockages to fish in certain river systems, the last thing they needed was the added burden of beaver dams. But their argument falls apart in the light of scientific evidence that beaver dams do more good than harm to fish ecology. The Tweed Foundation, a charity that supports Scottish angling, begs to disagree.

Re-wilding, beaver dam

Beaver dam

In the case of the River Otter beavers the government almost got rid of them due to lobbying by the Angling Trust until Friends of the Earth championed the public outcry. DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) was quoted as saying:

“Beavers have not been an established part of our wildlife for the last 500 years and their presence could have a negative impact on the surrounding environment and wildlife. These animals may also carry a disease which could pose a risk to human health.” (DEFRA spokesperson, 2014)

The disease they refer to is known as alveolar echinococcosis. It infects a number of small mammals, very infrequently humans, and is not present in Britain. There are, however, plenty of European beaver which do not carry this disease and it is an easy matter to test any wild beaver using a sample of faeces.

Our own Scottish Knapdale beavers are from Norwegian beaver stock which is known to be disease-free.

The argument that we shouldn’t have beaver because we haven’t had them for 500 years seems to be indicative of British government attitudes to nature. The government has been trying to pass an alarming new law which reclassifies any extinct species as non-native and therefore subject to culling or extermination. The bill has its second reading on 8th December, having been passed back from the House of Lords who have seen nothing amiss.

Having tamed the UK landscape to an empty imitation of what it once was, re-wilding proponents say we have lost the sustaining elements of our ecosystem and now we can only watch helpless at its slow but inevitable collapse. They argue the lack of key species like beaver and apex species like wolves only contributes to this decline.

The biodiversity of the UK is declining at an alarming rate. In 1994, the UK Biodiversity Action Plan was introduced by DEFRA to conserve biodiversity in the UK. In 2014 the State of Nature report showed alarming rates of decline in biodiversity: 60% of all UK species in decline, 10% under threat of extinction. If you read the action plan and then the report you will be forgiven for thinking that nothing has been achieved after 20 years and millions of pounds spent. In the last 12 years for example 72% of the UK’s butterfly species have all but disappeared. But there are small pockets of hope, thanks to the efforts of conservation groups.

Re-wilding the Nature reserve

Highland Titles Nature Reserve

Here at Highland Titles we are busy doing our bit for the conservation effort. Building lochans, planting trees and welcoming pigs and bees has taken all our attention this last year, and so far we haven’t turned our attention to beaver, let alone bears or wolves! Please do leave comments and suggestions at the bottom of this post. We would love to hear opinions from our Lairds, Lords and Ladies about the possibility of reintroducing beavers in our lochans.

About the author

Written by: Stewart Borland

Comments on this post

  • Gerold Reimondo-Jandrok
    07/12/14 - 17:55

    The idea of re-introducing beavers to the nature reserves is exciting, but there is a need to proceed cautiously. We would have to insure that there was considerable local support for the project, and that we have sufficient expertise at our disposal to properly manage an animal population that has been largely absent from the Scottish ecology for 500 years.

  • Thursa Wilde
    08/12/14 - 13:31

    We agree Gerold. Here is the latest on the Knapdale Beaver final report:

    It will be interesting to see what the Scottish government decide.

  • Colin barker
    05/01/15 - 12:11

    All animals have a right to live here as us !

  • raymond whitehead
    05/01/15 - 12:37

    I like the idea of reintroduction , lets face it after we have become extinct as a result of our own actions they will all come back anyway so why not make it easier and pave the way for them .

  • Aleissandros Paris
    05/01/15 - 12:53

    Yes, it would be lovely to turn the clock back and have all the previously indigenous species returned to Scotland. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to be a sensible action, since the current environment has continued evolving over the last several hundred years in the absence of these species. The balance of nature is fragile already and to reintroduce such species, particularly involving two large carnivores, would necessarily create far greater predation on species already finding it difficult to survive. Do those who wish to reintroduce the fox want to wipe out the red squirrel? Should the beaver be set up in competition with the otter? Whilst I would love to think of these animals in the wild in Scotland, it really isn’t a practicable solution at the moment, not only because of the added stress under which it would put the current fauna and flora, but also due to the difficulty in establishing starter colonies of these animals with a large enough gene pool to be viable.
    Furthermore, where would it stop? The remains of polar bears have been found on Scottish territory. Should we reintroduce these highly endangered animals?

  • Allan Cherry
    05/01/15 - 15:04

    While I fully agree with Beaver being encouraged to bread and populate, the wolf & bear, to my mind would become sport as they call it and would be hunted, as the fox and Deer have been, this should be well debated, before being introduced, with safeguards put in place, to protect them and the public. with the killing for sport outlawed.

  • G Mayo
    05/01/15 - 16:15

    Beaver seem an excellent candidate for reintroduction, especially if disease free. Beaver are instrumental in bringing back other species and their habitat. The dams may seem a problem to some, but ponds are habitat for many other creatures and generally improve surrounding land.
    Wolves and Bear would be great, but may be more problematic for neighbors, especially if they have sheep and other small livestock and pets. If the deer population gets out of control as it has in suburban and even urban areas of the US, then wolves, bears and managed hunting become almost a necessity to balance. To much of anything is not good.

  • Malcolm H Whitehead
    05/01/15 - 17:06

    Would be nice to see all the wild life re-introduced in selected areas and would need monitoring especially the wolves and bears.

  • William Sim
    05/01/15 - 19:02

    The Grey Wolf and Bears are not what you want on a small area of land. There would be a lack of control. Other species and the land flora/fauna will suffer. Get an expert to do a study. General input from laymen is not a valid poll and a lot of time can be spent on higher priorities.

  • Carole Benner
    05/01/15 - 19:59

    Reintroduce the beaver. beavers are an important ahimal in preserving wetlands and the species which rely upon this environment.

  • Phil Crosby
    05/01/15 - 22:09

    While any human interference with small or large area fauna populations needs careful research and planning (especially the ecosystem ‘web’ impacts), I’m basically in favour of controlled re-introduction of the beaver. From my reading it seems to (re)fill a niche, and has proven net benefits to other species and habitats. Diversity is good.

  • Joanne
    06/01/15 - 00:56

    I’ve read the information and opinions above and can see both sides. There doesn’t seem to be a good arguement for introducing animals who are able to be hunted in a continent where hunting is still acceptable by the influential in society. However, if there is a sound introduction plan where a balance can be maintained by the environment with no interference by people other than to monitor and manage then it would be a good thing for the earth in my opinion. The last thing animals need is to be brought into an environment where they are not allowed to behave in their natural way and are hunted for doing so. The existing animals in the environment also deserve the same consideration.

  • John N. Stansbuy
    06/01/15 - 03:20

    I think there should be a study of re- introducing the Grey Wolf to the area.

  • H Barrass
    06/01/15 - 10:50

    I am very excited to be a part of the Glencoe family .Being so far away from home i am pleased to have the opportunity to give back to my beautiful home land and would like to thank the Glencoe staff for all their hard work and for the care that they take in keeping Glencoe Beautiful . from the bottom of my very proud Scottish heart THANK YOU .

  • J Skillman
    06/01/15 - 14:13

    What good is having preserved land without adding all aspects of nature to it. What man destroys, let man reestablish.

    06/01/15 - 17:35


  • L. Oakes
    06/01/15 - 18:20

    I can’t begin to imagine reintroducing bears and wolves to the Nature Reserve. These animals need vast resources and vast territories to live in. We have problems in North America trying to reintroduce wolves into the wild. I agree with William Sim, “get an expert to do a study.”

  • Luther Jones
    06/01/15 - 18:20

    Tell the fishermen (of which I am one) that beaver dams provide excellent ponds that make for excellent fishing. Also, it provides a place for otters to hunt for food. The two species go hand in hand in a symbiotic relationship. I live in the southern mountains of the US near the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. Beavers will flood land and kill the trees, but that area becomes a much more diverse wetland with an increase in species living in the area. Wood Ducks need the standing dead trees to build nests. Kingfishers swoop down on minnows from the limbs, and herons fish in the shallows. Geese that do not migrate (we have a resident population of Canada Geese here in the South) next and reproduce in these areas. Yes, beavers do alter the landscape. It doesn’t look as manicured and picture post card perfect when they are through, but the area is much more diverse and interesting. If you want more information, contact the Scottish Wildlife Trust and ask for Alexa Seagrave whom I met while in Scotland this past summer. As to the fishermen who object, I can tell you from experience, as a fisherman, that the presence of beavers on the side streams leading into the major rivers only improves the fishing as these areas become the nursery for the rivers. The rivers here are similar to the Coe at Glencoe and the Tay at Aberfeldy. Thanks for listening.

  • Jane
    06/01/15 - 23:07

    I would like to see beavers and other species reintroduced it would be good for the planet. First I want them to stop killing badgers livestock can be innoculated against TB it’s probably just cheaper to wipe out badgers!
    We need to stop any more species being wiped out as well as repair what has already been done
    However I do not want any species to be reintroduced that can be bated,tortured & killed purely for pleasure by demented humans

  • Patricia Anderson
    07/01/15 - 00:07

    I agree with most of the comments that since beavers have not inhabited the land for 500 years, the landscape has changed and would they do more harm than good in the present habitation. I would hate to see anything destroying this beautiful landscape.

  • Robert Lind
    07/01/15 - 15:38

    As well as the beavers on the River Otter in Devon, there are thought to be 120 to 150 beavers living wild in the tributories of the Tay. They were originally, it is thought, escapees from nearby tourist attractions. They do not always build dms – in fact, the area that I looked at recently suggested that they were living in burrows and that was supported by information found on the internet.

    I would support their introduction as part of a re-wilding. Furthermore, I am also an angler, but I cannot see why anglers should object to beavers.

  • Gerold Reimondo-Jandrok
    29/01/15 - 13:06

    Jut read in the Telegraph that the River Otter beavers have been granted a license to continue as a beaver colony:

    This proposal to introduce a beaver population on the nature reserve looks more desirable by the day.

  • Thursa Wilde
    04/02/15 - 13:37

    At this rate, they’ll probably walk in by themselves in a few years!

  • Zuleyma
    20/02/16 - 16:38

    Yeah, I read that news this morning. Build in naurtes way and nature is going to pick on you. I’d sue them for being stupid, not the beavers, the monkeys. But wasn’t it a nice day? It’s supposed to be even nicer tomorrow.

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