Rewilding Britain 2020

Rewilding is a movement where efforts are concentrated on restoring the landscapes natural processes, eventually trying to create ecosystems that don’t require as much human management and giving space for nature to thrive on its own. Part of the rewilding process is to reintroduce key species that can help restore a more stable ecosystem. 2020 has seen some fantastic reintroduction projects with many more planned for the new year, and I wanted to take a moment to highlight some of the remarkable stories in the UK and those to look forward to in the years to come.

An estimated 413 flora and fauna species have become extinct in England alone in the past 200 years, and in the last 70 years 98% of wildflower meadows have met the same fate. Rewilding is not about restoring the past, but is how we can proactively seek and carry out solutions for our world that is currently in environmental crisis. Through reintroducing key species, we can support the environment and allow the natural systems to restore themselves. This was a really interesting topic to dive into and challenging to try summarise each into <300 words, but even so it turned out to be rather a long article, enjoy!

Storks

In early May, white stork eggs were seen hatching on the Knepp Estate in West Sussex – the first time a pair has bred and successfully hatched eggs in the UK since 1416! Although migratory, storks are native to the British Isles and are a symbol of rebirth, making them the perfect project to start this article.

Photo credit: Malcolm Green

With a wingspan of 7ft and standing at over 3 ft tall, this distinctive species migrates to the UK/Europe in Spring. Although the reasons for their disappearance from the UK are unclear, it is thought to be a combination of over-hunting, targeted persecution, and habitat loss. While they are not an endangered species, their reluctance to return to the UK is a sign of the lack of abundance of suitable habitats, making their reintroduction emblematic of the wider rewilding project taking place at the Knepp Estate and beyond. An initial population of Polish non-flying rescue birds acted as a beacon, attracting 2 wild storks within the first 2 months. In the successful breeding pair, the female came to Knepp as one of 20 juveniles from Poland in 2016, while the male had no identifying ring, suggesting he is likely to be one of the 20 birds that visit the UK each year.

While these birds are not endangered and there are calls for more focus on other more disadvantaged species, the reintroduction of these striking birds gains the interest and support from the general public leading to greater general investment and thus ability to redirect funds into other projects. This is already evident from the extensive media coverage of the chicks not only in the UK but also in France and Poland, and from the 2,500 people that have visited Knepp to see the chicks when travel restrictions allowed. The nests themselves also provide homes and/or building materials for other species like starlings and house/tree sparrows when they are not occupied by the storks.

Wild Bison

In 2022, the West Blean woods nature reserve is planning to welcome wild bison back to Kent for the first time in 6000 years. Unlike their cousins that roam the North American plains, European bison were once found in our woodlands but narrowly missed extinction with only two populations left by the turn of the 20th century: one in Russia and one in Poland. In the 16th century, a death penalty was introduced in Poland for poaching which was unfortunately ignored, but a herd remained in Poland’s Białowieża Forest. When Germans occupied Białowieża Forest during WW1, hunting caused the 600-strong herd to plummet to only 9 resulting in the remaining individuals being placed in zoo’s. A challenging but successful breeding programme followed which eventually led to there being an estimated 6200 individuals in 2019. European bison differ from the American bison by being adapted to woodland environments instead of the open plains we would normally picture, and having a less densely packed coat of fur. They are a little taller with necks adapted to browse on leaves, fruit, and bark instead of low-lying grass.

These large grazing animals are often called ecosystem engineers as their natural behaviours change their environment in a unique way. Through dust bathing, bark eating, rubbing against trunks, and creating corridors through densely vegetated patches, bison create gaps in the canopy encouraging more light to the woodland floor and increasing the amount of deadwood. These behaviours have knock-on benefits to native animal and plants right down to the bacteria in the soul, and encourage further biodiversity.

If you would like to read more about the fascinating history of European bison and their return to Europe, read the article below

Golden Eagles

Once widespread across Wales, the golden eagles have been all but extinct aside from one lone female that was originally a captive bird, but she was found dead in 2019 (cause of death remains unknown). These large birds of prey are mainly a dark brown colour with a golden head and neck, and the ability to lift up to 5kg thanks to their 2m wingspan. These magnificent raptors are found in the mountains and moorlands of Scotland but have been absent from Wales for nearly 200 years.

Wilder Britain has ambitious plans to reintroduce 10 young golden eagles to Snowdonia in 2021 so the area can live up to its welsh name of Eryri (“Land of the Eagles”), but the initiative has not yet been approved. Initial research by Lancaster University, on behalf of Wilder Britain, proposed the Welsh countryside could support upwards of 50 breeding pairs, but more rigorous research is now being spearheaded by Eagle Reintroduction Wales led by Cardiff University. Golden eagles primarily hunt rabbits, hares, grouse and even foxes, but there are concerns that there is simply not enough prey species to support the apex predator with the wilderness in it’s current condition. There are concerns that the lack of other prey could lead to agricultural stock being under threat, as new-born lambs can weigh under 5kg making them vulnerable. Wilder Britain also plan to reintroduce other species including mountain hare to sustain the eagle populations, but it seems more research and a more diverse environment is needed before this project can get the go ahead.

Red squirrels

Since grey squirrels were introduced from America in 1876, the grey squirrel population has boomed to an estimated 2.7 million while the native red squirrels have dwindled to only 140,000 with three quarter of that number being found in Scotland. The invasive greys not only outcompete the reds, but they also carry squirrel pox which they are immune to but is almost always fatal to their red cousins.

Red Squirrels United launched in 2015 and finished in 2020, bringing together wildlife trusts, academics, and volunteers alike and raising over £11.5 million for the sector. Initially focused in conserving the populations in 9 specific areas of Northern Ireland, Northern England and Wales, they also worked with local reintroduction projects to take place with the Dorset Wildlife Trust, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, and other areas of Scotland.

Another key player in supporting the red squirrels is Trees for Life. While the population in Scotland is the largest, the woodlands have become fragmented meaning the groups of red squirrels are divided as they are unable to cross open ground. From 2016 they have been restoring populations to areas in the north-west Highlands that were once occupied, with 9 translocated populations already flourishing and more planned in 2021 to move populations further north.

Did you know, squirrels have double-jointed ankles so their feet can face both forwards and backwards to make them better at climbing trees.

White-tailed eagles

Once prevalent across the whole South Coast of England, the last pair bred on the Isle of Wight in 1780 before being driven to extinction. White-tailed eagles are the UK’s largest bird of prey with a wingspan of 2.5 metres and living up to 40 years. These eagles are often opportunistic hunters, feeding on carrion or even pirating it from other birds and otters. The Isle of Wight’s position to surrounding estuaries and the Solent make it an ideal place to support the breeding and wintering eagles when they are fishing in shallow waters in the spring and summer.

Juveniles are collected (under licence) from nests in Scotland and moved to the Isle of Wight in June/July for a 4-8 weeks wait before they are released. The original population of White-tailed Eagles comes from Norway. The Natural England licence has permitted the release of up to 60 juveniles over a 5-year period, with the first 6 birds released in 2019 and up to 12 birds to be released each year following. They don’t breed until they are about 5 years of age, so by the end of the project wildlife enthusiasts could see breeding pairs scattered around the South Coast.

Pine Martens

In September 2019, 18 pine martens were relocated from the Scottish Highlands to the Forest of Dean, with similar numbers scheduled for release in both 2020 and 2021. Unfortunately, Covid-19 meant that a substantial amount of work planned for the Forest of Dean area was delayed, so the next release is planned for autumn 2021. Although there was a small population in the Welsh areas of Cambrian Mountains, Carmarthenshire and Snowdonia, these populations were dwindling and would have become extinct in these areas if intervention actions were not implemented. Pine martens had not officially been recorded in the Forest of Dean since 1860, and after extensive hunting and habitat loss they become Britain’s second-rarest native carnivore.

Pine marten on alder branch in Scotland, source: Countryfile

Pine Martens are mustelids (carnivorous mammals) that are around half a metre long and can live up to 8 years. These nocturnal mammals prefer woodland habitats and live in tree holes or the abandoned second-hand homes of squirrels or birds. They are light brown in colour with a long, bushy tail and a pale yellowy-white ‘bib’ extending from its chin down its throat. Eating eggs, insects, fruit (berries often turn their droppings red or even blue!), small rodents, and birds, they can occasionally be seen on bird-tables feasting on peanuts and raisins. They tend to predate whatever is the most common in the area, which may make them an effective natural control for the invasive grey squirrel that is abundant in the Forest of Dean. Research from Queen’s University Belfast has suggested that the numbers of red squirrels have been on the rise in areas where pine martens are now active, as they target grey’s more than the red’s due to their higher abundance and larger size thus larger pay-off. The long-term ambition is for the territories of both the welsh and forest of dean releases to broaden and link together, further bolstering their recovery.

Beavers

I couldn’t do a rewilding post without talking about beavers. These large semi-aquatic rodents have been released across many areas of the UK including the Isle of Wight, Cheshire, Yorkshire, Cornwall, Devon, and a quiet release in the Knepp Estate in Sussex where they had been absent for 400 years. Living up to 15 years and growing to nearly 1m long, beavers are Britain’s largest rodents. They like the entrance to their burrows to be submerged for safety, so if there is no deep water they coppice trees and build dams to create it, sculpting the landscape as they do so.

Did you know, beavers’ teeth are a dark orange colour because of the iron-rich protective enamel on the front surface. Their teeth are always growing, so to keep them sharp the softer inside edge wears away as the beaver chews through hard wood, while the iron rich side remains hard leaving a sharp edge of tough enamel.

There are now thought to be around 1,000 beavers living wild in Britain, which is fantastic news. Their natural behaviours benefit not only their surrounding habitats but also ours by providing effective flood and drought prevention infrastructure, reducing downstream flooding, better water quality through sedimentation and filtering the water. By slowing the flow of the water, they can even reduce the level of agricultural pollutants in the water. One of the most fantastic benefits of their engineering is the creation of complex wetlands which provides habitats for more fish, invertebrates, birds etc and increasing biodiversity. A farm hosting the Cornish beavers has seen 6 new bird species and 3 new mammals on his farm, including water shrews, polecats, harvest mice and green sandpipers.

There are many other projects in the works both in the short and long term, and I am looking forward to seeing what 2021 brings to UK conservation. We need to work together with nature to build a more resilient landscape and ecosystem, with rewilding being one of the potential catalysts for change.

If you would like to watch a short documentary on beavers, a great one in linked below

Beavers without borders, by the Beaver Trust

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