Wouldn’t it be a glorious sight to watch white-tailed sea eagles diving for fish in the waters around the Solent? The UK’s largest bird of prey, fondly known as a “flying barn door” for its eight foot wingspan, was wiped out in England a century ago but now there are plans afoot to explore the possibility of reintroducing it to the Isle of Wight.
According to the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation, which is working with the Forestry Commission on a feasibility study, the island offers plentiful food availability and good nesting sites in woods and on the cliffs. The aim is to release 60 birds over a five year period, following in the footsteps of a successful Scottish scheme which currently has more than 130 breeding pairs.
Call of the wild
The concept of rewilding – which seeks to reinstate natural processes and return species and habitats to the countryside – is not always popular with land owners. In the case of sea eagles for example, some sheep farmers in Scotland have claimed that they make off with lambs.
And in the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire there are thought to be some 1600 wild boar roaming freely after both an illegal release and an accidental one but in this country we have no predator – the wolf – for wild boar which can trample and eat valuable crops and in parts of Europe is blamed for the spread of African swine fever.
But you could argue that the reintroduction of our lost species is simply an attempt to reverse centuries of ecological damage that have occurred partly through the loss of natural predation. Bringing back the lynx, last seen in Britain in the 16th century, is actively being discussed in Scotland and, supporters say, could potentially help to control numbers of roe deer, thereby regenerating woodlands, as well as to reduce fox populations.
Back where they belong
There are at least 20 other rewilding initiatives around the UK already in progress. Less controversial projects include a plan to put 60 pine martens into the Forest of Dean this autumn.
This weasel-like nocturnal mammal was once our second most common carnivore and was hunted to extinction by the Victorians because of its (and their!) predilection for game birds like the wood pigeon. It’s hoped that the presence of pine martens will in turn create space in the forest ecosphere for less common species like red squirrels and goldcrests.
An animal recolonising a geographic area after a long absence is one sign of a thriving ecosystem. An otter was recently spotted in a Sussex river, marking a return to the county for the first time in nearly 50 years. The presence of a flagship wetland species indicates that the rivers are recovering from pollution and that the complete food chain is intact.
The revitalised health of the River Meon in Hampshire has led to a five year project by the South Downs National Park to release the humble water vole, often mistaken for the brown rat, hence Ratty in Wind In The Willows. Breeding is proving successful and the UK’s fastest declining mammal is starting to make a comeback.
Getting the habitat right
Rewilding isn’t just about reintroducing lost species; it’s also about reinstating wildlife-friendly management of land. At the Norfolk Estate in West Sussex, the grey partridge population had dwindled to just nine pairs but, thanks to the careful creation of an ideal habitat, this figure soared to 342 pairs in the space of ten years. Hedgerows were restored to provide sheltered nesting locations, and wild grassy banks and field margins cultivated to harbour lots of invertebrate food for the birds to feast on.
Not all rewilding schemes have such a happy ending. A “Dutch Serengeti” experiment to rewild marshland east of Amsterdam was very publicly criticised last year for using wild cattle, horses and red deer to imitate the grazing of extinct species like the auroch, a large breed of cattle once common in Europe. With no control mechanism like predation in place, thousands of the animals simply starved to death. Maybe the clue as to what went wrong lies in the word “imitate”, not in itself an altogether natural process….
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