Showing posts with label rewilding. Show all posts
Showing posts with label rewilding. Show all posts

17 Dec 2019

And Winner, of the 2019 Torpedo the Ark Award, is ...

Micromys minutus

... Wendy Fail, for her successful attempt to reintroduce harvest mice to Northumberland.

As a doctoral student back in 2004, Fail bred 240 of these lovely and elusive little creatures in captivity, before then releasing them over a two month period on to a coastal nature reserve with plenty of reedbeds for them to hide in.

Although subsequent trap surveys suggested that the mice hadn't survived and formed a viable population as hoped, it now seems - 15 years later - that descendants of the original animals are in fact breeding, as freshly woven nests have been discovered at the reserve.   

Contacted with the news, Fail was said to be ecstatic - and I'm pleased for her - as I am for this particular species of mouse, which, like many other UK species, is in sharp decline due to all the usual reasons (including habitat destruction and modern farming methods, for example). 

A priority species for conservation and protected by law, the harvest mouse is Britain's smallest rodent (weighing no more than a tuppenny bit) and the only one with a prehensile tail.

Preyed upon by pretty much everything - including owls, cats, and even other mice - the harvest mouse is also surprisingly vulnerable to prolonged periods of cold, wet weather; not ideal when you live in England (even if primarily confined to the South East of the country). 

She hasn't, by her own admission, saved the world. But Fail has succeeded in making it just a slightly more magical (and less lonely) place and for that I congratulate her.

(Let's just hope that the pine martens that have also recently returned to Northumberland don't eat them ...!)

7 Mar 2019

Oostvaardersplassen: Animal Utopia or Animal Concentration Camp?

Rewilding means ... reacquainting ourselves with death


Even Isabella Tree has to admit that the experimental nature reserve established by Dutch ecologist Frans Vera - which inspired her and her husband's own Knepp Wildland Project - is controversial as well as extraordinary and may very well determine whether rewilding is taken seriously as an idea or written off as a green fantasy.  

Covering an area of 23 square miles, the Oostvaardersplassen is established on land that was only recently reclaimed from a huge freshwater lake. Part wetland and part a dry area, the former, with its large reedbeds, is home to a great many waterbirds as well as other animals that thrive in an aquatic environment. 

It's the dry zone, however, with its starving four-legged inmates, that attracts the controversy ...


Before the establishment of the reserve, the dry area was a nursery for willow trees and there were soon hundreds of seedlings sprouting up all over. This led to concern that a dense woodland would quickly develop, significantly reducing the value of the habitat for wildlife that requires open space.

And so, excited by Vera's theories to do with forest history and the role played by grazing animals in habitat creation, the park introduced a number of large herbivores, including primeval-looking Konik ponies, magnificent red deer, and dark-coated Heck cattle with their sharp, curved horns (and Nazi associations). 

These animals, it was hoped, would encourage the development of an ecosystem and flat, grassy landscape thought to resemble those that existed on European river banks and deltas before human influence, allowing biodiversity to flourish.  The plan was to keep the beasts out in the open all year round, living as close to an authentic life in the wild as possible. For minimal intervention was the name of the game at Oostvaarderspassen.

Initially, the numbers introduced to the reserve were modest; 32 Heck cattle in 1983; 20 Konik ponies in 1984; and 37 red deer in 1992. Again, the idea was to allow populations to grow naturally and, with no predators present, that's exactly what they did. Indeed, the animals multiplied faster than anticipated; soon there were hundreds of ponies and cattle and thousands of deer. 

And then, of course, during the first severe winter, they started to die-off just as rapidly - and in full view of the public. Unfortunately, the sight of starving animals and decomposing bodies being fed on by carrion, isn't one which modern Europeans are emotionally prepared for. Inevitably, there were angry protests from animal lovers concerned about cruelty and Vera received hate mail and death threats. Some compared Oostvaardersplassen to Auschwitz ...      


To be fair, there are legitimate criticisms to be made of this project; perhaps it was irresponsible to adopt such a laissez-faire approach to animal welfare in what is, ultimately, an enclosed reserve, limited in size, built upon flat, exposed land with very little natural shelter, in a part of the world where winters can be extremely harsh.

Ultimately, Oostvaarderspassen is not the Serengeti or the Okavango Delta in Botswana! It's too small and impoversished a space to simply allow large animals to breed willy-nilly and without the possibility of being able to migrate and seek out new food sources.   

Having said that, I'm glad to know that Frans Vera is unrepentant (and addresses many of the criticisms and concerns directly):

"'Yet again, our view of nature is being dictated by the conventions of human control. The baseline for the welfare of farm animals is being applied to animals living in the wild [...] The fact that animals live in the Oostvaardersplassen have a free life in a natural environment - they are not cooped up in some factory farm; they aren't pushed around by humans every day; they have normal sex rather than artificial insemination; they have a natural herd structure allowing calves to stay with their mothers; they can graze and browse what they are designed to eat, not what is artificially concocted for them by the farming industry - none of this seems to matter. The fixation is solely on their death not the quality of their lives.
      In particular, people believe these deaths are numerous and "unnatural" because there is a fence around the reserve preventing the animals from migrating in search of food - but cyclical die-offs happen even in the migrating populations of Africa. And in places where animals cannot migrate [...] the dynamic is the same. Starvation is the determining factor. It is a fundamental process of nature.'" 

As a thanatologist, I think that's true: that all life rests upon death. Nevertheless, public outcry in the Netherlands and elsewhere has forced a change of policy at the Oostvaardersplassen. Now animals deemed to be on their last legs or suffering too much, are shot and the bodies of the ponies and cows taken away to be cleanly incinerated.

Only the deer - since they are categorised as fully wild animals - are left to rot and be eaten by the foxes, rats, crows, beetles, and bacteria in a picnic of life and death ...

See: Isabella Tree, Wilding, (Picador, 2018), p. 69.

For a related post to this one - in praise of the Knepp Farm Project - click here.

5 Mar 2019

Wilding: In Praise of the Knepp Farm Project

Cover design by Neil Lang (Picador, 2018)


Author Isabella Tree and her husband, the conservationist Charlie Burrell, are founders of the Knepp Wildland Project in West Sussex; a bold experiment in rewilding 3,500 acres of land, thereby providing a glimpse of not only what the British countryside had once been, but a vision of what the British countryside could be again, if only others dared to follow their lead and allow biodiversity to flourish.  

I share their view that vain attempts at conservation are no longer enough; that these simply slow down the inexorable rate of wildlife decline and habitat destruction. What is needed now is to actively restore and expand the natural world; more plants, more ponds, more trees, more insects, more birds, and more animals of all kinds - and fewer roads, fewer cars, fewer houses, fewer people.

How easily we might spare a million or two human beings, as D. H. Lawrence says, if it allowed space for a few more wild things on the face of the earth.*   


I also agree with Isabella that the generation born in the 1960s were the last to have any direct experience and knowledge of what is now a lost world; a pre-decimal and pre-decimated world in which children played (without adult supervision) outside at every opportunity and were still thrilled by and in touch with nature: I remember collecting frogspawn as a child from the local pond and catching newts and slow-worms; I remember the family of hedgehogs who lived in the back garden and seeing huge flocks of birds in the sky; I remember when the world was green and literally hummed and buzzed and hopped with insects.

Over the last five decades, this world has either vanished completely or been radically transformed:

"Changes in land use and, in particular, intensive farming have altered the landscape beyond anything our great-grandparents would recognise. [...] We lost [i.e. destroyed] more ancient woods - tens of thousands of them - in the forty years after the Second World War than in the previous four hundred. Between the beginning of the war and the 1990s we lost 75,000 miles of hedgerows. Up to 90 per cent of wetland has disappeared in England alone since the Industrial Revolution. 80 per cent of Britain's lowland heath has been lost since 1800; a quarter of the acreage in the last fifty years. 97 per cent of our wildflower meadows have been lost since the war. This is a story of unremitting unification and simplification, reducing the landscape to a large-scale patchwork of ryegrass, oilseed rape and cereals, with scattered, undermanaged woods and remnant hedgerows the only remaining refuge for many species of wildflowers, insects and songbirds." [3-4]

This paints a bleak picture. As does the State of Nature report published in 2013 and compiled by scientists from twenty-five UK wildlife organizations:

"The numbers of Britain's most endangered species have more than halved since the 1970s, with one in ten species overall threatened with extinction [...] The abundance of all wildlife has fallen dramatically. Insects and other invertebrates have been particularly badly hit, more than halving since 1970. Moths have declined 88 per cent, ground beetles 72 per cent and butterflies 76 per cent. Bees and other pollinating insects are in crisis. Our flora is also failing." [6]

Three years later, a new, more extensive report found some grounds for optimism. But not much. For despite small gains, substantial losses continue and we are in imminent danger of losing 10-15 per cent of native species. The British might like to think of themselves as nature lovers and regard David Attenborough as a national treasure, but the fact is the UK has "lost significantly more biodiversity over the long term than the world average [...] we are among the most nature-depleted countries in the world" [7]

So thank fuck for the Knepp Wildland Project, where, in less than twenty years, Tree and Burrell have created an astonishing oasis of life; not by attempting to artificially preserve things and strict micro-management of the environment, but by letting go and allowing nature to run wild. Their hope - and my hope - is that this project can be rolled out across the UK and that Knepp is but "a small step on [the] road to a wilder, richer country" [10].** 


* Between 1970 and 2010 we added five million to the UK population, but lost 40 million birds from our skies. 

** The charity Rewilding Britain was launched in 2015: "By 2030 it aims to have returned natural ecological processes and key species to 300,000 hectares of core land [...] and three marine areas [...] Over  the next hundred years it hopes this will have extended to at least 1 million hectares, or 4.5 per cent of Great Britain's land and 30 per cent of our territorial waters [...] Its over all aim is not to rewild everywhere [...] but to restore parts of the British Isles to wild nature and to allow lost creatures [...] to live here once more." [10] 

See: Isabella Tree, Wilding, (Picador, 2018). Page references given in the text refer to this edition.  

Visit: the Knepp Castle Estate website: click here

Play: surprise musical bonus from 1982: click here

For a related post to this one on Oostvaardersplassen, click here.

6 Nov 2017

On the Question of Rewilding the UK (with Reference to the Case of Lilleth the Lynx)

An escaped Eurasian lynx called Lilleth - on the run from a zoo near Aberystwyth after leaping over an electrified fence - has been evading recapture and making news headlines for more than a week now.

Her shadowy feline presence amongst the Welsh hills, silently outwitting dozens of dozy policemen and scaring nervy local sheep farmers, has rekindled the debate about a possible rewilding of the British Isles; i.e., the large-scale restoration of ecosystems and, more controversially, the reintroduction of extinct native species, including large predators such as the lynx.

It's a project I fully endorse; it makes the heart happy to know that there are already small populations of beavers and wild boar at large and seemingly thriving. However, I can't seriously envision wolves and brown bears being able to roam freely once more without (i) a radical revaluation of values - something with which all rewilders agree - and (ii) a significant reduction of human numbers - something which many rewilders refuse to consider, or flatly deny the need for. 

The truth, however, is that large animals require lots of space and plenty of prey. Foxes may have adapted to an urban environment - and we may have become used to their presence in the city streets - but it's hard to imagine a family of wolves living under the garden shed and making do with some leftover chicken found in a bin bag.   

And it's also true that thanks to net migration and recorded births continuing to outnumber deaths, the population of the UK is growing at an accelerated rate. According to the latest report by the Office of National Statistics (July 2017), it presently stands at an all-time high of 65.6 million, having increased annually by an average of 482,000 for the last decade. By 2039, this same government body projects it will have risen to over 74 million.

That's a lot of people on a small island all needing to be fed and housed and all demanding the right to breed and to consume ever-more of the remaining natural resources. Eco-idealists who dream of man and nature living in perfect harmony are, frankly, fooling no one but themselves.

Sadly, if people want a world rich in flora and fauna - a world in which Lilleth's cubs can be wild and free - then the answer still remains what I said it was in a post published on 12 October 2013: voluntary human extinction [click here]. Only this will ensure that life's evolution continues to unfold in all its marvellous non-human diversity.        

Live long and die out people ... for how easily we might spare a million or two humans and never miss them. Yet what a gap in the world, the missing white frost face of a slim, golden-bodied lynx


Readers interested in knowing more about rewilding can visit the Rewilding Britain website: click here.

Readers interested in the latest report on the UK population by the ONS can click here.

Readers interested in knowing more about the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement can click here

The closing italicised lines are taken (in a slightly modified form) from the D. H. Lawrence poem 'Mountain Lion', Birds, Beasts and Flowers (1923).

Update: 11 Nov 2017: The authorities have "humanely" killed the escaped cat, having been unable to recapture her; justifying the action in the name of "public safety", which, they say, must be paramount at all times. And so we expose the murderous nature of our anthropic idealism once more. Men! The only animal in the world to fear!