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Rewilding in the UK

Updated on November 10, 2014

The Scottish Highlands

A beautiful, but impoverished landscape. 400 years ago, pine trees would have covered this land.
A beautiful, but impoverished landscape. 400 years ago, pine trees would have covered this land. | Source


For many people in Britain, a holiday to Kenya or Tanzania to catch a glimpse of Africa’s stunning megafauna, and in particular its predators is the trip of a lifetime. We also spend millions of pounds a year supporting Wildlife charities that help to stop the persecution of carnivores such as lions, wolves, bears, leopards and tigers. We absolutely love these creatures; we love their grace, their agility and their ferocity, but only if these creatures do not live on our door step. At present our largest predators in the UK are European badgers and red foxes. How can we expect people struggling to survive in the third world to live alongside dangerous animals, when we’re not willing to accommodate predators like wolves and bears? It wasn't always like this, for most of the time that humans have lived in Britain, we lived alongside creatures such as wolves, bears, lynx, moose, wild boar and beavers, but sadly over the course of the last few thousand years; they have been systematically exterminated. Even now, we still to continue to persecute our remaining predators mercilessly. wildcats are now extremely rare and can only be found in the remotest corners of the Scottish Highlands, whilst foxes, stoats and weasels are still trapped and poisoned in their thousands, as they are normally blamed for the loss of any free range poultry.

Yellowstone National Park- A Rewilding Success Story

Floating Island Lake in Yellowstone National Park
Floating Island Lake in Yellowstone National Park | Source

Why Bother?

There are two fundamental reasons why I think the reintroduction of once native mammals to the UK merits serious consideration. The first is ecological; the Scottish Highlands were once covered in pine forest, but since the 17th century, most of it has been cut down to make way for grazing land and arable farming. In the present era, deer and sheep are so numerous that any tree seedlings that sprout are instantly browsed and trampled. The theory is that if once native predators like wolves and bears were to return, then they could control the numbers of herbivores, and also disperse and scatter the herds to relieve the grazing pressure on a particular area of land. Hopefully the end result would be a more stable and healthier herbivore population, and more importantly the regeneration of the once extensive pine forest, known locally as the ‘Caledonian forest’. We can take inspiration from the successful reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in the US. It was only in 1995 that they were brought back, but in just seventeen years, native vegetation such as aspen previously suppressed by elk, moose and bison has reappeared. The wolves help to control the numbers of the herbivores; they also help to disperse them over a wide area, so no one particular area gets overgrazed and they also create a healthier overall population of herbivores by selectively killing off the older and weaker animals. Of course, the success has come at a price, many of the local ranchers are unhappy, because of the increased predation on their livestock, so it remains to be seen whether the wolf has a long term future in Yellowstone.

The second reason is, and you can’t really ignore it, is the commercial potential. British people travel thousands of miles and pay out vast sums of money to see bears and wolves and other animals in countries as far apart as the US, Canada, Sweden and Romania. Surely it would be far better if we could enjoy these magnificent creatures on our doorstep, not to mention it would be cheaper and also cut our carbon footprint. Britain would probably receive a timely boost to its economy, due to the influx of tourists deciding to holiday at home rather than go abroad, and it could help to create hundreds maybe even thousands of jobs, in the retail, tourism and conservation industry, an influx of jobs is just what the UK needs at this moment in time.

The Six Candidates

Grey Wolf
Grey Wolf | Source
Wild Boar
Wild Boar | Source
Moose | Source
Eurasian Lynx
Eurasian Lynx | Source
European Beaver
European Beaver | Source
Brown Bear
Brown Bear | Source

The Return?

In 1992, the European Union passed a directive called the ‘European Habitats Directive’ basically it informed the members of the union to ‘study the desirability of reintroducing species that are native to its territory’. In all that time, Britain has made very little progress on this front, indeed the only thing we have done, is to reintroduce the once native pool frog, and even that was amid a storm of controversy, so what hope is there for our larger animals? Sadly there are no easy answers, due to the fact that the issues aren't just ecological but also political. Below I’m going to outline the pros and cons of reintroducing six once native species and where they potentially could live:

Grey Wolf:

Status: Officially the last individual was killed in 1680, but the species did manage to survive until the 1740s.

Pros: Could lead to the regeneration of the Caledonian pine forest by suppressing red deer.

Cons: Wolves do take livestock, especially sheep. Between 1950 and 2000, 21 people in Europe were attacked by wolves and four died.

Where: It would have to be the Scottish Highlands, as there is just not enough space for them in the rest of the UK. The loss of the odd sheep would surely be compensated for by increased tourism and a timely boost to the economy.

Wild Boar:

Status: Probably extinct by the end of the 13thCentury in the UK. However, feral animals that escaped from farms have managed to establish populations in Kent, Sussex, Dorset and Gloucestershire.

Pros: Studies show that wild boar increase biodiversity in woodlands by digging for roots and turning over the soil. They help to reduce the density of bracken, which can impede regeneration, and they may be able to reduce the impact of non native plants such as rhododendrons.

Cons: Britain is famous for its bluebell woods, each spring our deciduous woods gain a lovely blue carpet of flowers. But this may only be possible because of the absence of the wild boar and its foraging behaviour. Also, an adult male can be a very aggressive animal.

Where: The boar is already established in the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, so other large, extensive woodlands would be the best place.


Status: Went extinct in Britain about 3500 years- long before even the Romans arrived.

Pros: Magnificent animals that would be a major attraction for wildlife watchers and other tourists.

Cons: Like its deer cousins, it’s a browser, so they would probably inhibit the regeneration of native forest. In Canada, it’s said that they kill more people than any other animal (apart from bees) as a result of collisions with vehicles.

Where: Moose have already been reintroduced to the Highlands, albeit within the confines of a large fenced enclosure at the Alladale estate. But as for reintroduction into the wild, maybe they’re best left where they are for now.


Status: The Lynx went in extinct in the UK around 500 AD; they were probably persecuted for preying on livestock.

Pros: Lynx are primarily predators of deer of various species, so they would help to significantly reduce the population.

Cons: Very few. There are no records whatsoever of any attacks on humans, but they do take farm animals.

Where: Dorset has a huge population of non native sika deer that needs reducing.


Status: Disappeared between the 12th-16thcenturies. Two years ago 11 beavers were released back into the wild in Argyll, Scotland and last year they bred for the first time, so their reintroduction is already under way, although it’s early days to say whether it has been successful or not.

Pros: Beavers help to create ponds in river systems through their lodges and dams, which provide a habitat for fish, otters, waterfowl and dragonflies.

Cons: Few. They would probably feed on trees such as oak, rowan and willow, but would unlikely to result in deforestation- their impact would be similar to coppicing.

Where: With wild beavers established in a small corner of Scotland, English conservationists are currently carrying out a ‘trial’ release in the Cotswolds, Gloucestershire; it’s a lovely part of the country with rolling hills, plenty of trees and clean rivers.

Brown Bear:

Status: Probably went extinct in the UK around 500 AD.

Pros: A charismatic species, definitely a draw for the tourists. But it won’t be as ecologically beneficial as the wolf, as they are more omnivore than carnivore.

Cons: They are dangerous to humans, despite the fact that North America’s 900,000 black and brown bear’s only kill an average of three people a year. They’re more likely to predate livestock; in fact one bear can kill up to 50 sheep in one night.

Where: Only where high sheep losses could be tolerated, and at present nowhere in the UK is suitable.

Glen Alladale

The site where Paul Lister and his team have begun planting new pine and deciduous trees. A fence has been built to keep out the grazing animals.
The site where Paul Lister and his team have begun planting new pine and deciduous trees. A fence has been built to keep out the grazing animals. | Source

A Highly Recommended Book

Beyond Conservation: A Wildland Strategy
Beyond Conservation: A Wildland Strategy
The Author, Peter Taylor puts forward a compelling argument for the reintroduction of large mammals into the UK

The Present and the Future?

As already mentioned, the beavers and wild boars reintroduction has already begun. The wild boar is probably here to stay, but for the beavers it’s early days to make a sound judgement. But what about the others? I also mentioned the fact that the moose had already been released into a large enclosure at Alladale, in the Scottish Highlands. I’m going to take the opportunity to tell you a little bit about the Alladale project.

It began in 2005, when one of the UK’s richest men, Paul Lister, heir to the fortune of the furniture retailer MFI took a trip to the Shamwari Game Reserve in South Africa to witness a success story. In the early 1990’s a successful businessman called Adrian Gardiner bought a small farm as a weekend getaway for him and his family, in the area the reserve now covers. At the time, the neighbouring farmers were struggling with drought and lack of finance, so many of them placed their land on the open market. Adrian was able to buy up these parcels of land at very reasonable prices, within just a couple of years he had acquired 7000 acres and set out to achieve a lifelong dream of creating a wilderness preserve.

By the time of Lister’s visit, Adrian had succeeded in turning what had been agricultural land back into wilderness, full of indigenous wildlife, including some of Africa’s most charismatic species, such as lions, elephants and giraffes etc. Lister went away, inspired to create his own wilderness preserve back home. Almost immediately he purchased the 10,000 acre Alladale Estate in the Scottish Highlands and began making plans about reintroducing wolves, bears and other lost species. However, unlike his counterpart in South Africa, Lister has run into numerous problems. Firstly under Scottish law, you cannot just release large animals back into the wild, they need to be within an enclosed space. But by doing that, he creates a confusing paradox, because humans have ‘right to roam’ across all of the Highlands, therefore enclosing even the smallest area is totally illegal. Nevertheless, undeterred Lister erected a 90km long fence that encloses about 550 acres, and is already home to released herbivores such as wild boar and moose. It has three electric wires running at different heights, including one at ground level to stop the wild boar from digging underneath. Alarms have also been fitted, should any breach occur and all the released animals have radio collars, so that if they do escape, they can easily be recaptured. The fence has caused natural and justified outrage amongst the local walkers and ramblers who fought for years to gain ‘the right to roam’ across the Highlands. Lister also has a problem concerning the release of predators, and it’s this, now that he has decided to enclose his estate, he cannot release wolves and bears into the same enclosure as the herbivores for obvious reasons, so he would have to build a separate enclosure for them, or cordon off an area of the existing enclosure, but that would totally go against his original plan.

It remains to be seen whether Lister can succeed in his ambitious dream, in order to do so he will have to ride a wave of legislation and bureaucracy. Back in 2006, he hoped that by now he would have the predators established. He also hoped that he would be able to attract 50,000 tourists a year. He envisaged guided tours through the enclosed area and cameras set up at special feeding areas, but so far none of those plans have come to pass. Instead Lister and his team have been concentrating on planting 200,000 pine seedlings and 50,000 deciduous seedlings in order to help the regeneration process along a bit at a nearby site called Glen Alladale, which is the core area of the estate. Lister is also promoting the estate as a holiday getaway, and also as a traditional deer stalking and fishing estate.

© 2012 James Kenny


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