Rewilding – A Careers Perspective

Rewilding – creating controversy and excitement in equal measure on the wildlife conservation world. Can we bring back species long lost from environments and learn to live with them? How did we manage to lose so much in the first place? What are the benefits of bringing back certain species, financially, spiritually and ecologically?

There is no question that, given the rising human population and limited space in many countries, a working landscape is very much required. The challenge, therefore, is to integrate wilderness around the working landscape and be able to adapt to living with previously absent animals.

Flickr / Tambako The Jaguar

Eurasian Lynx (Flickr / Tambako The Jaguar)

Rewilding Facts

  • Rewilding Europe has seven project areas restoring habitats and species.
  • Studies have shown that large predator populations, along with their range, are increasing in mainland Europe.
  • The controversial ‘Pleistocene Park’ in north-east Siberia, aims to recreate a Steppe ecosystem from the Pleistocene period, on the basis that extinctions were driven by hunting, not climate change. Large herbivores and later predator introductions are planned.
  • The Oostvaardersplassen nature reserve in the Netherlands is a wetland grazed by large herbivores such as Heck Cattle, meaning little human intervention is required and the wetland is close to a natural ecosystem.
  • Scientists in Australia have proposed Dingo reintroductions to help stem the decline in native species due to smaller non-native predators. More.
  • The Yellowstone Wolf Project released 41 animals into Yellowstone National Park in 1995; there are now 450 – 500 in the park and more in surrounding areas. The ecological condition of the park has substantially improved thanks to the reduction of Elk numbers, meaning the project is often the most commonly cited example of rewilding.
  • The federal government in Washington State is exploring the possibility of reintroducing Grizzly Bears to the Northern Cascades National Park. More.
  • Banff National Park, Canada, is preparing to reintroduce Bison, not seen in the park since 1870.

How does bringing back lost species and ecosystems alter the way we work in conservation? From research, legislation, working with communities to visitor engagement, it is clear that evolution is required, from grass roots to the boardroom.

Changing Perceptions

An appetite for rewilding and the reintroduction of species is essential for the future success of the projects taking place. The number of people living in urban areas worldwide has overtaken that of the number in rural areas and with that a long term disconnection from nature has occurred.

Many people are unaware of the species which used to inhabit the countries they live in and how ecologically deprived the managed environment left behind often is. Education is crucial through film, writing and field teaching programmes, as is positive engagement with stakeholders and the public at events and conferences. Zoos and wildlife parks offer many people their only chance to see charismatic large mammals close up in real life, providing important reconnections between man and nature.

Controversy rages about the value of shooting in conservation and there are certainly negative aspects, but a large amount of land and species are protected through it. From a conservation point of view, there are no issues with sustainable hunting, indeed populations of certain species have to be controlled. Moving forward, if the hunting community can work closely with conservationists, many new areas could be rewilded whilst facilitating shooting, maintaining healthy and viable populations of all species.

Case Study: The United Kingdom

The United Kingdom is an island nation where all large predators and several herbivores have been absent for hundreds of years. Data from the British Trust for Ornithology recently linked woodland bird decline to overpopulation of Deer.  Left with barren, overgrazed uplands a growing number of people and organisations are now becoming supportive of restoring areas of true wilderness and reintroducing lost species where practical.

Wolf

European Wolf – A species too far? (Captive. Photo – James Walker).

In October 2014, the Earthwatch Institute led a debate on rewilding, with a panel of academics and stakeholders, including the CEO of the Scottish Wildlife Trust c and the Deputy Director of Policy for the National Farmers Union Scotland. The conclusions of the debate were positive, and felt like a turning point for different rural interests to drive rewilding forwards working together.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zWVCwYFhHq0]

In the UK, progress in rewilding habitats has been more prominent than species:

  • Glen Feshie estate, 17 000 hectares in size, the Alladale wilderness reserve, perhaps the most famous project, is 9 300 hectares and Trees for Life own the 4 000 hectare Dundreggan estate, are all being rewilded in Scotland. Other projects are scattered throughout the United Kingdom.
  • Commercial forestry would provide habitat suitable for certain species, particularly Lynx, creating enough land for a viable population. The conservation staff involved would need to carefully monitor the impacts of felling practices.
  • The Scottish Beaver Trial has just published its final report concluding the positive and negative effects of the released animals in Knapdale Forest, which will influence Government decisions on possible future releases in other areas. Unofficially reintroduced Beavers have been allowed to live on a trial basis on the River Tay in Scotland and the River Otter in Devon, a story which generated much mainstream media coverage.
  • Successful reintroductions of White Tailed Eagle, Osprey and Common Crane have left populations expanding in both number and range.
  • The Lynx UK Trust c is currently the sole representative of large predator reintroduction, its licence application to begin a trial reintroduction of Eurasian Lynx on the west coast of Scotland being processed.
  • The Vincent Wildlife Trust is planning to relocate Pine Martens to boost relict populations in Wales and eventually begin a reintroduction project in England.

How do major wildlife charities feel about rewilding?

  • The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds manages huge areas of land for wildlife; often these are man-made habitats which are ideal for specific target species. The charity is however, restoring the Caledonian pine forest at Abernethy, North Scotland, a boost to potential areas for reintroduced species.
  • The Devon Wildlife Trust ran the petition to save the Beavers found living wild on the River Otter and the Scottish Wildlife Trust openly supports Lynx reintroduction.
  • Both the RSPB and Wildlife Trusts promote landscape scale conservation through their ‘Futurescapes’ and ‘Living Landscapes’ projects, which intend to increase the amount of wildlife across a network of habitats. Not rewilding, but the projects increase biodiversity and expand the range of existing species.

Candidate Species

Wild Boar. Already present in Britain, not without controversy, most prominently in the Forest of Dean. They stem from escaped or illegally released animals and are classed as a feral population. Boars occupy the ecological niche of disturbing the surface layers of the ground, mixing and spreading nutrients. This increases plant and invertebrate populations. However, without a natural predator the woodland floor is damaged and certain plant species dominate so populations need controlling through a predator or hunting. Outside of a natural forest habitat, Wild Boar cause problems for agricultural land and gardens, resulting in their demonization in some quarters.

Eurasian Lynx would be the logical predator to restore. They would fit into the current landscape in Scotland without difficulty, and would be effective in controlling Roe Deer populations in forestry and creating a ‘fear factor’ among herbivores to allow woodland regeneration. It is possible to breed and release captive stock, the future intention of the Lynx UK Trust. The concern of sheep predation is valid, but in Switzerland, where Sheep farming methods are similar, research has shown numbers taken to be negligible. In the Swiss North-western Alps, 350 of 456 sheep pastures have had no incidents of Lynx predation in twenty years. Studies have shown that grazing sheep 200 metres from the forest edge is an effective measure, as is the identification of predation hotspots, where guard dogs can be used for extra protection. Higher predation rates in Norway persist due to Sheep being grazed in forests, prime Lynx hunting habitat, where Roe Deer density is low.

Students-celebrating-graduation-in-the-search-for-the-Top-Conservation-Training-Opportunities

A concern raised on Lynx reintroduction is that they will threaten the critically endangered Scottish Wildcat. I asked Emily O’Donoghue, Director of the independent ‘Wildcat Haven’ Project, who told me “Lynx and Wildcat co-existed for millions of years; whilst it will be essential to closely monitor any release of Lynx we would expect the two species to fit alongside each other very well as nature intended. We’d consider it most likely that Lynx would bring a lot of benefit to the Wildcat as a natural control on the abundant feral cat population that causes Wildcats so many problems.” Lynx are no danger to humans and through their control predators like the Red Fox, ground nesting bird populations could benefit. The carcasses of their prey provide feeding for invertebrates.

Photographer Laurent Geslin on his mission to photograph the reintroduced Lynx in Switzerland.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AxVYzrgHT4k]

The European Beaver is an ecosystem engineer, creating pools full of life and stemming water flow as a natural part of the water cycle. Land compensation if fields were flooded and control mechanisms to deal with dams in problematic places will be required, but the benefits outweigh the costs. The Scottish Beaver Trial final report found that the small canals made by the Beavers allowed aquatic plants and invertebrates to colonise, therefore increasing biodiversity. It is also known that Beaver dams filter sediment and impurities, plus the pools created behind the dams hold large numbers of Fish, meaning the health of a whole catchment area can be improved.

Whilst not impossible, it is harder to envision the return of Eurasian Elk, European Bison, Eurasian Wolf and European Brown Bears to the United Kingdom. An issue with Elk is that they browse young trees, so could increase the existing problem with Deer in suppressing afforestation, whilst Bison are a very large animal to accommodate. The Wolf is probably the species most associated with rewilding, due to the media. The European Wolf tends to live and hunt in smaller packs in forests than the Gray Wolf of North America. However, they did adapt to a more open landscape before being wiped out in Britain. Deer numbers would be reduced much faster than through Lynx, leaving a stronger and healthier population. The downside is the inevitable problems with livestock where Sheep, Cattle and Horses could be affected. Brown Bears also pose this threat, as well as a greater danger to humans.

Through my work as a countryside ranger, I have recently seen invisible fencing being used on a large conservation site. A strand of electrified wire is buried underground and special collars are placed on animals, which emit a warning sound in three zones approaching the wire and finally an electric shock. One shock is said to be enough to deter future escapes and it definitely works with herbivores. If this system, or one like it, could work for carnivores, then contained wilderness reserves such as Alladale may become a reality with controlled semi-wild populations of Wolves and Bears. The reserves would be a popular tourist attraction and create a healthy, natural ecosystem without impacting negatively on surrounding land. Many rangers, scientists and other staff would be required and it would be important to educate people to ensure their safety.

Will signs like this one day be required in Britain? (James Walker)

Will signs like this one day be required in Britain? (James Walker)

Work Generation

Policy and legislation have to be adapted to include new species. Subsidy payments, consultation schemes, creating legal protection and working through the intricacies of policy at national and international level require highly skilled personnel.

Legal challenges against reintroductions do occur, famously in the Yellowstone Wolf reintroduction, when a lawsuit, ultimately overturned on appeal, threatened to halt the reintroduction while the first Wolves were in release pens.

Scientific research would arguably benefit the most from work creation. Studies, some being conducted presently, need to be a continuous process before, during and after any reintroduction. The released animals, their prey species and the entire habitat need to be monitored. In addition, widespread consultation with all local interests is important to maintain support and feedback for any project. Resolving conflicts with livestock is a challenge worldwide, and a politically sensitive issue. Thankfully, new solutions are being found all the time, such as Sean Ellis, the ‘Wolfman’, playing sound clips imitating a rival Wolf rival pack to deter the resident pack from a Polish Cattle farm and the success of ‘living wall’ enclosures on reducing African Lion predation on livestock in Tanzania.

How can I make this my career?

Justin Bieber has Beliebers, rewilding has rewilders, and I am eternally grateful to belong to the latter! If like me, you feel passionately about bringing back species and restoring habitats and want to dedicate your career to it, then it is crucial to accumulate suitable experience and skills.

Five steps you can take to rewild your career

  1. Stay informed. Follow organisations on social media such as the Lynx UK Trust, Rewilding Europe and Trees for Life. Join in and contribute to discussion and debate, taking in all points of view. Many useful videos can be found on YouTube.
  1. Take part in any scientific study you can. From field research to statistical analysis, these core skills will all be desirable for any prospective employer involved in species reintroduction. Camera trapping, tracking, simply being able to work in remote areas outdoors and photography and film making are also useful skills.
  1. Research the ecology of the species potentially being brought back, their habitat requirements, biology and any conflicts which arise and the solutions.
  1. Manage a project. The organisation and networking skills gained from being involved in delivering a specific project in any industry can be instrumental for a future one in rewilding or conservation in general.
  1. Take part. Trees for Life run courses, holiday weeks and a long term volunteering programme to gain first-hand experience of their work restoring Caledonian pine forest in the Scottish Highlands.

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