You are on safari amid lynx, bears and elk. The wetlands
around you are dominated by small lakes
created by beaver dams. In the distance a
Nothing unusual perhaps – except that this is not northern Canada but
Scotland sometime in the near future.
Down in the Lake District, the neat fields and walls that make the area one
of Britain’s most manicured
“wildernesses” are also changing. The
native woodlands of the Ennerdale valley are
spreading, Highland cattle have replaced
sheep and there has even been talk of
reintroducing beaver and bison.
Welcome to rewilding, a movement that is radicalising conservation biology,
turning what had been a scientific backwater
into one of its most controversial areas.
What the rewilders want is nothing less than
the reversal of thousands of years of
domestication, returning vast tracts of
countryside to the way they looked thousands
of years ago. They believe the best way to
achieve this is by bringing back the biggest
and fiercest animals of all – the elk,
wolves, lynx and even bears that roamed
Britain 10,000 years ago at the end of the
It sounds extreme but some of Britain’s most respected wildlife and
conservation organisations, including the
National Trust, are buying into the idea.
This week the People’s Trust for Endangered Species, which already
supports the reintroduction of beaver to
Scotland, will suggest northern Britain
could support about 450 lynx.
Early next year Natural England, the government’s conservation watchdog,
will ask its board to consider making
rewilding part of its formal policy for
protecting our natural heritage.
“Rewilding is an idea whose time has come,” said Keith Kirby, a woodland
and forestry officer for Natural England.
“For a long time conservation has been
fighting a rearguard battle, simply trying
to save species threatened with extinction
and reduce the damage caused by humans. Now
we need to look at things more holistically,
preserving and recreating entire landscapes
Such ideas may sound attractive – but they raise many questions,
especially in a country as crowded as
Britain. Will the public really accept
sharing the countryside with potentially
Some of the answers may be emerging from Alladale, a 23,000-acre estate in
Sutherland, northern Scotland, where Paul
Lister is creating what he hopes will become
one of Europe’s best wildlife reserves.
Lister, a multi-millionaire, has already released wild boar on to the estate
and earlier this year imported two young
European elk from Sweden to found what he
hopes will become a breeding herd. In coming
years, he wants to reintroduce beavers,
wolves, lynx and brown bears.
Lister has found himself facing powerful opposition. Farmers worry that his
animals will escape; ramblers fear they will
be blocked from Alladale’s footpaths or
attacked by wild animals. It shows that in
Britain we may profess a love of wildlife
– but the idea of dealing with a real
wilderness is highly controversial.
“The Highlands are considered one of Europe’s last great areas of
wilderness, yet much of the flora and fauna
that once thrived here has been driven to
extinction by the activities of man,” said
Even the beautiful mountain-scapes of northern and western Britain are
unnatural, a result of ancient forest
clearances. Bears disappeared 900 years ago;
lynx died out in medieval times; and the
last wolf was shot in Scotland in 1743.
The inspiration for rewilding comes largely from America, where in one
scheme wolves have been reintroduced to
Yellowstone national park. However, the much
larger open spaces of the US mean animals
can roam without coming across humans.
A more comparable example lies in the Netherlands. Oost-vaardersplassen is a
14,000-acre tract of uninhabited fen, scrub
woodland and wild grassland that was
reclaimed from the sea just 40 years ago and
set aside for wildlife. The reserve offers
Europe the best glimpse of the Pleistocene
it might wish for, with ancient breeds such
as Heck cattle and Konik horses already
living there and plans to introduce European
In Britain, private landowners have been keenest to adopt such ideas. In
West Sussex, the 3,500-acre Knepp castle
estate, owned by Sir Charles Burrell, has
abandoned modern farming methods and removed
nearly all the fences to allow Old English
Longhorn cattle, Exmoor ponies, Tamworth
pigs and fallow deer to roam at will through
the spreading undergrowth.
Conservation bodies were a little slower climbing aboard but the National
Trust, Britain’s largest landowner, is
adopting the same “let nature take its
course” approach. At Ennerdale it is
working to replace sheep with hardy cattle,
remove exotic trees and push for a switch to
organic farming, while in Cambridgeshire it
is trying to recreate ancient wetlands
around Wicken fen.
The one thing played down in most of these schemes, however, is any mention
of the reintroduction of wild animals,
especially large predators.
The experience of people around the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire shows
why. They have been pestered by growing
numbers of wild boar, whose population has
grown rapidly after a handful of animals
were released into the wild. Some churned up
the turf of a football club’s pitch,
others attacked passing horse riders, and
one had to be shot after its visits to a
primary school became aggressive. The
Forestry Commission last week announced that
it had sent rangers from the area to
Germany, where there is greater experience
of dealing with boar.
Concerns about similar problems have affected Britain’s most ambitious
rewilding project, the release early next
year of four families of beavers into the
countryside in Knapdale forest, mid-Argyll.
Beavers were once common throughout Britain but were exterminated for their
fur and because their dams and tree-cutting
make woodlands awkward for humans. For
rewilders, they are an important species –
their engineering opens up woodlands,
creating glades and encouraging the growth
of fruit-bearing bushes needed by other
creatures. If they survive in Britain’s
woodlands, then eventually many other
species might follow.
It has taken 10 years to persuade the Scottish executive and local people to
accept the idea of beavers being introduced
– and most rewilders are understandably
cautious about talk of wolves. Some,
however, cannot restrain their enthusiasm.
David MacDonald, director of the wildlife conservation research unit at
Oxford University, said: “The
reintroduction means we could see beavers
impacting woodland ecology for the first
time in 400 years. It is very exciting to
think of the other species for which they
could pave the way.”
This week the People’s Trust for Endangered Species will publish a report
by MacDonald showing that Scotland could
support a population of 450 lynx, a
medium-sized cat that preys on small mammals
and deer, in northern and central Scotland.
The prospect of lynx roaming wild is far
less frightening than it may sound. Such
creatures seldom cause problems for humans.
For true rewilders, the real aim is to restore all lost species –
including dangerous ones. Peter Taylor, a
founder of the Wildland Network, which
campaigns for the reintroduction of larger
creatures, said: “The most wild experience
available for a human becomes the unarmed
walk into territory where humans are not
only not in control, but also not the top
predator. That frisson of risk and
vulnerability marks the transition from a
tame landscape to a truly wild one.”
With leading organisations backing rewilding, that may not be as wild a
prospect as it seems.