Bison in my Back Yard!
Some good news about re-wilding.
Rewilding Europe have been posting on facebook in the last week or two lots of good news stories of the reintroduction of bison, and second generation tauros (ancient cattle stock) in several places around Europe. The most notable location piece of news for me was from Holland, where Princess Laurentien attended not their first, but their third bison reintroduction project.
I don’t think bison were ever present in Ireland, and I’m not suggesting it be brought back – but it struck me that when I was studying ecology in University, we were told that the Netherlands were trying to reconstruct and reconstitute their bogs. While we in Ireland still had lots of biologically important fens and bogs, and were busy destroying them under the turf cutters of Bórd Na Mona (producing what they called renewable electricity from it into the bargain; not sure we’ve quite stopped, either) the Dutch had already realised they’d made a balls of things and were scrambling to return some of what they’d destroyed.
The other thing is that the Netherlands are famously densely populated, while Ireland is famously under-populated. If they can find a space to squeeze in a herbivore the size of a bison, surely we can find some room for some boar, or at least stop bitching about the red deer in Kerry taking over our country roads like the bastard hedgerows trying to trip up our country walkers.
Another story which hasn’t made the social networks yet, but was in our local newspaper in Pamplona, is that an association right here in Navarra, where I am writing now, has been set up to promote the reintroduction of Bison in the region.
Bison were apparently killed off here in the twelfth century – and there is a bit of a kerfuffle about the fact that the animals killed off are not the same species as the ones which survived in the rest of the continent, though of course with rewilding, you do what you can with what’s left – It’s not so much going back in time as moving forward.
Some of those I discussed the news with were a bit leery – if they’ve been gone since the lovely Romanic churches were being built, perhaps they should not return. (And yet the rebuild Romanic churches.) There were apparently visions of running into these wild and therefore clearly dangerous animals on the country roads.
When I explained that it would be a herd of 5 animals to start, and would build to perhaps a hundred over a decade or two, located up in the hills where they’d forest to roam in, things calmed down. I also explained that generally bison are not aggressive – as any visitor to Yellowstone NP can testify (well, I can).
But it also struck a note with me – if gentle herbivores can engender such fear, then what terror must the idea of returning wolves create.
People assume the bison were killed off because they were dangerous. Likewise the wolf, the boar, the bear, the lynx, the golden eagle, etcetera and etcetera. Not that they merely competed for food with our farming ancestors. Or through blind ignorance.
They thus consider a reintroduction dicing with death. When it’s the opposite.
Leaving these creatures to struggle on in the few places left wild enough for them to so far survive is dicing with death. Theirs and ours. At least emotionally, in our case, but possibly more.
I just watched Racing Extinction two nights ago, and it’s a scary future we’re not facing.
Rewilding and Returning to an Ancient State of Things
There is a bit of confusion about this. Is rewilding returning to the way things were way back when?
Some think that rewilding advocates want us to go back to a time when the entire country (or continent) was clear of humans and their animals, simply by clearing out the sheep and letting things return to their natural state.
That’s not the case.
First of all, there is no natural state in Europe. Our wilderness areas are no such thing. Megalithic farmers left their mark on everything, including of course, our wildlife.
Much of this effect was the extermination of megafauna, making things a little less interesting. Or a lot.
But other species did well with the changes they instituted.
For example, the corncrake probably proliferated in Ireland because of tillage farming. Until we changed our methods of doing that.
The barn swallow only became so abundant, I’m sure when we built places for our beasts, their feed and flies that live on the shite. The same goes for barn owls: mice and rats weren’t so prolific until they had our food to eat on the farm.
But when we think of the way our island should be, those three species seem key. Perhaps they’re not actually going to stay so important in a rewilded landscape, however.
We have a tendency to think how things were when we were kids is the way they always were, and not wonder if there were former states.
This means that the phrase, “we’ve always done it like that” should have the emphasis on the we’ve, but not on the always. Those who were before might have different memories of the way things were.
This is important because people might be resistant to rewilding on the basis that they think it’s seeking a return to what we remember, when it’s an attempt to create a landscape that just does what it needs to do, to keep our environment and ourselves healthy.
In his Irish Times column, a few months back, Michael Viney asked “Did the lynx make its own way to Ireland or did a dried leg of meat arrive with a Mesolithic voyager?”
Among the thousands of bones in the National Museum of Ireland is “a single femur of a lynx, from Kilgreany Cave, in Co Waterford, that lived about 9,000 years ago[ ]when the first hunter-gatherers arrived in an Ireland that then held bears, wolves and wild boar, all later hunted to extinction.”
Many other animals which are accepted as parts of our native fauna also arrived with mesolithic voyagers, and voyagers since then, including the hedgehog and rabbit.
The fact that there are no more lynx fossils is irrelevant to the question. Perhaps it did make it, and many more, but they died out because of scare food in an impoverished fauna that Ireland had, and still mostly has compared to Britain and continental Europe. If not, so what?
Rewilding is not just returning former resident species to the country, in the same way that it is not seeking to remove the rabbit or the hedgehog, or any other species that wasn’t here when those hunter-gatherers first came ashore to a wooded island. It is making a whole new ecosystem, by making it possible for these species to mingle and mix, to seek out appropriate homes in various corners of the country.
The fact is that the lynx could help with an ecological imbalance we have now. We can put it to work. Even if it wasn’t here before, it can fit now.
Viney goes on to ask if the lynx, which is on the cards for re-introduction to Great Britain along with the already returned beaver, should be used in Ireland as means of controlling deer, which have no natural predators in Ireland since the demise of the wolf. He reckons that it might negatively affect the ground-dwelling birds. Well, perhaps, but other birds will do better. And the ground-dwelling birds might well be more abundant than they otherwise would have precisely because they never had a large predator affecting them (though I don’t think the fox is too bad at finding nests).
Similarly, as Viney mentions, the beaver was never here. Nevertheless, it could still help with our native fish, and could help make our landscape wilder than it is, and closer to as wild as it should be.
Beaver ponds might hinder the passage of salmonids, Viney points out. Perhaps the salmon had it easy, however, (apart from anglers) with our denuded landscape providing often-flooding rivers which flow straight and clear when they might not have if men hadn’t cut the trees.
Another point is horses and cattle. Rewilding Europe, which has made great strides in returning animals such as bison to former haunts, also wants to bring horses to many habitats. Now we all know that the wild horse is basically extinct in Europe – Przewalski’s horse and the Tarpan are close, but not exactly the same as the horse that used to roam here.
But that doesn’t mean that the landscape would not do much better with horses there or should be devoid of them forever.
Horses should be returned to do what horses do. And any types of horses are okay, depending on the area and climate – Tarpans in Eastern Europe, Connemara ponies on Achill, Exmoor and Dartmoor ponies in various parts of England. It’s about rewilding the landscape, getting the animals to do what they should be doing for the area they live in, shaping the habitat, making spaces and microhabitats for other species – just like theEuroean Elk returned to Denmark after five thousand years.
The last reputed Tarpan in Russia (photo wikipedia commons).
An Exmoor Pony: does what tarpans did for the Russian steppes on English bogs (photo from What’sonExmoor, the Exmoor Guide, http://www.whatsonexmoor.co.uk/exmoor_gallery.htm)
Connemara Ponies near the “Wild” Atlantic Way (photo from: http://irelandways.com/ways/the-wild-atlantic-way)
Since Aurochs are extinct we can replace them with other types of cattle which descended from it, and let them do that the Aurochs did in the habitat. We just need to choose the more primitive breeds of horses and cattle that can be left to go wild in the landscape and get along without management. That will take us nearer to wild than we are now, and any step in that direction will be one worth taking.
A Boskarin bull – a primitive cattel breed from Croatia with similarities to the Auroch (photo from http://croatia.hr/en-GB/).