I just watched a very good documentary about wolves and the other wildlife around Chernobyl nuclear reactor, which as most people know, discharged enough radiation in 1986 to make the area around it uninhabitable for humans (in any safe way). I recommend everyone watches it but to reveal a big spoiler: there are absolutely no mutations of any kind in the wolves , much less dangerous. In fact, though there is a still certainly a lot of radiation in the soil and indeed the animals, the populations and vast majority fo individuals are extremely healthy. The area now is a wildlife haven, with all types of native fauna represented after the reintroduction of European bison from other parts of Belarus (the area is split between that country and Ukraine) and primitive horses – though the horses are being poached by locals.
There are the same density of wolves and other wildlife as in any other radiation-free national park or other refuge. What matters most is that there are no humans – except soldiers patrolling the border, researchers and forest rangers, and no intensive farming any more.
And it made me wonder, what if there were more such accidents? It would actually be a boon for wildlife, not the disaster we all assumed Chernobyl would be. And then I further pondered: what if we could create such places without the need for a nuclear reactor meltdown?
What if we decided that some areas should be strategically retreated from – just everyone relocated, so that all that was left were a few rangers? That would mean some upheaval for some people – but the residents of Chernobyl and its surrounds were accommodated in other communities outside the danger-zone.
Of course, we would pick places to retreat from which were already sparsely populated.
Achill Island in the west of Ireland. (Photo from flickr commons: https://www.flickr.com/photos/chb1848/1919551432/)
Since there would be no radiation, people could actually come and go fairly freely. In fact, many could stay. If the area was sparsely populated enough to begin with, they would probably not even have to leave. All that they would have to do is not farm intensely, not improve the land, drain the wetlands etc. Let the trees return, leave meadows to go through their natural transitions, remove livestock and let populations of wildlife resurge – and reintroduce a few species that are missing.
That doesn’t mean that they have to live on nothing. Such an area would be a haven not only for wildlife, but for all the people who love to watch wildlife, but haven’t the opportunity to travel to Alaska or don a radiation suit and mask to enter the fallout zone. The residents that decide to stay could open up a hotel or have visitors stay in their houses for bed and breakfast. Locals would probably be invaluable guides to visitors, as they’d know the best hangouts, the places where white-tailed eagles nest, where wolves like to hang out, where the deer graze.
This is, basically, rewilding.
And I wondered what kinds of places might be considered disposed/amenable/suitable.
Already, one has been identified on the border between Portugal and Spain where the locals are actively embracing a change in land use – to actually hold on to their dwindling populations by creating more economically beneficial endeavours, than farming.
There are a few parts of western Scotland, of Ireland – already the one of the least densely-inhabited areas of Europe – where farming is at best marginal and mostly restricted to grazing sheep, at a low economic return. Certainly there are many regions where intensive farming of the scale of the state collective farms of the former USSR is infeasible,
In the long term, some of these areas could be connected with densely inhabited but wildlife-amenable corridors to let wide-ranging animals like wolves travel between them.
But in the meantime, they could be pockets of landscape like the rewilded Pripet marshes: islands of wilderness in seas of farmland.
What’s to stop the Scottish islands and peninsulas of Mull, or Kintyre, or Islay becoming rewilded? They’ve already considered adding wolves to Rhum. Why stop there? Why not bring them, and boar, to Islay and Mull, let them roam the woods of Kintyre? Forestry, fishing, hunting and other tourist activities could be continued unchanged. Just a perhaps slower rotation on trees, using native species and a cessation of sheep grazing and large-scale farming – garden plots and such would be fine: tourists love to eat local… as for local lamb etc. well, local venison is a whole lot better….
Imagine a tour of western Ireland, where after visiting the Cliffs of Moher and Connemara, you could drive out onto Achill Island (disclosure: I have only been there once), and instead of seeing sheep out on the bog, see red deer (and the feral goats), and wolves alongside the foxes and pine martens, with perhaps a few boar amid birch woods and copses. Imagine the Inishowen peninsula of Donegal (disclosure: I haven’t gone there yet, but I have seen the video), or Belmullet in Mayo? Now that is a Wild Atlantic Way! These are areas of comparable size to the exclusion zone around Chernobyl, and could, in theory, hold several packs of up to 100 wolves. Bantry or the ends of any of the West Cork or Kerry peninsulas would probably be able to hold a lot of wildlife while still being the tourist hotspots they are today; just with added attractions… And without the irrational worry about golden and white-tailed eagles etc. killing lambs – aside from the benefits to these from wolf kills – our birds of prey, which attract many tourists to the west, would have a much greater guarantee of success in the future into the bargain.
I was just wondering….
And ironically, I am far from the first to wonder this: Sir Harry Johnston (yea, never heard of him either) had the idea of “a British Yellowstone Park” back in 1903…..