While every week practically, there is some good news from somewhere around Europe or further regarding the rewilding of our environment, it seems Ireland is sadly lagging behind. The golden eagles we restored to our landscape are struggling, and might go extinct again.
Irish golden eagle chick; photo taken from Golden Eagle Trust, credit Laurie Campbell
In the Italian Apennines, bears are making a comeback. A recent article said that bears, and other predators need some understanding, and the goodwill of the locals. If not, they’re doomed. The bears have this goodwill, though, and prevention is better than compensation. Electric fences keep bears out of bee hives and chicken coops, and sheep folds. The sheep have to be brought in closer to the farmhouses and protected. This makes it more expensive, but considering how much money could be earned by small towns and villages providing wildlife viewing opportunities and tourism as farmers get older, and their children leave because they don’t want to farm, that’s not considered an unwise investment. And the bears have always been around, if a little higher up the mountains.
As the reintroduction of lynx to Great Britain rolls forward, people ask if this predator will target sheep. The answer, from other countries, is that it’s very unlikely, as long as the rest of the ecosystem is functioning and the sheep aren’t in the forests – where really they’re not supposed to be.
These forests are, in fact, the reason lynx are needed in the environment – to help rejuvenate them. Over-population of deer is preventing regeneration, and lynx are designed to hunt deer. This article on CNN indicates that lynx reintroduction has support of 90% of Brits, and the effects on the environment are expected to be significant, if it follows the pattern of cascading impacts wolf reintroduction had in Yellowstone National Park.
The article also states that returning predators is “not a quick fix for long-term decline” because “the removal of predators for decades causes changes in a system that make it resistant to the effects of reintroduction.”
One of these changes is the attitude of humans, especially those who work the land. While the Apennine farmers have always lived with bears, and European farmers with lynx, and farmers in northern Spain with both bear and wolves, farmers in Ireland and Britain have had it relatively easy. The idea of changing their practices on a livestock that already loses money and only subsists because of EU payouts is rather daunting. “When projects do not have public support it can prove fatal for returning species.” As it is, we know how much goodwill predators have in Ireland.
It can be done, though. In China, where the tiger was extirpated 65 years ago, a few breeding females have recently been spotted. And rehabilitated Amur tigers have been released back into former haunts, one of which has given birth to two cubs.
Apart from ensuring that the predators are not overtly killed by those opposed, the habitat has to be suitable. Rewilding Europe helped rewild Dutch rivers penned in by dykes and canals, and only then could forest return enough to allow beaver recolonisation. The Amur tigers have thousands of square kilometres of birch forest still intact despite logging, and the lynx in Britain will only be released in forested areas.
Irish forest cover is still very low compared to the rest of Europe, with sheep still grazing in woodland, on top of whatever deer population is there. The land has been so changed that there is a debate as to whether the Scot’s Pine survived and can considered native. Some think it is an invasive on peat bogs and should be removed. It’s hard to be angry at Scot’s Pines at the best of times, though. A recent Economist article says it’s a waste of time and energy trying to eradicate even the bad ones, but considering that the bogs are not necessarily the best environment in terms of providing habitat for as wide a variety of species and a robust environment, I think we should give the Scot’s pine a free pass and let it get on with growing. It will help rewild the landscape, providing habitat for more species than the bogs do. As I said before, and George Moniot said yesterday in an interview, rewilding is not an attempt to turn any clocks back.
Having any trees grow might be hard, though, unless the sheep are reduced. Making our environment suitable for reintroduced predators will involve keeping such targets out of their way, and reducing the destruction they and their husbandry is responsible for.
The predators we’ve already reintroduced might die out again if we don’t.
In Donegal, a place as wild as we can claim to have in Ireland, the constantly overgrazed and burned bogs are not producing enough food for the golden eagles to breed. Instead of getting fat on hares and grouse, like they do in Scotland, the poor eagles have to hunt badgers and magpies.
News like that makes even the most gung-ho Irish rewilder pause and wonder, if the golden eagle can’t clasp a foothold on our island, what hope will the wolf have?
It will only have a hope if it finds the goodwill of the rural community. And George Monbiot said yesterday, the countryside is not inhabited only by farmers. If 90% of Britons favour having lynx in their forests, there, then we can hope a majority of Irish will also approve. And when sheep inevitably disappear from out hillsides as the payments propping them up are removed from EU legislation, and in some places to help the much-loved golden eagles, the forests can return to provide a home for them and many other species.
Denmark, in addition to having wolves for the first time in centuries, now has European elk (Alces alces; the moose to Americans) for the first time in five thousand years. Talk about going back to the way things were. Well, it’s not all about going back to the way things were, as I will discuss in my next post. It’s about putting the animals to work, making this megafauna do what they’re best at – manipulating the habitat. The elk are going to help maintain a marsh by munching on the birch saplings, much like the cattle in the Burren in Ireland keep things cool for orchids and other important flora.
The Danes don’t seem to be asking themselves if they can rewild their land. They’re just doing it.
The Brits, are, though, asking if they can make Britain wild again. And the answer from most seems to be yes of course. I just read an interesting article on a blog about the matter of returning wolves to Scotland, and there are obstacles, but they can be overcome with a bit of political will.
Even in the US, which we might believe is wild enough, thank you very much, and where they are delisting the wolf from Endangered Species Protection as some scientists claim they have recovered enough to be controlled by individual states, they want to return wildlife to former ranges via the network of wildlife corridors that rivers provide.
If everyone else can do it, why can’t we? I think it was The Cranberries who asked that question back in the Nineties. We still have no good answer, but one has to come sometime.
If there’s one thing we have in Ireland it’s rivers and waterways.
Imagine fishing on the Grand Canal and watching a wolf walk by on the other side?
Now that would make me get up in the morning.
So my old mate Dave – that’s Sir David Attenborough to you lot – has come out.
Out of a slightly different kind of closet to the one you’re thinking of.
He’s said it.
And at first I didn’t realise anything was out of the ordinary.
I mean, why wouldn’t he?
Well, there are some reasons.
But the times have changed. So quickly it’s rather astounding.
Suddenly rewilding is happening.
And it’s a little akin to our changing attitudes towards being gay, actually.
I’m forty, and I remember when I was in my twenties that coming out was an ordeal for most men, and women.
Lots of them didn’t, until they’d left university (with doctorates, not just bachelor degrees), until they’d left Ireland.
The idea of gay marriage was in the same category as human missions to Mars – some crazy fools were saying it would happen some day but most of us were fairly (but not rightfully) sceptical.
Well, maybe not in the same category as going to Mars – one is a worthwhile step forward for humanity, the other is just some geeks spending money making the masses wonder if perhaps we can survive without Earth.
Anyway, here we are : suddenly the right for gay people to marry is common fucking sense. People wonder why it’s taken us so long to cop on to the fact.
Even in middle America (as traditional as middle Earth in many aspects: Americans sometimes think they’re immune from the general rule that people in the centre of large land masses – like central Asia, the outback of Australia, WestMeath – are slow to change and often reluctant to keep up with the rest of the world. But they’re not) state after state is changing the law.
A lot of this is due to the direct action of brave citizens:: something rewilding advocate George Monbiot, and his new mate Russell Brand advocate for in lots of situations.
Wild boar were released (accidentally, in some cases) in several locations, in Britain and Ireland. At least in Britain, they were let live and the sky didn’t fall.
The Scottish government had a small experimental reintroduction of beavers, which they might recapture once their data is in… Meanwhile, beaver were released in another location in Scotland, and also in England, and suddenly people want them to stay.
The MFI millionaire who wants to have wolves on his estate also wants lynx. And now the path for at least a small lynx reintroduction is being laid (in birch tree plantings).
David Attenborough reckons a fence around those Allandale wolves is necessary.
But he never said that before.
All those years of wildlife work and I don’t recall him advocating wolf reintroduction to Britain once.
Because it wasn’t a serious suggestion for a respected biologist to make.
I remember when I started my PhD thesis, on deer population biology and management. Twenty years ago now, too.
I was told there was a government scientist who worked on the deer in the same area (he actually ended up being my external examiner) who the hunting community disliked. Mostly they just thought he was an idiot for having voiced the opinion that wolves should be reintroduced to Ireland.
They called him “the wolfman.” Yeah, clever lads the Irish.
So I never voiced the opinion that I agreed.
I worked with those hunters on my project, and since in different ways (hunting myself, of course).
Wolf reintroduction was not something I ever mentioned to anyone but close friends.
Just over a year ago, I wrote an article for the Irish Wildlife Trust about deer management in Ireland (the link has since been removed when they rejigged their website. I must post the original here).
I didn’t mention wolves.
But then they asked me to.
So I did.
Not that enthusiastically.
I reckoned the readers who could have influence in implementing any change I advocated (mostly by getting more deer hunted to reduce numbers – not popular among many hunters) did not want to hear me talking shite about bring back the wolf. It was considered less than a pipedream: a sure sign of being a hippy and having taken too many drugs.
I did get some feedback from hunting organisations…
But then I noticed that the wind had indeed shifted. Not much, but it wasn’t blowing my own piss back into my face.
I said in a blog post straight after, that if we didn’t start pushing now, we’d never get to realise our objective in twenty years. And it was my decision to start pushing myself.
Since then, I’ve blogged probably once a month about rewilding. And every month there are more articles about it in the newspaper.
The wind was blowing the other way.
Snowballs were rolling.
The idea of rewilding Ireland, and Britain, has snowballed so big that the most influential biologist on the planet now thinks that the time has come, that the public can get their minds around it.
(Just to be clear: I’m sure Sir David always would have liked to see it. Now he feels he can say it. He’s lots more to lose than me. Well, the planet has more to lose, since Sir David has the standing to influence other places on the planet where protection and extinction prevention is paramount.)
There is nothing that can stop it, now.
Just like gay marriage, even in dear old quaint little ultra catholic Ireland where until after I was born unmarried mothers were living as slaves in state-sponsored laundries….
I only hope that things have changed so fast that we can have wild wolves not in twenty years, but two. And that Sir David can narrate the first documentary about their release.
So the big day has arrived; no, not the release of my follow-up novel to Leaving the Pack (a second effort that was far from the rushed, written-in-two-months scramble to get another book on the presses much like the second album of a group that spent years perfecting their first, but which still might seem pretty much thrown together!) but the day that the Scots will vote to gain their independence.
I absolutely believe that the yes vote will win. It has to. Nothing else makes sense. As a citizen of a country that had to fight for its independence from the same country (let’s just, for ease equate England with the mainstay of power in Great Britain – after all, that’s the whole point) I can’t imagine that anyone who has been given the chance to gain the same state without any bloodshed would pass up on it. As Howard Zinn said, no war is worth it: and if the Scots had to fight for what they’ll be handed on a platter today, I’d say no, it’s not worth it. Not today, not anymore. It was worth it for us at the time, but times change. It’s worth it for others at the moment (there are too many separatist and civil wars going on to mention) but England is not as bad as it used to be and the situation of the average Scot not so dire.
Of course, they’re still threatening reprisals to stop people voting yes, but those are empty threats. Really.
It sounds a little like (and I am just adding my imagination here, because I have no experience of this) an abusive spouse threatening his/her partner to stop he or she walking out the door. For the sake of brevity, let’s call England the husband and Scotland the abused wife. The analogy is not that far off the mark – if everything actually was “better together” why the hell would there be a vote in the first place? It’s as if the abusive husband has said, “well, fuck you, then. Fuck off and leave me if you really want to. I bet you don’t have the balls to do it, though. You need me more than I need you.” Of course, now it looks like the show of bravado has backfired and the wife really is going away. So the husband has been forced to beg and plead, and yes, threaten. The first threat is that if she goes, then that’s that – no coming back .”If you walk out that door, then don’t come back.”
Bollox. Like any shithead abuser, he’ll be on his knees and crying, embracing her if she does commit the folly of returning, if things really are not better for her alone. Going back to geography for a moment, the British would be delighted if Ireland rejoined the Commonwealth. If we left the Euro and asked to join the pound, they’d be happy, too. What country would not take back another? Did the West Germans say, “No, Easties, we got used to life without you during the last forty years, and really, you’ll just be a drag on us, let’s just maintain the status quo, apart from the odd conjugal visit”? Look at Russia and Ukraine – the big bad bear can’t help trying to pull back a country that really doesn’t want to go back.
No, Scotland, if you really do want to go back one day (and believe me, even if things go to shite, you’ll see that independence is more than worth it – ask any kid who’s left his parent’s luxurious house to live in a bedsit with cardboard box table and no TV) then England will open her arms.
But one thing is not a threat – that you’ll never have this chance again. England will never allow another vote. They know the mistake they made even suggesting you could walk away so easily. They’ll fight any other movement to repeat the vote. If you say no, then you’ll have to fight, and bloodily, for a second opportunity. When it comes to simply walking out on the relationship rather than escaping through a basement window, it’s now or never. And never is a long time.