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Will We Ever Rewild Ireland?

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.

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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.

 

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.

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The last reputed Tarpan in Russia (photo wikipedia commons).

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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)

 

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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.

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A Boskarin bull – a primitive cattel breed from Croatia with similarities to the Auroch (photo from http://croatia.hr/en-GB/).

 

 

Reservations about Lynx Reintroductions

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So, the calls for reintroducing lynx to Britain have transformed into action. The Wild Lynx Trust is actively seeking licences bring to test populations to three different areas of that island Aberdeenshire, Cumbria and Norfolk.
Of course, there are concerns for human safety – unfounded and ridiculous ones which don’t warrant discussion, though one article did state that they are not considered a risk to people.
And this week, both the British Deer Society and the Wild Deer Association of Ireland have issued statements expressing grave reservations about the reintroductions. The latter’s just in case anyone gets the wild idea of restoring the lynx to Ireland, where it’s been absent for longer, admittedly.
Now, I’m an advocate of deer societies. I used to be a member of the BDS, and I was very active in the Irish Deer Society when I lived at home. If I was still there, I would be still. They’re usually the only advocates for the deer.
But they also advocate for deerstalkers. Most of their members are deerstalkers – which is not as strange some might assume, but that’s another day’s discussion.
And in this case they are putting the stalkers before the deer – the lazy ones at that.
Deer hunting is hard. But we all know that going in, and if we go home with no venison, well, that’s hunting too.
As long as the deer and the habitat are healthy, we’ve done our job.
Venison is great and a healthy meat, but we’re not going to starve when we have veggies and rabbits.
Anyway, the BDS says “Lynx will clearly not address growing populations of fallow deer in England and Wales nor areas of local overpopulation of red deer in Scotland,” and that “Lynx are efficient killers of roe deer – the species which presents the least threat to woodland.” They basically suggest that the lynx will feed on the roe and ignore the fallow and probably muntjac.
The latter is an unknown quantity as yet – they’re smaller than roe, are very secretive and I think present the perfect prey for lynx, but they’re from outside the lynx’s natural range., and so won’t know for a while.
So if the lynx keep the roe under control and hunters were already doing that okay, well, the hunters just need to leave the roe to nature and concentrate on the fallow – and the muntjac if need be.
We can’t expect the lynx to do all our job for us, but it can help out and spread the work, as it were.
But that’s not the point either.
The WDAI actually, and inadvertently, get it right when, in trying to claim that Ireland is completely different from Britain with regard the deer. They says lynx will have an impact only on the natural balance of the ecosystem, in terms of other native or indigenous species, such as the Irish hare or ground nesting birds, partridge for example and of course the migratory species.
That is the point.
We seem to need to give reasons for reintroductions in terms of it being necessary, to solve some problem (usually of our making).
But why?
Did people say the salmon and trout were going fucking mental before the reintroduction of the white tailed sea eagle? Did they say there Scots were being attacked by birch trees before bringing back the beaver? Was Wicklow’s Avoca vale run amok with small mammals before the red kite began to soar over it once more?
Conversely, did they say the fox should be eradicated because it does a shit job of controlling rabbits, while it snacks on the odd lamb or two? Actually some would love that, so perhaps bad example.
No. And if they did, they were frowned at and told to go stand in the corner until they copped themselves on.
These animals need to be reintroduced because they belong, they make our islands richer, our hearts glad. Not because we’re putting them to work.
Perhaps the lynx won’t miraculously solve our deer problem. But in Ireland, it will certainly help with the rabbits (and foxes would do a better job if they weren’t snared and poisoned and shot so much).
And most importantly, it will be another cog in the machinery of our environment. It will help the natural balance, it will give some more stability, so populations of deer, among others, are not so subject to the vagaries of our human nonsense, and resultant wide variation in numbers. For example, we have increases in the overall number of hunters – more or less inexperienced and ineffective – during economic booms and lots of unscrupulous poachers during recessions.
Lastly, the BDS calls for “a clear exit strategy.”
What exit strategy? The stated aim is to have hundreds of lynx in the country. After the five years, does anyone really believe that there will be a call to remove them? Based on what? Human safety? If they really need to be eradicated, it won’t be that hard. We made them extinct on the island before. With medieval technology. We won’t be overrun with cats we can’t eradicate, for heaven’s sake.
The opposite scenario will probably be the problem – also referred to by the WDAI, who say “the lynx may even fall foul to gamekeeper traps, snared as does the fox and will become persecuted.”
Given our recent experience of poisoning raptors in Ireland that hits the heart. Of course, when Ireland has grown up a bit, when those old ways of thinking have died out because those who thought like that have died, there will be a life for all wildlife in Ireland.