Re-Introducing Extinct Wildlife into England

By Graham Wellstead.

The Countryside Alliance recently published news that Defra are signalling opportunities for the re-introduction of a number of species, including beaver, Scottish wildcats and golden eagles. A task force has been set up by Natural England to look at the return of species which have been lost.  The draw of bringing back animals that have become extinct in the English countryside is undeniable, but the question has to be asked whether to focus on a few species which are currently not present is the right response to the decline of so many that are.

As someone who actively released two species into the wild, as unsupported either, physically or financially, by others, all costs borne by me, I have more than a passing interest in the proposals. From my own experience I would urge great caution.

In the late 1970’s and early 80’s I bred and released about 150 barn owls. At the time the species was in serious decline and likely to go extinct.  Although I worked alone, I was not the only one carrying out breed and release.  From the start of my project, I made as sure as was possible, that the birds stood a chance of survival. Most were produced by captive parents kept inside an enclosure in a barn on private land. The parent birds had a view of the outside world but no access to it until there were chicks in the nest, then the window was opened, which allowed the male to fly free, while the female was brooding chicks and eggs. The male, and eventually both parents, were free and as their offspring grew to fledging, they were effectively wild birds. The releases were in three counties Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire.

It had been shown that mortality in wild born owls was 70% in their first year, but captive releases had a mortality rate of 90%.”

Graham wellstead.

The project closed when my work took me overseas, but later I was involved in meeting at Scotland Yard with police wildlife officers, RSPB and the Minister for the Environment to institute a licence scheme. It had been shown that the mortality in wild born owls was 70% in their first year, but captive releases had a mortality of 90%. A licence scheme would go some way towards reducing the deaths. The scheme was set up, but the strictures were too severe for a single individual to comply; not enough applications were made, and the licence withdrawn. It is now illegal to release captive barn owls.

Later I tried with a more difficult species, one restricted to a very specific area of west Wales – the European Polecat, wild ancestor of the domestic ferret. Unlike ferrets, they were difficult to breed, but over 10 years I released 134 animals along the Welsh borders, and the military land local to me. Initial studies showed they were succeeding, the occasional roadkill conforming their continuing presence.  Unfortunately, some ferreters were not too careful with their animals and a ferret failing to come back out of a warren was often left behind – the attitude sadly being, ‘It’s only a ferret, I’ll soon get another.’ This resulted in hybridisation and soon the pure stock would be lost.

I was also involved with another scheme, the breeding of Scottish wildcats. I only bred one litter, then both mother and 3 grown kittens were released in the Peebles area.  I enjoyed these cats enormously. The physical characteristic of the wildcat is its clubbed black tipped tail, which does not appear to show in the hybrids. A writer on the subject was adamant that the wildcat was the only one with a letter ‘M’ on its forehead. This is not so. Every tabby cat, of any colour, has this distinctive mark. Hybridisation with domestic cats. In my view this would negate the release in a cat populated England.

In the 1990’s I was invited to join, and speak, at a seminar aimed at releasing European wolves into Scotland. Among the speakers was a scientist from the Yellowstone National Park Wolf Project, who begged the meetings not to release wolves, the area was too small.

A litter had already been bred and were brought along in the back of an estate car by the breeder. Loose in the back, they had effectively destroyed the upholstery and the roof lining. The car owner was apoplectic.  What else did he expect. If this was their level of competence, I did not want any further involvement and walked away.

I understand beavers are already breeding in the West Country and Scotland, where problems with flooding have occurred. Golden Eagles have attempted to breed in England, but have been shot, and the White-tailed eagle introduced to the Isle of Wight is a bomb waiting to go off. The peregrine falcon is doing wonderfully well, using tower blocks instead of sea cliffs, with at least twelve pairs in central London.  But I doubt the natural cliff nesting eagle will take up residence on a tower block, come the day I may be forced to eat my hat.

Finally the first time I came eyeball to eyeball with a very large, very angry and very defensive, male wildcat, his threat display really set me back on my heels.  With foxes entering houses and attacking babies, albeit rare, what chance a wild cat.

By Graham Wellstead

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