What’s Missing In This Picture?

Quaint, rural Scotland. But something's missing...

Quaint, rural Scotland. But something’s missing. Want to know why?

I grew up cutting about in the woods and along the shoreline of the west coast of Scotland. It was magical – so easy to escape to wonder & fantasy of another world, away from the concrete & structure of ‘real life’. In those woods I would encounter mysterious beasties & monsters, and back in Nottinghamshire I would be regaled with tales of Robin Hood & Sherwood Forest. Now, if I could go anywhere in the world, I would go to Britain, but back when it was all wild forest & woodland.

Now I’m an Ecologist I’ve learned that it’s not just fantastical romanticism, but there are actually many practical reasons for wanting to return to a wilder Britain. And I’m not the only one who feels like this. The concept of ‘re-wilding‘ parts of Britain – of reintroducing species that used to roam here but have long been displaced by people – is steadily gaining some momentum and, whilst still brandedcontroversial‘, has some sound support from some very influential players. In fact, species are starting to sneak in that I bet you hadn’t realised were truly natively British.

Something that we lost most dramatically in the UK, and that has had huge recurrent effects, were the large carnivores – Wolves & Lynx. Now, however malevolent the Brothers Grimm may have painted wolves to be, they are what’s known as a ‘keystone‘ species in ecosystems that still have them, and no-one illustrates that better than George Monbiot:

About a year or so ago I really got into the idea of bringing Wolves back to Scotland – you’ve seen Monbiot’s video – how could we argue with that? The simple, ecological fact is the Wolves benefit EVERYTHING. Most of Scotland, currently, is how Yellowstone used to be. Uncontrolled Deer have grazed it desolation, and where the ancient Caledonian forest still stands – like at Glen Affraic for example – no young trees are able to grow through that grazing pressure. That iconic, magical forest is ageing, withering, dying, without hope of a new generation. Trees For Life are having a good go at sowing the seeds, but Wolves could do an awful lot to rejuvenate the land.

As Innes MacNeil, Reserve Manager of Alladale Estate, told me on the phone when I started researching this, the problem is that Scotland’s been without wolves for so long, there’s now no way it could cope with them. The infrastructure is all wrong – they don’t really do fences up there. Where I’ve spent so much time on the west coast, huge flocks of sheep are able to wander & graze over immense estates of land, unfenced. If you put wolves into that equation, it doesn’t end well for the sheep. There’s small concern for people’s safety around these large carnivores, but surveys have shown that to be a really minor concern, and that humans who do live in ecosystems with wolves almost never have any negative interactions.

So we can’t just throw Wolves back into Scotland – it wouldn’t work, as people would almost certainly kill them once the first sheep was taken. But we need them in certain places… so the solution surely is to put them in a really big fence!

One of the most ambitious efforts in re-wilding is being undertaken way way up North on Alladale Estate. There, the owner & his team are attempting to take the model of the Southern African fenced nature reserve & apply it to Britain. Fair enough – apart from a few exceptions – the fenced-reserve structure in South Africa works very well. Alladale’s idea is to create a huge, strongly-fenced area and return the glen to it’s ‘original’ state, by reintroducing Wolves and, ultimately, wild boar, Elk, Lynx and Bears. They’ve done the ecology & the maths – conceptually their vision totally checks out. And the main purpose of that – apart from awe-inspiring aesthetics, or a sense of steward-ly duty to return the land the the way that nature intended – is to control (predate) the deer that eat the forest.

I’ll be honest; I think that’s a brilliant idea. I spent months researching how this could be followed up on different sites last year, and I could not find a problem with it.

Cut to my time batting with the GWCT this summer. I was lucky enough to work alongside a woman called Alison, who’s one of the most dedicated environmental researchers I’ve ever met, and who also was on the advisory team for the Scottish Bear Trial. In short – there’s nothing Alison’s not clued-in with when it comes to Scottish environmental policy and activity. Over a good blether on ‘ideal world’ scenarios, we got on to wolves, and she broke my heart a little as she broke some news to me:

“When you put wild animals within a fence – which we agree we’d have to do in this case of using wolves to control deer numbers – it falls under the Zoos Act. And under the Zoos Act, you’re not allowed to let large carnivores predate live prey.”

…But that’s the point. That’s why we want Wolves – to eat the deer! It sounds cruel when you put it like that, but that’s nature for you.

And so however perfect our dreams, however sound our ecological theory, however much we manage to get the National Farmer’s Union and general public on-side, one simple fact remains. Wolves have been absent from this country for so long that our legal system can’t account for them. Our laws were made without the presupposition that we’d ever have to consider wolves when enacting them.

So there’s the solution to it all: make new laws. And how easy do you think that’ll be?..

The good news is that there’s a great number of committed people working to steadily bring big wildlife back to Britain. And they’re laying strong foundations so that hopefully, one day, we’ll be able to re-write the law of the land to include our oldest best-friends.