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Independent.ie

Saturday 18 November 2017

Wolves and brown bears could return to British countryside to 'naturally cut deer population'

A bear and wolf in Kaainu. Photo: Ikka Niskanen
A bear and wolf in Kaainu. Photo: Ikka Niskanen

Sarah Knapton

They are the snarling beasts of fiction and folklore, but conservationists are hoping to bring back wolves to the British countryside within the next 20 years.

The Wildwood Trust, which has successfully helped reintroduce beavers, water voles, pine martins and dormice to parts of the UK where they had become extinct, now wants to start ‘rewilding’ the country with larger creatures.

In March, the Trust brought a pack of six wolves from Sweden to its 200 acre parkland site in Escot, East Devon, where their behaviour is being monitored as part of an ongoing research project into animal domestication, and to see how they adapt to living in Britain.

Experts believe that introducing wolves back into the countryside could help control the burgeoning deer population which now stands at around 1.5 million animals, the highest it has been for 1,000 years.

Deer have no natural predators, and cause destruction to woodland habitat which provides food and shelter for native species. They also are responsible for around 50,000 traffic accidents and the death of 20 people each year.

Peter Smith, CEO of the Wildwood Trust, said the charity wants to reintroduce lynx in the next few years, followed by wolves in around two decades, and brown bears within 50 years. But they first must meet rewilding protocols set out by The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and then gain a licence from Natural England.

Two deer go eye to eye to see who is the best.
Two deer go eye to eye to see who is the best.

“These animals were all once native to Britain, and the benefits they could bring to the ecology of Britain would be immense,” he said

“Wolves and lynx will change the behaviour of the deer, causing populations to drop naturally, which helps plants and trees to flourish.

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“There are wolves all over Europe and they don’t cause problems. When was the last time you heard someone being killed by a wolf?

“Statistics show that you have more chance of being killed in a car going to visit a wolf in captivity than you have of being attacked by one in the wild. And no lynx has ever killed a child or a human. Reintroducing them could allow our children the chance to enjoy our amazing natural heritage which has been wiped out by upland sheep farming.”

A wolf in the Finnish wilderness. Photo: Ville Heikkinen
A wolf in the Finnish wilderness. Photo: Ville Heikkinen

Wolves have not existed in Britain for around 300 years after they were hunted to extinction to allow sheep farming to expand at the height of the wool trade.

Calls for their reintroduction dates from 1999 when Dr Martyn Gorman, a senior lecturer in zoology at Aberdeen University suggested they should be brought back to deal with the 350,000 deer in the Scottish Highlands which were damaging trees. However the idea was shelved following an outcry from sheep farmers.

The issue was raised again following a study in 2007 by Imperial College London which concluded wolf reintroduction into the Scottish Highlands and English countryside would aid in the re-establishment of plants and birds currently hampered by the deer population.

If followed the successful introduction of wolves to Yellowstone Park, Wyoming, in 1995, which radically improved the ecosystem. With a new predator to worry about, populations of elk were forced to roam further afield to avoid being hunted, allowing trees and bushes to recover and native species to flourish. 

The lynx was once native to the British Isles but the last British lynx was hunted to extinction for its fur around 700AD.

Calls for the introduction of lynx follow successful breeding programmes in Europe which have seen numbers of the Iberian lynx triple in 15 years. The Iberian lynx, which is the type campaigners are hoping to introduce, mostly eat rabbits and are around the size of a large dog.

Action: Deer populations in Wicklow have grown
Action: Deer populations in Wicklow have grown

The Trust has applied for a licence from Natural England and Scottish Natural Heritage to reintroduce the animals and is waiting to find out if the request will be granted.

But the National Farmers Union has raised concerns that predators like lynx and wolves would hunt highland sheep, pet dogs and may even attack ramblers.

NFU countryside adviser Claire Robinson said: "The arguments for rewilding appear idealistic and ignore the economic impacts.

“Any species introduction, particularly if it has not been in this country for hundreds of years, would also have a massive impact on the many benefits that the countryside delivers and we do not know how such animals would behave in the current environment.

“We also have concerns over the impact on farm animals particularly lambs, given that many examples of rewilding focus on upland locations.”

However Mr Smith said: “Actually it may be beneficial for farmers because when lynx and wolves are around there are fewer foxes and badgers. There is evidence to show fox populations drop to a quarter when lynx are present.”

The Wildwood Trust is hoping that the new wolves, named Elvis, Sting, Lemmy, Moby and their sisters, PJ and KD, will help rehabilitate their reputation in the eyes of the public.

Telegraph.co.uk