Reintroducing wolves to UK could hit rewilding support, expert says
Head of Scotland’s natural heritage body says there is too much focus on reintroducing apex predators
Demands to reintroduce predators such as wolves and bears could significantly damage public support for rewilding the British countryside, a senior conservationist has said.
Francesca Osowska, chief executive of NatureScot, a government conservation agency, said rewilding could only succeed if it won support from people living in and managing the countryside, including farmers and Highland estate managers who are worried about losing their livelihoods.
She said focusing on totemic predators such as wolves risked alienating the people living in rural areas whose involvement is essential if the large-scale restoration programmes needed to address the climate and nature emergencies were to succeed.
Osowska said: “We need to think about rewilding as a much broader concept. We need to think about restoring all of nature, not just large mammals. And that goes from the pine hoverfly to ensuring that we’ve the right mix of forestry – different land types to have that mosaic of habitats.
“The vision I want is of a nature-rich future. Nature-rich means we’re all touched by and living in harmony with nature and able to benefit from it.”
Osowska said rewilding had negative connotations in rural areas because of a continued focus on releasing apex predators or creating large new fenced-in reserves.
“Some people have taken rewilding to mean ‘Let’s put the clock back, let’s turn back time and turn our landscapes back to how they were before people were part of it.’ And that’s not our version of rewilding. Our version of rewilding is absolutely nature restoration [that] has to be working with people, with communities.”
Her remarks highlight increasing tensions in rural areas of Scotland over government-funded programmes to reintroduce popular species. Given one of the lowest global ratings for its biodiversity in a recent international study, Scotland is at the forefront of species reintroduction in the UK, with longstanding projects to reintroduce golden eagles, sea eagles and beavers.
These heavily persecuted species – driven to extinction in the case of sea eagles and beavers – are now so numerous that they are being exported across the UK and Ireland for other reintroduction projects.
But deep conflicts have emerged over all three. Since NatureScot licensed farmers to shoot beavers damaging farmland in the Tayside area, more than 200 have been lawfully shot. NatureScot is awaiting a judge’s ruling on whether that policy is unlawful after rewilding charity Trees for Life took it to court, arguing that lethal control was unnecessarily punitive.
Meanwhile, the National Farmers Union Scotland has called for new powers to lethally control sea eagles, alleging that they attack lambs – a demand that NatureScot would reject if formally made.
In 2017 the agency published scientific evidence linking grouse moors in parts of the Highlands with the systematic persecution and disappearance of golden eagles. Scottish ministers are preparing new laws to license grouse moors and ban those linked to wildlife offences.
Similar tensions are expected to escalate over proposals to release the lynx, Europe’s largest native cat, and eventually to repopulate the Highlands with wildcats.
Osowska said NatureScot expected to receive a licence application later next year to release lynx in a small pilot project – assuming a community consultation project garners support from rural people, including livestock farmers, whose flocks could be at risk. Releasing wildcats in several years was also a realistic possibility, she said.
At the same time, influential environment charities have accused NatureScot of failing to cut deer numbers in the Highlands, despite having a legal responsibility to curb overgrazing and protect sensitive habitats.
Deer populations have surged above 1 million and are widely blamed, alongside sheep, for denuding the uplands of native forest and plant life, undermining efforts to combat the climate and nature emergencies.
NatureScot is drafting plans with Scottish ministers for a tougher policy on culling that is likely to provoke a backlash from Highland estate owners. Campaigns such as Rewilding Britain believe wolves would provide a natural control mechanism: the absence of such predators is partly to blame for the surge in deer numbers, it argues.
NatureScot and Scottish ministers are preparing a significant biodiversity strategy for publication next year, which will build on the decisions taken by the Cop26 climate conference in Glasgow in November, and the Cop15 biodiversity conference in China next year.
“The absolutely key thing is, we are a part of nature and not apart from it,” Osowska said. “There has been for too long a sense that the human species is separate from the rest of nature. We as a species rely on nature for the air that we breathe, the food that we eat and water that we drink.”