BBC Home > BBC News > Magazine

The rodent to ruin?

29 January 08 11:14 GMT
By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

Plans are afoot to reintroduce beavers, wildcats and wolves to habitats in Britain from which they have long disappeared. But is it right to offer a helpful human hand or is this immoral manmade meddling?

Picture a forest. A Scottish crossbill rummages for conifer cones, a capercaillie fans its tail, a red deer skulks in the shadows, while a beaver gnaws thoughtfully on a tree.

It could be a classic picture of wildlife in Scotland, but for one thing. No beavers. Hunted for their pelts, there have been no wild beavers in the UK since at least the 16th Century.

Now two groups in Scotland plan to remedy that. The Scottish Wildlife Trust and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland have submitted an application to the Scottish minister for the environment to bring back beavers in a small-scale experiment which could lead to a wider reintroduction.

Such "reintroductions" are now a common tactic in the global conservation movement, with plans in the UK to reintroduce wildcats and bring wolves back to Scotland.

The measures are aimed at restoring habitats and providing a more natural path to conservation. Wouldn't it be better to control the deer population in Scotland with wolves, rather than rely on man-made methods, the proponents suggest.

Poetic return

But reintroductions are not without controversy. In mainland Europe, the reintroduction of bears and wolves has met with hostility from farmers worried about livestock being killed.

And there is a key question. Should man attempt to manipulate habitats and eco-systems, even if only to repair the damage done by man in the past?

There is a certain poetry in the return of some animals, something compellingly romantic about a wolf staring cold-eyed out of a snowy forest. And the beaver has its own appeal.

The Scottish Wildlife Trust talks of a "charismatic creature", citing a study which estimates that beaver-tourism could be worth £101 per household.

Regarded as a "keystone" species, beavers will help renew and create wetland which will help "frogs, toads, water voles, dragonflies, birds and fish".

But in Estonia, the return of the beaver has caused problems.

"Beavers have caused floods in forests, which means the forest may perish because of the excessive damp," says Kaarel Roht, senior specialist in the forest department at the Ministry of the Environment.

"Beavers can also close drainage canals with dams to get the food, flooding big areas of land and hindering agriculture."

Culling question

And the solution to this? In 2006, 7,368 beavers were killed in Estonia.

This raises a serious question. Is it acceptable to reintroduce a species which then has to be controlled with culling?

Professor Andrew Linzey, director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, says no.

"It can't be ethical to introduce a species which one is then going to kill. Many people who want to reintroduce species don't seem to have an understanding that ecology is an evolving process.

"To reintroduce a species after hundreds of years is to profoundly disturb that ecology. There is no pristine state we can move back to."

But this ethical position is diametrically opposed to that of the conservation fraternity.

Craig Hilton-Taylor, manager of the Red List Unit at the World Conservation Union (IUCN), says culling is sometimes necessary.

Last resort

In Africa, after years of conservation work, including animals being moved to new areas, the elephant population has risen in many countries to the point where culling is seen as necessary by the authorities.

"You want to keep the balance in the system. You have to allow culling... but the thing for us is that it is humane," says Dr Hilton-Taylor.

Accepting culling as a last resort, conservationists focus their efforts on making sure reintroductions are sufficiently well-evaluated that episodes of dramatic overpopulation and animals failing to thrive in areas are kept to a minimum.

"There are lots of reintroductions happening without them being well thought through. Huge amounts of money gets spent on these things," says Dr Hilton-Taylor

"In the case of gharial [Indian crocodile-like reptiles], 10,000 animals had been put back into the wild but the success rate has been appalling, losing them so rapidly."

If beavers should be re-introduced across Scotland or indeed across the whole of the UK, no-one can guarantee that in 20 years they will not have thrived to the point of needing to be culled.

And how the British public will react to the prospect of cute beavers being killed is anybody's guess.

The Confederation of Forest Industries is, needless to say, worried about the prospect of beavers returning, and it questions exactly how "native" beavers can be regarded as in its submission to the beaver consultation exercise.

Profound disturbance

"Due to the interval since beavers were extant in GB (around 400 years) the proposal is in reality one of an introduction of an alien species, and that into a completely different, man-made environment compared to that which existed all those centuries ago."

It is a sentiment that Prof Linzey agrees with.

"It is a big mistake to treat it as though it was a page with holes that have to be filled because they were once filled.

"An act of introduction is an act of profound disturbance. It needs to be looked at very carefully indeed."

The plans to reintroduce wolves in Scotland could be timed to coincide with the return of beavers, in the hope they would help manage the population. But no-one can say that the wolf and beaver will thrive to the same degree.

And exactly how one chooses to interfere with habitats is a complicated business.

The Aspinall Foundation is working on a plan to reintroduce the native "wildcat" or reinforce a current population, using captive animals. It is said there are still wildcats in Scotland.

But before an application is made, there must be a study of the DNA of the captive animals. If they prove not to be a separate species from the domestic cat, the reintroduction plan will go no further.

If they are demonstrated to be separate it will provide another battleground for the proponents of species reintroductions and those who favour a different approach.


Below is a selection of your comments.

Reintroducing a species that became extinct 400 years ago is wrong. Yes it could benifit existing habitates but it could also have profound negative effects on present species and is wrong in the same way as cloning is wrong. Man should not be interfeering with the course of nature even if it was us that killed them off in the first place and it is wrong in the same way as cloning is wrong. If Scotland wants to reintroduce animals in an out of time and place environment then do what we did in Milton Keynes and make them out of concrete!
Peter Alderton, Milton Keynes, England

You only have to look at the reintroduction of Ospreys, Red Kites and Sea Eagles. These poor animals will end up being slyly poisoned by the various unmentionables. It is the only way they know how to react when their game and livestock are at risk.
John Dutton, Warrington, UK

The question.: "Is it acceptable to reintroduce a species which then has to be controlled with culling?" is a strange one to ask in a society which by and large has long accepted the practice of rearing native and introduced species specifically to kill them.
Callum,UK

I think it would be a great idea to reintroduce wild species not seen in Britain for hundreds of years. There are vast areas of what must, at one time, have been forest. Would it not be a good idea to reforest these parts at the same time? This would go some way to countering the global poluution problem. With farming being in such a poor state surely these areas are no longer economically viable and government subsidy coupled with eco tourism ventures would replace the lost income suffered by the farmers affected.
David Pettigrew, Newquay, Cornwall

It is quite remarkable how the reporter refers to the restoration of functioning ecosystems as 'poetic' or how the esteemed professor¿s main concern is how the public might react to the possible culling of fauna which are currently entirely absent. Nor is their any hint of irony in the suggestion that the restoration (as opposed to destruction) of ecosystems may constitute 'immoral man-made meddling'.

This all goes to demonstrate the frightening degree to which many influential persons have become divorced from the reality of the living world, a world that ensures their clean air, pure water and fertile soils on which they totally depend for their survival, despite all the impressive advances in technological gadgetry which cannot replace it.
Swaraj Swadeshi, Gloucestershire

These are not alien species as they have been a native species in previous times. I realise that generally their habitat has changed a great dealsince their original tenure but in the right places the scheme coulsd work quite well. Nature has it's own natural way of balancing things out. I think we owe it to these species having wiped them out in the past.
David Shepherd, Hadleigh,Essex,England

If the reintroduction of wolves goes ahead, who is going to protect them from those who are scared of the animals and hunt them for either sport or out of fear? Balance is maintained in nature with supply of food to numbers of animals but humans always interfere in ways which changes this, unless the wolves are in enclosures and guarded they will surely be hunted out of existence again, the first time was fear and expansion of areas in which humans decided they wanted to live in. Humanity is a virus destroying everything in its path, including other species and natural resources.
Darren Girling, Swindon, UK

European Beavers do not build dams, it's only their North American counterparts that do this. As long as it is the European species that is re-introduced to Scotland, there is no danger of forests being flooded as a direct result of the re-introduction.
Ollie, Norwich, UK

As a species all we ever do is kill. No wonder we are such a sick, miserable bunch of vicious no hopers. Leave the animals alone. If you really want to make a significant difference to the planet, cull a few humans and give the rest of life some space.
Laura Gethen Smith, Kent, UK

I can see the positives about bringing back beavers and if some have to be killed in the future to control them I think that's acceptable. But to even contemplate reintroducing wolvesis nothing short of lunacy. When we did have wolves roaming the country people knew they were there and were brought up and taught about them accordingly. With the massive decrease in plain common sense and responsibility that is the scourge of this country at the moment I cannot think of a more stupid idea.
Alexander Storch, Pontyberem, South Wales

Let's not think with nostalgia that it is always good to try and turn the clock back to undo the damage man has created. Is it not better to protect areas of the world where such animals still exist ? Where populations fall so low that extinction is likely, translocation or reintroduction maybe our only option. One Scottish lamb killed by wolves will just fuel the landowners to take action irrespective of the law.
Robin Edwards, Bedford, UK

If man did the damage in the first place, and he did, then he should attempt to right that wrong and reintroduce. Culling may eventually be necessary to maintain a balance in a particular species but this is what happens now with other species. If we can fix what we destroyed then the moral imperative must be to do so.
Tom Lewis, Belfast

We have reintroduced wolves into Idaho at great financial cost only to see them multiply and move all over the state. The effects on the natural wildlife has been astounding. We will soon be hunting wolves to eliminate the problems that they are causing our livestock and natural game balance. I love the liberal idea of bringing back some of the animals that were hunted and killed indiscriminately but I must cling to the conservative idea that in many cases the environment that these animals previoulsy existed in is largely changed or gone. Do we really think that we are smarter than mother nature?
Chris, Meridian, Idaho

Perhaps a bit more time and effort on preventing extinctions of those species resident today, rather than re-introducing those from the distant past. The red squirrel for example. Beavers destroy trees. Wolves prey on the rest of the lower elements of the food chain. We have little enough forest and wild life left in the UK as it is. 400 years. 4000 years. Why not a Jurassic Park in the Cairngorms.
Ian Neathercoat, Horsham, UK

These animals died out because of us, so bringing them back is the right thing to do. As for whether they are hunted by us, or die naturally of disease, starvation or other predators, does it matter? It's their life that matters, not their death. None are immortal.
Dirk Bruere, Bedford

Man Started to manipulate habitats and ecologies when he first started to use fire. We are as much a part of the ecology and the landscape as any other animal, indeed Scotland is a largely man-made landscape and England entirely so. To question the ethics of these experiments is undoubtedly valid but seen against Mink, Muntjac Deer and Grey Squirrels these introductions are ones which once had a place in the ecology and are far more likely to settle without causing major problems.
Neil Jones, Wettingen Switzerland

To be honest I find culling animals horrible. Why should we have the right to cull animals? They have as much right to live on this planet as we do. Animals do not cull us so we should not cull them. If organisations intend to reintroduce these animals they have to deal with the consequences that come with that and find a more natural way of dealing with the problems that does not result in thousands of that species being killed just because they are living the way they are programmed.
Amy , Devon

The ecology in Scotland, and indeed throughout Britain, has totally changed over the past few hundred years and is now largely a human created landscape. Introduction of wild animals which will have a very large impact on an area is not logical. As far as wolves are concerned ¿ large packs of big dangerous dogs roaming across Scotland? And they will only prey on the deer population? Absolute rubbish. They will, as all hunting animals do, go for the easiest meal. This may be deer, but if domestic sheep are found, they will go on the menu.
Mike Cooksley, Bolton, England

Before we consider introducing these beavers, wolves, wildcats, etc wouldn't we be better culling the grey squirrel population in order to ensure the survival of the red squirrel which is a native species.
Derek Myers, Hampshire

The amount of money time and effort spent making sure survival-of-the-weakest operates in the UK, really is a nonsense. It is odd that the people who want to provide these facilities - or re-introduce livestock into an area - claim it is to be natural / help nature etc - when in fact, natures way is that certain animals die out, others survive. Nature wants "Survival of the fittest". The "nature helpers" want "Survival of everything for ever and ever" - might be a nice concept but it certainly isn't natural.
Mark, Wellingborough

Related BBC sites

*