Managing wildlife

A grey wolf (Canis lupus) in Finland Would you have wolves and bears living next door to you?

Earlier this year debating experts showed enthusiasm for the idea of re-introducing bears in Scotland at an event in Lochinver in Sutherland. Wolves, bears and lynx once roamed the UK as top predators, and the concept of "rewilding" the countryside with these carnivores has been much-discussed in recent years.

In May, the Telegraph reported a group of experts wanted to apply for a licence to reintroduce lynx into an area of forest in west Scotland.

Sea eagles and beavers have already been reintroduced in the UK but such programmes are complex and met with controversy.

For some people bringing back large predators should be the obvious next step, but others argue we no longer have suitable habitat for these large carnivores and that wolves and bears would kill precious livestock.

BBC Nature asked a panel of specialists: "Would you have wolves and bears living next door to you?"

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Tim Coulson, professor of zoology at the University of Oxford and co-author of a study on wolf reintroduction

My personal answer to this question is a "yes", assuming I am living in an area that can support healthy populations of bears and wolves, and in an area where these species will not be persecuted by my neighbours.

In addition, I would like my neighbours to be aware of the dangers of living close to large, dangerous animals, so they minimize any risk of harm to them or their pets.

The reasons I say this is two fold. First, I, like many people, enjoy seeing large mammals, and they can provide an important economic benefit to wild areas through tourism.

Britain's vanished predators

Brown bear (Ursus arctos)

Brown bears once roamed Britain but when they were wiped out is debated. Some accounts report they survived until the 10th century.

Evidence suggests Eurasian lynx may have survived in Britain until Medieval times. The medium-sized cat predates animals such as deer, rabbit and hare.

Wolves are thought to have been eradicated from Britain by the 1700s.

Second, the presence of large carnivores, like wolves, can have positive effects on many other species animals and plants in an ecosystem. For example, in Yellowstone National Park, the reintroduction of wolves has led to an increases in beaver, bear and bison populations, as well as improved growth of aspen, willow and cottonwood.

Many people would not want to have large, dangerous animals living on their doorstep. If I were to farm livestock I would be concerned that my livestock, and consequently my livelihood, could be at risk. In addition to livestock, bears and wolves can be a risk to people.

It is important that people who would from time to time encounter these animals are educated on how to minimize their risk of injury or death. There are many simple precautions that can be taken to do this.

I live in East Oxford. It would not be appropriate to introduce wolves and bears to the Cowley Road. If I lived in rural Utah I would be a stronger advocate for their reintroduction.

Alastair Maclennan, farmer and Highland representative at the National Farmers Union Scotland (NFUS)

Start Quote

They will predate whatever is the easiest kill”

End Quote Alastair Maclennan NFUS representative

No. My opinion about the reintroduction of wolves, bear and lynx for that matter is that we do not have suitable habitat for them anymore.

We should be looking after the species that we have, some of which would be put under extreme pressure of extinction if these predators were introduced, eg: capercaillie and wildcat.

There is nowhere that these larger predators could be put (and are likely to stay) that they are not going to interact with people and predate livestock, especially when you consider the numbers of animals needed in order to have a sustainable population.

They will predate whatever is the easiest kill. The livestock industry is under economic pressure; it is essential in the management of the countryside and environment that we have, and the industry cannot sustain sheep and cattle being predated.

Conservationists are disingenuous when they say that there is a sustainable food source for lynx, for example, and they include red deer numbers in that. Lynx are capable of taking red deer, but generally do not live in the same sort of habitat, eg: open moorland.

Simon Jones, Scottish Beaver Trial project manager, Scottish Wildlife Trust

As the manager of the Scottish Beaver Trial I have been fortunate to travel to many parts of the UK and Europe over the past six years to give presentations on the subject of the reintroduction of beavers to the UK.

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We believe that at the present time the ecosystem conditions in the UK are unsuitable for the reintroduction of wolves and brown bear”

End Quote Simon Jones Scottish Wildlife Trust

I would estimate that at 75% of these talks I have also been asked the question, "so after the beaver, what about reintroducing wolves and bears next?"

This is an issue that polarises opinion, is hugely complex in the questions it throws up but actually asks a simple fundamental question: what future do we see for our wilder places and ourselves?

At the Scottish Wildlife Trust we believe that there is both a moral and ecological imperative for reintroducing species lost from Scotland due to human persecution or habitat loss caused by humans.

However, we also believe that there must be a sound scientific basis for any reintroduction and that international guidelines must be followed.

The reintroduction of species can be a valuable, cost-effective means of reducing the need for management intervention, as well as increasing the robustness of ecosystems in the face of threats such as climate change.

However, it is vital to ensure that before a particular species is reintroduced careful thought is given to whether suitable habitat still exists to support a sustainable population, whether there are any potential negative impacts on other native species and land-uses and, importantly, whether there is majority support for the reintroduction from the local communities directly affected.

The potential return of both wolves and bears offers the greatest challenge to all of the above mentioned considerations and we believe that at the present time the ecosystem conditions in the UK are unsuitable for the reintroduction of wolves and brown bear, although the wooded conditions required for another apex predator the Eurasian lynx are already present.

Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) Simon Jones says the wooded conditions needed to reintroduce lynx to the UK are already present

Living next door to wolves and bears would not be straightforward; there would be challenges and conflicts to resolve, but there would also be benefits and hundreds of thousands of people across parts of Europe and North America do already live alongside these species.

Personally I welcome the thought that one day my grandchildren (hopefully!) might be able to live alongside or at least near to areas where apex predators roam, and in doing so they help to play a vital 'keystone' role in shaping healthy, wildlife rich landscapes, where human communities engaged in sustainable agriculture, forestry, fisheries and recreation also thrive alongside them.

So now may not be the right time to consider having wolves and bears as our neighbours, but it is a long term goal that I think we should move towards and not just for the sake of returning these iconic species but as part of a wider vision for a network of healthy, resilient ecosystems supporting expanding communities of native species across large areas of the UK.

Richard Morley, director of the Wolves and Humans Foundation, a UK charity dedicated to conserving Europe's large carnivores

On a personal level I would love to have wolves and bears living here in the UK, even right next door to where I live on a former farm in Devon.

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The major barrier to bringing wolves back is people, in particular our perceptions of large carnivores and their impact on our economic activities. ”

End Quote Richard Morley Wolves and Humans Foundation

For me there is no greater feeling of freedom than standing in a forest, knowing that even if I am unlikely to see them, somewhere out there are large, charismatic predators that do not conform to the laws of men (despite our best efforts to impose these upon them), but respond only to the cues of nature, as they have done for thousands of years.

On a professional level as director of a conservation charity, I am much more circumspect about the prospect of a reintroduction of large carnivores other than the elusive lynx.

There is no doubt wolves, as adaptable and intelligent opportunists that do not require remote wilderness, could survive in many areas of the UK.

Bears are a little more fussy and require undisturbed areas for winter denning and seasonal abundance of high-energy foods, which these overcrowded islands may struggle to provide.

However the major barrier to bringing wolves back is people, in particular our perceptions of large carnivores and their impact on our economic activities.

Wolves, bears and lynx sometimes kill livestock and pets, and also deer and wild boar that hunters like to shoot.

Statistics show that the economic impact of this is often insignificant, but culturally the impact is much greater, particularly for people who frequently come into direct contact with predators, such as farmers and hunters, and this cannot be ignored.

Grey wolf In some countries dogs and electric fences are used to keep big predators away from livestock

There is much good work going on in Europe to try and address this and achieve coexistence between people and large carnivores, for example measures to prevent livestock being killed using guarding dogs and predator-proof electric fencing.

In some areas ecotourism initiatives encourage rural communities to value "their" wildlife as tourist rather than hunting quarry, and stakeholder workshops bring all parties together to try and thrash out a compromise.

These are ongoing processes, but nowhere has a lasting balance been found yet.

I would suggest that it is better to spend limited resources on continuing to work towards a workable model of co-existence in areas where wolves already exist, rather than on reintroductions to the UK that would be no less controversial.

This is not to say we should do nothing - a movement for 'rewilding' of the British countryside is gaining momentum, together with an encouraging trial reintroduction of the beaver, and I believe that a similar trial introduction of the lynx, an animal that does not carry the cultural baggage of other large carnivores, would have a good chance of success.

Reintroductions of lynx in Europe have proved much less controversial than the recovery of wolves, which have never been reintroduced in Europe, and instead have expanded through dispersal from existing populations.

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