Luke Stanley is Policy Adviser to Lord Hague of Richmond and Parliamentary Researcher to Anthony Mangnall MP. He writes in a personal capacity.
Back in 2013, while still Mayor of London, Boris Johnson said that “one of the few mad ideas that I’ve not been able to put into practice was to reintroduce the red squirrel … I got absolutely obsessed with it for a while but they told me it would basically involve creating a huge aviary patrolled by G4S security people to shoot all the grey squirrels that tried to get in.”
The Prime Minister showed the same conservationist zeal last month when he committed to protect at least 30 per cent of British land by 2030. This, together with the Government’s landmark Environment Bill, will set biodiversity in our green and pleasant land back on the road to recovery.
As a rule, when it comes to restoring nature, the best thing mankind can do is get out of the way. But in some cases we cannot rely on nature to heal itself. Getting out of the way would see our Scottish wildcat die out, allow invasive species like the grey squirrel to wreak havoc on our environment, and leave extinct keystone species absent from our islands.
Sometimes nature needs a helping hand. Fortunately, volunteers across our country are already stepping up to protect and restore British wildlife.
In Northumberland, local wildlife enthusiasts have displaced the invasive mink from Kielder Forest and reintroduced 1,500 water voles. In Gloucestershire, wildlife groups have reintroduced pine martens, once common across England, back into the Forest of Dean. Perhaps most ambitiously of all, environmentalists Derek Gow and Ben Goldsmith, are breeding litters of the Scottish wildcat, extinct across the rest of Britain for 150 years, with an ambition to reintroduce them in England by 2022.
But the biggest success for species restoration to date has been the return of beavers to our islands, four hundred years after they were hunted to extinction. After a population of beavers of unknown origin were found to be living on the River Otter in 2010, the Government initially planned to have them removed. After the local Devon Wildlife Trust interceded, Natural England agreed to a five year trial to monitor the impact of the beavers on the local environment.
When the River Otter trial ended in August, the Government announced that the beavers could remain in perpetuity and that they would consult on a national strategy for the management of beavers in the wild and future releases. They came to this conclusion because of the significant benefits for the local area, with evidence from the trial showing improved biodiversity, flooding mitigation, and boosts to the visitor economy.
These benefits were such that Rebecca Pow, the DEFRA Minister, suggested maintaining a beaver population could be considered a “public good” under the forthcoming Environmental Land Management system, with farmers paid to have them on their land.
Such benefits resulting from species reintroductions have been shown to be more the rule than the exception. For example, studies have shown the invasive grey squirrel to be more vulnerable to pine martens than the native red. This has raised hopes that marten reintroductions can help halt the seemingly relentless march of the greys, whose bark stripping causes significant ecological damage to woodlands and cost the UK forestry industry £10 million each year.
Given the significant benefits, both ecological and economic, what more can the Government do to support communities to restore British species in their local areas?
First of all, the Government’s consultation on a new national approach for any further beaver releases is a great step forward. The Government should complement this by continuing plans to develop and consult on a code and best practice guidance for assessing the merits and risks of species reintroduction projects in general, as committed to in the 25 Year Environment Plan. While legal approval is not required for most reintroductions, only for those where species are no longer native to the UK, such a code of best practice would allow wildlife groups to better plan and execute their projects.
A second way to help volunteers and wildlife groups would be to offer greater tailored support from rewilding experts. While these projects should continue to be led by local community groups, a lack of experience in such endeavours can hamper their success. The Government could consider making use of the wealth of expertise in rewilding across our country by inviting some of the most experienced individuals to form an independent panel to advise community groups on best practice for reintroductions.
Thirdly, the Government should continue to support research and innovation in biodiversity. Despite the tireless efforts of volunteers and local wildlife trusts, the fate of the British red squirrel, vulnerable to the squirrel pox which the greys carry, hangs in the balance.
Before Covid-19, the Government’s Animal and Plant Health Agency was conducting research into delivering contraceptives to humanely reduce the grey population. Once the pandemic has been defeated, the Government could redouble its efforts to deliver this contraception and explore whether similar initiatives could be appropriate for other invasive species, such as the mink.
Finally, the Government could explore ways to encourage more people to volunteer their time supporting their local environment. In his recent independent report into communities, commissioned by the Prime Minister, Danny Kruger suggested a National Volunteer Reserve with members “invited to sign up for environmental and conservation projects across the country” such as “monitoring biodiversity”.
Moreover, in its 2019 report, the Environmental Audit Committee praised New Zealand’s plans to train 150,000 people in biosecurity by 2025 and called for a similar UK “biosecurity citizens army”. Both are ideas well worth consideration.
While Johnson’s One Nation Conservative Government is already making excellent strides in protecting biodiversity, by considering further ways to support communities restoring British fauna, the Government could renew our green and pleasant land even faster.