Is UK nature conservation suffering from a chronic lack of ambition?
Denmark re-introduces the Wisent or European Bison to Bornholm, a large island in the Baltic, to help with the conservation of its meadows.
Now I’m all in favour of these projects, but the difference is that the re-introductions being done in the UK are primarily aimed at re-establishing populations of the species that went extinct, while the Wisent is being brought back to do a job – to fill in a huge gap in Bornholm’s ecosystem.
In that sense the accidental re-introduction of wild boar to the UK, after an absence of many centuries, is likely to have a more significant impact on nature and its conservation, than re-introducing the other species I’ve listed above. This is because wild boar perform a vital function in our ecosystems, creating areas of disturbed ground, and dispersing plant seeds. It’s strange therefore that the re-introduction of these beasts is not celebrated more widely – indeed the media cannot decide whether to demonise or lionise them.
I’d like to propose another candidate for re-introduction. I was lucky enough to visit Eelmoor Marsh in Hampshire a few weeks ago. It’s an interesting area of acid grassland, heath, bog and secondary woodland, owned by defence contractor Qinetiq and managed by Marwell Zoo. Because of its security status it has a large perimeter fence, which meant that it was an ideal place to keep a herd of Przewalski’s horses.
These are the last wild horses on earth and are descended from a small group taken into captivity in around 1900 to prevent the species’ extinction.
According to my guide, Marwell’s Martin Wilkie, it was thought until recently that the European wild horse was a slightly different creature, the now extinct Tarpan. Latest research, Martin told me, suggests that it was actually Przewalski’s horse which was the native wild horse across Eurasia, including Western Europe and the UK into the neolithic.
Przewalski’s horses are kept behind a 3m security fence at Eelmoor, partly because they are legally listed as dangerous wild animals under the 1976 Act. But this could well be an extinct native mammal, like the European Beaver, or indeed the wild boar now rapidly recolonising the UK.
Are Przewalski’s dangerous? They are very shy – I didn’t see any in the hours I was at Eelmoor until we were just about to leave when Martin spotted some in the distance (it was bit like being on safari). I imagine they would run a mile long before any human got near them. They are also very small – much smaller than an Exmoor or Welsh Mountain pony, both very useful animals for conservation grazing/browsing.
I am not suggesting that they are just released into the countryside to roam hither and thither (though other species have been). But small, controlled releases in areas with significant semi-natural habitat – the uplands for example, would surely cause no-one any problems.
What about the benefits? Like the Wisent on Bornholm, wild horses would play a vital role in ecosystem function – a role that has been missing for millennia. They browse as well as graze, and therefore are more effective in influencing succession than livestock such as cattle or sheep. They also create and maintain glades and lawns – much valued for their species diversity and rare species in the New Forest for example.
Perhaps even more importantly they would symbolise wild nature in a positive way – as opposed to the wolf for example, which faces a far bigger struggle to gain acceptance as a legitimate wild UK animal.