'Rewilding' projects could see eagles, elk, wolves and lynx return to the Yorkshire Dales
Ian McPherson, a champion for the environment, wrote earlier this week espousing the benefits of allowing native species that have been extinct for over a century to return to their natural habitat in a managed way.
Although he believes reintroducing the likes of pine martens and beavers is realistically attainable in the Yorkshire Dales, he has not ruled out lynx, wildcats and even wolves being released in the long term, once measures are in place to prevent them attacking livestock.
"These days the term ‘rewilding’ has become somewhat of a dirty word, especially amongst farmers and landowners who can have visions of wolves, lynx and perhaps the occasional elk creating mayhem amongst their flocks of sheep and herds of cattle, and beavers chewing their way through their forestry plantations - perhaps not without good reason," said Mr McPherson on the National Park's online blog.
"This is unfortunate, however, as rewilding in its fullest sense, although it can involve a measure of reintroductions especially of formerly indigenous species, is primarily about the ways in which land can be managed so as to be the most appropriate and natural form of habitat for its location and local climate. When this is done correctly, then a degree of natural re-colonisation can often occur without contrived reintroduction as such.
"I have been involved in looking at ways in which rewilding (in the fullest definition of the word) may be approached within the National Park - an area whose iconic landscape has largely been created by farming."
Mr McPherson believes his vision would complement the existing Tees-Swale: Naturally Connected project, which involves over 845 square kilometres of land in Swaledale and Arkengarthdale and will focus on farmer-led wildlife recovery. Other areas of the National Park are also being considered for similar schemes.
He has also studied a project by the Cumbria Wildlife Trust, which assesses the pros and cons of reintroducing beaver, wildcat, lynx, wolf, elk, pine marten, golden eagle, white-tailed eagle and crane.
"For me golden and white-tailed eagles, chough, beaver, pine marten, crane and silver-studded blue butterflies are all possible contenders either right now or in the very near future. But lynx, wolf, wild cat and elk would certainly need to wait for some time and there would need to be schemes for compensation in place for any damage resulting from their reintroduction.
"Whilst the focus tends to be on these sorts of charismatic mammals, returning other types of species is no less important. A locality where this is already starting to happen is the Wild Ennerdale project in the Lake District National Park where, following a successful reintroduction programme, they now have England’s largest population of marsh fritillary butterfly."
England's lost native species
Beaver were hunted to extinction for their fur and a secretion in their glands by the 16th century. Populations survived in Europe and slowly recovered, and there have been several successful reintroduction projects and managed trials in Britain in the past few years, originally using animals brought from Norway. One of these is at Cropton Forest in the North York Moors, where a breeding pair and their offspring live in an enclosure on Forestry England land. Although their dam-building can promote natural flood management, their activities can also disrupt farming.
Wildcats are still found in Scotland, but their numbers are now tiny and their purity has been threatened by inter-breeding with domestic cats.
The Eurasian lynx was extinct from most of western Europe by the 1950s, although populations in some mountainous areas have recovered. However, it has been extirpated in Britain since the Middle Ages.
Although wolves, which are found throughout Europe and North America, are named after the Old English word 'wulf', they had been exterminated in Britain by the 1680s, and three centuries earlier in England.
Elk disappeared between 3-4,000 years ago, when European populations began to migrate to North America.
Pine marten are rare, and mainly found in Scotland. They do wander elsewhere, and in 2017 one was filmed on a camera trap at Dalby Forest in the North York Moors - the first evidence they had been living in Yorkshire since the early 1990s. There is a breeding population at Kielder Forest in Northumberland, and although occasional anecdotal sightings are reported in the Dales, these haven't been verified and it's thought there isn't the right amount of forest cover for them.
Golden eagles still live in Scotland, and there have recently been successful reintroduction programmes for white-tailed eagles. A pair released in the Isle of Wight found their way to the North York Moors this spring, where they appear to have settled.
Breeding cranes were wiped out in Britain around 400 years ago, although occasional migratory birds from Europe would visit in subsequent winters. In 1979, three cranes spent the winter in the Norfolk Broads and gradually established a breeding population again, which has since spread to the Fens and parts of Scotland, but their numbers are still small.
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