If conservationists get their way, beavers will soon be building dams in Britain's rivers and streams for the first time in 800 years. Stephen Harris, a zoologist at Bristol University and chairman of the Mammal Society, reckons we should go even further. He'd like to reintroduce all the large mammals our ancestors hunted to extinction, including wolf, lynx, elk, wild boar and bear. He says Britain's ecology is unbalanced without them--and that they'd be good for tourism. Gail Vines finds out how someone brought up in London developed such a passion for wild animals
Why would anyone want to bring back large mammals?
One reason would be to put our ecosystem back in some sort of shape. In Britain we have the least natural mammal population of any country in the world bar New Zealand, where virtually everything is introduced apart from a couple of species of bats. In Britain, the biomass of rabbits alone exceeds all the other wild mammals combined--and that's an introduced species that's been living wild in this country in reasonable numbers for only about two hundred years.
So Britain's ecosystem is rather unusual?
That's putting it mildly. Compared to continental Europe, we have a lot of predators and very few prey species to support them. We've got nearly 20 species of mammalian and avian predators--all of them small or medium-sized such as buzzard and kestrel, fox, stoat, weasel and pine martin--and really just two species of prey: the rabbit and the field vole. So we have a very unbalanced food chain. Big predators would help.
But what would they eat?
Deer, for a start. Wolf or lynx would be very useful because we've got nothing that preys on our rapidly expanding deer populations--we have two native species and four introduced ones. The ecological impact of all these grazing deer is dramatic. They can wipe out the ground flora in a wood, for instance.
Wouldn't a wolf be tempted by the odd lamb as well?
Yes, if you brought back lynx or wolf they would eat some livestock. But over the past few months we've slaughtered millions of sheep, pigs and cattle to try to control foot and mouth disease. If we can afford to do that, we can afford to compensate farmers for the few losses that would occur from wild predators.
What if they ate people too?
People have a huge fear of wolves that seems remarkably un-founded. Domestic dogs kill more people every year than wolves would. The risk factor is so low that, frankly, it ought to be ignored.
What about all those folk tales of packs of wolves chasing sleighs across the tundra?
It's interesting that all those accounts come from the Old World. If you look at people in the New World--the native North Americans, for example--their stories about wolves are all particularly positive. The Russian stories of wolves pursuing people through the snow were probably about wolves suffering from rabies, which made them behave abnormally. A sane wolf would never act like that, and rabies seems to have been far more widespread among the wolves in eastern Europe and Russia.
Wouldn't bringing in wolves increase the risk of rabies?
I don't think so. Once we thought that rabies was transferred easily between animals. But now it appears that the fox can't transfer the fox virus to a dog and vice versa. Each species has its own strain, and can't spread it to wildlife in general. And really the chance of it getting into this country and into the wildlife is remarkably low.
Does Britain have enough decent habitat left for all these mammals?
I think it's more complex than that. In most cases, the habitat is there. It's more a question of whether people really want to have them. Look at how people worry about a few hundred possibly hybrid wild boars living in woodland in Kent. In Neolithic times we probably had a million of the beasts. I would introduce the lynx first, because the chances of seeing a lynx in the wild would be so remote that most people would never know they were there. They hunt alone, and take medium-sized deer. We probably have enough habitat in Britain to support about a thousand. Once we had 9000.
The beaver is already being introduced, but is that a sensible choice, given that they cut down trees and block up rivers?
But that's how rivers should be. They shouldn't be flowing into the sea at a rate of knots. We have done so much to improve river flow that when we do have a lot of rain we have big flooding problems because the rivers just can't carry the water away fast enough. Beavers could help reduce the risk of flooding, and boost the area of wetland habitat available for all sorts of other wildlife too. So beavers offer real ecological advantages, and I think it would be fun to have them.
Other than improving the ecological balance, how else could reintroducing mammals benefit a country?
Well, it could provide a boon to the tourist industry. Look at the number of people who go birdwatching in Britain. They go because birds are "see-able". If we start making mammals easier to watch, people will go and look at them. Already people pay to sit in a hide and watch badgers at night. Imagine seeing beavers on the East Anglian fens, or a wolf pack by moonlight in the Scottish highlands. It could be worth a lot to the British tourist industry.
Why have we been so ready to hunt our mammals to extinction in the past?
It's a good question. Half a century ago we started to protect our wild birds, but today we're still arguing over whether it's humane to chase deer for 30 kilometres with a pack of hounds. The whole concept of how mammals should be treated is driven by sporting interests. As a result, the way we treat mammals is actually fairly cruel. Too much of our land in Britain is dominated by shooting interests. For instance, each year, some 25 million pheasants are released into the wild to provide enthusiasts with something to shoot. More predators is clearly not what these people want.
Would you like to see an end to fox hunting?
Think of this. Some 20 years ago we stopped badger digging because it was deemed cruel and unnecessary, but today it is perfectly legal to do exactly the same to a fox. I don't understand the logic.
While we're on controversial topics, is there any truth in the rumour that you hate cats?
Well, I'm certainly not anti-cat. But I would say that we have 9 million domestic cats in Britain and that exceeds all our wild carnivores combined several times over. Their ecological impact is dramatic. We estimated they kill about 250 million vertebrates each year--now that's an astronomical figure. We urge people not to let their cats go out hunting at night. We can minimise the impact of cats by responsible ownership.
Since the mammals we've got are having such a hard time, is reintroducing others really the most important goal?
No. Population monitoring has to be the priority. "Bring back the wolf" sounds glamorous, but "Save the weasel" may be more important. We just don't know enough about how our mammal populations are faring to be able to set clear objectives. We didn't even realise that water voles were in trouble until there had been a massive 80 per cent population decline. So while I'd love to see beavers in Scotland, we still don't know if that's the best use of our conservation funds at the moment.
What got you interested in mammals in the first place?
I don't know exactly, though I remember at school aged 10 saying I wanted to go to university and do research on mammals and particularly foxes. Everyone laughed, and the teacher suggested I should refocus on being something useful like a car mechanic.
Did you spend much time in the countryside as a child?
No, I was brought up in the East End of London. We lived on the end of a new housing estate by the old fighter-pilot airfield at Fairlop. The Germans had obviously bombed this quite a lot, and there were craters everywhere that teemed with great crested newts. Things like that fascinated me as a kid. About that time foxes started invading that part of London. I started going out with the local Essex field club on "fox rallies" because in those days people weren't quite sure there really were foxes in towns.
And a career was born?
Yes, I think that is my claim to fame: I put the urban fox on the map.
Could it be a good symbol for our time: the fox in the city?
Yes, but the sad thing is that gardens aren't really much use to most of our 50-odd species of mammals. Wood mouse, grey squirrel, hedgehog, fox: that's about it. Not many mammals can coexist with humans in the way birds can. Urban habitats and gardens are not providing the substitutes for what is a very poorly managed countryside for our mammals.
And then there are mouse traps and rat poison. Could it be that most people rather loathe their fellow mammals?
I don't think so. In North America in the 1920s, it was government policy to exterminate the wolf. They near as damn it did. But 80 years on, people are clamouring to bring the wolf back. When people are given proper information, their attitudes undergo a dramatic change. This is what we are starting to see in Britain. In London's Underground stations you can watch the house mice running up and down between the tracks. These days, it's the best place to see one. Most people stand there fascinated, watching them.
But even if mice are winning the PR battle, people might still ask: why let potentially dangerous animals loose in the countryside?
We've got to confront our own ecological imperialism. I'm one of these people who goes off to Africa and India, and I want to see elephants, lions, rhino and buffalo. We worry about whether it's remotely possible that the wolf might kill someone in Britain, but we don't bat an eyelid at the number of people in the Third World who are killed by large mammals. We expect other people to coexist with large mammals, but we're not doing our bit. It really is rather offensive. We say we don't want wolves in this country because we like our stalking rights and we don't want wolves killing our deer. Well, any country in the world could say that and that would be the end of our global megafauna. As it is, we have very little of it left.
© New Scientist, 29 th September 2001
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