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Bringing back the bear: dream or nightmare?

Friday 02 September 2005

Our countryside commentator John Sheard wonders if the conservation pendulum has swung too far with plans to release wolves and even bears back into the countryside

AS SOMEONE who has been a passionate and vocal supporter of the conservation movement since 1960 - when no one realised yet that there was such a movement - I wonder sometimes if I have stepped through the looking glass to join Alice in Wonderland. Or perhaps the Keystone Cops.

I remember that year well because that was when I wrote the first nationally published stories about the efforts of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds to re-establish the osprey back into Scotland.

Controversial cormorant

The osprey is a fish eating eagle and it had been shot out of existence in the late 19th century by water bailiffs protecting salmon and trout stocks at a time when rivers were jammed full of the things. Despite being a keen angler, I considered the loss of a few game fish a worthwhile trade for the return of such a wonderful bird.

This week, as we reported on Wednesday (See News) the RSPB is bitterly opposed to the shooting of some 3,000 cormorants which have been forced inland because their most important natural prey at sea has been fished out.

And north of the border, the Scottish RSPB has been given the right that sportsmen have been denied to hunt a mammal with dogs. And that mammal is a very popular one too, the hedgehog, so the bird lovers and the animal lovers are at each others' throats.

I also read recently that there are some Scottish lairds who are planning to reintroduce wolves and even wild bears onto their estates as an attraction for tourists. This is where I begin to lose track of reality because, make no mistake, there will be landowners in the more remote spots of Northern England, including the Yorkshire Dales, watching with interest.

Some years ago, I did some salmon fishing in Canada - not a successful trip, sadly, because of forest fires - but even so, I was constantly conscious of the danger of a bear popping out of the brush behind and being trapped between him and a roaring torrent in front. Not a risk I would take now, me thinks.

Bears and wolves have been released in parts of the Alps by idealistic conservationists who thought they would feed on rabbits, deer and mountain goats. But, surprise, surprise, they found domestic cattle and sheep much easier prey - and now local farmers are up in arms because they are losing so much stock.

If these animals can kill mature livestock, in extremis during a cold winter they could also kill human beings, particularly the old or very young. Imagine the national outcry if, say, a baby were taken from its pram by a starving bear or a pack of wolves?

This, I accept, is being alarmist. Such a drama would be highly unlikely even if these wild predators were released into the British wilds. But my question is: do we need to take such drastic action when we have plenty of non-dangerous species that need urgent help, like the otter, the red squirrel, the pine marten, the wild cat and even the water vole, Ratty of Wind in the Willows.

The trouble with many conservationists today, apart from the fact that most our town based and know little of the wider spectrum of country life, is that they have become zealots, focussed entirely on the needs of their own speciality interest.

Therefore, the cormorant, a fast expanding species, is given precedence over the salmon, which is closer to extinction that almost any other British creature. Sea birds - which are only seen regularly anyway by committed bird watchers - are given precedence over humble Prickles, whose numbers are also in freefall thanks to road kill and modern gardening machines.

I am not quite sure at which point care for animals spreads from compassion into obsession (I am tempted to say madness) but that point must surely have been reached, or passed, by now. The pendulum has swung too far. Time for sensible country folk to push it back.

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