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Bears, moose and squirrels – in Britain?

Friday 18 April 2008

Countryside commentator John Sheard discusses the growing need for proper wildlife management in Britain and although an animal lover, wonders if plans to introduce bears, wolves and beavers are just a dream too far?

THERE was a comic pop song popular back in the 1970s rendered in a fake Scottish accent. It was called “There’s a moose loose in this hoose” and it expressed the confusion that such a beast would cause in such unlikely circumstances ever occurred.

Well, they are unlikely no more. This week, BBC2 television aired a programme about millionaire Paul Lister and his dream to turn a huge Scottish estate back in time by re-introducing wolves, bears and, yes, moose – which last lived here en estimated 2,000 years ago.

Moose in Britain?

On the same day, the RSPCA issued a statement saying that attempts to eradicate grey squirrels in areas where the native red squirrel is just hanging on were “ethically dubious” and a waste of time and effort.

These events were in no way connected but together they raise a question which has been raised too rarely and even then quickly forgotten: just how do we manage wildlife in this country? We have been dodging the question now since Victorian times, when land owners imported animals like the grey squirrel and the muntjac deer as oddities to brighten up their estates – only to see them escape and cause untold havoc in the English countryside.

The trouble is that most of the English, and particularly the urban population, take a dewy-eyed view of almost anything in fur or feather. The RSPCA’s statement seems to support that “Oh how cuddly” attitude when as animal experts they ought to know better.

This trivialises efforts here in the Yorkshire Dales, where efforts are being made in Wensleydale to preserve a rare colony of red squirrels by encouraging the shooting of the greys. There is also a small colony around Kilnsey in Upper Wharfedale and I hope the locals are taking the same severe measures.

Because, as the RSPCA knows fine well, the grey squirrel does much more than compete with the native reds. It kills them off by spreading a pox which they themselves are immune to and also kills thousands, perhaps millions, of song birds by raiding their nests and eating, not just the eggs, but any newly hatched chicks.

On a lighter note, I find the idea of an “eco-estate” in the Highlands stocked with long extinct animals quite intriguing, just as the Victorians did. Unlike them, however, I can see the dangers, particularly of bears and wolves, which millionaire Lister wants to introduce as natural predators to keep down thousands of red deer which do enormous damage to grazing land, in particular, to trees.

in view of past disasters like the grey squirrel, the mink and the signal crayfish, dare we take the risk?

They tried an experiment like this in the Alps a few years back and these animals proved to bee too lazy to pursue wild prey because local sheep were much easier targets, which upset local farmers somewhat.

And I don’t think the owners of Scottish salmon fishing estates would take too kindly the arrival of the beaver. A lovely, hard-working creature, it spends it life damming streams and rivers where the salmon run, often converting fast-flowing rivers into swamp. Not good for business, that – not to mention the much-threatened salmon.

And anyway, as world food shortages grow and meat prices soar because of the cost of animal feed, wouldn’t it be better just to cull the deer: venison is a prime meat, marvellous in flavour and low in cholesterol. And you can’t get much more free range than that.

As to the moose, now that is interesting. I am not aware of any downside to this large and I believe reasonably equable beast – it has never before been raised as a subject as a potential local resident. The question is: in view of past disasters like the grey squirrel, the mink and the signal crayfish, dare we take the risk?

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