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Wolves & beavers at large? Worry about "wilding"

Friday 31 July 2009

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, who has fished (briefly) in Canada whilst worrying about wolves and bears in the woods behind him, discusses the latest “green” craze: the releasing of wolves and beavers to join the escaped boars at large in the English countryside

FEW people care more about wild English mammals than me. Over the years, I have campaigned for water voles, been excoriated by the NFU for not wanting thousands of badgers gassed, and one of my greatest moments in 50 years on the river bank was my one and only glimpse – all 15 seconds of it – of a wild otter hunting salmon in the River Lune.

So this week, I found myself conflicted about plans to “re-wild” parts of the English countryside with once indigenous creatures like wolves and beavers to join the escaped wild boar which are already growing rapidly in numbers in southern counties after escaping from farms specialising in supplying game to posh London eateries.

At large in the UK?

There are, of course, already wallabies in the Derbyshire wilds and stories of a black panther on Dartmoor (can the Hound of the Baskervilles still be roaming abroad?) and there are more parrots in parts of the Home Counties than there are starlings.

So why the sudden upsurge on interest in wild wolves beavers and even – in the lunatic fringe – bears? What has brought about this desire to return English nature to a state that it has not known for probably 300 years for wolves and some 500 for beavers?

This was a debate that took part at the CLA Game Show this week at Belvoir Castle (pronounced, strangely enough as "Beaver" Castle) near Grantham this week between a group of worthies from different points of the conservation compass (see News). And although the discussion was no doubt conducted in polite, public terms, I wager that there was a lot of very hot air indeed behind the scenes.

On one side was English Nature, which – to my surprise – seems to be supporting the trendy view that our countryside can somehow be turned back to the days of Merrie Englande, when the rich rode out of their castles to hunt and be served foaming jugs of ale at roadside inns by buxom wenches or straw-chewing, forelock-tugging Simple Simons dressed in smocks.

On the far side of the debate was North Yorkshire estate owner William Worsley, of Hovingham Hall, who grows a lot of trees and is worried in the extreme about what beavers would do if let loose in the streams through his rolling acres.

He even had the temerity to suggest that wolves can kill people which, of course, are hotly denied by the PC conservationists who tell us that they are just pussy-cats, really, which have been misunderstood and even pilloried by hunters and writers over the centuries.

Now I have never come face to face with a wild wolf – or rather, a wild wolf pack - and I am rather pleased about that. But I did once briefly fish in Canada, trapped between a fast flowing, rocky river and forest so thick that you couldn’t see more than 20 yards into it.

My fishing was abruptly halted when we were ordered off the river because of the danger of forest fires. But I can confess now that I was not too broken hearted. It is very difficult to concentrate on your casting when you expect a pack of wolves or a hungry bear to come crashing out of the trees behind you.

When it comes to fishing here in the UK, however, I am much more concerned about the arrival of beavers than I am of the wolves, for already a small group of them have been released in Gloucestershire. As William Worsley says, they do enormous damage to trees by cutting them down to build their nesting dams across rivers or streams, structures which can grow to the size of a single decker bus.

This not only wrecks the woodland but stops the water flow, turning rushing streams into semi-stagnant ponds, driving away the trout and stopping the vital up-stream migration of sea trout and salmon. The Atlantic salmon is in itself threatened with extinction in many English rivers – a further threat is to be unthinkable.

What the pro-wilding supporters, dreaming their dream of a bucolic medieval England, tend to forget is that when the beaver died out some 500 years ago, the population stood at some five million people. It was only a few million bigger in the 18th Century when the last wolves were killed in their remaining wilderness hideouts hundreds of miles from the then growing towns and cities.

It was not until the Industrial Revolution got into full swing that the human population boomed so before that there were huge areas of open countryside, forest and moorland occupied only by a few hardy souls who knew how to look after themselves. Those areas have now mostly disappeared – even relatively remote areas like some parts of the Yorkshire Dales are heavily populated by medieval standards – and jam-packed with tourists during the summer months.

It might be a sad thing to face up to but wild animals – particularly destructive and possibly dangerous wild animals – and today’s demanding humans cannot live side by side. It would be the animals that would suffer in the end, perhaps shot by a farmer whose livestock had been killed or, far more likely, run over by a truck. Wilding, I suggest, is just another unobtainable dream.

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