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A woodland clearing with the sun shining on the trees

Where the wild things aren’t

If you go down to the woods today, it’s fairly certain
you won’t be surprised by the wildlife. Once woolly
rhinos roamed the Gower peninsula and scimitar
cats prowled Torquay, but today you’ll be lucky (very
lucky) to find anything wilder than a rabbit or two in
Britain’s wildest places.

Biodiversity

The biodiversity of our back gardens is fast outpacing what’s left in the British countryside. The ‘silent spring’ of Rachel Carson’s imagination may not yet be a reality, but our wilderness is verging on a whisper these days. According to one report, the UK is among the most ‘nature-depleted’ countries in the world. That could all change if some of the plans to rewild Britain become a reality. Some already have. Two beaver projects in the southwest have already shown just how important certain species are when it comes to the beneficial knock-on effects. Rewilding keystone species like wolves, bears, lynx and beavers can create whole ecosystems for animals, insects and plants that would otherwise struggle. It might seem farfetched, but many societies coexist in proximity to these wild creatures – could we?

We take a look at a few of the creatures that once stalked the land and might yet again.

An illustration of a grey wolf

Grey Wolves (Canis Lupus)

It’s at least 350 years since the last wolf was run to ground in Britain. When wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995, their impact went far beyond what was expected, reshaping the landscape through their presence as the deer that had devastated the vegetation became less inclined to dwell in one place. This allowed it to recover, providing habitats for smaller creatures and stabilising the land so that the river changed course. It’s been suggested they could play a similar role in British ecosystems, where 2 million deer cause around £8 million worth of damage to woodlands and crops every year. Trials are being proposed in Scotland where wolf ecotourism could also be among the benefits, but farmers aren’t convinced. In Sweden, 400 wolves kill a total of 500 sheep per year, but Scottish sheep farmers allow their sheep to roam freely like they do in Norway, where just 68 wolves account for 1,600 sheep kills per year.

Will we see their like again? There are already six wolf cubs in Devon destined for Scotland if the plans get the go-ahead, but folklore and fairy tales mean that wolves cast a long shadow in the human imagination. Some think the solitary, shy lynx might be a better bet.

An illustration of a bear

Brown Bear (Urus Arctos)

Thanks to A.A. Milne and Theodore Roosevelt we think of bears as benign these days – no one takes a cuddly wolf to bed, after all. But bears are apex predators. Seven thousand years ago, humans had around 13,000 cave bears to contend with and with caves in short supply competition would have been fierce. Deforestation and hunting played a big role in their downfall – though opinion is divided as to whether native brown bears died out around 3,000 years ago or as recently as 600 AD. The poor bears subjected to bear-baiting in the medieval era were most likely imported from the continent. Today, only isolated populations survive in Europe.

Will we see their like again? Most likely if enclosed in conservation areas away from the public.

An illustration of a auroch

Auroch (Bos Primigenius)

The vast horns of these ancient cattle have been found on Salisbury Plain but in Britain aurochs became a thing of the past in the Iron Age. Far bigger than domestic cattle, standing six feet tall at the shoulder and weighing over a tonne, they were also much wilder. They were successfully tamed just twice – all European cattle are descended from just 80 wild aurochs – while another attempt in south Asia ultimately led to modern zebu cattle. Aurochs were wiped out by forest clearance and diseases spread by domestic cattle; the last auroch died in the Jaktorów Forest in Poland in 1627. However, plans to bring them back have been around since the Nazis first supported ‘back breeding’ programmes to recreate the auroch for the primal Teutonic landscapes they yearned for. Today, several programmes like Operation Taurine aim to reintroduce these mega-grazers to replace a declining farming industry in Europe, and their ancestry lives on in Highland and Dexter cattle amongst others.

Will we see their like again? Seems increasingly likely but maybe not in the UK where they’d need more room to roam.

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This article first appeared in issue 42 of the Eden Magazine, which is available exclusively for Eden Project Supporters, Members and Patrons. Find out more.

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