Birds, Beasts, & Bedlam

⭐⭐⭐⭐ based on 1 review.

Written by Derek Gow.

tl;dr: A fantastic overview of both the history and state of British conservation – specifically rewilding – directly from one of the people at the core of that community.


Spoilers Ahead: My reviews are not spoiler-free. You have been warned.



On the introduction of European Bison to Britain, and the revelation as to its heritage (I had no idea it was a hybrid!):

Although there is no evidence the the European bison (Bison bonasus), known as the wisent (pronounced 'we-sent'), ever occurred on our islands, as a hybrid of the extinct steppe bison (Bison priscus) and the aurochs (Bos primigenius), both of which did, they are atuned to our environment.

On the fate of our native megafauna (and some surprising smaller critters, too):

Britain once hosted a broad range of great beasts. We slaughtered the bears, elk and lynx many centuries ago. The wolves lasted longest. Now, only the names of their crags, hills, meres, or the ubiquitous deep pits where we caught and bound them for torture recall their once being. Like the aquamarine blue moor frogs, black storks, and night herons, we were the end of them all.

Apparently, a single population of pearl mussels is left in Britain, and it is kept in a fridge in Wales! (I assume as part of a rescue mission from its final remaining habitat.)

On the importance of Gerald Durrell, an early naturalist who spent his early life "acquisitioning" specimens for zoos, but would later be a major proponent of zoos as centres for conservation, and was instrumental in the modernising of the industry:

As his thinking matured in the 1970s, he changed in rhetoric, if not always in practice, the way that zoos thought about themselves. Prior to his time, most were simply squalid versions of showmen's menageries run for facile entertainment and nothing more, but his contention that they could, and should, play a role of significance in saving threatened – and commonly unspectacular – species from extinction was almost entirely novel and his vision of them as purposeful was in its time near unique.

On the final wild bison/wisent in Europe (this is a tale I've heard many times, but never told like this; I always believed that the Polish herd was the breeding stock for all current animals, not that zoos had saved it from complete extinction!):

...although once widespread in Europe, [the wisent] had been greatly reduced in its range by the time of the First World War. At the outbreak of conflict, the largest herd remaining in the world lived free in the one hundred and fifty square kilometre range of the Bialowieża Forest in Poland. When the invading German troops reach and occupied the forest, it is believed that they killed over six hundred despite the protestations of some of their officers about the rarity of the species. When they retreated at the war's end, only nine remained. The last wild bison in Poland was killed in 1921 and the last in the Caucuses in 1927. Fewer than fifty remained at the time in the world, all of which were in zoos. A stud book was formed to help conserve their genetic variation in 1923 and, although many of those bred in captivity were killed in the Second World War, the species now numbers around seven thousand individuals and has been reintroduced as a free-roaming species into many areas of its former range.

On the incredible modernity of the last aurochs, a species I had always assumed to have gone extinct in prehistory:

By 1476 only two herds of aurochs remained in the personal possession of the Polish royal family. Eventually only a single herd grazed in the Jaktorów forest where in 1559 the Swiss naturalist Anton Schneeberger went to see them. He said that the calves were born chestnut and that the young bulls changed their coat colour at a few months old to black, white a white eel strip running down their spine.

And relatedly, the author also tells a story of one elderly woman who distinctly remembers seeing beavers in the wild, in the UK, in her lifetime. Derek is reasonably convinced that her memory is accurate, is sure that the place she remembers seeing them as a child (multiple times, as they were known to the locals) would happily support a beaver colony, and is happy that her ability to identify the various potential "imposters" (otter, mink, rat, water vole, etc.) is solid enough to rule out misidentification. Whether they were genuinely the remnants of a truly British population, or simply escapees from a personal menagerie, is less clear, but the extinction of the British beaver occurred shockingly recently, it turns out. (Indeed, this turns out to be the case for a number of "lost" species, including the English wild cat, which Derek considers at least possible that relict populations may have persisted up to the mid-20th Century).

Indeed, when discussing the current proposal for the reintroduction of the Scottish wild cat to other parts of the UK (a project Derek is actively working on and already creating breeding stock for), I was surprised to hear that my largest concern – hybridisation – is not so clear cut. Evidence from other reintroductions in Europe has shown that wild cats will always preferentially breed with their own species, rather than hybridise with domestics, and the extent of hybridisation in Scotland is likely more the result of population fragmentation and (crucially) a severely decreased population to begin with. The hope is that reintroduction with sufficient numbers would provide an equilibrium where the wild population is self-sustaining without needing to seek out mates amongst pet animals. What's more, Spanish research has shown that wolf, fox, and wild cat populations coexisting actually result in further decreases in hybridisation, as the canids will effectively force wild cats into forested terrain and feral domestic populations into fields, killing any that try to cross between the two. Unfortunately, it would be unlikely that we'll get wolves back in Britain any time too soon (one can dream), so this natural population control would be less effective here.

On one possible reason for DEFRA's utter lack of conviction (and usefulness) at the present time:

Some fine individuals have tried hard to make progress, to improve nature's health, to advance and repair in the harshest of times, but the government bodies responsible for wildlife recovery, broken in the bouffant years of Margaret Thatcher's government for disputing the environmental efficacy of her more malevolent countryside policies, have ever since been maintained on a basis of near-perpetual decline. Long gone is their bite and any bark they once had of influence or ability has declined to a pip squeak.

And the end result, a government that prioritises destruction but hinders regeneration:

If you wish to bludgeon badgers or beavers or remove peregrine falcons and hen harrier chicks from their nests, a way can be found. If you wish, on the other hand, to restore fading species for nature conservation purposes, then you have to fill in 90-page documents which will be thoroughly scrutinised eventually and returned to you with a further sutie of impossibly complex questions. Why is it, when nature's ebb is so low and when so many good people want to do good, that there is no easy 'one stop' shop that tells you what is best to do with your land, or your money, or your time to help.

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