The rogue rewilders are taking Britain’s biodiversity in their own hands

Oct 31, 2023 | News

The government stated last week that reintroducing lost species to a nature-depleted Britain was ‘not a top priority’. A growing group of guerrilla rewilders are breeding beavers, birds, and butterflies in secret and illegally releasing the animals across the country. Are they stopping the tide of extinction or doing more harm than any good?

The summer is mid-summer as I make my way along an overgrown lane to Derek Gow’s old farm in the gently rolling West Country hills. The drive takes you past fields of freshly cut hay neatly wrapped in plastic.

Gow’s property would not have looked so different just a few short years ago, but it now looks very different from his neighbours. He points out ponds that were dug the winter before, where he intends to release rare native frogs. The fields are filled with wildflowers, and the rough soil is where Iron Age pigs turned it over. It makes for a bumpy drive. We startle three wild Konik ponies by crossing a stream and sending them galloping over the hills.

“You get a sense of where we’re going here,” Gow shouts above the roaring engine, his bushy beard in perfect harmony to the returning wilderness. “Every year, it changes.”

Gow has become a poster boy for the broader rewilding campaign because of his efforts to restore this former sheep farm into a haven of biodiversity. His real passion is to bring back lost species, animals and plants which were once abundant in Britain, but have been wiped out by centuries of hunting and intensive farming.

He has played a key role in restoring species to England such as water voles, Eurasian beavers, and white storks. This has caused a lot of controversy. He also breeds turtle doves and harvest mice, as well as glowworms.

“The truth was that when we were farming in this area, we killed everything,” says he. “We won’t change the world with what we are doing [now]. We’ll set an example for how it can be achieved.”

Gow with an albino water mouse he bred to be released. Image: James Bannister

His latest project is to bring back wildcats in Devon. He hopes they will return soon, as they did over 100 years ago. He and the local Wildlife Trust are currently working on a feasibility study that will show the animals can coexist peacefully with the South of England. The only wild population of the animals in Britain is found in the Highlands of Scotland.

Gow says, “We had no right to prevent things like [wildcats] from being here.” “It is a process to right a wrong from the past.”


The radicalisation and rewilding of the rewilders

Many others have come to the same conclusion, but they are no longer interested in following the rules. Rewilding is no longer a niche phenomenon. The worsening biodiversity crisis, however, has radicalised an increasing group of ‘guerrilla-rewilders’, who refuse to follow the rules. They are concerned about the rapid decline in nature in Britain, and angry at the government’s lackluster response (last week ).

Over the past two centuries, hundreds of native plants and animal species have disappeared in Britain. Researchers found in a recent analysis that . The Natural History Museum’s study ranked the UK among the 10 percent of countries with the least intact biodiversity.

“It’s a passion,” says Simon, who used to work in conservation and now secretly breeds native species for illegal release. He told me that he has moved beavers all over the country. This likely helped their recent spread from Devon to Wiltshire to Kent. He has also released pine martens, and is preparing to release a brood white storks. According to him, the current conservation translocation system – which includes reinforcing or restoring populations in their native range as well as introducing new habitats – is far too restrictive and onerous. “It is easier to just get on with it,” says he.

Gow releases beavers with former environment secretary Michael Gove. Image: David Broadbent

Guerrilla rewilding is not only a controversial practice that has been criticized by conservation groups and ecologists, but it also attracts the ire of farmers who are usually opposed to species releases. They warn that guerrillas like Simon are at risk of spreading diseases and altering fragile eco-systems. They are also concerned that releasing controversial species like beavers will result in the death of the animals and further polarise debates over nature restoration.

Alastair Driver, former head of conservation at the Environment Agency, and now director of Rewilding Britain’s campaign group, says that it may end in tears. “We have to win over the people.”

In England, you must apply for a license to release any species that is no longer found in the wild. This includes the Eurasian Elk, which was declared extinct in the year 2000, and the short-haired Bumblebee. It is the same for native species which have been reintroduced but are said to be at risk of conflict or being compromised by “poorly-planned” releases. These include barn owls (which were reintroduced in 2009), wild boars, red kites, and white-tailed Eagles. The same technically applies to the beavers, but the government banned their release in August 2020, except for into enclosures.

The pine marten was almost extinct in England. But things are looking up. Image: Richard McManus

A licence is required to transport, possess, or capture a long list protected species. These include pine martens, pool frogs, and dozens of butterflies. A sanctioned release requires a person to navigate a patchwork law – separate codes apply in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. They also have to prepare for an expensive process to comply with the extensive guidelines on planning and consultations.

“I think that anyone involved in this would be happier to do it legally.” The government makes it almost impossible to do this, says Ben Goldsmith. He is a financier and an environmentalist, who has supported rewilders such as Gow for years, including financially. He also has wild beavers living on his land in Somerset.


A government that is utterly unambitious

The government has set a goal to stop the decline in species by 2030, and then increase it by 10% over the next 12 years. Environmental groups have said that this is a far too modest goal, and Natural England’s chair has warned that even these modest goals will be missed.

Therese Coffey has ruled out the reintroduction of more species. This includes lynxes and wolves which are considered the holy grail by many rewilders. She said, “Species introduction ain’t my top priority and we’ve stepped away from that.”

Coffey is not popular with environmentalists, but Driver is confident that the tide could shift quickly on species reintroductions when the next ministerial transition occurs. He also notes that a number of licensed introductions have been underway in the interim.

Ben Goldsmith, farmer and environmentalist, with his Tamworth pigs

Others argue that it’s only a fraction of the work needed and there is no time to waste. “People are pretty fed up with the lack of ambition. Goldsmith says that’s why “covert releases” are happening everywhere.

It’s difficult to quantify the number of unlicensed releases. Speaking to guerrillas rewilders they are proud of the wild boars roaming the woods in southern Scotland and the Western Highlands. They also take credit for pine martens which, after decades of being on the verge of extinction, have now successfully reproduced in the New Forest, and have appeared on the outskirts London. Others have admitted to releasing glowworms, butterflies, sand-lizards and polecats.

The goshawk was once hunted into extinction, but is now found all over the country thanks to rogue releases from the 1960s.


Bring back the beaver

Then there are the beavers. While an official release brought them back to Western Scotland in 2009, other beavers mysteriously appeared further east on the River Tay. It is now widely accepted that this was the result of unofficial releases. Several years later, beavers appeared in Devon on the River Otter and despite a government plan to remove these animals, they were allowed to remain. The species is protected in England and Scotland. However, landowners can still kill dozens of beavers each year in Scotland. Meanwhile, illegal releases have helped establish new populations throughout the country.

Simon cites a list of waterways in southern England where he claims guerrilla rewilders are “strategically working” to “establish” a pair of beavers. It’s not risk-free: in England, releasing beavers into the wild without a license is punishable by a maximum of six months in jail and an unlimited fine.

The return of beavers is due in part to guerrilla wilders. Image: Arterra

While beavers have been hailed as ecosystem engineers who create new habitats for wildlife, reduce flooding, and sequester carbon, their return to the countryside has also caused considerable opposition, especially from farmers.

Robert Goodwill, Conservative chairman of the cross-party committee on species introductions and farmer, published asking the government to overhaul its current “overly bureaucratic system”. He’s not against reintroductions, and even sees the case for lynxes that could help control badgers or foxes. He wants management plans in order before more animals are introduced, giving landowners greater control if needed. It also called on a review of the beaver’s protected status and for a compensation scheme for owners.

“We need a strategy.” He says that people release them without considering the consequences. “I find it very irresponsible.”

We had no right to prevent wildcats from being here. It’s the process of righting a wrong from the past

Unlicensed releases are a major concern for many ecologists. Katie Beckmann is a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh who specializes in wildlife health. She says that introducing diseases is the biggest concern. She says that while this is a major concern with cross-border translocations of animals, it can also happen when captive animals are released in the wild after being exposed to exotic species.

Beckmann says that when you move an animal, it brings with it all of its parasites, viruses and bacteria.

Sarah Dalrymple is a reader of conservation ecology at Liverpool John Moores University. She says that releasing species illegally can also make it difficult for scientists to track species abundance. Dalrymple, a reader in conservation ecology at Liverpool John Moores University, is a member of a specialist group for conservation translocations within the International Union for Conservation of Nature. She also sits on a taskforce that advises the UK government about the issue. She would love to bring the old-guard conservators who still view species reintroductions in a radical way as a last resort together with the guerrilla rewilders working outside the law.

Three lynxes live in a large enclosure at Gow’s Farm. Image: Alex Turner

“If you take it underground, it becomes less well thought out, less resourced, and less monitored,” Dalrymple says.

She hopes that this taskforce can address some of the frustrations with the current system. For example, by creating a central hub for information on reintroductions. This would specify which species could be released and how. The Commons committee asked the government to specify which species it supports for reintroductions before January 2024 and to set clear target dates for biodiversity gain, which could boost the official releases.

Dalrymple sympathises with guerrilla rewilders, at least in part, because of the lacklustre response. “The status-quo is that we are monitoring things to extinction,” she says. “There is also a risk of inaction, which is becoming more apparent to many people.”

People are fed up with the lacklustre government. Covert releases are a result of this.

Gow says he wants to do things the right way when reintroducing wildcats to his former farm. He’ll finish the feasibility study, consult with local communities and minimise conflict. He’s upfront about the fact that he will have to give his 13 kittens a home eventually. He says that because they are not dangerous wild animals like wolves or Lynx and were bred in captivity, he does not need a license to release them.

“We’d love to do it [by book]. He says that there won’t be much delay in this. “It’s a small animal and we have to do it.”

After our conversation, I walk to a quiet area of the farm. Here the wildcats live in outdoor enclosures. I see one of the wildcats lying on a tree stump, licking its feet, in the thicket. After a few moments, it gets up and shows off its black stripes and bushy tail. It then quickly turns and slips away.


Main Image: James Bannister

 

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