Roz Evans | Rise of the Carnivores
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Rise of the Carnivores

When a siren sounds in urban Europe, lynx prick their tufted ears and wolves answer with reverberating howls, such is the proximity between man and wild carnivores. On a continent with over 700 million people, averaging over 70 people per square km, it might come as somewhat of a surprise that populations of lynx, brown bear, wolverine and wolves are either stable or on the up. But a study published recently in Science by over 70 researchers, utilising data from scientists, environmentalists, hunters, foresters and members of the general public, proclaims this to be so.

The results aren’t such a surprise to these scientists. “We have been living and breathing large carnivores for most of our careers,” senior researcher John Linnell told us. The report consists of a culmination of almost 20 years worth of observations of this conservation success story. It’s also, perhaps, unlikely to come as a surprise to the European residents who live alongside these carnivores. Bears and wolves can be found within an hour of Rome, and areas of Norway, Sweden and Finland have now been named as carnivore ‘hotspots’ where all four predators can be found sharing the same landscapes. “It is fantastic to get all this data onto a single map and see the big picture.”

Brown bears are the most abundant large carnivore to be found on the European continent, with around 17,000 individuals – a number which has grown up to 10 times in some areas, and with a range today that is 20 times larger in some areas than it was during the carnivore’s lowest range sizes in the 1950s-1970s. 9,000 Eurasian lynx currently prowl European landscapes, and some population sizes have grown up to 5 times from their lowest points. Conservation efforts have seen 21 reintroduced populations in areas where they had previously gone locally extinct. Wolverines, restricted by climate and altitude to northern parts of Scandinavia and Finland, have doubled in number to around 1,250, and their ranges have tripled in size.

Wolves, now numbering around 12,000 on the continent, have seen some populations grow up to 28 times (Poland) and have returned in their tens and hundreds to areas they were previously extinct, such as Germany and Sweden. “Most people think of the vast northern forests of Scandinavia as the place where the big populations of large carnivores should exist… I think the wolf recovery in Germany is about the most symbolic of all cases showing what wolves are capable of doing in terms of recolonizing human-dominated landscapes,” says Linnell. Europe now hosts twice as many wolves as the Unites states (5,500) despite being half the size, and more than twice as densely populated.

Although expertly formulated, the impressiveness is not in the academic words of this Science paper, but in the conservation efforts across the continent that made these results a reality. They show that Europe is maintaining and to some extent restoring large carnivore populations on a continental scale. At least one carnivore species is now found across almost one third of the European continent, leaving Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Luxembourg – and Britain – with their tails between their legs, with no breeding populations of large carnivores to speak of.

But whether these countries should feel they are falling behind the pack is another question. Large carnivores are the most controversial animals to conserve, dividing public and political opinions from country to country. They live at low densities, have large spatial requirements, and pose a potential threat to humans and our livestock.  In 2008, England officially became the second most crowded major country in the EU, according to figures released by the British Office for National Statistics. With this in mind, do we have the space to follow the mainland’s exemplary success? According to the data in this report, not only are many carnivore populations soaring, but this is largely happening outside of protected areas – in human dominated landscapes. On average, there are between 19 and 37 people living in each square kilometre that the carnivores are currently found. This varies depending on the carnivore in question – wolves tolerate the highest density of people and are the most successful at adapting to human dominated landscapes, coexisting in areas with over 3,000 people per square km, that’s similar to the population density of Cambridge. Lynx are found in areas with human densities higher than the city of Exeter. The population density of the Scottish highlands is just 9.1 people per square km. So does that make our countryside ripe for carnivore reintroduction?

The reasons for the carnivores’ success in Europe include political stability, burgeoning populations of prey species such as wild deer, and financial support for protecting livestock, such as electric fences, preventing farmers from shooting wild predators. Crucially, the EU habitats directive has required members to protect and restore rare species. “Without the habitats directive I don’t think we would have had this recovery,” said lead author Guillaume Chapron. “It shows if people are willing to protect nature and that political will is translated into strong legislation like the habitats directive, it’s possible to achieve results in wildlife protection.”

In the United Kingdom, we are part of the EU habitat’s directive, we have relatively strong political stability, and we have burgeoning populations of wild deer that are becoming a pest.  However, the difference for us is that the carnivores in question have long been eradicated from our landscapes, and it is this that will make their recovery the most difficult and requires the most caution, according to Linnell. “The carnivores have shown an ability to live with us. The human ability to live with carnivores is highly variable.” He has seen broad tolerance for the animals in areas where they have had a continual presence, but much more variable tolerance where the species are returning after periods of absence. “In many of these areas some stakeholder groups, especially sheep farmers, have generated an incredibly strong opposition to carnivore recovery. Large carnivores do not always make easy neighbours and there is often a need to make some real adjustments to their presence.” Linnell explains that in some rural areas some individuals or groups have been capable of generating an almost “hysterical” response.

Hysteria aside, the controversial question of carnivore introduction is a fashionable topic in the UK, and it forms part of a wider debate about the feasibility of ‘rewilding’, a process in which habitats are left to return to a natural state. There are differences, sometimes subtle ones, with conservation in general. Rewilding is not driven by human management, but by bringing back missing species and allowing natural processes to take over and find their own way. Ecosystems work properly when they are of the appropriate size and when all of the parts are in place. In the UK many of our landscapes suffer from the lack of one or both of these essential aspects, rewilding aims to restore them.

“Large carnivores are sexy and glamorous, it’s getting people talking,” Chris Packham, wildlife TV presenter and naturalist, told Biosphere. Rewilding is something Chris would like to see happen. “Ideally it would stretch from a montane habitat, right down to the coast. Rewilding, or should I say the reintroduction of large mammals and carnivores, is the icing on top of a very large cake. We are still missing many of our large mammals and their associated ecological functions but there is a lot of habitat restoration and recovery which needs implementing first.”

But the idea of rewilding the entire of the UK worries Chris. “I worry we have too many roads, in England especially, for the reintroduction of large mammals and carnivores to be viable. A lot would be lost to road traffic accidents… I worry that creatures like lynx would exist in small ‘wild’ pockets and be unable to disperse… The Highlands of Scotland is a much wilder place with few roads; perhaps here reintroduction would be successful.”

Far up in these Scottish Highlands, in the Caledonian Forest, lies a 23,000 acre piece of land: Alladale Wilderness Reserve. Within that reserve resides Paul Lister – a man who thinks he is getting rewilding right. Alladale Wilderness Reserve is currently the United Kingdom’s largest rewildling area. By restoring woodland, managing deer populations, releasing red squirrels (now successfully breeding) and hosting wild boar on their land, they hope to see a regenerated, rewilded habitat that will support large carnivores in the years to come.

“We believe that an ecosystem without large predators is incomplete… We’re going to reintroduce brown bears and grey wolves onto our estate, which will be secured by a high security fencing system, patrolled 24/7.” says Paul Lister. He and the Alladale Wilderness Reserve team intends for the wolves to prey upon burgeoning populations of deer, and they plan to train brown bears to look to deer as their food source too. He wants to work with landowners to realise this vision and achieve economic benefit through ecotourism and others means. Based on examples of deer stalking on Sutherland estates and white tailed eagles on Mull, he believes his initiative could generate £7million per year. “Wildlife tourism in Scotland is currently worth £276m per year, and that is without any large carnivores. We are very excited and optimistic about the financial potential of our reintroduction project.” His enthusiasm isn’t mirrored by everyone. Members of the Ramblers are worried it will appear as a ‘giant zoo’, something that Paul vehemently denies. “I am 100% confident that in the near future we will have large carnivores roaming our estate, hopefully fulfilling the same ecosystem engineer role that the wolves played at Yellowstone National Park in the States. We live in a country full of fences, with a sterile landscape and a controlled environment. Since 1979 there has been a clear, European wide, obligation to reintroduce native species. We are at the forefront of the rewildling and reintroduction in the UK. These are exciting times, it has to happen, and it’s going to happen. There is no time to wait.”

The authors of this Science study present their results in order to indicate how such wild carnivores can live in close proximity to humans, but they are opposed to the wilderness ‘separation’ model that projects like Alladale are taking. They believe that these separation models, that suggest the largest predators can only survive in protected or wilderness areas, are a consequence of former policy goals to exterminate the species. “If the separation model had been applied in Europe, there would be hardly any large carnivore populations at all, because most European protected areas are too small to host even a few large carnivore reproductive units.” 23,000 acres of Alladale reserve might seem vast, but relative to the range sizes we’ve been talking it’s actually pretty tiny at just 93 square km – smaller than the area any of the populations of bear, lynx or wolves in the current study exist in. Lister himself likens his project to Yellowstone, but the American National Park is almost 100 times bigger. Is Alladale just a speck on the map? If it is, it’s a speck that interests Chris Packham. “It sounds like a fascinating project,” he says. “I’d very much like to speak to Paul Lister, and I feel like the conservation fraternity have turned their backs on him. Conservation is crying out for philanthropists, and shouting out about rewildling, and here is a man with the finances, the land and the ideas, and the conservation world has turned their backs on him. I think it’s a shame.”

One of these philanthropists that Chris calls for presents himself in the form of George Monbiot, Guardian  environmental journalist and author of Feral. Monbiot thinks things are going to be tricky for Lister. “They’ve got you with the dangerous wild animals act if you don’t have a fence up, and they’ve got you under the zoo animals act if you do have a fence up, so he’s basically a bit stuffed.” These are obstacles Monbiot hopes to tackle with his new initiative Rewilding Britain. By 2030 Rewilding Britain hopes to have 741,000 acres (3000 km2) of rewilded land in Britain, among which will be three major core areas big enough to sustain viable populations of large carnivores. Ideally, one of them would extend from land to sea, from mountain top to the territorial limit, providing a complete biome of terrestrial and marine. These core areas will be imbedded in a landscape that is more accessible to wildlife than it is in its current state. So that these three main areas don’t lead to inbreeding, Rewilding Britain wants to see them surrounded by smaller areas for dispersal between populations. Within just two years, by 2017, Rewilding Britain hopes to have already begun initiations over one of those core areas. They have begun talks with various landowners and community groups, and feel they have got the ball rolling.

“We’re pretty much ready to go,” George says, and explains how Rewilding Britain have support from the academic community: “Dr Steve Carver at Leeds and his colleagues there have been just brilliant… The environmental change institute at Oxford similarly is very good; they have a guy there called Dr Paul Jepson who’s been very supportive of rewildling for a long time.” This academic support, combined with the cooperation of the conservation community, to whom they pose somewhat of a challenge, is helping to drive the project forward. “The conservation community themselves seem to be changing quite fast, which is great. The rewildling impetuous seems to be moving through the conservation movement in a way that I wouldn’t have thought possible a few years ago. This is exciting.”

The enthusiasm and fever with which these well known advocates speak is exciting. You might easily forget that theirs are not universally held opinions. The rewilding movement meets opposition from many angles and is riddled with complexities. Does opposition from the public come from a place of fear, or an arrogant belief in our right to walk the land where we choose? Is opposition from farmers who stand to lose livestock a genuine concern over a loss of livelihood, or an opposition to accepting adaptation and change by implementing fencing and other deterrents? Perhaps in both cases it is a combination of the two.

With successful beaver introductions in Scotland and a new trial running in Devon, reintroducing mammals, even if not carnivorous ones, is at least a realistic goal. It would require extensive communication across conservation units, stake holders and the government, and it won’t be simple, yet it remains a firm possibility. But Linnell heeds caution. “There is no doubt that you have habitat [for reintroducing carnivores] and it would be a very symbolic action. However, you do need to take the potential for conflicts seriously. Just because the UK has abundant deer populations does not mean carnivores won’t kill sheep. Given how much carnivores move, they could in theory turn up anywhere on the island within a short time – making it hard to plan their recovery on a micro-scale.” After so long without large carnivores in the UK, a reintroduction is likely to be rife with these conflicts, even if the biodiversity and economic benefits outweigh the costs. Is it even possible to achieve the coexistence model that these authors advocate? Speaking from a culmination of 20 years of experience, Linnell leaves us with a last note of advice. “A reintroduction is a massive and long-term undertaking, so it is important to take the time to do it well.”


March 27, 2015