Rewilding may be a hot topic but, says Alan Carter, the legal framework for reintroductions needs to be improved.

This year, Denmark got its first wild wolf pack for over 200 years. It wasn’t part of any government programme. No NGOs or wealthy individuals got involved. They simply wandered over from Germany and that was it – Denmark had wolves again.

In Britain and Ireland, we face a very different situation. While animals on the continent can take the initiative in their own reintroduction, our sea borders mean that, with a few airborne exceptions, reintroductions almost always have to be a deliberate human act. And that, of course, is where the trouble usually starts.

This difficulty is the main reason why Scotland lags far behind most of our continental neighbours in restoring lost beasts, but it also means that if our politicians were to choose to rise to the challenge we could be pathfinders in an important area of environmental law and practice. Such leadership is badly needed. Across the world, laws on species reintroduction are a minefield of vague requirements, dodged commitments and undefined and contested terms.

In Europe, the Berne Convention of 1979 committed participating countries to reintroducing native species where doing so would contribute to the conservation of an endangered species and where they could have confidence that the reintroduction would be ‘effective and acceptable’. By the time this was actually written into European law, in Council Directive 92/43/EEC, the wording had mysteriously changed, so that countries were now only required to study the possibility of reintroduction. In Britain, the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981), written to implement the Berne Convention in national law, makes no mention of reintroductions. The same Act controls the release into the wild of species that are ‘not normally resident’. Subsequent laws from Edinburgh, Westminster and Brussels have done little to change this overall picture. Extinct species are now trapped in a situation where the law against reintroducing them is explicit and clear while the legal case for reintroducing them is vague to absent.

Let’s put aside this sorry picture and ask instead what a country committed to restoring its extinct native species might look like.

First, we need to settle what we mean by extinct native species. If you want to start a fight in a room full of biologists, just ask what exactly ‘native’ means. Fortunately though, quite a few of the complexities of the subject don’t really affect the definition of native species for the purposes of reintroduction.

Following the last retreat of the glaciers, there is evidence that Scotland briefly supported a steppe ecosystem complete with saiga antelope, tarpan (wild horse) and steppe lemmings, but we can be certain that it was natural causes, not human intervention, that led to the passing of that world. For animals that survived past this time but died out later, human influence looks like the most significant factor. There’s a thorny question over species that were introduced by humans so long ago that they have had time to co-adapt with native species, such as sycamore or brown hare. Even many plants that were once considered to be fully native, such as sweet cicely, are now thought to have been introduced in Neolithic times. Luckily, none of these species are presently in need of reintroduction, so this is a part of the argument that we can set aside in considering which species to bring back.

In Scotland, we have successfully reintroduced white-tailed eagles, goshawks and red kites and semi-successfully reintroduced capercaillie. Ospreys and some other birds of prey have reintroduced themselves. There is a small population of reindeer in the Cairngorms. Beavers have been promised legal right to remain and populations of wild boar are living as outlaws in parts of the country. That leaves a list of species including the elk, wisent (European bison), brown bear, lynx, wolf and white stork that died out between 3000 BC and 1680 AD and are still absent. Sadly, the aurochs and great auk will never return, being globally extinct.

This doesn’t mean that we can or should simply pass a law to bring all these animals to Scotland and release them somewhere tomorrow. There are many good reasons, as well as many bad ones, for not reintroducing a species. Above all, there has to be good reason to think that the reintroduction will be successful, or we are simply dooming the animals involved. This means that the reintroduction must be carried out properly, so we are not introducing diseases at the same time, or leaving a future population with too narrow a genetic base. It also means that the habitat must exist for the animal to succeed. And the human population must welcome the new arrivals. We might object to this last factor on the basis that we have no right to decide which other animals may exist, but there is no getting away from it as a purely pragmatic consideration. Reintroductions are costly interventions that take resources away from other efforts. If the public reaction is such that no reasonable enforcement of laws will protect the new animals, we should not bring them.

Species restoration, therefore, is not like legislating to ban something like hunting with hounds or microplastics in cosmetics, where a simple law against the offending practice, plus enforcement, is enough. It is a positive change that we want to bring about, with an uncertain path to its achievement. The nearest equivalent is climate change. You can’t just ban climate change, so the Climate Change (Scotland) Act (CCA) is more about setting targets, mapping out a route to reach them, and then making sure that movement along the route continues. The CCA is cross-referenced with other legislation and strategies and includes a process of reviewing and updating on a regular basis to ensure that progress is being made.

An effective law on reintroduction would be similar. What we need for each extinct species is a roadmap that sets out the actions that would need to be taken for its restoration. Are there viable populations elsewhere that could supply animals? Does the habitat exist for them? Can it be created? Are there economic conflicts that that would cause opposition? Are there management methods that could help with these? What legal protections would the animals need? What legal options would land managers need? Is there a genuine danger to human life? Are there myths and misunderstandings around the animal? Is there a need for education? What are the expected interactions with other species? What are the uncertainties? Where and how could limited trial projects take place that would supply information and familiarise people with the animals?

In the absence of any real interest from government, rewilding has of late been an ad hoc, sometimes even farcical process. With beavers we had the spectacle of an officially sanctioned trial jumping through the legal hoops, with a small group of animals struggling in a marginal area – while all the time a population was flourishing in the Tay catchment. This has been followed by years of indecision and delay from the Scottish Government.

With lynx, a group is pressing forward with a plan that many fear will set the cause back rather than advance it. Reforesting Scotland responded to the Lynx Trust UK’s pre-trial consultation last year. The consultation document was an odd mix of consultation, legal document and advocacy. We agreed that the conservation biology aspect of the plan was good, but expressed concern at its wildly optimistic economics and troublingly colonial attitude to Scotland. At the time of writing, the Lynx Trust appears to have split, with scientists from the University of Cumbria breaking away to form a Lynx Project and calling for greater local engagement, while a small core group promises to press on with a reintroduction in the Kielder forest some time this year.

Our missing animals deserve better than this. The evidence from reintroductions so far and from the recovery of species like buzzards, otters and pine martens is that each restoration strengthens the overall web of life. The respected Scottish biologist David Hetherington has produced an analysis of potential lynx habitat that could provide the foundation for a roadmap for lynx. The old Nature Conservancy Council played a key role in the reintroductions of white tailed eagles and red kites. The Scottish Government needs to give the mandate and the backing to its currently declawed successor, Scottish Natural Heritage, so do the same.

Alan Carter is the Chair of Reforesting Scotland.

Picture from Wikimedia Commons by Malene Thyssen