Welcome home: the lost English species making a comeback

From heavyweight birds to nimble predators – and ecologically controversial landscapers – efforts are underway to restore some of England's former denizens.Monday, 16 March 2020

The reintroduction of native species, lost for decades or even centuries from the British countryside, is at the heart of the Government’s 25-year Environment Plan.

Alongside the recovery and restoration of wildlife-friendly habitats, the plan explicitly states that the reintroduction of native species is key to nature’s recovery.

“We have lost many formerly native species from England - such as the white-tailed eagle, the orange-spotted emerald dragonfly and the beaver,” it states. “As well as lost species, others, such as the pine martin, fen orchid or hen harrier, are found in only a few sites within their former range. Their reintroduction, when carefully planned and managed, can enrich our natural environment and provide wider benefits for people.” 

Hunted and persecuted to the point of local extinction, or pushed into tiny pockets of sustainable habitat, a number of these flagship species now find themselves the focus of ambitious programmes to reintroduce them to the land and skies where they once thrived. Amid a biodiversity emergency, conservationists argue that sustaining wildlife that has survived is no longer enough – it’s time to take action to support nature’s recovery.

Lost landscapers: the beaver 
 

A tiny corner of Cornwall is showcasing the huge potential benefits that could stem from the reintroduction of beavers to the south west of England. Hunted to extinction for their valuable fur, beavers are a keystone species with the power to transform local landscapes and provide natural solutions to major problems, such as flooding, water quality and declining biodiversity. A series of trials are currently assessing the impact of reinstating the tree-munching animals to areas of the south west, including Somerset, Devon and Cornwall. 

Carefully fenced in a two-hectare (five-acre) enclosure of plantation woodland alongside Nankilly water, near Ladock, three Cornish beavers have built effective flood and drought prevention infrastructure, cleaned water, and recreated wetland habitats rich in biodiversity. Their dams, for example, have reduced the peak flow of the stream by 30% after heavy rainfall, says Cheryl Marriott, head of nature conservation at Cornwall Wildlife Trust.

With climate change leading to more frequent extreme weather events, the opportunity to trap water upstream in areas where flooding is less of an issue, rather than let it accelerate downstream to areas where flooding is a major issue, is a huge win. Elsewhere in England, a pair of beavers reintroduced to Yorkshire's Cropton Forest in 2019 have been suggested as a factor in preventing local flooding during Storm Dennis last month.

And the advantages of stripping the energy out of rivers and streams brings other advantages too, adds Marriott. “Scientists have been really surprised at the reduction in agricultural pollutants in the water, such as phosphates and nitrates, as the stream leaves the beaver enclosure,” she says. 

Water backed up in ponds behind beaver dams slows to such an extent that its pollutants can sink and percolate into the soil, rather than float downstream. These ponds are also creating an environment where algae thrive, kickstarting a food chain that rises through invertebrates to birds and mammals. 

Three years into the five-year trial, Chris Jones, the farmer hosting the Cornwall beavers, said that his farm had recorded six new bird species, including water rail and green sandpiper, and three new mammals (water shrewsharvest mice and polecats).

“This has all happened on a stretch of land that is just 200 metres long, which begs the question of what would happen if we had 2,000km of beaver habitat in the south west,” he says. Jones would be delighted to see the beavers freely released, arguing that on land like his, and along the banks of many rivers and streams, the animals cause precious little, if any, loss of productive land. 

Much now hinges on a report from Natural England, due this spring, into a trial of beavers in neighbouring Devon, which will outline the possibilities for beaver releases. 

On a wing and a prayer: the chequered skipper
 

In a vanity parade of butterflies, the chequered skipper would be neither the most dramatic nor the most dazzling, but this fast-flying butterfly, with its distinctive brown and gold wings, has become a bellwether for a vanished ecosystem.

The chequered skipper became extinct in England (a population still exists in Scotland) in the scorching summer of 1976 and is now part of an ambitious restoration programme to restore it to Rockingham Forest in Northamptonshire.

“It disappeared through habitat loss, from changes in woodland management,” says Dr Dan Hoare, director of UK conservation at the charity Butterfly Conservation

While the woodland remained, the end of coppicing and the spread of conifer plantations cast shade over the rides and glades where the chequered skipper lived. And it’s unlikely to have been the only species that suffered as sunshine was forced out of this forest habitat.

“The chequered skipper is used as an indicator of the health of the environment for other insects that are harder to identify,” says Hoare.

So spotting the flit of the small butterfly’s wings has become a meaningful sign that the huge diverse group of invertebrates that occupy the same territory are also in reasonable health, and that woodland management techniques are on the right track towards sustainability.

In May 2018, 42 adult chequered skippers were imported from Belgium, where climatic conditions are most similar to their new home in Rockingham Forest. Fast forward to the autumn, and no caterpillars were recorded the wood, but the following spring volunteers were thrilled to see the first generation of English chequered skippers take to the wing, alongside a second release of Belgian butterflies.

“Then in the autumn of 2019 we found chequered skipper caterpillars, so we know both where they are and which food plant they are on [wood small-reed], which gives us valuable information to help land managers manage the wood,” says Hoare. A further batch of chequered skippers will be released in the late spring of 2020, but don’t expect to see the rides and glades of Rockingham filled with clouds of this butterfly.

“We will never see a count of more than a dozen to 20 chequered skippers, but when the butterfly makes a move for itself to a new habitat we’ll know that the ecology is functioning properly,” said Hoare.

Soaring hopes: the white-tailed eagle 
 

With its vast 2.5-metre wingspan and dramatic plumage, there’s no mistaking a white-tailed, or sea, eagle. Also known as a sea eagle, the UK’s largest bird of prey is making a comeback on the Isle of Wight, where the last pair native to the south of England bred in 1780.

“Three of the birds are living on the Isle of Wight, but one is already living further north in England with red kites and buzzards.”

Roy Dennis

The first half dozen new birds were collected from Scotland (a single chick was taken from a brood of two or three) and released in August 2019. They are now soaring over the Solent, New Forest and the south of England. Capable of flying huge distances – 200km is not unusual – in search of food and a welcoming habitat, the long term plan is for the eagles to colonise the south coast and potentially breed with the small population of white-tailed eagles that live in the Netherlands and north east France.

“Three of the birds are living on the Isle of Wight, but one is already living further north in England with red kites and buzzards, and it may stay there all winter,” says Roy Dennis of the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation, which is running the reintroduction programme with Forestry England.

Dennis describes the bird as “a missing part of England’s native biodiversity,” and says the white-tailed eagles can be an important flagship species used to highlight the conservation of coastal ecosystems.

The birds are long-lived, surviving for 30 to 40 years, but typically don’t breed until they are five or six years old, so it will be a while before the Isle of Wight project anticipates nests, eggs and chicks.

In the meantime, with up to 12 birds due to be released every year for the next four years, there is an outstanding opportunity to spot one of these avian predators, especially as they are smart scavengers, happy to feast on dead fish and carrion.

Woodland master-killer: the pine marten 
 

Sleek, elusive and solitary, the cream-bibbed pine marten is tough to spot in the wild. But the impact of Britain's second-rarest native carnivore can be profound. As a generalist predator, this member of the mustelid family, alongside the weasel, stoat, polecat and otter, is most likely to feed on what’s most common in the area, which could spell bad news for grey squirrels in the Forest of Dean and lower Wye Valley.

The good news is that natural control of the invasive grey squirrel will help woodland and could eventually pave the way for the reintroduction of the native red squirrel.

In September 2019, the first 18 pine martens were relocated from the Scottish highlands to the Forest of Dean, and a project team from the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust is now tracking them around the clock to monitor how they settle. The plan is for a similar number of pine martens to be released in 2020 and 2021.

Despite being similar in size to a domestic cat, evidence of pine marten presence is generally restricted to the presence of their ‘scats’ (droppings) on the trails through their woodland habitats.

“They only give birth to a few kits each year if breeding is even successful, so the rate of marten population recovery in the UK is low. It is hoped that their protection, alongside these reintroductions, will give them the boost they need to become resilient and thrive” says Dr Catherine McNicol, Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust’s Conservation project manager.

Pine martens have recently been reintroduced to Wales, and the longer-term ambition is for the Forest of Dean animals to establish themselves before extending their territories and linking up with their Welsh neighbours. 

The self-sustaining heavyweight: the great bustard
 

Fifteen years after the first great bustards were reintroduced to Wiltshire, the population of this giant bird has reached a sustainable level. 

The world’s heaviest flying bird – adult males can weigh as much as 20kg, have a wingspan of 2.5 metres and stand 1 metre tall – was very much part of British wildlife until the 1840s, when they became extinct. Restoring them to their original habitat has been challenging on a number of fronts.

Firstly, the import of eggs from Russia encountered licensing issues that restricted the programme to just six birds in some years. Fortunately, the Spanish government stepped in to help, supporting the British project with eggs from Castilla La Mancha.

And secondly, there’s the difficulty of raising ‘orphan’ chicks hatched under incubators. The process involves humans donning costumes to take on the role of great bustard parent.

“We have this isolation rearing protocol,” says David Waters, executive director of the Great Bustard Group. “We haven’t got suits that make us look like a great bustard, but they do stop us looking like a human.”

The UK population of great bustards has reached about 100 birds and been self-sustaining for the past three years, “with a slightly increasing margin each year,” says Waters. The last birds to be imported and released joined Wiltshire’s bustard droves (flocks) at the end of summer 2019.

Great bustards are slow to breed successfully – an eight-year-old bird is twice as effective as a four-year-old says Waters – but there are now second generation birds in the UK. Breeding is a spectacular affair, with males performing in a lek, inflating their necks to the size of a football and displaying a fan of Persil-white feathers across their backs as they strut flamboyantly to impress females. 

The Great Bustard Group runs guided tours to see the birds (two of the three droves are on private land), and there is now keen interest from other arable areas of the UK, particularly Norfolk and Yorkshire, to re-introduce their own populations of great bustards.

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