February 28, 2024

Culture wars by ministers over the reintroduction of animals such as the beaver and the lynx must end if we are to restore nature in England, the head of the government’s taskforce on the issue has said.

Dr Andy Clements, an ornithologist who helped establish the government regulator Natural England, runs the species reintroduction taskforce, and he’s well placed to do so. He was one of those behind the hugely successful reintroduction of red kites into England.

He said he was frustrated by the debate over reintroducing species because it was based on “anecdote, not evidence”, when it is clear that increasing the abundance of rare and locally extinct species by releasing them into the wild can help restore nature.

The taskforce, which was created to advise the government on re-establishing species from the slipper orchid to the wolf, met for the first time last year and has been providing officials with evidence on how to reintroduce species.

“Our main task is to improve the quality and quantity of species reintroductions that contribute to nature’s recovery and that they’re done in a way that society finds acceptable or even delights about. Which is not necessarily the case at the moment because as you’re probably aware, there’s a lot of controversy about species reintroduction,” Clements said.

So far, however, their counsel has been ignored. The former environment secretary Thérèse Coffey said last year that a Conservative government would not reintroduce species such as the lynx or the wolf.

An adult female Eurasian lynx in Norway. Photograph: Peter Cairns/scotlandbigpicture.com/PA

“That was a very interesting thing to hear from the taskforce’s perspective,” he said. “When you look at the evidence around wolf and lynx, bracketing them together in the same statement is very odd, because the evidence shows that the species are very, very different in the roles they would play, if they were reintroduced.”

He chose not to speak out at the time, but hopes the debate will become more evidence-led in future. “And while the taskforce hasn’t overtly gone and said anything about that, one of the pieces of work we are doing is to look at the social and ecological implications of reestablishing the broad predator guild in England.

“That would include things like pine marten, wildcat, lynx, wolf, white-tailed eagle, probably eagle owl, things like that. There is evidence of course that these used to be native, and they’re no longer here because they’ve been persecuted out of existence.”

The farming lobby, led by the National Farmers’ Union, has led opposition to the recovery of species such as the beaver and white-tailed eagle. Clements said recent ministers had skewed the balance between nature and farming on th issue, with the benefits of species reintroductions ignored.

The government’s nature watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), found last week that ministers were failing on almost all their legally-binding targets to restore nature in England.

A white-tailed eagle, the UK’s largest bird of prey. Photograph: Mike Crutch/Forestry England/PA

On the white-tailed eagle, Clements said: “One of the frustrations that I had at the start of this was the NFU’s objections on their return rather focused on anecdote and not evidence. The NFU talked about white tailed eagles taking lots of lambs. That is a good example of anecdote, not evidence.” Recent scientific evidence shows that white-tailed eagles are most likely not a threat to lambs.

He said the government was listening to such anecdotes rather than the science. “It seems to me that when Michael Gove was Defra [the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] secretary, we had a better balance between paying attention to the evidence around the needs of the environment against the needs of land managers and farmers, he said. “It’s a tricky balance and it’s been in favour of farming for a very long time.”

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Gove, who held the position from 2017 to 2019, seemed relatively in favour of the release of beavers, attending and celebrating some caged reintroductions. Coffey said beaver reintroductions were not a priority, and her successor, Steve Barclay, has declined to give his view.

Natural England has endorsed the reintroduction of beavers into the countryside to help mitigate drought and flooding and enhance biodiversity, after a rigorous study found in 2020 that the rodents were hugely beneficial for fish and reducing local floods. Officials have created a licensing programme which would give conservation groups permission under certain conditions to release beavers into the wild, but ministers have so far refused to sign it off.

Clements said: “This drives beaver reintroductions underground, so there’s lots more illegal releases as a result. Also there are examples such as Purbeck in Dorset where the National Trust have this fantastic project on reintroducing beavers ready to go, and the landscape they have control over would enable the beaver population to spread out without controversy at all.

“It would enhance the landscape, it would recover nature, but they’re unable to go ahead with it because the government hasn’t okayed Natural England’s further regulated and licensed reintroductions of beavers.”

Barclay has yet to met the taskforce, and it is unclear if he plans to. Clements said he was disappointed by ministers so far and hoped the new environment secretary took a more evidence-based approach.

“One of the things that is very disappointing for the taskforce is that species reintroductions can make a really significant contribution to the government’s targets on nature’s recovery. And there are two specific targets that I would really draw out. One is about stopping extinctions and the other is about increasing abundance of biodiversity.

“Species reintroductions speak very well to both of those targets, and up to now it’s been a bit disappointing to me that the politicians haven’t really followed through on that. That would be what I would want to talk to Steve Barclay about if I get a chance.”

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