Reintroductions in Ireland and the possibility of the Wolf’s return.
Everyone who is passionate about the natural world one day painfully realises that the world we hold so dear is in trouble. And even though I am not a religious man, the fable of Noah’s Ark is perhaps more poignant than ever.
All of you would have heard of the Dodo, many of the Western Black Rhino, some of the Stellar’s sea cow and perhaps a few of the Passenger Pigeon. These are all extinct species due to direct human persecution. The Rhino hunted to extinction in 2011 for its horn, the sea cow, dodo and pigeon for food. An account in 1866 tells of flocks a mile wide and 300 miles long blackening the sky for 14 hours with an estimated 3.5 billion birds in it. Thirty-four years later the last bird was shot in the wild. Polynesians reaching the planet’s last habitable islands in the last 1000-4000 years exterminated over 2000 birds species, with only stone age technology! That’s roughly 15% of the total bird species alive today!
This is not just a phenomenon of modern humans. Since the emergence of our species some 200,000 years ago, we have had a profound impact on every environment we colonised. Shown here is a correlation between the arrival of humans on continents and the extinction of megafaunal species. There is still debate as to whether it was solely human hunting or a combination of climate change and hunting that caused these extinctions but there was certainly human involvement.
Now, we are causing climate change and habitat loss at an alarming pace. As a result, extinction rates are 100- 1000 times higher than they have been in the last 50 million years or so.
At this point, I should mention that a species going extinct can be and is a completely natural process. There is a constant background rate of extinction and speciation that is independent of human activity. Survival of the fittest, natural selection and all the jazz. What is startling about extinctions today is the increased rate at which species go extinct.
Since complex life appeared in the Cambrian there have been five major mass extinction events. Now a sixth extinction event is being proposed. The Anthropocene extinction. The last occurred 65 million years when an asteroid struck what is nowadays called Mexico sending up dust and debris into the atmosphere and blocking out the sun for years. The Dinosaurs were wiped out. Three quarters of all species went extinct. This is what we are comparing ourselves to: a real life apocalypse. We are Noah’s flood.
So what can we do about this or to be more precise what can Ireland as a country do about this? Well like Noah we must choose which species we want to save. Reintroductions are a way of safeguarding the future of a species by creating a new population where one had previously existed. To put it simply take them from another country and realise them into the wild and create a new population to ensure the survival of that species. Indeed, Ireland has ratified the UN Convention of Biological Diversity meaning we have an obligation to restore threatened species. The EU even mandates that member states shall study the desirability to reintroduce species.
Ireland has a depleted fauna with many native large animals having been exterminated. There relatively few animals in Ireland that excite the general public! Not because they were never here but because they have been wiped out. 67 plants and animals have gone extinct in Ireland in the last 500 years.[8-15] That doesn’t include the giant Irish Elk, the Brown Bear or the Boar all of which once called this island home.
Yet there is hope. There are four ongoing reintroduction programmes taking place in Ireland. In Donegal the Golden Eagle, Aquila chrysaetos once again soars over Glenveigh after a century of absence from the Irish landscape, the White-tailed Sea-eagle, Haliaeetus albicilla reigns supreme in Kerry while the Red Kite, Milvus milvus graces the Wicklow mountains.
However, these raptors face real problems. The uplands of Donegal are, after centuries of bad hill farming practices so degraded that the Golden eagle population face starvation. The White-tailed eagles population is reproducing but they are shot and poisoned in Munster as farmers fear they will take lambs and the red kite is accidentally poisoned from rodenticides as it tries to colonise Dublin.
The reintroduction of the Grey Partridge, Perdix perdix (a native game bird) is the perhaps the programme most likely to be successful as it benefits farmers. They get paid through the GLAS scheme for creating habitat in which the partridge can breed and raise its young. Any future reintroduction should take this into account: the locals, the people which will interact with the species to be reintroduced on a regular basis need to benefit from the reintroduction or the reintroduction is likely to fail.
And so what about the future. Can we keep up this encouraging pace of rewilding the Irish landscape? The common quail, Coturnix coturnix is now ironically ecologically extinct in Ireland should be an immediate reintroduction should take place. It requires the same habitat as the grey partridge so would benefit from the Department of Agriculture scheme.
The sea sturgeon is critically endangered throughout its range. If you have ever eaten caviar sold at extortionate prices in a restaurant then you come across this fish. They are its eggs and also one of the reasons it is critically endangered. There is an ongoing reintroduction in the Netherlands. Ireland could have a leading role to play in its survival if a reintroduction was to take place here. How fantastic would it be to see these gentle giants, they can reach 6 metres but 1 metre is more regular, swim up our rivers to spawn
A long-term conservation goal could be the Capercaillie, Tetrao urogallus. A large grouse that requires native scots pine and oak forest, the kind of like no longer present in Ireland. By planting this forest now perhaps in forty years the Capercaille could be returned.
But what about perhaps the most iconic animal on earth? Canis lupis, the Wolf. The last wolf was killed in Ireland in 1786, less than 300 years ago. Is it possible to reintroduce this apex predator? At the moment no. It, like the golden eagle, would face starvation and like the white-tailed eagle, face persecution. To put it simply until the ecosystems of Ireland have improved from their current degraded states and until public perception of the big bad wolf changes, a reintroduction would not be successful or even viable. However as our ecosystems improve and as the public changes its attitude one day we may see the return of Canis lupis.
As the most intelligent and powerful species on Earth and with the growing awareness of our interdependency on our environment, the imperative for the conservation and protection of wildlife becomes self-evident. The reintroduction of species should be considered for their own sake but also in terms of the impact that the creation of their habitats could have, the creation of Scots Pine and oak forest for the reintroduction of the Capercaillie would act as a carbon sink and restore biodiversity.
Let me leave you with the words of E.O Wilson an eminent ecologist: ‘Right now we’re pushing the species of the world through a bottleneck. We’ve got to make it a major moral principle to get as many of them through as possible. It’s a challenge for now and the next century. And there is one good thing about our species: We like a challenge!’.
If we don’t Noah’s ark could be a very lonely place.
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