In celebration of World Wildlife Day – also for my husband’s upcoming birthday, as he requested this post – I am sharing a pictorial review of near-extinct UK species now returning to the wild, as well as those species particularly under threat by HS2. (Note: All images, unless otherwise noted, are from Shutterstock.)
Brits have long struck me as a nation of obsessive animal lovers – and we’re not talking about domestic pets like cats and dogs here, but the adorable and seemingly unique creatures such as hedgehogs and badgers, among others, that have long inhabited favourite TV programmes, children’s stories, coastlines, woodlands, and even back gardens or sheds, for those lucky enough to glimpse live creatures instead of roadkill.
Yet although Britain has lost hundreds of species – some 413 flora and fauna went extinct in the past 200 years, most within the past century, according to Rewilding Britain – the good news is that many species have been successfully reintroduced to the wild, and some are even flourishing. This includes golden eagles (pictured above), and the droves of red kites (below, top right) that daily circle the woods behind my Buckinghamshire home, their outstretched wings gracefully swooping above me as they hunt for prey or carrion.
Some previously extinct or seriously declining species began to be reintroduced as far back as the late 1700s or early 1800s. These include Scotland’s capercaillie bird (above, main pic)*, the Great Bustard (or Otis tarda, top left, reintroduced in 1832, as per the capercaillie) and red squirrels (top middle, reintroduced in 1793).
Apparently, the late Victorians, appalled at the rate of extinction, attempted other reintroductions of former native British species. These include reindeer, elk, wolves, lynx (pic 2 below), wild boar, Eurasian bison (pic 3) and beavers (pic 1), with the latter finally – only 120 years later – successfully reintroduced in a formal Scottish trial in 2009 (in addition, they have recently been reintroduced to Loch Lomond for the first time in over 400 years). The first four bison – three females and a bull – were delivered from Germany last year to a 210-hectare rewilding site, Wilder Blean Woods in north Kent, managed by Kent Wildlife Trust and the Wildwood Trust.
Such keystone species are an essential part of our native ecosystem, and in fact help shape, create and nurture the land, even helping to shift the course of rivers.
So while the Victorians might have a lot to answer for in terms of their love and endless pushing for progress (among other things), at least they began to smell the extinction coffee long before some of their present ecological emergency and climate change-denying ‘Luddite’ descendants (here’s looking at you, Steve Baker MP)**.
But thank God such resistance, despite a clear climate and ecological emergency, hasn’t stopped other British nature- and wildlife lovers from pressing on with species reintroduction programmes across the British Isles, most notably in Scotland.
Since the mid-to-late 20th century, many other successful reintroductions have been made. Among these are Britain’s largest bird of prey, the white-tailed eagle or sea eagle (below). Sea eagles, brought to the UK from Norway, were first re-established on the Scotland’s west coast in 1975. They bred in 1983 for the first time in over 70 years, and there are now over 152 pairs. They have even been spotted along the South Coast of England after 240 years.
More recent reintroductions of extinct or dramatically declined species include (clockwise, from top left, as shown below) 1) the chequered skipper butterfly (Caterocephalus palaemon – not to be confused with the large chequered skipper); 2) the northern pool frog (Pelophylax lessonae); 3) the large marsh grasshopper (Stethophyma grossum); 4) the little bittern (Ixobrychus minutus); 5) the sand lizard (Lacerta agilis); 6) the orange tip butterfly (Anthocharis cardamines); 7) the natterjack toad (Epidalea calamita); 8) the strikingly coloured ladybird spider (Eresus sandaliatus); 9) the pine marten (Martes martes); 10) the sea hawk or osprey (Pandion haliaetus); 11) the corncrake (Crex crex); 12) the large blue (Maculinea aurion) butterfly; 13) the northern lapwing (Vanellus vanellus); and (14) the smooth snake (Coronella austriaca).***
In addition, other extinct or disappeared species of flora that enable these species to thrive again are also being restored through various habitat restoration projects. Seagrasses, which support native oyster populations – a long overexploited and near-decimated mollusc – are once again beginning to flourish again in Loch Craignish following careful and dedicated work by Scottish charity Seawilding, as reported by the Guardian. This is essential, says reporter Phoebe Weston, because “Native oysters create nursery habitats for fish, improve water quality, remove nitrogen from the water and sequester carbon.”
In the same way, mosses, such as Sphagnum moss (below), while perhaps seemingly less urgent in terms of reintroduction or restoration projects than some of the other species above, nevertheless play a crucial part in creating the conditions for other bog-loving species – sundews, invertebrates and fungi – to survive. They are also part of nature’s very own ‘carbon capture and sequestration’ (CCS) system (see graph below, from ‘How Nature Helps Fights Climate Change’ [from DW Global Media Forum]).
Two species of sphagnum moss, papillose bog moss and red bog moss, were reintroduced in late 2021 to Astley Moss, a UK peatland site in Greater Manchester; likewise, lesser bladderwort was reintroduced nearby after it had become extinct over 100 years ago. Both are part of the Greater Manchester Wetland Species Reintroduction Project, which is currently working to reintroduce several rare plant peatland moss and species, such as common and hares-tail cotton grass, cross-leaved heath moss, the carnivorous great sundew, the oblong-leaved sundew, the lesser bladderwort, and other rare wetlands specialists including white-beaked sedge and bog asphodel.
Restoring these native plant species will also encourage other native wetland species to return. For example, the charity is also currently working to reintroduce the formerly extinct (last seen 100 years ago) large heath butterfly (Coenonympha tullia, left****), the locally extinct bog bush cricket and one of the UK’s rarest dragonflies, the white-faced darter.
HS2’s threat to native species
While supporting charities and local wildlife reintroduction projects like the Manchester project is clearly essential, what else can we do to help our land and restore our once gloriously diverse wildlife – even to see these once-extinct species brought back to life and flourishing once again in Britain’s ‘green and pleasant land’?
Well, for a start, we could do our best to stop any more unnecessary deforestation or habitat destruction, such as is currently being done by HS2 – the high-speed railway project currently carving up huge swathes of British countryside, destroying many habitats in its wake, and threatening to drive to extinction many already rare, endangered and protected species that were supposedly protected under various UK, European and international environmental protection laws, as I previously reported.
Specific British animals under threat from HS2, as shown in my own hand-drawn poster above, carried by fellow HS2 protestor Sylvia Baronin von Hahn, include (clockwise from top left): 1) the great crested newt (Triturus cristatus); 2) Brandt’s bat (Myotis brandti); 3) Serotine’s bat (Eptesicus serotinus); 4) the hazel dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius); 5) the barn owl (Tyto alba); 6) the European water vole (Arvicola amphibius); 7) the tawny owl (Strix aluco); 8) Reeve’s muntjac (Muntiacus reevesi – while not a native species, they were introduced to the UK from China in 1838); 9) the European or Eurasian badger (Meles meles); 10) the polecat (Mustela putorius); and 11) the lesser spotted woodpecker (Dryobates minor), in addition to other species currently being reintroduced, as mentioned above (eg lapwings and orange-tipped butterflies).
It does grieve my heart no end to see what was once such an ecologically diverse, rich and life-sustaining countryside being so callously destroyed. Where are Britain’s supposed animal lovers when you really need them? Why aren’t they standing in front of Westminster, like me and my friends, or encamped in trees in various ancient woodlands at risk from HS2, risking prison to try to save them?
I’m truly grateful for the heroes I’ve known who spent long months in jail because they cared enough about these “least of these” to try to protect them; to me, they truly are “the best of British” (meaning of course the people – not the animals!).
Okay, that’s my little anti-HS2 rant over – for now. Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with a final pic of everyone’s favourite – and now also highly endangered – British animal species: the hedgehog (Erinaceinae). Plus a stamp from Britain’s very long-ago past (eg 1963 – 60 years ago, during a ‘National Nature Week’ – what happened to that? And note the use of shillings!). This shows that, once upon a time, Brits did care about their flora and fauna. Thank God for those who still do, and are working hard to bring them back to life.
*Capercaillie numbers have since declined by 40% in the past 15years, due mostly to habitat loss and climate change. There are now only around 1,000 left.
**Several of us in my local environmental activist group, XR Chilterns, attempted to meet with Steve Baker ahead of the Climate and Ecological Emergency (CEE) Bill being signed into Parliament; he pretended to listen politely (as politicians do so well), then promptly joined an anti-global warming ‘think tank’. It’s clear that while he claims to be against HS2, he believes material prosperity and ‘progress’ is more important than nature.
** From Wikipedia, under Creative Commons Licence
9 thoughts on “Return of the wild”
A well researcherd piece. The whisling of the red kites are a sound to warm the ears.
According to the Woodland Trust, “The red kite is a scavenger and eats mostly carrion, road kill and worms. If necessary, it will sometimes catch small, live prey such as voles, mice and birds.” So it is both a carrion eater and a predator. And yes, their piercing cries whistling through the air are indeed a delight to the ears. We are so blessed to be surrounded by them!
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The White Tailed Sea Eagles were released on the Isle of Wight a few years ago and I regularly see them flying overhead. They are magnificent birds, and I have a feather from one in my feather collection. A friend volunteers at a local falconry center.
That’s awesome! Thanks for sharing, and I hope the volunteers keep up the good work!
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An incredibly useful round up of where we are currently at with wildlife in the UK.
Thank you Harriet! And thank you for joining me recently on Sarah Green’s Water Justice walk – I am grateful for everyone involved in caring for our Earth and its vulnerable, threatened inhabitants.
Honoured to be in here, holding your beautiful sign. I will get back to reading with more time after walking the dog and preparing my daughter‘s 18th birthday celebration.
We are part of nature and it’s so hard to find a way for young people stepping into adulthood loving (wild)life.
Honouring life on earth means honouring wild life.
Spending time with you protesting has been time well spent!
Thank you Sylvia for standing with me in so many protests, and for carrying my sign when I was too tired/knee-achy to continue on the march. Bless you always 🙂
It’s desperately sad to know how many animals are suffering right now..and how it can only get worse unless we, in the so-called ‘developed’ world, don’t event try to change the destructive path we have put ourselves on.
Thank you for your care and compassion for life as we know it.