Tuesday, 24 March 2015

It's official - the beavers are back, and now I'm nervous

Devon's beavers - the ones that escaped and started to breed - have been returned to the wild. They have been tested for disease and are now back in the water. This is great news.

Amid all the congratulations and celebrations we must not forget that this was not supposed to happen. The government and the Angling Trust wanted rid of them. Their return is a triumph of campaigning, not of process.

Credit: Wildwood
Lots of groups were involved. The Devon Wildlife Trust and the local landowners deserve great credit for finding a practical solution, and managing the return. Friends of the Earth deserve recognition too, for helping to turn it into a national story, exposing the lies about disease risks and filing a legal action against the government to stop their removal when it looked most likely.

So I am thrilled, but also apprehensive. The return of these beavers must be just the start. We need to radically alter our relationship with nature. Good news stories like this are amazing, but they are also the exception. Species are in precipitous decline, and many of our habitats have never been in worse condition. We need to change tack, prioritizing wilder lands, removing unnecessary infrastructure and building denser, greener, 'biophillic' towns and cities. We must also redouble our efforts to return native species.

And this is where the Devon example makes me nervous. As the focus moves from the campaign to the implementation, we are once again hearing that this is an expensive business. Costs are high, and money is tight. But costs are only so high because we make it so. The Devon beavers are being released in an intensive scientific trial because that is the only way it is allowed. Let's not forget that they were there already.

Farmers and landowners too are agitating to be paid more in compensation or management fees to allow native wildlife to live on their lands. I can see the logic, but it is all wrong. Most of the time, all animals need to survive is the right habitat and to be left alone. Around the country other groups interested in returning beavers, or other species, will be watching and wondering if they can shoulder the costs.

At the same time there is a risk that this 'trial' will be used to out other reintroductions on ice. That people will say that now is not the time to talk about more.

But we must. There are so many species we need to bring back or reinforce in various parts of the country - wildcat, pine marten, lynx, wolf, golden eagle, sea eagle, wild boar. The point is not just that these are wonderful animals, but that they will help out existing wildlife too. Pine martens help red squirrels. Wild boar create wallows that benefit amphibians. Lynx control deer and aid forest regeneration. Wild cats control rabbits. It goes on and on.

And these animals must not just be returned, but allowed to be wild. We must learn to accept them and make space for them and if necessary manage them. They should become the fabric of our every day lives - wild creatures that can fill our myths and imaginations - not biological curiosities forever tagged and monitored and confined to tiny areas.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Whatever happens next, this is a great day, and great step forward.

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