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Country Matters September 2020

By The Hodge

Red Kite

‘Birds of prey do not sing.’

Old country saying.

I have been finding some interest in at least a few of the news items covered in the media recently. And I’m not referring to exam results or other over-inflated, (as far as me personally is concerned), issues.

What is interesting to me is the debate going on about the reintroduction of extinct or rare species which were once native to this country and what measures should be taken against alien species artificially introduced here that are doing more harm than good.

Most attention at the moment seems to be on the European Beaver, a chubby, rather toothy creature that experimentally has been re-introduced to an area of the river Dart in Devon and other places including Scotland. As with any creature, there are pluses and minuses. Apparently, the beaver’s habits are good for the environment as its dam building helps protect areas from flooding and provides protective habitats for fish and other species and therefore is generally considered a good egg. Some landowners are concerned about the number of trees felled by beavers and the ‘untidiness’ created by their activities. There seems to be a move to expand their territories so that in decades to come, they may once again be commonplace along Britain’s waterways.

Man has been instrumental in actively helping conserve wild species and one of the most recent success stories has been the Red Kite, once restricted to a few small colonies remaining in Wales. The American oil tycoon, John Paul Getty, set about a reintroduction programme in England from his estate near High Wycombe and over a decade ago driving along the M40 in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, I became a less than attentive driver as my eyes were drawn to the increasing numbers of sharp-winged birds in the skies around me. It is now not unusual to see the occasional one or two around here and circumstances have led me to spend more time driving up and down the M4 recently, and a similar neck-craning distraction now occurs all too frequently east of Newbury and along near Reading as they become a common sight there too. Now, I see there is talk of introducing Golden Eagles to Snowdonia in Wales after the relative success of their expansion in parts of the Highlands of Scotland. How long perhaps before we see such a magnificent bird swirling over the escarpments at Birdlip, having headed east from the Welsh mountains?

Pine Martens are being introduced to new areas of the country and active conservation of our native Red Squirrels in the few remaining areas where they reside still, is an essential activity.

Less than a century ago, the chirpy little Red Squirrel would have been a common neighbour around here but they haven’t been able to reside in the Cotswolds for decades. The reason is the artificial introduction of the larger American grey squirrel in the 19th century. Originally introduced into parkland in Bedfordshire, it soon escaped out competed the red for territory and food. However, the worst element was that the grey carried Squirrel Pox, a disease that didn’t affect its host, but which is fatal to the red so that when they met in the wild, numbers of red squirrels declined rapidly. Today, they are largely confined to parts of Scotland, Anglesey and the Isle of Wight. The grey squirrel is a destructive nuisance and to my mind should be cleared from large areas so that the red can be re-introduced but the conservation activity would need to be ongoing in order for the red to be protected from the pox by keeping such areas free from the grey.

There are other native species that need help such as the Dormouse and there are some people who would encourage the reintroduction of species lost to these isles such as the Lynx and the Wolf, but livestock farmers will resist such moves most strongly. And should we tolerate or encourage the spread of the colonies of Wild Boar currently in the country? They are destructive and can be vectors of serious diseases. There are lots or arguments on both sides and reintroductions can’t just happen on a whim – Defra have to closely control and monitor any such activities.

And lo, space has run out and we haven’t even considered what should be done about artificially introduced alien species that do more harm than good so there’s material still for the future…

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