From The Sunday Times September 27, 2009
Chris Gourlay and Jonathan Leake
WILD animals such as elk and even lynx could roam parts of England again, long after being forced out by deforestation and the expansion of agriculture, under a government scheme to "rewild" tracts of countryside.
Hilary Benn, the environment secretary, will announce the plan to the Labour conference in Brighton tomorrow. He has told officials at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to investigate how best to revive not just species but entire landscapes.
Under rewilding, new reserves would be as large, wild and natural as possible, and be connected to each other so that animals can roam freely. Research shows that the current system of creating small, unconnected conservation areas is not working. Populations of animals in such reserves are often too small to be viable.
The project would build on attempts in recent years to re-establish long-lost species. The first beavers were reintroduced to England in the Cotswolds in 2005, 500 years after they became extinct. This summer the first great bustard chicks since 1832 were hatched at secret sites on Salisbury plain.
Keith Kirby, chief woodland conservation officer for Natural England, which will research the idea for Defra, said the most obvious potential sites for reserves were England's uplands such as Exmoor, Dartmoor, Northumberland and the Lake District. "But we want to find lowland regions, too."
The first stage would be to connect existing habitats to create larger landscapes, Kirby said. The reintroduction of large herbivores would follow — potentially including species such as elk, wild cattle and European wild boar.
Domesticated species such as highland cattle or exmoor ponies might be released into the wild, too.
In the much longer term, Kirby is keen on the idea of also releasing predatory species — but this idea would have to win public acceptance first. He believes lynx would be the first candidate because they are too small to threaten humans.
Kirby has calculated that northern England could support a population of 4-500 of these tufty-eared wild cats, which have been absent for at least 1,300 years, if dense forest were restored in some areas.
The British rewilding movement draws inspiration from Holland's Oostvaardersplassen reserve, 25 miles east of Amsterdam. The 14,000-acre tract of uninhabited fen, scrub woodland and wild grassland reclaimed from the sea just 40 years ago offers a glimpse of what northern Europe may have looked like roughly 11,000 years ago.
Primitive breeds such as Heck cattle and Konik horses already live on the reserve and there are plans to introduce European bison.
No reserve that big exists in Britain yet, but some private landowners have plans.
In West Sussex, fallow deer, Exmoor ponies and old English longhorn cattle roam the 3,500-acre Knepp Castle estate.
In Cambridgeshire, Natural England is helping to recreate more than 9,000 acres of ancient wetland between Huntingdon and Peterborough.
In Scotland, Paul Lister has released wild boar, elk and beavers onto his 23,000-acre Alladale estate in Sutherland, and wants to reintroduce lynx and wolves, nearly 270 years after the last wolf was killed.
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://www.bigcatrescue.org