Reintroductions – a beacon of hope, by Tony Juniper, Chair of Natural England
Following the news has been a particularly bleak business for much of 2020, but amid the gloom is a theme that has given me great cause for optimism – species reintroductions. Not only have a series of success stories garnered a great deal of coverage, but have also, and perhaps most importantly, captured the public imagination.
A year ago White-tailed Eagles brought from Scotland were released on the Isle of Wight, under licence from Natural England. It was the first time these spectacular birds, apart from the odd vagrant, had been seen in England for around 240 years and was a real landmark for conservation. These eagles continue to thrive in their new surroundings and, according to the Roy Dennis Foundation and Forestry Commission who run the project, a number of them have roamed over large swathes of the country.
They are rapidly becoming a big draw for the local tourist economy, helping people to be inspired by Nature. I’m hopeful they will over time do the same for the Isle of Wight as they have for the Isle of Mull, where they generate an estimated £5m a year for the tourism economy. I look forward to further releases over the next four years and hope that in due course this spectacular bird will once again be breeding in England.
Even more significant than the economic benefits of this reintroduction project is how it provides a practical demonstration of the fact that we can actually reverse the historic decline of our depleted natural environment. A similar message also came recently when we celebrated the 30th anniversary of the reintroduction of Red Kites into England and Scotland.
In July 1990, in the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, 13 young red kites – recently flown over from the Navarra region in Spain by the Nature Conservancy Council and RSPB – took to the skies. It was a pioneering reintroduction programme for a majestic bird that had been persecuted to near-extinction.
Thankfully it proved to be a huge success, to the extent that red kites can now be seen regularly in most English counties, with an estimated 1,800 pairs breeding across the UK. In the wake of this success the Natural England team is working hard to procure young Hen Harriers from Spain for a reintroduction that will be aimed at re-establishing this wonderful bird in the South of England.
It’s not only from birds that we can take some optimism for the future. This month came the wonderful news that the trial release of beavers on the river Otter in Devon has been declared a success by Government and that the population there will be staying and able to spread naturally. I am delighted that Natural England licensed and assessed this trial and hope that it will help pave the way for these aquatic engineers to be seen much more widely across the country, creating healthier, natural river systems that are better for wildlife and help reduce the risk of flooding.
All these and similar initiatives not only remind us just how depleted Nature has become across our islands, but crucially show that we can make good those losses, if we adopt ambitious plans and pursue them through different partnerships. The joy we all feel when seeing wildlife first hand is something that has been particularly obvious during the coronavirus crisis.
Natural England’s People and Nature survey has shown a marked increase in people getting out into nearby greenspaces during lockdown, to exercise, connect with Nature and in so doing to improve their wellbeing. It is a phenomenon we should heed and harness, so that enjoying Nature is no longer limited to those who live in wildlife-rich areas, own a car or have knowledge of good places to visit. A national push for more wildlife everywhere is something that I hope will find strong support across the spectrum as we set out to recover from the pandemic, with Nature recovery firmly embedded in plans for national economic recovery.
Central to our plans at Natural England is work toward the establishment of a national Nature Recovery Network. This will not only embrace large landscape-scale Nature recovery initiatives, like the new Purbeck Heaths super National Nature Reserve that we declared in Dorset in March this year, but also efforts to encourage more wildlife where most of us live, that is in and around our towns and cities. It will also include work to recover some of our rarest species, and some of those that have disappeared altogether, through carefully planned and executed reintroductions.
Nature is important for Nature’s sake, but also for we humans, who do much better when the web of life is thriving and healthy. Kites and eagles provide much-needed inspiration, and I hope momentum for a journey that will during the years ahead see the end of Nature’s decline, and finally the beginning of Nature’s recovery.
Tony Juniper is Chair of Natural England. Before taking up this role in April 2019 he was Executive Director for Advocacy and Campaigns at WWF-UK, a Fellow with the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership and President of the Wildlife Trusts. Until January 2018 he was an independent sustainability and environment advisor, including as Special Advisor with The Prince of Wales’s International Sustainability Unit.
He speaks and writes widely on conservation and sustainability themes. He’s the author of many books, including the multi-award winning bestseller ‘What has nature ever done for us?’ published in 2013. The Ladybird guide to climate change, co-authored with HRH The Prince of Wales and Emily Shuckburgh, was published in January 2017. His latest book, ‘Rainforest‘, was published in April 2018.
Tony began his career as an ornithologist, working with Birdlife International. From 1990 he worked at Friends of the Earth, initially leading the campaign for tropical rainforests, and from 2003 to 2008 was the organisation’s Executive Director. From 2000 to 2008 he was Vice Chair of Friends of the Earth International.
He was the first recipient of the Charles and Miriam Rothschild medal (2009) and was awarded honorary Doctor of Science degrees from the Universities of Bristol and Plymouth (2013). In 2017 he was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).