An ever-expanding galaxy of immersive, investigative, uncomfortable, and occasionally uncouth ecological news

Learn more
Featured Articles
Nature
Loch, Stock and Salmon - an adventure to the wild west coast of Scotland

Loch, Stock and Salmon - an adventure to the wild west coast of Scotland

Why I went freediving at a factory farming salmon cage

Technology
Chemical seas: the rise and fall of salmon pharming in Scotland

Chemical seas: the rise and fall of salmon pharming in Scotland

Campaigners reveal how the fish farm industry was rotten from the start

Nature
Bison, boars, beavers and lynx: restore lost species to reinvigorate our world

Bison, boars, beavers and lynx: restore lost species to reinvigorate our world

We can co-create a nature-rich future by reintroducing precious wildlife

Technology
Guerilla take over of 100 UK billboards in anti-car protest

Guerilla take over of 100 UK billboards in anti-car protest

Environmental groups from the ‘Brandalism’ network reclaim urban minds

Nature
My Octopus Teacher

My Octopus Teacher

A filmmaker forges an unusual friendship with an octopus living in a South African kelp forest

Technology
How to dispose of the toxic time bomb in your cupboard

How to dispose of the toxic time bomb in your cupboard

Households urged to safely dispose of chemicals driving extinction

Today's reading
Nature

Loch, Stock and Salmon - an adventure to the wild west coast of Scotland

Why I went freediving at a factory farming salmon cage

This film can be found on Facebook and Instagram - please share if you can

I’ve always loved the sea: it’s the backdrop to some of my happiest childhood memories, it’s the reason I studied marine biology at university and it’s why I learned to freedive as an adult. I’ve swum with sharks, dolphins, turtles, sea-lions and countless, shimmering shoals of mesmerising fish, and been on several life-changing ecological expeditions to chart fish, coral and seaweed.

I first wanted to head to the bays off Scotland when I discovered you could find shoals of the world’s second-largest fish, the basking shark, there. To be able to see a wild creature this exotic on our doorstep would have been reason enough to go.

Slowly, however, another, more pressing, reason emerged: as, over the course of numerous conversations down the years with my huntin’, fishin’, and shootin’ stepfather, I’ve begun to realise the great threat posed to Scotland’s vast, pristine and fragile coastal ecosystem—of which the basking sharks are just one dramatic part.

A basking shark off Scotland

The demise of wild salmon

For years my stepfather and his fly-fishing friends have been some of the only real frontline witnesses to near-catastrophic declines in the Scotland’s age-old and rightly legendary salmon runs.

A great deal of research shows that these declines are directly attributable to the rise of the salmon-farming industry that is rapidly expanding thanks to consumer demand for this aspirational ‘staple’.

For aeons, salmon have migrated thousands of miles before returning to their Scottish rivers to spawn. But increasingly, on the last legs of their epic pilgrimages back to their ancestral breeding grounds, the wild fish have to swim past cages imprisoning mass-produced salmon.

These salmon cages in Loch Fyne in Scotland will hold hundreds of thousands of animals at an unnaturally high density credit John Aitchison

Held at unnaturally high density, these “tortured animals” are plagued by parasitic sea lice which eat the farmed fish alive. As the wild fish swim by, they too are infected, and go on to suffer the same grisly fate.

For years I brushed off my step-father’s requests to boycott farmed salmon, having grown fond of this beautifully-marketed, ‘healthy’ and ubiquitous foodstuff.

But recently the fish’s plight has grown harder to ignore.

Artifishal

First, I watched Artifishal, a film about the demise of North American wild salmon made by clothing brand Patagonia. Then I started to notice stories of Scottish salmon appearing in the news with increasing regularity: a photographer went on The One Show to reveal his discovery of vast mass graves of dead fish, then came a slew of stories pointing out how much higher the mortality rates are on Scottish sea farms than those tolerated on land.

Big charities such as the RSPCA became mired in controversy after revelations that they had certified as responsible salmon-farms that shoot wild seals. David Attenborough himself even sounded the alarm: warning that salmon farming risked wild salmon’s extinction.

Meanwhile, in my work as editor of online ecological news platform - ecohustler.com more and more journalists were asking me to publish articles drawing attention to the salmon situation; and probably the final straw for me came when the world’s largest salmon farming company, Mowi, responded with legal threats to an extremely well-researched article I published linking the company with a catalogue of environmental harms. While our fledgling company lacked the funds to fight the case in the courts, I vowed to regroup and get back into the fight more comprehensively as soon as I could.

Tom, Andrew and Ruby on the salmon mission

Salmon Squad

Enter Ruby Reed: yoga teacher, freediver, and environmental activist. Ruby runs, among other things, an inspirational online platform inspiring green behaviour-change called Eco Resolution that’s backed by everyone from Cara Delevigne to Kim Kardashian. She is charismatic, every inch as informed and incensed as I am about the lack of regulation over Scottish salmon farming—plus she can freedive to double the depth that I can manage.

As lockdown lifted, she and I, plus a couple of filmmakers, drove north to embark on a breathtaking odyssey to explore the issue for ourselves, with support from the marine charity Global Ocean.

Tragically, we discovered that the situation was even worse than the reports we’d studied in preparation for the trip.

85-year-old Allen Berry, a veteran campaigner, went so far as to describe the salmon industry's unfettered expansion around the coast as “organised crime”. No other business in Scotland, he argued, even came close to polluting on the same scale.

John Aitchison, a BBC cameraman who has worked on many of the BBC’s wildlife series, called for the cages to be urgently contained or moved onto land, describing the industry as dirty and destructive.

David Ainsley, who runs a whale-search and wildlife-watching boat trip company Sea Life Adventures from Oban, on the west coast, told us how the acoustic devices which factories routinely attach to salmon cages to deter seals traumatise and scare off other local creatures such as whales and dolphin.

Marine mammals with sensitive sonar are scared away and possibly hurt by acoustic repellent devices used on salmon farms. A disater for people doing wildlife tours... and the whales...

Coastal stories

In fact, almost everyone we spoke to on the coast seemed livid about the impacts of salmon farming, but, since the Scottish government defends its support for the sector on grounds of job-creation (around 2,000 people are directly employed on farms and in raising smolts), Ruby and I tried to track down pioneers of alternative businesses that might provide employment opportunities in coastal zones but didn’t risk the extinction of a fish species or carry such a high environmental cost.

We met totally inspiring people breathing new life into ancient, artisan, sustainable trades such as shellfish farming, and such as the oyster-bed regeneration project Seawilding, and were told that seaweed farming could provide a pathway not only to jobs but could also capture carbon and boost marine wildlife.

Understandably, we couldn’t convince any fish farm workers to go on the record for our film, but two young men employed on one salmon farm were prepared to speak to us on the condition of anonymity.

They described truly nightmarish scenes: the entire seafloor beneath the cages is dead, they told us. Above which lies a layer of deceased, diseased and deformed fish which sometimes float up through the water column that the live farmed fish are swimming in. At the surface, workers are tasked with reaching in to scoop out carcasses, which invariably dissolve in their hands and leach out into the water of once-pristine lochs.

Action day

Finally, it was time to see the farms up close with our own eyes, escorted, in our small sailboat, by activist Don Staniford of Scottish Salmon Watch, who has bravely chronicled the devastation the farms wreak despite constant abuse and legal threats from the salmon corporations.

The cages we saw, typical of the kind being rolled out on Scotland’s west coast and in the Hebrides and Northern Isles, are giant, ugly industrial constructions that seem totally out of place in the picturesque Scottish landscape. As we got closer, we saw animals leaping out of the water, probably attempting to dislodge sea lice.

I kitted up, got into position, and, fighting back nerves, slipped into the water and swam to the edge of the cage. Underwater, the immensity of the structures was overwhelming and disorientating. I looked down dirty lines stretching into the polluted depths. Peering through the nets I recoiled at the sight of vast numbers of animals swimming in listless circles. I tried to calm myself to dive down. As I did I heard warning shouts from our boat. The farm was sending a tugboat round which my friends worried they might try to ram me with. I did my best to get underwater to document what I could. Our footage corroborated what others have filmed repeatedly in this and other places - dirty, diseased animals suffering slowly in polluted waters.

I crawled back onto the boat shaking and angry that my swim in open Scottish waters should be cut short with a threat of intimidation. It was very clear the people running these operations do not want visitors. My surprise turned to alarm when we reached the shore and were apprehended by police. Despite not breaking any laws we were told to back off and not visit any more salmon-factory farms. Don recorded the whole incident and has since filed a complaint. Apparently, it’s not unusual for Scottish police to act as private security guards for the farmed salmon corporations

Matt and Don get apprehended by the police after checking out a salmon farm

Standing up to the salmon industry

While some may criticise Ruby and I for crossing the border to tackle a subject as Scottish as salmon, the truth is that this is an international industry: both in production and in consumption. Farmed salmon is one of the most commonly bought fish in Britain, but how many of us know the harm that is being done, to put it on our plates?

The Scottish salmon industry currently uses roughly the same quantity of wild-caught fish to feed its salmon, as is purchased by the entire adult population of the UK in one year, and to raise a single adult fish in a cage requires the capture and slaughter of up to 200 wild caught fish, depriving those in lands far away of much-needed, local sources of protein. Salmon is both Scotland's and the UK's largest food export so informing the world’s consumers about the unfettered rise of this toxic industry is urgent and important.

'Activism,’ said Alice Walker, ‘is my rent for living on the planet.' I love the ocean, and cannot stand by and just watch while we drive yet another miraculous and irreplaceable species of wildlife into extinction for nothing more than a fast, off-shore buck and a ‘easy’ slab of protein on our plates.

There are other, sustainable proteins for us to eat, and there are other, sustainable livelihoods to be made on the coasts of Scotland: our interviews prove it. The faster we reign in the practices the factory farming sector visits on fish both farmed and wild and the fragile ecosystems they swim in, the faster these alternatives will emerge. I have vowed to never again eat factory-farmed food, especially farmed salmon, and I am joining the movement calling for these businesses to be properly regulated so they no longer release any sea lice, farmed fish or pollution.

Technology

Chemical seas: the rise and fall of salmon pharming in Scotland

Campaigners reveal how the fish farm industry was rotten from the start

The life and times of Allan Berry are entwined with Scottish salmon farming – an industry the 83-year-old citizen scientist has fought since the 1970s.

Salmon farming in Scotland is a rogue industry, 99% controlled by foreign interests. What was, in its early days, sold as a source of employment for local crofters and coastal fishers now bears all manner of ecological sins. Welts of open cage salmon farming circle this once pristine coastline and the sea lice infestations, the escapes endangering wild salmon, the mass mortalities and the vast, choking pollution keep on stacking up.

Behind parliamentary inquiries in 2000 and 2018 is a long history of dogged campaigning by those determined to hold the multinational companies and regulatory agencies to account.

Fish farm, Loch Fyne - credit John Aitchison

Timeline of a sea farming nemesis

Allan Berry was born in 1937 into the country these monopolising companies’ marketing teams now dream up. From the cleaner waters of Stirling his family moved to north Lanarkshire where air pollution was so bad he could have scraped a waxy grey substance off trees. In school holidays, Berry began diving and exploring the west coast and island sea lochs underwater. His mother bought him a microscope with slides of deep sea samples collected from the nineteenth century research vessel The Challenger. And sometimes, even when he should have been at school in Motherwell, Berry stayed up in the hills or the clearer air around the library, where he developed another eye for detail. “I got into the habit of looking things up, challenging things.”

Unilever was quick on the scene in the 60s. Its then subsidiary Marine Harvest (now the notorious Mowi) first produced farmed Atlantic salmon from Loch Ailort in 1971. Five years later Berry – after years travelling and selling plants for cleaning up polluted water – embarked on the business of oyster cultivation in Loch Sween on the west coast of Argyll. His company bought its seed oysters from Loch Creran, the only hatchery in Scotland. It was an optimistic, sustainable enterprise, but warning signs started soon after.

Otter at Loch Sween by Susan Berry, Allan’s daughter

How big salmon pharma poisoned sustainable businesses out

In september 1980, parts of sea lochs in the north of the Firth of Clyde turned red. The cause was a toxic algal bloom: specifically, a burst of phytoplankton spurred by an excess of nutrients in the water (known as eutrophication). Water containing the red tide was pumped into fish ponds at a salmon farm in Otter Ferry, Loch Fyne, killing 3000 salmon in one pond. The ecological event rang alarm bells for Berry, who had studied toxicology and believed the waste from salmon farms – the ammonium in dissolved nutrients from their faeces, and nitrogen excreted through their gills – was being perilously underplayed. When he crossed Loch Fyne in his sea canoe, Berry saw the dense red bloom petering out along the shore by the salmon tanks. But an insurer and government-funded study in 1982 did not consider the discharge from salmon farming, instead pointing to freshwater run-off from the land. He has followed its paper trail closely over the years and says: “it’s still being used to justify all the literature that doesn’t have any indication that damage occurs from salmon farms.”

Back in 1984, Berry was contending with the other major element of salmon farm pollution: the “colossal amount of chemicals” that companies pour into the cages to treat diseased salmon. The oyster hatchery he depended on was ruined by the effects of TBT – a (now banned) anti-foulant used by the loch’s salmon farm. So he took up the mantle, building a new nursery in Loch Sween to maintain the supply of disease-free oyster seed. Then the salmon farms started piling in, and appeals to keep toxic TBT out went ignored: “I became taboo, I was an enemy holding it back they felt – I got treated terribly by them.” After waves of degrading water quality, whilst the amount of farmed fish in Loch Sween increased dramatically from 70 to 560 tonnes within a three kilometre radius of the hatchery, the oyster business went under in 1991. Unable to get compensation and frustrated by the toothless response from regulatory bodies, Berry dedicated himself to cleaning up the industry.

Marine Scotland data showing increase in annual production of Atlantic salmon from 1979 - 2018

2000 petition: independent inquiry denied

The tenacity of anti-fish farm campaigners has its counterpart in the persistent passivity of those they hold responsible. In the 90s, whilst the salmon industry gravitated towards its current monopoly, Berry delved into research, connected with campaigners and scientists around the world and gathered 400 letters for his petition submitted in 2000: request for an independent, objective inquiry into environmental impacts of sea cage fish farming.

He didn’t get one, not fully. Instead a rolling inquiry began in 2001, with Berry told he had no place there, and “jobs come first.” Evidence was presented by scientists who were – on their own admission – no experts in the field of waste disposal and algal blooms.

“Allan Berry was concerned that the large quantities of waste material that are produced by this enormous industry were affecting algal growth in lochs and perhaps more widely. I know nothing about that issue, but it worries me a great deal because of the scale of the industry. [...] If there is no link between the outbreaks and the salmon farming industry, that is all well and good—the industry can continue to expand and we can grow lots of halibut, which will create the same problem of waste disposal. However, if history shows that there is a link, we have a great deal to worry about.” – Dr Richard Shelton at a Transport and Environment committee meeting 25 March 2002

Berry had appealed on the balance of probabilities (the standard of proof required in Scottish civil courts) and precautionary principle. Though Dr Shelton favoured a moratorium on expansion, other scientists talked the pollution problem down and the science on harmful algal blooms was allowed to remain murky. There would not be another significant inquiry into environmental impacts until 2018, in response to the industry’s plans to double production by 2030 to up to 400,000 tonnes.

Prominent campaigner Bruce Sandison with Allan and Don - credit Don Staniford website

2018 inquiry: “Secrecy is poison in these discussions”

Award-winning wildlife filmmaker John Aitchison gave evidence to the committee in 2018 in his role as chair of the Friends of the Sound of Jura (a group that formed in resistance to a fish farm proposal in the biodiversity hotspot two years earlier). “Secrecy is poison in these discussions,” he told the room at one point, stressing the need for open data on sea lice. The language of transparency and hygiene go hand in hand, and it is the health of Scotland’s wild fish and precious marine environment that is at stake.

It is self-evident that “pollution is the physical expression of corruption.” So what to make of the fact that fish farming is the biggest polluter of the sea in Scotland? Dissolved nutrients make up 90% of the waste, and yet the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) seems blind to its corrosive impact. Aitchison commented: “No other farming industry is allowed to dump its pollution for free into rivers or anywhere else. If you had the amount of waste produced by a fish farm on land, and piped it into exactly the same spot in the sea as all the cages, you’d be disqualified from farming immediately. It would be illegal under SEPA’s rules.”

Salmon farm in Loch Fyne - credit John Aitchison

Transparency as a tool for change

Scotland’s freedom of information (FoI) laws are strong according to Don Staniford from Scottish Salmon Watch, a man who has made them his bread and butter. Over the years, he has forced disclosures of data on the killing of seals; revealed that SEPA made zero prosecutions in over a decade; and chalked up instances when employees left SEPA and joined the industry on better pay – classic examples of gamekeeper turned poacher. The conflict was already internal, since promoting economic growth has been an official part of the regulator’s remit since 2014. In a sequence well documented by investigative site The Ferret, Staniford exposed how – despite studies showing the pesticide emamectin benzoate was lethal to crustaceans – SEPA bowed to industry pressure and withdrew its proposed ban.

So the green watchdog was under the spotlight in 2018. The resulting report found that tougher sanctions for fish farm escapes should be introduced; that closed containment and alternative technologies should be explored; and concluded: ‘the regulatory tools currently available to SEPA are neither adequate nor effective.’

Formaldehyde, biotoxins and the climate crisis

Seeing the report’s recommendations implemented is another matter. Last month a Mowi fish farm containing more than half-a-million salmon was damaged during a storm, causing an unknown number to escape. For wild salmon, this was “the ecological equivalent of an oil tanker running aground,” said campaigner Corin Smith. It’s unclear if and how the multinational will be sanctioned. Then there’s the creeping use of formaldehyde to treat diseased smolt (young salmon) in freshwater lochs. Residents at Loch Tralaig in Argyll are suffering crippling headaches caused by the large amounts of formalin they see being poured into open cages by workers in gas masks. A staggering amount of dead fish are emerging from the Kames fish farm.

Has Berry’s theory about waste and harmful algal blooms (HABs) been kicked into the seagrass? Aitchison thinks it's true in some places, in smaller enclosed waters like the upper bit of Loch Fyne. For signs of toxic blooms, scientists often look to satellite images showing patches of chlorophyll-producing phytoplankton. But if some HABs are caused by marine bacteria, as Berry believes, then there won’t be any extra chlorophyll to detect. Climate change hovers above the eutrophication debate, demanding urgency. Examining and mitigating the impact of ocean warming also falls to SEPA, and Aitchison is clear that far more needs to be done here.

Transparency is improving but simply shining a light on the host of salmon farming ills is not enough. Lex Rigby, campaigners manager at vegan charity Viva! said: “As an industry that relies on the capture of wild fish to feed its vast stocks, it is truly damned from start to finish.”

Wild Atlantic salmon running up a river on the Isle of Harris - credit John Aitchison

The noble salmon

“In my job I’ve been all over the world filming wildlife,” says Aitchison, who has Planet Earth II to his reel. “Very often we’ll go to the best place for a particular species or spectacle of some sort – whether it’s wildebeest, or bald eagles catching salmon in Alaska, or bears. And I come home to Scotland and I know that it compares to those places and it has in the past compared even better to those places. The west coast of Scotland and the northern isles – where all the fish farming happens – and the Outer Hebrides are among the most beautiful coastal places in the world, with diverse, important populations of wild animals. And Atlantic salmon is one of those. It’s an iconic thing for Scotland.”

Passion for the noble salmon, swimming upstream, leaping the falls to its river of birth, powers the campaigners. Over decades fighting for objective scrutiny of the industry, there are many moments for Allan Berry to reflect on. A poignant one is the time he summoned a meeting of scientists at Dunstaffnage Marine Laboratory in 2004, after his petition was over, to ask where his science was wrong. He recalls “40 odd people, sitting looking up at the ceiling, not a soul could even look me in the eye.” And drove the 80 miles back home with that ringing silence.

Last week Berry, writing his latest report, told me with a glint in his voice that he has a new descriptive phrase:

The policy of our government on the salmon feedlot industry is dictated by a Norwegian Oligarchy.

---

Ecohustler is part of a coalition of organisations calling for a halt to the expansion of salmon farming in Scotland.

Nature

Bison, boars, beavers and lynx: restore lost species to reinvigorate our world

We can co-create a nature-rich future by reintroducing precious wildlife

Nature in decline

Some feel that rather than reintroducing formerly native but now extinct species to Britain, that instead we should prioritise our remaining wildlife. This view overlooks the salient fact that ecosystems are complex interconnected webs of life, and when species are lost, this will in turn impact other life that is a part of that system.

The UK is considered one of the most nature-depleted parts of the world, with much of our biodiversity in decline. In our manicured and ecologically degraded landscape, it is easy to overlook the influence species can have on the wider environment. By attempting to only safeguard what we have left, we risk falling prey to shifting baseline syndrome, where over time, the progressive degradation of our landscape will continue to erode our remaining biodiversity. One of the best things we can hope to do to safeguard our remaining wildlife is to embark on the reintroduction of formerly native species, particularly extinct keystone species or ecosystem engineers.

A keystone species has a disproportionally large influence on the wider environment relative to its abundance. In this sense, the presence of keystone species can help define the entire ecosystem they are a part of. An ecosystem engineer is a species that, through its activities, influences both living and nonliving elements of their environment, helping create, maintain or modify habitats. This in turn has implications for the diversity of life such an environment can support.

There are a number of such species being reintroduced, or being considered for reintroduction to Britain. In some cases, species such as the auroch or tarpan or wild horse are extinct, and in these cases ancient or ‘back-bred’ domestic breeds (such as longhorn or heck cattle and Konik ponies) are used as proxies, fulfilling the same ecological niche as their ancestral species. Below are four keystone species particularly well suited to reintroduction to Britain.

Beaver standing to feed © Gordon Muir

Beaver

A textbook keystone species is the beaver (Castor fiber) which was hunted to extinction in Britain around 400 years ago. In terms of bang for one’s buck for biodiversity and environmental gains, it would be hard to top beaver reintroduction. We have lost around 90% of our wetlands in the last century, and an increasing scarcity of ponds poses a significant threat to our wildlife. Beavers are natural wetland and pond creators. They create richer wetlands than we are capable of, and they do it for free. These wetlands support a vast array of species. A variety of plants, invertebrates, fish, mammals, amphibians and reptiles all benefit from beaver eco-engineering.

In addition to creating wetlands, beavers coppice trees, and kill a few others by raising the water table. By doing so, more light reaches the ground, boosting the plant community there. The deadwood in these areas is an important food source and habitat for many different species. Beaver dams also filter out fertiliser and sediment from waterways, an important finding given that all English rivers failed to meet legal water quality standards due to pollution according to a recent assessment. Beaver dams also slow down water flow, allowing the land to hold more water…this in turn can buffer against flooding and drought. Beavers can cause localised flooding and damage to trees, but with appropriate management, potential negative impacts can be minimised, and the benefits of beaver presence enhanced.

On the continent, beavers have been successfully reintroduced to 24 European countries. Following the culmination of the five year Devon Beaver Project, the UK government allowed wild-living beavers the “right to remain” in Britain. In the words of Peter Burgess, Director of Conservation at Devon Wildlife Trust:

This is the most ground-breaking government decision for England’s wildlife for a generation. Beavers are nature’s engineers and have the unrivalled ability to breathe new life into our rivers. Their benefits will be felt throughout our countryside, by wildlife and people.

Bison

Plans are in the pipeline to reintroduce a herd of European bison, also known as the wisent (Bison bonasus) to woodland in Kent in 2022. Bison were hunted to extinction in the wild in Europe in 1927, but reintroductions followed from captive populations. While not strictly a native species, they are the closest living relative to and partly descended from the extinct steppe bison, which once roamed Britain, and fulfil a similar ecological function, and therefore make a suitable surrogate for the extinct species.

Despite their size, they are docile animals, and pose no threat to humans, although they can be aggressive towards dogs (which they perceive as wolves). Through their activity and browsing, bison create a more varied mosaic of habitat in woodland ecosystems, forming openings or glades and creating areas of scrub where more light reaches the ground. This creates a wide variety of niches for other species, while allowing various plants to flourish that would otherwise be smothered by tree canopy. Cherished and increasingly rare native species such as nightingales and turtle doves are likely to benefit from this creation of scrubland habitat. The bare earth created by their dust bathing benefits plants and reptiles, and their tree rubbing and bark stripping creates deadwood which is an important food source for fungi and insects, and the birds that feed on them.

In the words of Paul Hadaway, of the Kent Wildlife Trust:

A wilder, nature-based solution is the right one to tackling the climate and nature crisis we now face. Using missing keystone species like bison to restore natural processes to habitats is the key to creating bio-abundance in our landscape.

Wild boar

Despite being native to Britain, wild boar (Sus scrofa) UK and EU legislation pertaining to them is not supportive of their reintroduction here. Hunted to extinction sometime in the 17th century in Britain, boar are important keystone species. Through escapees or deliberate releases, a number of wild populations have become established in Britain.

They turn over the soil, and inject more dynamism into the landscapes they inhabit. Their activities can increase biodiversity, benefitting a number of different plant species and the species that depend on them. Ants benefit from these activities, colonising the exposed soil, and this has important downstream effects. Their wallows are important habitats for amphibians, and they can feed on and uproot bracken rhizomes, a trait unique to them, preventing it from smothering other plants and trees, allowing for regeneration of plant and woodland communities. Boars can cause damage to crops and gardens where their populations grow, and in the absence of predators in Britain, their populations will need to be controlled via licensed hunting.

Lynx

The reintroduction of apex predators is a more contentious issue. Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) are thought to have become extinct in Britain around 1,300 years ago, due to hunting and loss of woodland habitat. While some may fear the cats, they are shy and reclusive animals, and there is not a single recorded case of a lynx ever attacking a human or domestic dog. Sheep farmers are understandably more concerned about their reintroduction, but with the appropriate safeguards in place, there is no reason why lynx and people can’t coexist, as they do in much of Europe where they have been successfully reintroduced.

Lynx are deer hunting specialists. Deer overpopulation is a source of major and unrelenting ecological damage to Britain, particularly in Scotland, where their overgrazing prevents the natural regeneration of depleted woodland, which in turn would benefit many different species. The return of an apex predator such as lynx can result in downstream effects on ecosystem structure and nutrient cycling, known as a trophic cascade. Apex predators tend to act as guardians for the ecosystems they inhabit. In addition to controlling deer populations, lynx will alter the behaviour of deer and other browsers. Such behavioural changes have been observed in numerous situations where a predator is reintroduced. Prey animals such as deer will tend to move around more in the landscape where predators are present, while avoiding places such as ravines where they may be cornered. This spreads out the impact of their grazing over a much wider area, so allowing vegetation to regenerate.

Eurasian lynx Jura Mountains Switzerland © Laurent-Geslin

A more biodiverse landscape not only provides more ecosystem services, it will also exhibit greater ecological resilience, which is all the more important in light of climate change. Our connection to nature, and our contact with it, is also very important for our psychological health and wellbeing, and there is increasing evidence to show that greater biodiversity enhances the positive impact of nature on human health. We should be doing all we can to ensure that the landscape we are a part of is as rich as it can be.

To halt or reverse the decline of our wildlife, safeguarding what we still have is not enough. We need to be more ambitious and think bigger if we are to reverse centuries of ecological degradation and biodiversity decline. The return of native keystone species to our landscape where they belong is one of the most important acts we can hope to undertake if we wish to safeguard our wildlife at this time, and for future generations. By doing so, we could reverse our ever-receding baseline as it pertains to our wildlife, and so move towards a more nature enriched future.

In the words of Rebecca Wrigley, of Rewilding Britain:

It’s increasingly clear that bold and imaginative rewilding is urgently needed to tackle the country’s worrying loss of wildlife.

---

Resources:

Rewilding Britain: https://www.rewildingbritain.org.uk/

The Beaver Trust: https://beavertrust.org/