I was recently asked why reintroductions are such a useful tool for UK bird conservation. Given my current employment on a UK bird reintroduction project, it dawned on me that I really should have an answer to this question. Equally, I realised quite what a topical and potentially controversial question it is as I started to give it some consideration.
Throughout my conservation life, reintroduction has been a prominent technique in UK conservation. Now I must acknowledge a lack of years on my part, and a relatively inexperienced conservation career behind me, so there may be a few of your good selves who can remember a time that was truly pre-reintroductions. This technique, although still relatively in its infancy, has, in fact, been used since the 1970s. It started with an eagle; a sea eagle, or a white-tailed eagle to be precise. In 1975 the first young eagles from Norway were released on the Island of Rum in Scotland. Now the Scottish population stands at around 200 birds. This project paved the way for further reintroductions.
I joined the RSPB over four years ago to work on cirl bunting reintroduction, and part of my previous experience on the Rutland Water Osprey Project may well have helped me to get the job. That programme has been running since 1996, during which time over 50 ospreys have been let loose at Rutland Water, and they have been successfully breeding there since 2001. Whilst working for the RSPB, I have learnt about projects involving great cranes in Somerset and great bustards on Salisbury Plain (was it Shakespeare who wrote ‘some are born great, others achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them’? Cirl buntings are inherently ‘great’ and do not need the word in their name to infer it!). Red kites have been the subject of a hugely successful series of reintroductions throughout their former range, and there is ongoing work to re-establish corncrake on the Nene Washes in Cambridgeshire.
(Incidentally, and since the RSPB is about more than just birds, reintroductions are by no means an avian-specific conservation tool. Other reintroductions include pool frog, large blue butterfly, and beaver, showing that this tool can be applied to a range of animals. And the RSPB have been getting in on the act by allowing smooth snakes to wriggle free on a reserve in East Devon after a 50 year absence from the county.)
So why go to all that effort and expense? Why spend vast sums of money, not to mention half a lifetime, for the sake of a handful of birds? What do we get for our persistence?
First and foremost, we contribute to species recovery. The species involved are those with declining, threatened or extinct national populations, and in some cases vulnerable global populations. But a species will only be reintroduced to an area that was part of its historical range (the clue is in the name – reintroduction – and not in my misleading and rather obvious title!). By increasing their UK and global populations, we protect them from increasing threats elsewhere, such as climate change and habitat fragmentation. The white-tailed eagle was not likely to recolonise Scotland anytime soon without human intervention, despite the availability of suitable habitat. For any species involved, we need to understand the cause of their original decline and know the solution to it. In the case of many large birds, persecution played an important role and one which, though sadly still occurring, is now much less of a threat.
Frequently the birds act as flagship species for habitat-scale conservation measures. How often do we hear that we need to protect our wetlands to prevent flooding and act as filters for our water systems? The great crane is a wetland bird that roams freely over a large area. The protection of this species requires suitable wetland management that will benefit the whole wetland ecosystem, and subsequently benefit us as well.
These projects are often complex and novel and require expertise beyond the scope of one or two organisations. I know of no reintroduction work that does not draw on the power of collective working. By using these partnerships, we share resources and knowledge, and can together achieve what none of us could do independently. Working with custodians of the environment – farmers, landowners and managers – is an essential step in combating species decline and improving habitat quality. The cirl bunting reintroduction project would not be possible without the support of the local farming community, but equally we require the expertise of vets, aviculturalists, funders, wardens, volunteers, journalists, teachers, and many more in our work. It is actually the part of the work that I find most rewarding (and sometimes the most challenging!).
High profile work will also attract publicity for an area, maybe attracting visitors, securing funding, and encouraging support. The media no doubt have a role to play here, but a successful project like the osprey project can revitalise an area. Most people who know of Rutland Water know of its association with this iconic species, and it is the star attraction of the annual British Birdwatching Fair (yes, you read that right, there is one! And no, it’s not all old men with beards in camouflage, though Bill Oddie is indeed usually there!).
Despite all of the good these projects can do, they are not universally supported. There may be accusations that we are messing too much with nature, but these programmes are only a response to the mess we have already made. I heard a good analogy recently: it only takes a few minutes to make a room untidy, but a lot longer to clean it up again. The same is true of conservation. There are few quick fixes. There are some who question whether there are detrimental consequences of such work, especially where large birds of prey are involved. We need to ensure that the concerns of the local community are addressed and fully considered before embarking on a project, using the latest scientific research to determine the impact of our work. And we need to assess any new piece of work and decide if it represents sound investment, especially in such harsh economic times, but the values are far greater than just the survival of a few birds.
I think we are likely to see more and more reintroductions in due course. This is partly due to increased pressures on species to adapt or move, which many cannot do fast enough. Conservation seems to be shifting towards landscape-scale measures, and these projects dovetail neatly with this idea. Our ability to successfully carry out these pieces of work will improve as we learn more about the techniques involved, and perhaps the costs and the time effort may be reduced as a consequence. I hope that public support for reintroductions will increase as the general populous becomes more familiar with them and can see the wide ranging benefits.