It's not about how far we can push [the reintroduction of species]. It's what degree of tolerance we can have.
‘Small-scale, incredibly cautious and very slow’ is how Derek Gow sums up the Government’s approach to nature conservation. ‘The future of nature conservation is not fiddling round with tiny patches. We need to have much more imagination and we should be much more dynamic, imaginative and aggressive carrying it forward,’ he says.
Gow is inspired by large-scale rewilding projects such as the Oostvaardersplassen, a 6,000-acre wilderness in the Netherlands where nature has been given a chance to proliferate. ‘It’s incredible,’ he says. ‘There’s nothing like it in western Europe. It’s very dramatic. The Dutch argue that it’s good for nature and good for people too – they’ve totted up the true value of it.’
In the UK, by contrast, wildlife reserves ‘are isolated patches’ amid human development and agricultural land. ‘We’re very conservative here. There’s a strong agricultural lobby and nature conservation is not considered a massively significant issue. Natural England has had big budget-cuts and a freeze on funding.’
At the wilder edge of rewilding is the reintroducing of charismatic, once-extinct species such as the lynx. As much as Gow supports the idea of the reintroduction of some species, he is also a pragmatist. ‘It’s not about how far we can push it,’ he says. ‘It’s what degree of tolerance we can have. There are some things we can do and some things not. Take red squirrels, for example: they’re doomed, and it’s all but unstoppable.’
Gow is sticking with what’s realistic and possible. He’s involved in a number of water vole reintroduction projects (the water vole, once common throughout mainland Britain, has suffered a catastrophic decline over the past few decades) and is also working on the feasibility of reintroducing the European beaver into UK sites. The beaver, which hasn’t roamed Britain since it was hunted to extinction more than 400 years ago, can ‘easily be restored’. The UK has been reluctant to reintroduce beavers to the countryside, but Gow is championing them because ‘they are not an animal of the wilderness – they can live in modern, developed, farmed or urban environments’. He says there are many ecological benefits: beaver dams act as highly effective silt traps, for example, which have a positive impact on downstream water quality, and can also help reduce flooding.
Gow’s 130-acre farm in West Devon is home to the first licensed beavers in the UK – 26 of them. Seventeen are currently in quarantine, but in May they will be transported to Scotland, where beavers will be reintroduced to two locations (though it’s taken since 1994 to reach agreement).
The beaver project is a ‘work in progress at the moment’, but what’s unique about it is its structure. Instead of imposing a ‘top-down’ framework, it has been designed as a grassroots project that aims to get a groundswell of support. Gow believes that for nature conservation to be effective you have to work with land-based groups – farmers, hunters and anglers. ‘Landowners think conservationists have an axe to grind,’ he says. ‘We need to get them to see it as an opportunity.’ There are the financial incentives such as stewardship grants and woodland grants, and also ecotourism opportunities that can be run by the local community. ‘They can be the major stakeholders. That’s where the money will be going. This type of grassroots effort will make people value it. We’ll have them on board from the beginning.’
Whereas usually people are employed from elsewhere and the money comes from elsewhere, ‘which can create real conflict, real bitterness’, Gow believes this kind of community-led conservation puts people in charge. ‘It’s never been done before,’ he says. ‘The issue to understand is that it’s a local decision. Some people in conservation share this view. Most don’t.’
To read more about the other nine visionaries click on their link below: