Unnatural selection

Conservationists have been reintroducing choughs to the wild in Cornwall and ospreys to Rutland Water. But, asks Peter Marren, are these interventions robbing the natural world of its wildness?

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Last year, Mother Nature played a wonderful joke on conservationists. For some time, Paradise Park, at Hayle, Cornwall, had been rearing choughs for release into the wild. The chough – which is normally pronounced "chuff", though the birds themselves say "chow" – has been absent from Cornwall for 50 years. This is widely regarded as a bad thing, since the glossy-black, red-billed and legged chough is a symbol of Cornish identity. They are birds of Cornish legend, and several of them sit on the county's coat of arms. The loss of Cornish choughs is akin to ravens deserting the Tower of London, or the bald eagle leaving America.

Last year, Mother Nature played a wonderful joke on conservationists. For some time, Paradise Park, at Hayle, Cornwall, had been rearing choughs for release into the wild. The chough – which is normally pronounced "chuff", though the birds themselves say "chow" – has been absent from Cornwall for 50 years. This is widely regarded as a bad thing, since the glossy-black, red-billed and legged chough is a symbol of Cornish identity. They are birds of Cornish legend, and several of them sit on the county's coat of arms. The loss of Cornish choughs is akin to ravens deserting the Tower of London, or the bald eagle leaving America.

Not only the ornithological world is concerned. The Paradise Park reintroduction was to have been spearheaded by Oggie and Embla, hand-reared choughs who do flying shows for the visitors. But foot-and-mouth restrictions delayed their release, and in the meantime – would you believe it? – a party of wild choughs turned up out of the blue, and nested. Choughs one, conservationists nil. Understandably, the chough chaps are said to be a bit "dischuffed". To add insult to injury, the interlopers chose a stretch of cliff regarded as "unsuitable" for nesting.

Poor old Oggie and Embla! Denied their destiny as building blocks of biodiversity, they will presumably have to go on performing for the tourists. But Mother Nature did not leave it at that. She followed up the chough jest with an even more outrageous trick, this time at the expense of osprey enthusiasts. Ospreys are, of course, everybody's favourite raptor, with their exciting fishing exploits and agreeable habit of nesting in full view of a hide. But while Scotland now has around 100 osprey nests to choose from, England has had none at all since 1850, when we shot the last one. Encouraged by the spectacular success that rewarded the project to reintroduce the similarly defunct red kite to England, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and others began an intensive rearing programme to release cage-reared ospreys at Rutland Water in the Midlands. As they are programmed by instinct to do, these ospreys return to Rutland after their migratory journeys to Spain and North Africa, and last year a pair duly nested and raised a chick on the rainbow trout that the reservoir was stocked with. This year they tried again, but the youngsters all perished in the cold and wet of early June.

Meanwhile, Mother Nature had her own plans. While everyone was fussing over the Rutland ospreys, at so many thousand pounds per chick, a Scottish pair casually moved south of the border and set up their own nest at Bassenthwaite in the Lake District. In full view of the public too. And without any of the panoply of plans, artificial feeding, artificial nests and platforms, miniature transmitters and custom-built centres. But if there is a lesson here – that animals tend to reintroduce themselves when the conditions are right – it is unlikely to be heeded. Too much credit has been invested in such projects to stop now. European beavers are about to be released in Argyll. Golden eagles are being removed from Scottish eyries for release into Northern Ireland. Wild flowers are being sown widely as a kind of amenity crop (though many of them are not wild at all, but fodder crops and garden cultivars). The Biodiversity Action Plan envisages introductions as the key to survival of scores of species, large and small.

Is there anything wrong with any of this? After all, the ospreys at Rutland Water, or the Red Kites hovering over the M40, are delightful to see, and gladden many hearts and bring in money to good causes and struggling rural economies. The walks and talks organised by the osprey team are always booked solid. Certainly those involved have not been slow to hype up their work. The websites and brochures teem with words such as "innovative", "proactive", and even "visionary". The implication is that doing something is always better than doing nothing.

That there are in fact risks in mixing wild and captive populations can be shown all too clearly in the sad case of the Atlantic salmon, now a genuinely threatened species. Interbreeding with escapees from fish farms has resulted in a weakening of the wild stock and its ability to survive. The necessary toughness of wild salmon, tested and refined by millions of years of natural selection is being undone by fish reared in nets and fed on chemicals. So survivability is not only a matter of numbers. It is about fitness to survive, and, as far as the salmon is concerned, surviving has never been tougher than it is now. Similarly, one wonders whether the parlous state of capercaillies and red squirrels may have something to do with the fact that most of them are the progeny of introductions.

In the case of the well-researched, officially sanctioned projects to release birds of prey, it seems unlikely that there will be unpleasant side-effects. But is it not ironic that the osprey was taken off the "Red" list of species in danger at the moment when the house sparrow and the starling were added to it (on the grounds that their populations have halved during the past 25 years)? Logically, we should be releasing sparrows, not ospreys. But sparrows are unlikely to draw the crowds. The purpose of most of these introductions is not nature conservation. The birds will come back anyway, in time, and supposing the environment is right for them (and if it isn't, no amount of subsidised pampering will help them). No, it is being done for other reasons entirely, some benign, some, I think, sinister. Reintroducing glamorous animals and birds makes everyone involved feel good, whether they are sponsors (good PR as environmentally conscious bodies), wildlife charities (it looks like tangible success), birdwatchers (ooh – good bird), local innkeepers or even politicians. In his memoirs, the achievement Michael Heseltine was most proud of during his stints as Secretary of State for the Environment was the reintroduction of the sea eagle, not the ground-breaking Wildlife and Countryside Act. We like populating the countryside with our favourite animals.

I say animals, not wild animals, because I think that particular bridge has been crossed. It seems to me that reared animals become property. The Rutland ospreys may behave the same as wild birds, and, saving their leg-rings and transmitters, look like them, but they remain our creation, bred for a particular purpose and for a particular place. They are part of our grand design, not Nature's. The friendliest cock-sparrow that enters our gardens for the opportunities it finds there is wilder than the fiercest cage-reared eagle. The ospreys that return to Rutland Water each year have no choice in the matter. Knowing the way ospreys behave, we have turned it to our own advantage. They have become birds with a use, which is to say that we have turned them into property. And since they are used to raise income – at £3 per guided walk, plus car-park charges and whatever else osprey-fans might want to spend – they are arguably commodities too.

I think that the current focus on species, as opposed to the less dramatic and less consumer-friendly business of habitat management, is unhealthy. It involves too many decisions from us and not enough left to natural forces. Intervention tends to be forced on us by the universal system of targets, where so many wild plants or animals must be saved within a fixed time-frame. We are arrogantly appropriating too much of what is not ours to take. Historically a severe price has often been paid for disrespecting wild nature. The ospreys swooping over Rutland Water to the delight of nearly everybody are not a sign of increasing closeness to the natural world but of a distancing from it. We are making a garden of the land and calling it nature. Paradoxically, this may make real nature all the harder to find.

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