Bring foreign species to Britain to stop them dying out, expert says

Iberian lynx and Spanish imperial eagle could thrive in Britain, says ecologist Chris Thomas

Phoebe Weston
Science Correspondent
Saturday 06 July 2019 21:35
Instead of introducing the Eurasian lynx into the UK, Professor Thomas believes we should prioritise the Iberian lynx (pictured)
Instead of introducing the Eurasian lynx into the UK, Professor Thomas believes we should prioritise the Iberian lynx (pictured)

Spanish eagles, Iberian lynx and Portuguese rodents could be brought to the British countryside to stop the species dying out.

That is according to ecologist Chris Thomas who wants to urgently introduce an “assisted colonisation programme” to translocate thousands of endangered species to other countries.

He believes “nationalistic” forms of conservation – which prioritise native species over “alien” species – are failing to combat rapid declines. Instead, we should have a borderless, international approach to saving species that could involve shipping them over from the other side of the world if the habitat in the UK was good for them.

“Maybe we should think: do we want some of these international rarities as part of our new ecosystems, or do we effectively let them perish? Those are the options,” he said.

The University of York professor says this radical approach is the only viable way to promote biodiversity as global temperatures creep up and habitats change faster than ever.

“Under a new climate that is warmer than it’s been for more than a hundred thousand years, the places that were historically most suited for species are not the places that will be suitable for them in the future,” he said.

“If we don’t intervene we are going to end up with a whole series of widespread generalists doing the colonisation and that’s what’s happening at the moment,” he said.

Tens of thousands of species – including 25 per cent of all mammals and 13 per cent of birds – are currently threatened with extinction. If there is no way to improve the habitat where they are currently living then Professor Thomas believes an assisted colonisation programme provides a good alternative, benefiting thousands of species in Europe alone.

The programme should be started urgently, he says, and could be in full swing by 2050, although there are no plans in place for this to happen.

Instead of calls to introduce the Eurasian lynx into the UK, Professor Thomas believes we should prioritise the Iberian lynx which is much rarer and currently only survives in Spain and Portugal. It might also be better suited to the UK as the climate warms.

The Spanish imperial eagle, Iberian water beetles and Provence chalk hill blue butterfly could also be on Britain’s shopping list of species to take in, he says.

Previous research has found that around 2,000 introduced species have become established in Britain without indigenous species being destroyed as a result. Professor Thomas believes people focus too much on the way things ought be instead of facilitating the natural ebb and flow of nature.

“It’s a conceptual, logical question – do we put our resources and efforts into a truly globally endangered species even if introducing it to Britain seems a little odd in some respects, rather than introducing something that seems widespread?

“Nearly all the species we’ve got in Britain have arrived in Britain in the past 12,000 years, after the last Ice Age. All of our species – oak trees to take one example – are European invaders. They just invaded long enough ago that we now treat them as natives,” he said.

This idea divides conservationists, many of whom believe we should focus on habitat restoration to mitigate rapid species extinction.

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Dr Philip Wheeler, from The Open University, said: “The story of the disaster that is UK conservation in the past 60 years has been the catastrophic decline of what were once common species.

“There are a small number of rare species with very specific requirements that might benefit from a targeted assisted colonisation programme, but many more once-common species that would benefit from simpler and less costly large-scale habitat restoration.

“And it turns out that such restoration is one of the easiest and simplest ways to mitigate the effects of climate change.”

Other ecologists believe it is too risky to be part of the conservation tool kit because well-intended species introductions have led to catastrophic unintended consequences. Moving species around the globe with their specific pathogens also poses dangers to native species.

Xavier Lambin, professor of ecology at the University of Aberdeen says: “The fact is that we are not very good at predicting what happens when a new species is inserted in an assemblage of native species. Think of the grey squirrel. Nobody had predicted that the disease they carry would decimate red squirrels, until it was too late.”

However, others are more optimistic about this new approach to conservation.

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Callum Roberts, professor of marine conservation at the University of York thinks the general idea makes sense. He says: “Many species are going to come up against impassable barriers, condemning them to disappearance as conditions deteriorate.

“Those barriers might be easily overcome with a helping hand from us ... Conservation practice has focused on keeping things as they are, or were, but we must now embrace change and help it happen.”

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