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20 December 1999

Bring back the bear and the bison

New Statesman Scotland - The reintroduction of native Scottish mammals would reap huge divi

By Peter Clarke

Everyone agrees Scotland has been enhanced by the return of the extinct red kite, osprey and capercaillie. Who can name any opponent of these happy embellishments to our wild places? The birds had powerful allies. The RSPB and other twitchers got over the misgivings of the authorities and landowners.

Now we need to bring back our missing mammals. They range from the large and aggressive to the shy and retiring. Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), which is in charge of the birds and the bees, has agreed to reintroduce the beaver, which has been absent since the 12th century. I had assumed it was hunted to oblivion for its pelt – fur hats or fur sporrans – yet it turns out that the glands of the beaver were a crucial part of medieval medicine, though they never thought of farming or conserving them.

The survival of the European bison is close to being a miracle. On three occasions it has been thought extinct even in its base, the deep forests between Poland and Belarus. Starving soldiers could not be expected to miss the chance of a stew or steak. But a tiny herd has survived and been nursed back into a healthy state with a good breeding stock in captivity. Edinburgh Zoo has four bison at its outstation at Kincraig. Captive creatures are good news, but how much more impressive they would be roaming free. Their North American cousins like the open prairies, but the Euro-bison prefers to munch its life hidden in woodland.

Willie McGhee of the Scottish Borders Trust is busy restoring a few hundred square miles of the Southern Uplands to its pre-farmer state. When the trees have grown, he thinks the bison can return. “The chance of bumping into a bison will make it much more of an adventure to explore the Borders. A few dozen of the creatures would do more to attract visitors to the south of Scotland than any innovation I can think of.”

The reintroduction of our missing mammals would transform the soul of Scotland’s wilder places. The howl of the wolf over Morvern would be spine-tingling. The grunt of the boar in the forests of Ardnamurchan would transform them.

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There is a spectrum of acceptability. It is plain the wolf would provoke many doubts. The folk memory of the wolf as a beast that savages children is a myth, laced with the truth. Rabid wolves can be aggressive. Where wolves survive on the Continent, they do not degrade farming stock. They take a few ailing sheep, but stock survive marginal depredation. The wolf would in fact be an ecological boon. It would certainly help to bring down the huge red deer population. However, I would not select the wolf as my first candidate – nor the other carnivores, the lynx and the arctic fox.

The two creatures that could return without challenging any other fauna for space are the walrus and the sturgeon. The last breeding herd of walrus were shot off Shetland in 1846 – Eric, the bull, and his harem of three females. The walrus eats shellfish. Scotland has no shortage of limpets, but SNH says it is committed to opposing the return of the finest moustache in nature. Part of the pleasure of shipping some Norwegian walruses to the Northern Isles will be the defeat of a slothful quango.

David Gillies, a trustee of The Wild Beasts, the group campaigning for the return of Scotland’s absent creatures, nominates the sturgeon as his favourite. “The sturgeon is still an occasional visitor to Scottish waters, but we need a breeding population, not just intermittent strays. The sturgeon is a noble beast. It has been defeated by angling, tributary netting and river weirs. We will introduce a few separate populations and within a few years we will have revived a caviar industry. The opportunity to land a 1,000lb, 15-foot sturgeon will become every fisherman’s fantasy.”

Typically SNH denies the sturgeon was ever a native species, but heaps of carcasses of sturgeon have been found by Headland Archaeology, digging on the site of the new Edinburgh parliament and at Leith. SNH can hardly argue these early medieval bones were refrigerated into Scotland.

If the Loch Ness monster was ever anything more than a myth, it was a 20-foot sturgeon. Many sightings describe the ribbed back that defines the great fish. Equip the Great Glen with a few mature monster sturgeon and visitors will be thrilled to seek them out. The sturgeon is a bottom feeder and in no way a rival to the trout or salmon. It will help to clean our rivers.

One of the explanations of the name “Caledonia” is the Greek mythical wood where hunting was bliss – Calydon. Romans found the game-hunting opportunities superb. When the Coliseum in Rome celebrated its completion with a triumphal procession of strange beasts from the empire, the legions in Scotland sent “a magnificent bear from Caledonia”. It shocked the Romans with its enormous size; it was far bigger than the scraggy Alpine bears.

Let us have the European brown bear restored to the wildernesses of the far west of Scotland. The farmers will bleat but the bear is a harmonious presence in the Pyrenees, the Alps and the Dolomites. They do not attack ramblers. Unless cornered, they are placid. The return of bears to the Highlands would invest the area with deeper magic and mystery. There is a chance that the polar bear was a Scottish presence, too. Like all the Arctic species it appears that they have been driven north. And it is a long time since the Arctic lemming lived in Scotland. They would make a perfect mascot for the Scottish Conservative Party.

The wild boar enhances the wildwoods of France and much of the rest of Europe. It has the resilience and cleverness to flourish in Scotland. Released in the gaunt and forlorn acres of Forestry Commission Sitka spruce, the wild pig could perform a useful function rooting up and clearing the desert of evergreens and help to bring the hills back to a natural mix. Boar-hunting would be a blessing for a countryside that needs more attractions. I see no reason to be prissy: boars will make great sausages.

The greatest opponents to the return of these aboriginal species will be farmers. I think they can be placated. At their basest they can be silenced by a subsidy, but even the dimmest farmers are realising that visitors can be harvested for greater profits than turnips or mutton. As the subventions for agriculture retreat, it seems likely that the upland acres will be abandoned back to nature. The timing for the return of our missing beasts could not be better.

There are other ungulates on my shopping list. The elk would prosper on the mountains; so would the mouflon, the ancestor of the domestic sheep. The ibex, the true wild goat, would enjoy Scotland. Reindeer are back at Aviemore to general delight, but they have not been placed in the wild, free to roam where they fancy.

I can give this theme a gloss of Euro-paint. We did share our stock of animals with the rest of Europe until intensive land use and hunting obliterated them. Our native fauna is part of our common European inheritance. The prospect of reanimating the romance of Highland Scotland with elk, or bear, or lynx, would be a huge advance for the Scottish Tourist Board. It would mean far more than its constant task of grading bed and breakfast options.

The hostility of SNH should not deter us. Experts are always wrong – and timid. It would be fun to bring back our full missing bestiary. Any other candidates, please ? The great bustard, the giant grouse that died out in the same year as the walrus, could be nominated as the logo for SNH. Like the SNH, it was too slow-witted to survive its stalkers.