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General view of the Rawthey Valley looking east, by Ian McPherson

Let’s return the eagle, beaver and crane to the Dales – and understand ‘rewilding’ in its fullest sense

Monday 7 September, 2020, by Ian McPherson

These days the term ‘rewilding’ has become somewhat of a dirty word, especially amongst farmers and landowners who can have visions of wolves, lynx and perhaps the occasional elk creating mayhem amongst their flocks of sheep and herds of cattle, and beavers chewing their way through their forestry plantations.  Perhaps not without good reason. 

This is unfortunate, however, as rewilding in its fullest sense, although it can involve a measure of re-introductions especially of formerly indigenous species, is primarily about the ways in which land can be managed so as to be the most appropriate and natural form of habitat for its location and local climate.  When this is done correctly, then a degree of natural re-colonisation can often occur without contrived re-introduction as such. 

A classic example of this is the Knepp Estate in Sussex where once the land began to return to a more natural state, species such as turtle dove, nightingale, purple emperor butterfly, bechstein and barbastelle bats, lesser spotted woodpecker and cuckoo returned of their own volition. 

As Member Champion for the Natural Environment at the YDNPA, I have been involved in looking at ways in which rewilding (in the fullest definition of the word) may be approached within the National Park – an area whose iconic landscape has largely been created by farming. 

Middleton Fell over the rooftops of Sedbergh, by Ian McPherson

The National Park Management Plan 2019-24 commits the Authority and local partner organisations to creating a “landscape-scale nature recovery area” by 2021, and preparations for this are already well underway.  The ‘Tees-Swale: naturally connected’ project is being led by the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) Partnership, in collaboration with the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority.  The project, which covers 845 km2 and includes the whole of Swaledale and Arkengarthdale, is focused on putting local farmers and landowners at the heart of nature recovery.  Other areas of the National Park are also being looked at as potential locations for future collaborations so that a full programme of nature recovery networks may be rolled out in due course.

In light of all this activity, I was particularly pleased to read an information booklet just produced by The Lifescape Project, Cumbria Wildlife Trust & the University of Cumbria on those species which at some point in the past would have been found in the UK, and which we may wish to consider reintroducing to the north of England at some point in the future.  It definitely makes for fascinating reading. 

In particular, it highlights the following species giving a short potted natural history of each before going on to consider the pros and cons of them being re-introduced at this time: beaver, wildcat, lynx, wolf, elk, pine marten, golden eagle, white-tailed eagle, silver-studded blue butterfly, crane and chough.  Attached to the booklet is an on-line survey which those interested are invited to complete and return to the University of Cumbria.  I have done this myself and it certainly clarifies the mind wonderfully as to what would be likely to be successful at this time and what would not be (for all sorts of reasons including opposition from those likely to be affected and the possibility of unlawful persecution of released species). 

So what would you like to see return to the north of England?  For me golden and white-tailed eagles, chough, beaver, pine marten, crane and silver-studded blue butterflies are all possible contenders either right now or in the very near future.  But lynx, wolf, wild cat and elk would certainly need to wait for some time and there would need to be schemes for compensation in place for any damage resulting from their re-introduction.  Whilst the focus tends to be on these sorts of charismatic mammals, returning other types of species is no less important.  A locality where this is already starting to happen is the Wild Ennerdale project in the Lake District National Park where, following a successful reintroduction programme, they now have England’s largest population of Marsh Fritillary butterfly.

If you’re interested to find out more about the many different approaches to ‘rewilding’, here are a few things you might care to consider doing now:

     1.  Read the Lifescape Species information booklet and complete the survey

     2.  Check out the Wild Ennerdale project website and the Tees/Swale project website and consider visiting both locations

     3.  Read “Wilding” by Isabella Tree

     4.  Have a look at the Rewilding Britain website

     5.  Remember that rewilding does not need to be on a landscape scale – even a part of your own garden can be set outside for nature to take its course and you may be very surprised what flowers, plants, insects, birds and animals may turn up over time

     5.  Do something– reading or thinking about it is not enough in these environmentally challenged times!

**Ian McPherson is a Parish Member of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority. He is Member Champion for the Natural Environment.

Picture of Ian McPherson

Ian McPherson

Ian is the Member Champion for the natural environment

6 Replies to “Let’s return the eagle, beaver and crane to the Dales – and understand ‘rewilding’ in its fullest sense”

  1. Josie Kyme says:

    A very interesting article and having recently read Wilding by Isabella Tree, one that resounds with me. I live in Upper Swaledale and would love to see the barren moorlands changed to allow and accommodate flora and fauna that can adapt to the climate. Wishful thinking but it could happen if the will was there to create a landscape for all and not just the few.

  2. Jeff Davitt says:

    A great article, thanks Ian.

    The Yorkshire Rewilding Network is a new charity for anyone in the region interested in rewilding. Our website,, has a range of resources, including project spotlights and reading lists, for those who want to find out more.

    Rewilding is a progressive approach. It’s about letting nature take care of itself where possible and allowing natural processes to recover and to shape our landscape, repair and improve our damaged ecosystems, and restore our degraded landscapes. Species reintroductions are, of course, part of rewilding. These will always need the support of everyone involved, and not every species is right in every location, environment, and farming system.

    Rewilding is also hugely reliant on involving communities and landowners, so it puts humans very much into the mix and needs to consider cultural heritage and people’s “sense of place”.

    Jeff Davitt
    Chair, Yorkshire Rewilding Network

  3. Diane Horner says:

    Please don’t lose sight of the fact that the much loved green and beautiful landscape of the farmed land in the Upper Dales is the result of generations of farming. Rewilding experiments have shown that the resultant land is mainly difficult to walk and very unattractive to the eye. Introducing wolves, lynx etc to this area could wipe out the same farmers who own much of and have tended the land as their ancestors did before them. Many of them want to continue farming their own land. Take away that and you are going to take away the spirit of the Dales and along with it destroy communities and their culture. In these modern times ethnic and cultural differences are protected fiercely with equal rights for all being the catchword of the moment. We are not just a playground, we also deserve the right to be protected against changes which could be dangerous and harmful to our livelihood and communities. Butterflies, flowers, birds, fantastic but wolves and lynx ??? Proceed with great caution … please.

  4. Tom Dickson says:

    I used to love the landscape of the Yorkshire Dales and have spent years walking all over it, but through self education and travelling through Europe, particularly the Balkans, I’ve come to see it as a barren and largely lifeless place. I say that while still appreciating its beauty. The uplands in particular could teem with life and a great variety of species if it were reforested with native trees. There would be so much more of interest to enjoy for us humans, while sharing this home with the insects, plants, and animals which also need somewhere to thrive. Let’s make a start and ask each landowner with more than 200 acres to set aside 10 percent or even 5 percent to be untouched.

  5. Simon Desborough says:

    I think the real problem here is how the land has been managed over the last 50 years or so. I graduated with a degree in agriculture and worked as a farm management adviser and during my lifetime have seen the decline in wildlife. When I worked on farms as a teenager in west Lancashire the fields were full a lapwings and when I drive around the Yorkshire dales having lived in Settle for 10 years your lucky if you see anything other than sheep or a few cattle.
    When I worked as advisor I was part of the problem encouraging farmers to rip up permanent pasture and replacing it highly productive perennial rye grass swards that easier to manage and crop in the form of silage. At this time we merely saw the land as a means of producing food for livestock and in no sense a shared asset with nature. Nature was squeezed out with consequential decline in biodiversity which is manifests itself in today’s barren landscape.
    There has to be a collective decision made on the future upland farming as to whether it’s worth subsidising farmers to producer sheep and cattle for consumption.
    In my opinion we should look at other examples of the benefits of rewilding for farming and Ennerdale rewilding project is an example of what can be achieved over a short period of time. Another example Knepp estate in West Sussex. In both cases there has been minimal intervention and nature has been allowed to take its course in regeneration and transformation of the landscape into something which works with nature. Ultimately there has to be the political will to see the benefits of rewilding both commercially in terms of tourism and farming this land on a more extensive basis. The value of the land in terms of carbon capture and renewable energy production should also be taken into account.
    Finally farmers need to be helped financially to make this transition. They’ve got onto the high input high output treadmill because their levels of indebtedness as a result of borrowing more money to make this transition to a purely output based type of farming. Now is the time for a transition to fewer livestock on the dales and more extensive farming approach. I would love to walk around the Dales before I die and hear the skylarks and see the beginnings of change. We will all benefit from this.

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