Reintroductions stir up quite strong opinions amongst birders, land owners and conservationists alike, yet to me they form just one of the tools in the conservation toolbox, and you just have to bring them out for the right job.
There are sensible international guidelines on where, when and how to reintroduce species, which are always used to steer official reintroduction projects here in the UK. They relate to trying to make sure that any reintroduction project is necessary, will work and won't do harm to other species or to the target species elsewhere.
Reintroductions are different from introductions - reintroductions refer to native species (but how long ago counts as native?) but introductions refer to non-native species. I'll come back to non-native species soon.
Reintroductions of birds in the UK are rather few and far between. People tend to forget that the capercaillie once went extinct in the UK and was reintroduced in the early 19th century by land owners. More recently the bringing back of the white-tailed eagle (to the Scottish part of the UK) and red kite (to England, Scotland and Ireland) have been reintroductions which we can already say have been biologically successful. It's no accident that these two species are birds of prey - they were both exterminated by human persecution, both are slow at regaining lost territory even if the populations are doing well and there is quite a lot of expertise about rearing and keeping birds of prey in captivity through the age-old practice of falconry - and people like them lots (although not everyone by any means).
There have been a few potential reintroduction projects which we, the RSPB, decided not to start or support. We thought about a reintroduction project for choughs in Cornwall but decided that the birds might get back to Cornwall on their own from Wales or Ireland - and we were right, but also wrong in that it seems much more likely given the circumstances that the birds actually arrived from Britanny. And the RSPB did not join in with the osprey reintroduction project at Rutland Water as we thought that the birds would come back to England on their own - and they did in the foot and mouth year of 2001 when a pair was revealed to be nesting in the Lake District.
And then there is the great bustard reintroduction on Salisbury Plain which we were a bit sniffy about for a while but are now helping practically. (see here and here).
We are working with partners on a few reintroductions right now - they are all going well but none can be said to have succeeded completely yet. I'm sure that with continued effort, sometimes a bit more luck and continued funding then they all will.
Current reintroductions projects include cirl buntings, in Cornwall, corncrakes in Cambridgeshire (see here and here), cranes in Somerset (see here, here and here) and a bit of finishing off of red kites in Northern Ireland (see here) and white-tailed eagles in east Scotland (see here).
To embark on a reintroduction project is usually a big decision - it's likely to be a long slog, costs money, is not certain to succeed (whatever it looks like in retropsect) and so should not be entered into lightly - but it is sometimes the only way to make a big conservation leap forward. The track record of success so far in the UK is high. And I always think that compared to land purchase, for example, a successful reintroduction project is cheap in terms of what it can deliver. I am very grateful to my predecessors for the fact that I now very regularly see red kites over my garden in east Northants.
And it's not just birds - other less mobile species are often very good candidates for being given that helping hand too (see here).
But let's finish on the white-tailed eagle - a magnificent bird. Its demise in the UK was due to persecution and its return due to sustained efforts to reintroduce it. Plans to return this bird to its former haunts (though long-distant in time) in East Anglia were put on hold when Natural England took the hint from the prospect of massive financial cuts and announced that it could not be a partner in such a project. The subject of an East Anglian reintroduction was quite a lively subject of debate here on this blog (see here, here, here, here, here, here and here). It's a project which is resting not dead. In fact, I had a chat with someone keen on resurrecting the project only last week. I wonder....?
I'm sure RSPB has struck exactly the right balance on reintroductions. These projects have generated a lot of great PR, which brings more support for conservation.
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