The Return of Native Nordic Fauna

A research blog exploring animal reintroduction history by Dolly Jørgensen

Category: rewilding

A Sami view of muskox

Last week I had the pleasure to participate in The Future of Wild Europe early career researcher conference held in Leeds, England. I gave a keynote address “Conflict in a wilder world: Of muskoxen and men in Scandinavia” on the second day of the event (you can watch my talk here in its entirety).

If you’ve kept up with my work on this project, talking about the muskoxen which were reintroduced to the Scandinavian peninsula is nothing new for me. I looked at the muskox relocation from the muskox’s point of view in a 2014 talk I gave at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment & Society (which you can watch online) and the subsequent paper I published with the material (read it in The Historical Animal). Exploring how the story would be told if muskoxen were treated as human migrants, I discussed their forced relocation, unwanted immigrant status, and eventual cultural assimilation.

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Reintroduction and European nationalism

The results in the EU parliamentary election aren’t yet in tonight, but early returns show a rise in right-leaning nationalistic parties like National Front in France which is going to come out with around 25% of the vote. These parties are basically anti-immigrant and anti-Europe. Could this rise in nationalism roll over to reintroduction projects?

This week a group of 17 European bison (Bison bonasus) were released in Romania (see the Guardian story with video). These animals join the bison from two prior reintroductions–a herd of 5 in 2012 and 5 more in 2013. Bison have been extinct in the Carpathian mountains of Romania since 1762. They survived in the wild in Poland until 1927. After that, only captive animals remained. A breeding program and subsequent reintroduction has been quite successful: there are now over 3,000 bison running wild in Europe, according to a WWF article.

A cartoon about the reintroduction appeared in the Guardian on the 23rd of May drawn by First Dog on the Moon (a political commentary cartoonist from Australia). The cartoon centred on Europe’s nationalism. In the first frame, the history of the bison is recounted with the extinction blamed on Poland represented by the Polish flag. The extinction in Poland is contrasted with the reintroduction in Romania.

First frame of the cartoon from First Dog on the Moon about the bison reintroduction in Romania, 23 May 2014

First frame of the cartoon from First Dog on the Moon about the bison reintroduction in Romania, 23 May 2014


Several of the following panels have national overtones, like the Iberian lynx saying ‘Hola’ and the beaver in a Scottish flag t-shirt. The last panel contrasts the willingness to bring nationally-extinct animals back to these countries with the growing nationalistic sentiments among voters in the EU.

First Dog on the Moon Bison last

While the “Belgian” pine caterpillars and “Bulgarian” water voles in the cartoon aren’t species targeted for reintroduction, those that are almost always cross national lines. Whether it’s beavers brought from Norway to Sweden in the 1920s or the bison sent to Romania from stock bred in Sweden, extinction (and thus reintroduction) is most often defined by an animal being absent within a country’s borders. Politics then necessarily plays a part.

Political ties make some reintroductions possible because animals become available. For example, the muskoxen brought to Norway came from East Greenland, which was at the time controlled by Norway. Such an arrangement even led to justificatons of the reintroduction. John Angard, who was local manager for flock, wrote in 1958 about the muskox reintroduction:

In Norway, there is one find that shows that muskox lived here in prehistoric times. This find came from Dovre. In addition to the fact that Greenland in its time has been Norwegian, one can claim on this ground that the animal has come back to its home range.

Political ties also encourage (or discourage) reintroductions. Many of the species targeted by reintroduction projects in Europe, including the beaver and wolf, are listed in the EU Habitats Directive under Annex IV ‘Animal and Plant Species of Community Interest in Need of Strict Protection’. Under Article 22 of the Directive, the member states are required to ‘study the desirability of re-introducing species in Annex IV that are native to their territory where this might contribute to their conservation’. National politics and borders enter into the Annex IV list with qualifiers about certain countries–beavers are not protected in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Finland or Sweden, for example. But since the UK is not on the exemption list, those wanting the beaver reintroduction in Scotland and Wales can turn to this international legislation for support. The lists themselves are products of negotiated politics.

Nationalism enters into many of these discussions, as nations legally define what species belong and which do not. At base, the national Red Lists (desirable species) and Black Lists (undesirable species) are nation-building projects seeking to define a nation’s nature. And if a country doesn’t have one of the desirable species because it has become extinct, then reintroduction is a way to rectify the problem. As I pointed out in my last post, patriotism is a part of the reintroduction stories I’ve worked on. Reintroduction serves a national good.

As I think through these issues, I can’t help wondering: Are those “scientific” exercises of defining native and non-native species all that different from nationalistic politics that define people as belonging or not? Are these two sides of the same new nationalistic coin?

Ranking reintroduction

George Monbiot, Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding (2013)

George Monbiot, Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding (2013)

I recently finished reading Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding by George Monbiot for an article I’m working on about rewilding. Much of Monbiot’s vision for a “rewilded” world is based on animal reintroduction. He presents a table of large mammals and birds that could be reintroduced in Britain in which he gave scores from 1-10 indicating his perception of the “suitability” of the species. He writes that the highest scores are

the reintroductions that might be tried first, on the grounds that they are most likely to succeed, to be politically acceptable and to help restore dynamic processes in the rewilding lands or seas of this country in the current (and warming) climate.

Here’s a summary of his list by score:

  • 10: beaver, wild boar, moose, white-tailed sea eagle, osprey, goshawk, capercaillie, common crane, white stork, spoonbill, night heron, dalmatian pelican, blue stag beetle [I’m not sure why this is in the list since it is not a large mammal or bird but neither is the sturgeon given a score of 8]
  • 9: lynx, great bustard
  • 8: European sturgeon
  • 7: European bison, wolf, grey whale, eagle owl
  • 4: wolverine
  • 3: wild horse, bear, hazel grouse
  • 2: reindeer, elephant, black rhinoceros, walrus
  • 1: saiga antelope, lion, spotted hyena, hippopotamus

I want to remark on a few things I see in these rankings.

First, there is the role of species history in the ranking. Monbiot writes that he has ranked down species that last existed in Britain in the Ice Age and Preboreal period immediately afterward because “it is likely to be less suited to the current climate than those which have been hunted to extinction.” Yet, looking at the table we see that climatic suitability is not the issue–after all, wild horses which are ranked down for being Preboreal would have no problem existing in Britain and they are already being used in restoration projects like Wicken Fen–but rather the culpability of humans in the extinction of the species. The extirpation of wild horses, reindeer and saiga antelope, which are ranked very low, are blamed on climate change in the text, but the extinction of wolverines in the same period is said to be human-caused and it gets a higher score. Why the species died out 8,000 years ago matters in Monbiot’s rewilding scheme.

Or does it? Monbiot gives a 7 for European bison (wisent) which according to the table died out between 15,000 and 25,000 years ago before the peak of glaciation in Britain. I can only attribute that high rank to the “charismatic” nature of wisent and recent reintroductions elsewhere in the 20th-21st centuries. At one point in the text, Monbiot tells the reader that he will not “disguise” his reasons for wanting to reintroduce animals; instead he lays them out:

My reasons arise from my delight in the marvels of nature, its richness and its limitless capacity to surprise; fro the sense of freedom, of the thrill that comes from roaming in a landscape or seascape without knowing what I might see next, what might loom from the woods or water, what might be watching me without my knowledge.

Obviously, Monbiot believes seeing a wisent around the corner would be more exciting than seeing a wild horse, and lynx more exciting than wolverines.

Second, there is the social acceptability factor. Monbiot has dramatically ranked down the bear, which he says has “public safety issues and other conflicts” but the lynx and wolf are not as low and his comment is that “widespread public consultation/consent” would be needed for these. It is not clear what makes the bear inherently so much more dangerous or unacceptable as the wolf. Consultation and/or public opinion is not mentioned for any other species and human-animal conflict only comes up for the white-tailed sea eagle. It is interesting that Monbiot considers only predators as capable of producing social conflict even though the case of the beaver reintroduction in Scotland (which he in fact discusses in the book) shows that non-predator reintroduction can be highly contentious. In the IUCN Reintroduction Guidelines, any reintroduction should involve consultation and the public.

Third, bird reintroductions are ranked very highly. Many of the birds he mentions have already been reintroduced in limited areas or have reintroduced themselves, which I previously discussed in the case of cranes in Britain. Almost all of these birds died out within the last 500 years. Monbiot doesn’t write much about bird reintroductions as examples in the text, so I’m not sure if he recognises the difficulty of establishing breeding pairs. In his list, almost every bird gets a 10 and I don’t know if they should based on feasibility.

Fourth, Monbiot inserted the mega-fauna proxies (elephant, rhino, hippo, lion, & hyena). He’s basing the idea of reintroducing surrogates for these long-lost species on the Pleistocene rewilding notion put forward in an article in 2005 by Donlan et al. in Nature and the Pleistocene Park in Russia. In the table, we are told that the straight-tusked elephant, narrow-nosed rhino, and hippos were last in Britain 115,000 years ago, although the “wooly” versions of elephants and rhinos lasted 100,000 years longer, and lions and hyenas died out in Europe  (not actually in today’s Britain) 11,000 years ago. He says in the text that he wants to start conversations about reintroducing elephants, since he sees them not being missed as a symptom of Shifting Baseline Syndrome, i.e. we don’t recognise realities from the distant past. Based on the rankings–all 1s and 2s–he sees these as imminently impractical reintroductions, so the reason to include them at all must be to surprise the reader; it’s a shock tactic.

The reintroduction ideas in Feral have a certain sense of wildness about them–Monbiot doesn’t want us to be constrained by logic or science, but rather wants us to get “wild and crazy” to get a thrill from nature, to be enchanted. So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at the inconsistencies I see in his list. Maybe Feral will serve as a positive reintroduction conversation-starter, but I hope too many don’t fall under its enchantment.

Wildlife Comeback Report

Deinet et al., Wildlife Comeback in Europe (2013)

Deinet et al., Wildlife Comeback in Europe (2013)

A few months back, in September 2013, the conservation initiative Rewilding Europe issued the “Wildlife Comeback in Europe”. The report was written as a joint effort with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), BirdLife International, and the European Bird Census Council (EBCC) and got international news coverage, including articles in BBC News and New York Times. I haven’t had the chance to write about the report, but I wanted to take a few minutes to reflect on it because of its potential reach.

Unlike most environmental news these days, the message was positive. The BBC article quoted Prof Jonathan Baillie, director of conservation at the Zoological Society of London, as saying

We’re trying to find success stories so we can learn from them, so we can see what works and scale that up across the conservation movement globally. And it is really important that we focus on success and where we are winning.

I’m a fan of positive stories. I think environmental history since its beginnings as an environmentalist critique has been far too declensionist, too caught up in pointing out how everything has gone downhill. While that model of scholarship is successful at pointing out the problems of the world, it is often much less adequate for pointing out potential solutions. So I think we need to start thinking about environmental history as a possible instrument for change, and that means thinking positively and hopefully, which is something I’ve tried to do in my own work.

Reintroduction as an environmental practice is one of these positive narratives. Sure there is a declensionist story that can be told about animals brought to extinction that reintroduction is merited – but I prefer focusing on how and why the reintroduction itself happened.

European beavers are the greatest success story in the “Wildlife Comeback in Europe” report. Beavers had the greatest range expansion of any mammal in Europe, having expanded the area in which it lives 550% since 1955 (and since that is after the first reintroduction projects, the percentage would be even higher since 1900). The estimated +337,000 beavers in Europe in 2013 dwarfs the population estimate of 1,200 in 1900.

I was, however, disappointed with the chapter in the report about the Eurasian Beaver. I know that Duncan Halley, who has written about beaver reintroductions from a natural science perspective, reviewed the chapter. I don’t know where the authors got all their material, but several of the things they say about the historical reintroduction of the beaver are wrong.

First, the report claims, “Initially, the focus of the efforts was fur-harvesting, only later did conservation and ecosystem management become more prominent” (p.151) It also later states, “these efforts were motivated by the fur trade, comprised hard releases and lacked habitat suitability assessments” (p.154). There are two problems with these statements. (1) As far as the earliest reintroductions, which happened in Sweden and parts of Norway in the 1920s and 1930s, fur-harvesting was never a reason given for bringing back beavers. The entire effort was indeed framed as returning a missing part of nature, often in conjunction with attempts to protect areas as nature reserves. I’ve previously written about the involvement of hunting groups in the reintroductions who never talked about hunting beavers in the future and the Swedish conservation revolution inherent in the reintroduction project. All of these efforts should most certainly be classified as nature conservation. (2) In Sweden, habitat assessments were indeed carried out in the 1920s and 1930s in order to select suitable release sites. In the case of the first release in 1922, Dr. Sven Arbman wrote an entire report about the general habitat needs of the beaver and the provisions at the particular release location. I think this is a case where modern scientists are assuming that they know/do better than their historical counterparts – when the reality is that nature conservation and scientific assessments of habitat suitability went on 90 years ago as well.

Second, I found it odd that the discussion of the reintroduction efforts starts with Latvia, instead of with Sweden, which was the first reintroduction site in Europe; but that’s more a narrative structure complaint than a fact complaint. However, in the paragraph about Latvia, the authors say that beavers were reintroduced to Latvia “in 1927 and 1935 using individuals from Swedish stock” (p.151). This is wrong. The beavers brought to Latvia were not from Sweden — after all, Swedes were just reintroducing beavers themselves at the same time — but rather from Norway.

Part of the correspondence between P.M. Jensen Tveit and the Latvian General Counsel in Oslo in 1939 about relocating the beavers in Latvia. From National Archives of Norway, Archive folder RA/S-6087/D/Da/Dab/L0090.

Part of the correspondence between P.M. Jensen Tveit and the Latvian General Counsel in Oslo in 1939 about relocating the beavers in Latvia. From National Archives of Norway, Archive folder RA/S-6087/D/Da/Dab/L0090.

I found correspondence in the National Archives of Norway between P.M. Jensen Tveit and the General Counsel of Latvia in Oslo that indicates that Norwegian beavers were reintroduced in Latvia in 1928. I also found the license for Jensen Tveit to catch 2 pairs of beavers in November 1934 to send to Latvia for reintroduction. Each pair cost 200 kr and in all probability, the beavers were sent in spring 1935. The population expanded so much that in March 1939, the General Counsel asked Jensen Tveit to travel to Latvia to catch some of the beavers and translocate them to elsewhere in the country. The Latvians requested Tveit’s assistance because “there is no one there that can catch them alive.”

Third, although the Report states that the last beaver in Lithuania was not killed until 1938 (this statement comes from Halley 2003) and reintroductions happened between 1947 and 1959, it doesn’t mention that the Lithuanian State had actually already arranged for beaver translocation in 1934. In a letter from Jensen Tveit to Eric Festin dated 22 December 1934 in the Jamtli archive, Jensen Tveit mentions that he will be delivering two pair there in the spring or summer to strengthen the bloodlines, i.e. genetic diversity. I do not know if these additional beavers were also dead by 1938, or if the statement about the beaver’s extinction date in Lithuania is wrong. I would probably have to do primary research in the Lithuanian archives to answer that.

I appreciate the effort to include the beaver reintroduction story as a positive conservation history that more contemporary reintroduction efforts can learn from. But I find it frustrating that natural scientists continue to write these kind of documents without turning to historians to assist them. After all, the document is really about species histories, and who better to write a good history than a historian?

Reflections on rewilding

I have recorded a new podcast with Jan Oosthoek at Environmental History Resources called “Desire for the Wild – Wild Desires? The Trouble with Rewilding”. In the podcast, I offer some reflections about a workshop I attended back in the spring at Cambridge and Wicken Fen in England. Paul Warde wrote up his own thoughts about the workshop for the project’s blog immediately afterward, so this was my chance to follow suit.

Konik ponies at Wicken Fen in a thoroughly nature-culture hybrid environment. Photo by D. Jørgensen.

Konik ponies at Wicken Fen in a thoroughly nature-culture hybrid environment. Photo by D. Jørgensen.

During the workshop, I posted about the grazing animals being used to “rewild” Wicken Fen and questioned their “wildness”. My concern is not with the use of ponies or cattle to manage vegetation at Wicken Fen, it is about the labels that we use for the activity. What are we really doing when we introduce grazing breeds selectively bred by humans into fenced enclosures in areas where free-range grazers haven’t lived for 10,000 years? My position is that this kind of intervention is environmental management. The managers at Wicken Fen have adopted a goal of what the ecosystem should be and have chosen species to place in the area to achieve that goal. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that — in fact, I applaud it — but is it “rewilding”?

Of course the answer to that depends on what you mean by “rewilding”. That is where in the podcast, I go a little bit into the paper that I presented at the conference. I’m currently reworking/expanding the paper for consideration in a Geoforum special issue, so I won’t steal all its thunder here, but in essence, it argues that the definition of “rewilding” is anything but clear.

When the word was first coined in 1991 (that’s the first use I’ve been able to locate), it meant creating landscapes focused on the 3 Cs (cores, corridors & carnivores). In other words, it was all about large wildlife, particularly carnivores like wolves and bears, and it was developed within a US context. In 2005, the word was repurposed by Donlan et al. in their famous Nature paper “Re-wilding North America” to mean the return of megafaunal replacements for animals lost at the end of the Pleistocene from North America (think here of mammoths, cave lions, and the like). A later group of scientists working on introducing surrogate tortoise species from one Oceanic island to another started labelling their work as “rewilding”. Still others used “rewilding” to refer to the abandonment of previous agricultural land or production forest, particularly within the European context. And finally “rewilding” is even used to refer to the release of captive-born animals into the wild.

What I found interesting in all of this is how geography mattered in which definition we were talking about. In North America, the focus was on species. In Europe, animals were not discussed, it was landscapes. In the North American contexts, “rewilding” implied not having humans present, whereas that was not the case in other geographies, although even in the other geographies, “rewilding” was using a baseline before human settlement even if it wasn’t assumed that humans would be gone from the area now.

In the paper, I critiqued this notion of “wild” being only where humans are not. Bill Cronon argued back in 1995 that making wilderness out to be nature profoundly apart from humans is fundamentally flawed. It’s not that setting aside nature reserves is inappropriate, but as he said a few days ago on NPR’s Science Friday, there is “no way we can wall off those areas” so nothing is really without human influence. From this contention, I argued that making “wild” out to be only places without people leads to devaluing wild where people are, whether that’s a butterfly in the garden or a sparrow in an agricultural field. Paul Robbins, who was on Science Friday along with Cronon, pointed out that working landscapes can be incredibly productive from a biodiversity perspective. So if “rewilding” focuses only on things “out there”, we diminish the thing “right here”. We imply that if touched by human hands, something can’t be wild.

When I drafted my talk, that’s where it finished. But I got inspired to add a multi-media ending to the paper when I was sitting on a bench outside of our room during the break before my paper. I noticed how many bird calls I could hear, so I filmed the urban “wild”.

Now, Paul Warde in his blog post didn’t agree that this garden scene is “wild” but I beg to differ because I focus on a different aspect of wild. On the Science Friday radio show, Cronon mentioned the difference between controlling nature and affecting nature. Although in the Anthropocene everything is affected by humans, we do not control it all. As Emma Marris has labelled it, we live in a rambunctious garden. And it is that rambunctiousness that I believe is “wild”. A recent write-up about the wildlife in New York’s Central Park is a case in point. The inhabitants of Central Park are uncontrolled yet affected by us — they are wild.

Again, I’m not saying that we don’t need to work on making landscape areas in which non-humans can live. We do. Some non-humans are very sensitive to human contact so they need spaces away from us; but others actually thrive where we are. Both are important and both are wild. In that way, rewilding seems like a ridiculous term because if it’s all already wild, you can’t “re”wild it. We can as humans, however, choose to make spaces for different kinds of wild in the world.

Wild Again?

I previously wrote about the word reintroduction and how the prefix ‘re’, which usually means ‘again’, is not working like that in this word. The species being reintroduced was not introduced and then being introduced again; such a situation would be contrary to many people’s fundamental understanding of reintroduction as only applying to species that got to where they are by themselves in the past.

This week, I’m at a workshop about ‘rewilding’ at Cambridge. It’s another case of a ‘re’ word, so the question is: Is ‘rewilding’ really bringing back a wild that had been there in the past?

I went on a site visit as part of the workshop to Wicken Fen Nature Reserve. Wicken Fen, the first nature reserve owned by the National Trust, has established a Vision for a landscape scale restored reserve. This Vision was talked about yesterday as ‘rewilding’, making the landscape wild again.

A one-month-old foal in the Konik pony herd at Wicken Fen. Photo by Dolly Jørgensen.

A one-month-old foal in the Konik pony herd at Wicken Fen. Photo by Dolly Jørgensen.

But in what ways is it wild and in what ways not? A big part of the restoration program involves the introduction of large grazers: Konik ponies and Highland cattle. I got to see the ponies up close – one came right up to me for a clap on the muzzle – and that was a great experience, but was that pony and the place rewilded? Here are some things to consider.

First, the ponies range freely, but only within the limited fences of the section of the fen they are assigned to. It may be more space than a typical farmer’s horse, but it is certainly not having free range over the landscape. Fences abound because the landscape is a human one. Not only do the ponies need to be kept out of nearby farms, but also kept out of some sections of Wicken Fen. In other words, the property is managed to create particular landscapes in particular sections. While the presentation about Wicken Fen I heard stressed the flexible management (i.e. an exact end point is not written in stone for a given area), there are still lots of decisions being made about where grazers can go and where water will be pumped onto the land to make the wetlands.

The Konik ponies at Wicken Fen may be free range, but only within the fences and in a clearly historically human-shaped landscape. Photo by Dolly Jørgensen.

The Konik ponies at Wicken Fen may be free range, but only within the fences and in a clearly historically human-shaped landscape. Photo by Dolly Jørgensen.

Second, the ponies themselves are a human creation. Koniks are a breed created in Poland from mixing wild tarpans (which are extinct) with domestic breeds. During the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, there was great interest in the breed as the ‘essence’ of the wild European horse – the Nazi’s were particularly interested in backbreeding it into their vision of the tarpan. Koniks were used at the end of the 20th century in large scale grazing experimental areas in the Netherlands, and this is the source of the ponies at Wicken Fen.

Third, it has been a really long time since grazers roamed free in this area. When asked about when free horses would have last been in the area, the answer was the end of the last Ice Age. Reintroducing these grazers then takes the landscape back 10,000 years, similar to the Pleistocene rewilding schemes in the US and those underway in Siberia. There isn’t really direct evidence for wild horses in the distant past from the Wicken Fen area – so their historical presence is more assumed than real. Our ideas of what was there in the past are more important than what really was there in the past.

In thinking about rewilding, I think the ‘re’ is wrong. It implies that the area was wild, then tamed, and now wild again. I think wild and tame are way too mixed together for that to be true. Hybridity is the norm not the exception. Rewilding is not ‘wild again’ because it’s never not been wild and, as long as people have existed, it’s never not been tamed.

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