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Reintroduction of Wildlife

Reintroduction of wildlife species means an attempt to resettle them within their historical area of distribution (within their range), where they have become extinct. Translocation is a deliberate and mediated movement of wild individuals from one part of their range to another. The addition of individual animals or plants to an existing population of conspecifics is called Restocking or Reinforcement. The term Benign Introduction refers to the release or translocation of a species to an area or region where they have never been present (IUCN Guidelines for Reintroductions). Except in exceptional circumstances, e.g. where a species is facing global extinction, introductions should be avoided completely.

Species reintroductions are an important feature of global conservation efforts. Reintroduction is now a flourishing branch of the interventionist approach to population management. The World Conservation Union (IUCN) Specialist Group for Reintroductions (RSG) encourages responsible reintroductions. Their detailed guidelines on the pre-project activities, socio-economic and legal requirements, the planning & preparation & release stages and post release activities are widely used by statutory authorities (both in countries hosting the reintroduction and countries allowing the removal of donor stock) to assess if a reintroduction proposal is appropriate (see this web page on www.iucn.org).

It is certain that reintroductions will continue to increase. There is an expanding understanding of the importance of maintaining biodiversity, and states are becoming more obligated to restore and increase biodiversity. Reintroduction is one method often considered to achieve this. (Naturopa 82 1996. The Council of Europe). But reintroduction should be seen as the last possible conservation measure to return wild animals or plants to the wild.

There are legal obligations to reintroduce native species to Ireland, where appropriate. The Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (1979), the Berne Convention, was the first wildlife treaty to encourage its Parties to reintroduce native species as a method of conservation. More recently, the Convention on Biological Diversity 1992 has reaffirmed an international commitment to the recovery of species. Article 9 (c) creates an obligation to reintroduce threatened species, requiring that each contracting party shall: (c) Adopt measures for the recovery and rehabilitation of threatened species and for their reintroduction into their natural habitats under appropriate conditions. The obligations to reintroduce species, created by the Berne Convention and the Biodiversity Convention, are not reflected in European law. Article 22 of the Council Directive on the Conservation of Natural Habitats and of Wild Fauna and Flora requires, that Member States shall: (a) study the desirability of re-introducing species in Annex IV, that are native to their territory. The original obligation to encourage the reintroduction of native species has been replaced by an obligation to simply study the desirability of reintroducing them (Rees 2001).

Because so many reintroductions aim to restore species, lost originally through human actions and/or negative human actions, reintroduction lies squarely at the junction of biology and sociology. The reasons as to why people reintroduce a species are complex, multiple and interactive. Surveys have shown that they are often not biological at all. So were the recent Irish Reintroduction programmes undertaken for the benefit of the species concerned or for the benefit of humans, or were we merely fulfilling our legal obligations to wildlife? We cannot simply assume that every Irish reintroduction proposal is appropriate. Any such proposal, if implemented and successful, will usually have impacts, either positive or negative, on the release area and need to be carefully assessed.

Some people are uncomfortable with reintroductions in general and its interventionist approach to population management. A few people have rather harshly labelled reintroductions as unnatural and mere wildlife gardening. Clearly reintroductions are an interventionist approach like so much of the existing conservation management in the countryside of Europe. Unlike true wilderness areas elsewhere in the world, Ireland has few true wild areas left apart from some remote islets, cliff ledges or underwater sea ravines. Reintroduction should be seen as the last approach to a conservation problem. But like the other interventionist conservation, e.g. where trees are planted or cut by chain saw or whereby habitats have drains blocked or shallow scrapes dug by a mechanical digger, the reintroduction of fauna is just a logical extention of such pro-active conservation management of flora and habitats. Whether, we like to assume the role or not, people do largely make decisions that shape the wildlife and countryside of Ireland at present. Some geographers hold the view that the role humans play in the landscape, should be seen as an integral part of the landscape (Prof John O Halloran, pers comm.). So we now have a dilemma, should we accept the orchestrated and persistent persecution of Irish birds of prey historically as natural and merely lament their loss?

The Golden Eagle Trust does not believe that the historical loss of over half our breeding bird of prey species in Ireland was somehow natural. With other species Irish conservationists have made determined efforts to enhance populations where possible, by using interventionist conservation management. We routinely plant trees, establish new reed beds and wetlands, erect nest boxes, feed birds and control potential predators as part of our efforts to maintain and enhance threatened populations. Wildlife enthusiasts usually do not give up their conservation efforts, even if a threatened population slowly dwindles to a single pair. But one could argue it would be remiss to discontinue conservation efforts even if a population dropped to zero pairs (became extinct) within a national/political (i.e. man made) boundary. Among the general worldwide conservation movement, reintroductions are widely accepted as a legitimate conservation tool, where they follow all the appropriate IUCN guidelines. Reintroductions are only a last resort in efforts to re-establish extinct species, but they should not be necessary for species which could recolonise Ireland naturally such as Marsh Harriers, Hobbies and Honey Buzzards for example.

Several mammals, such as Red Squirrels, were reintroduced to Ireland in the distant past. In 1991, the Irish Government implemented a proposal to reintroduce White-tailed Eagle to County Kerry, which was widely welcomed across Ireland, though there were some serious concerns expressed about the management proposals at the time. Though this project failed, due to poor long term planning and shortage of donor stock, it did awaken a national interest in our extinct species and their conservation. A similar proposal to reintroduce Golden Eagles to Donegal was already under consideration by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS). Pine Marten and Natterjack Toad translocation programmes were also implemented by the NPWS during the 1990s. As the Golden Eagle Reintroduction proposal gathered momentum in the late 1990s, some people still had genuine concerns that the proposal was inappropriate for Irish conservation at the time. They believed that; other priorities were more pressing, the birds might recolonise naturally, there was insufficient food available for eagles or farmers would poison eagles. There was even a criticism that birdwatchers would no longer be able to tick a Golden Eagle in Ireland, for fear it was a not a true Scottish vagrant. While everyone is likely to have separate views about priorities, we felt that the loss of Irish birds of prey was a legitimate concern and somewhat overlooked in an era with limited resources. While some people adopted priorities based on a policy focussed on threatened or recently declining species, we took a longer-term view. Though many Irish raptors have been missing for more than a human generation or two, why should such a human time scale be so important in a natural context? Indeed many of the differences of opinion surrounding translocations and reintroductions boil down to what is an acceptable reintroduction in terms of how long a species has been extinct and from how much of its former range (a county, a region or a country).

As a relatively new facet of conservation management, mistakes will be made and lessons will be learnt regarding reintroduction management. It is important that species reintroduction is not initiated primarily for promotional benefits or to offset uneccessary population losses caused by development. The integrity of the wild species involved must not be comprised by over enthusiastic promotional activities. The Golden Eagle Trust is constantly reviewing its own project management and has and will follow international best practice.

The reintroduction of the Golden Eagle, White-tailed Eagle and Red Kite in Ireland all fully meet the criteria governing responsible reintroductions. The National Parks and Wildlife Service (which is the Statutory Nature Conservation Authority) has carefully assessed these reintroduction programmes in the Republic of Ireland, and they have the sole responsibility for assessing whether these projects legitimately enhance our national and international biodiversity commitments. Furthermore, the Statutory Authorities in Scotland, Norway and Wales have endorsed individual projects as they have licensed the removal of their respective donor stock for the Irish projects. The European Union (through its LIFE Nature funding programme), has also endorsed the Golden Eagle Reintroduction programme as legitimate through its funding of the project. And finally, some of the best known raptor experts in Europe have also endorsed our proposals as beneficial and important elements of the conservation of the respective European populations of each species, namely; Golden Eagle (the late Dr Jeff Watson, Roy Dennis and Prof Ian Newton), White-tailed Eagle (Alv Ottar Folkestad, Dr Torgeir Nygård, Dr Duncan Halley) and Red Kite (Tony Cross and Prof Ian Newton). Nonetheless, we recognise that everyone has an individual philosophy towards nature and our role in nature conservation and accordingly some people do not favour the reintroduction of native fauna to Ireland.

The motivation of the Golden Eagle Trust Limited (and its parent bodies the Irish Raptor Study Group and the Curlew Trust Limited) has been clear and unequivocal, we wanted to see these native species returned to their former and rightful haunts in Ireland, in order to enhance and further conserve their European populations and in order to enhance the native wildlife of Ireland. As a spin off from these three projects we also hold a desire that the re-establishment of these three species will raise awareness in Ireland of all our native extant and extinct Irish birds of prey and stimulate an interest in their conservation and the conservation of their habitats, prey species and wildlife in general. We recognise that these predators will need the support of the communities into which they are released. We do intend to inform and co-operate with the local public, farming, tourism, shooting and forestry interests wherever these birds settle. We believe no one will face economic losses as a result of these programmes and indeed these programmes may generate some economic benefit, especially through tourism and promotion, for local economies. But as raptor enthusiasts our primary focus is to re-establish viable populations of these species in their former haunts, areas that once boasted Golden Eagles, White-tailed Eagles and Red Kites before our ancestors deliberately drove them to extinction. In a few generations, we hope the Irish landscape will be a little more natural as these species heal some of the obvious wounds in our native wildlife. Rather than merely lament this gaping wound across our skies we are trying to conserve our native species, in line with best international practice, using a legitimate and proven conservation tool.

IUCN/SSC Guidelines for Reintroduction. The World Conservation Union (IUCN) Species Survival Commission, Re-introduction Specialist Group. Approved May 1995.

Naturopa 82 1996. The Council of Europe, The Centre Naturopa, Brussels.

Rees. P. A. 2001. Is there a legal obligation to reintroduce animal species into their former habitats? Oryx Vol 35 No. 3