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The UK's extinct animals: can we bring them back?

The Loch Arkaig ospreys are an example of a species that has returned from extinction. (Photo: WTML).
The Loch Arkaig ospreys are an example of a species that has returned from extinction. (Photo: WTML).

Were you one of the thousands who watched our osprey cam in 2017? People across the world tuned in to see Louis and Aila raise their chick, Lachlan, at Loch Arkaig, but did you know that these magnificent birds were essentially extinct in Britain just a few decades ago?

Human persecution meant there were no breeding ospreys left by 1916 and, for nearly 40 years, no chicks were raised on our shores. Thankfully, a combination of natural recolonisation from Scandinavia and reintroductions means Britain was home to an estimated 225 pairs of ospreys in 2017 – and the osprey cam will be back this spring as we wait to see if the family return.

Ospreys are a prime example of a species that has returned from extinction here in the UK, but what of the many other animals that have disappeared as a result of human action - could we bring them back too? Read on to find out.

Could lynx roam the UK's woods once more? (Photo: kjekol/iStock).
Could lynx roam the UK's woods once more? (Photo: kjekol/iStock).

Lynx

A combination of hunting and loss of woodland are believed to have driven the Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) to extinction in the UK around 1,300 years ago. Elusive hunters with a preference for feeding on roe deer, it is thought the reintroduction of these medium-sized cats could provide a natural means of controlling the UK’s large deer population. This could potentially reduce the negative impact of deer on woodland, benefiting a host of other species in the process. Plans for a trial reintroduction of lynx in northern England and the Scottish Borders are currently under government consideration.

Wolves and bears

Britain’s last wolves (Canis lupus) are believed to have been hunted to extinction in the 17th century, with Ireland’s following around 100 years later. As with lynx, it has been suggested reintroduction would benefit the UK environment through natural deer control, but there are currently no formal plans for a return. There are also no serious plans for the reintroduction of brown bears (Ursus arctos), which are thought to have disappeared around 1,000 years ago, with hunting once again to blame.

Rewilding advocates would like to see wolves and bears in the UK once more. (Photos: iStock/Photocech & ErikMandre).
Rewilding advocates would like to see wolves and bears in the UK once more. (Photos: iStock/Photocech & ErikMandre).

Moose and European bison

Both of these large herbivores died out in the UK several thousands of years ago, with hunting and possibly climate change the likely cause. While advocates of ‘rewilding’ have expressed a desire to reintroduce both, no action has been taken.

Moose (Alces alces) and European bison (Bison bonasus) have been absent from the UK for thousands of years. (Photos iStock/mtnmichelle & porojnicu).
Moose (Alces alces) and European bison (Bison bonasus) have been absent from the UK for thousands of years. (Photos iStock/mtnmichelle & porojnicu).

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Beavers are back in the UK. (Photo: iStock/belizar73).
Beavers are back in the UK. (Photo: iStock/belizar73).

Returning from extinction

It is uncertain if any of the species above will ever come back to the UK, but a number of animals have already returned from extinction. After an absence of around 500 years, beavers were reintroduced to the UK in 2009 with a government trial that coincided with illegal releases in both England and Scotland. In 2016, the Scottish Government officially recognised beavers as a native species and further trials are taking place in England.

A number of bird species have also been successfully reintroduced, including sea eagles, which occur alongside ospreys at Loch Arkaig, and the capercaillie. Other wildlife to return includes the natterjack toad in north Wales and the large blue butterfly in parts of England.

Once extinct, there are now over 100 pairs of sea eagles in Scotland. (Photo: David Whitaker).
Once extinct, there are now over 100 pairs of sea eagles in Scotland. (Photo: David Whitaker).
The Forest of Dean is home to the UK's largest wild boar population. (Photo: iStock/MikeLane45).
The Forest of Dean is home to the UK's largest wild boar population. (Photo: iStock/MikeLane45).

An unintentional reintroduction has occurred in the shape of wild boar, which escaped or were deliberately released from farms and captive collections. Several populations of boar are now established in woods from which they were absent for centuries, but the species has not been formally recognised as native by the Government.

Facing up to threats 

While the examples above represent success stories, reintroduction should only ever be a last resort and we must do all that we can to prevent extinctions occurring in the first place. We are currently working to prevent this fate befalling the pine marten in England and Wales. The Woodland Trust is part of the Pine Marten Recovery Project, established by The Vincent Wildlife Trust, which has translocated 51 Scottish martens to mid-Wales to ensure the species has a future outside of Scotland - find out more here.

We are working to ensure pine martens do not go extinct in England and Wales. (Photo: FLPA/Alamy).
We are working to ensure pine martens do not go extinct in England and Wales. (Photo: FLPA/Alamy).

Our woodland sites across the country are important habitats for a wide range of declining species from red squirrels and dormice to stag beetles and song thrushes; only with continued conservation action can we ensure their survival.

We want to save the UK's precious woodland wildlife.

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