Will DEFRA’s species reintroduction task force take flight?

Environmental groups, experts, and other stakeholders are cautiously optimistic about the government’s plans to establish a species reintroductions task force in order to improve biodiversity in England.

Some reintroductions have taken place accidentally. Photograph: Cristian Mihai Vela/EyeEm/Getty Images

It is nearly three months since plans for the rewilding task force were first revealed on 6 March by The Telegraph, and still much remains unknown about the group and how it will operate.

In the wake of the original article about the task force, environment minister Lord Zac Goldsmith was forced to apologise after DEFRA published a blog saying that the story was untrue.

On 18 May, the environment secretary, George Eustice, officially launched the reintroductions task force, saying that Natural England will be heading up the task force as secretariat.

In the announcement DEFRA mentioned that Natural England would be considering the reintroduction of species which have been lost to England, such as wildcat, and the introduction of declining species into new areas such as pine marten, dormice, corncrake, short-haired bumblebee and large blue butterfly.

However, nearly a month later, many key questions about the task force remain unanswered.

These include details about which species are going to be prioritised, the potential scale of reintroduction releases, and who the members of the task force are going to be.

Rhiannon Niven, a senior policy officer at the RSPB, has welcomed the government’s announced plans and wants to see concrete actions taken to deliver tangible results.

“We really endorse the reintroduction of species that have been lost to England such as the beaver,” she said.

“It has been clearly demonstrated that well planned and licensed releases can improve biodiversity.

“We really want to see the UK step up and are hopeful that this rewilding task force can deliver.”

Britain is currently at the bottom of the G7 biodiversity league table, according to analysis carried out by the Natural History Museum and the RSPB and published in September last year.

The analysis used a measure called the Biodiversity Intactness Index (BII), which estimates biodiversity loss across an area using a combination of land use, ecosystem, species and population data.

The UK is the third-worst country in the EU for biodiversity intactness, with only Ireland and Malta behind.

“We want to see the UK as a leader and to do that at the moment would take a massive improvement,” said Niven.

“We really need to see a step change by our government to deliver on-the-ground practical activity and we hope that this task force will be part of the toolkit to do that.”

The early communications errors by DEFRA and the government confusion in relation to the rewilding task force have raised concerns amongst some experts in relation to its ability to operate as a cohesive body interacting with a range of organisations and effectively achieving goals.

Derek Gow, a rewilding specialist and farmer, believes that the formation of the rewilding taskforce is an opportunity to improve biodiversity in England, but has significant concerns that the opportunity is going to be wasted.

“There’s been a lot of talk so far – but what really matters is action,” he said.

According to Gow, effective restoration schemes for species such as the water vole and the beaver would require regular large-scale releases of animals and significant infrastructure to be put in place.

He believes that the environment secretary needs to give more details about his plans and make it clear what he means by rewilding.

“Are we talking about bringing these species back and making them ingrained in the epidermis of this country so that they are everywhere? Or are we just talking about creating one or two pockets?

“If we are talking about restoring ecosystems then it has to be the former option, but at the moment there is no real infrastructure to enable it to happen.

“Both the facilities that make these projects possible and the people who make these projects possible are few and far between.”

One concrete step forward that has already been taken is the publication of the reintroductions and conservation translocations code and guidance, which was released on 18 May.

The code and guidance are based on International Union for Conservation of Nature reintroduction guidelines and provides a framework for species reintroduction projects in England.

It outlines the principles and practical steps that are required for species reintroduction projects and gives guidance on when specific licenses are needed.

The introduction of the new English code comes more than six years after the equivalent Scottish code was published in July 2014, which was also based on the IUCN guidelines.

The publication of the code for England will help to accelerate reintroduction projects and bring some consistency to the way that they are dealt with, according to Ian Danby, the head of biodiversity at the British Association for Shooting and Conservation.

“We believe that this is going to work well because we have direct experience of using the mechanism that was put in place in Scotland,” said Danby.

“England has now joined Scotland in having a better framework for looking at reintroductions and making good decisions over which ones should proceed and which ones need more consultation before they come back around the table.”

While some positive changes have already been put in place, it still is unclear whether the rewilding task force will become a force for significant change in England’s countryside.

Clear communication and effective dialogue are likely to be key to easing some of the concerns about the direction that the task force will take.