Go Back A Hundred Years & There Was More Wildlife In The Sid Valley. It Was Recorded By People Like Cullen & It’s Found In Various Records. Further Back The Fossil Record Records Even More Species. This Article Explains More About The Lost Wildlife Of The Valley.
Imagine the Sid Valley with beaver, otter, salmon and water voles along the river and its tributaries. Imagine the corn fields full of poppies, corncockles, and the fields and wildflower meadows full of butterflies. Along the numerous hedges bats skim at dusk and consume a myriad of insects each evening. Alongside them the fields are patrolled by silent barn owls hunting voles and mice. Red squirrels chatter amongst the trees. Many of these are the Lost Wildlife Of The Sid Valley.
Wolves also hunt deer and wild auroch, the progenitor of our domesticated cattle, roam the forests.
Of course this is a mythological scene. All these animals have been here at one time or another, but not all at the same time. The aurochs roamed southern England after the last ice age. Corncockles were common in corn fields until agricultural herbicides were used to improve corn yield to feed a growing population. Go back a few hundred years and corn was in short supply and led to the Corn Laws.
In fact many of the changes in our valley and the wider countryside are down to agriculture.
How Farming Changed The Countryside
Farmers get blamed for many of the changes that happened in the countryside. We hear how they ripped out hedgerows so that they could use bigger machinery in bigger fields. How the move from horses to tractors led this change and how “manufactured chemical fertilisers” killed the soil and led to erosion and worse.
But like many stories told by a media that chases income from large audiences that consume the advertising that makes the media viable, it isn’t quite that simple.
The Second World War led to a skills and labour shortage on farms as the men went to war. In many ways, the saviour of the situation was the Land Army. An army of women that took over the manual jobs previously undertaken by men. But alongside that was a mechanical revolution. the USA sent us tractors. They were easier to manage, could work longer hours than horses, covered more ground in day than a team of horses and didn’t need land to grow them feed.
And it was those tractors that led to the first hedges being destroyed. And over the following decades the agricultural policy of the UK encouraged the demise of hedges.
That led to a decrease in the numbers of species that depended on hedges. It was bad for biodiversity.
What Baseline Do We Use?
But again the details aren’t that simple. When we talk about the demise of the hedges that criss cross our landscape we have to remember they are not a natural feature. They are an artificial feature. Manmade. By landowners and farmers alike. The early ones were built as parish boundaries and beating the bounds is still practised in some parishes. Others were built as field boundaries to stop grazing animals from grazing arable crops.
And if we go back far enough plants such as the corncockle would have been rare. It was the pre-herbicide cornfield that led to its expansion. Prior to that it was found it Europe but had probably originated from the Eastern Mediterranean.
So when we look at “rewilding” (a word that is misnomer in many ways) we need to decide which baseline we are using. Clearly we can’t bring back the wild auroch, but we can bring back the red squirrel and many other species. Indeed, in the next valley the beaver is now successfully breeding and expanding its territory.
How Can Lost Species Be Brought Back?
The return of the beaver to the Otter valley is a case study that no doubt will be used on many an environmental degree course for generations.
But, in many senses, the beaver was easy. Try bringing back the red squirrel. They didn’t so much die out as were driven out by the grey squirrel that adapted well to our conditions. Plus the greys brought squirrel pox with them and the reds were soon dying en masse from disease and habitat loss.
So to bring back the red squirrel we need first control the grey squirrel, Sciurus carolinensis. It’s Latin name gives a clue as to where it came from.
And if we look at large “rewilding” projects, such as the one at Knepp, we can see how they are approaching the re-introduction of species such as the White Stork. I’ve frequently watches White Storks hunting and at the nest in Portugal, they are an incredibly beautiful bird in my opinion, but very noisy when greeting one another at the nest. They doing so with loud repetitive bill clapping noises.
Interestingly a White Stork was seen in Sidmouth a few years ago. But it wasn’t a re-introduction. It was an escaped bird that had flown from a zoo near Wolverhampton. In Sidmouth it settled on Aldi’s roof and attracted attention without any bill clapping!
Elsewhere Osprey, White-tailed Sea Eagles and many other species are being re-introduced. And in Devon there is now talk of reintroducing wildcats and Pine Martens.
Are Re-introductions Problematic?
In many parts of the country wild boar have been introduced. Notably in the New Forest and Forest of Dean where they have thrived. In fact here have thrived so well that they have had to be controlled. In both cases I understand the reintroduction has been mainly via escaped animals from wild boar farms.
So there are risks when species are reintroduced. In a sense the risk increases as time passes. There is little risk where the species dies out in living memory as the ecological infrastructure is still there in some form or other. But where centuries have passed the risk increases.
Are Reintroductions All Bad?
The story often told here is about the re-introduction of the wolf to Yellowstone Park in the USA. They were re-introduced in 1995 after having been driven to extinction there a century before.
The result was incredible. As a keystone predator species they thrived on the large deer populations. This impacted the whole food chain and even changed the river. Again, it’s a project that will be taught in universities for generations. It’s a project that taught us so much about how removing a predator impacts the whole countryside and how its re-introduction can quickly swing the pendulum the other way.
Should the Eurasian wolf be re-introduced the the UK? The last one was probably shot in 1743. It’s an interesting thought. We have a lot of deer that destroy many trees.
What Species Have We Lost?
A lot of species have gone from this valley. Take plants for example. Cullen recorded several insectivorous plant species on Mutters Moor. They haven’t been recorded in recent years. They are probably locally extinct.
Then there are bird species. The white tailed sea eagle historically last bred in England in about 1830. A re-introduction programme now has them breeding in England again and juveniles sometimes overfly the valley. If you ever see a bird that’s about the size of a garden shed that’s a white tailed sea eagle!
The fact is we don’t truly know what we’ve lost. But we have a lot of clues and must think carefully before re-introducing them.
And that is what this article and a few follow ups articles seeks to address.
Look out for more Lost Wildlife Of The Sid Valley articles over the next few months.
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