The following excerpt is from Derek Gow’s new book Birds, Beasts and Bedlam: Turning My Farm into an Ark for Lost Species (Chelsea Green Publishing, June 2022) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.
We could smell them from behind the large fallen tree to which we had belly crawled. Their warm sweet breath. Their musky bovine richness. Slowly we extended our heads up to get a view. They were vast. Simply gigantic. Swimming in a sea of lush understory, they wrenched and pulled at the vegetation around them, snapping twigs and grinding their woody repast like trying teenagers crunching dry breakfast cereal. Humps extended, they reached up into the foliage to pull down dainties with their dark curling tongues. Bark and berries, leaves and shoots. They snorted, stamped and shook their rough maned heads with bleary annoyance when buzzing bloodsuckers bit. Swishing tails and dun coats with deep winter wool already forming, the Polish bison bulls were breathtaking.
We watched for a while. When we were done, my guide said it was best that they knew where we were. We stood up slowly and clapped our hands. Their heads shot up in an instant, snorting to catch our scent, chestnut eyes wild with their whites showing clear. Nostrils extended. They whirled and plunged, tails up in alarm, into the backing infinity of deep forest green. Branches swished, sprung and steadied. In the haste of flight, the splatter from their steaming dung dripped slowly from branched limbs and leaves to the ground.
Although there is no evidence that the European bison (Bison bonasus), known as wisent (pronounced ‘we-sent’), ever occurred on our islands, as a hybrid of the extinct steppe bison (Bison priscus) and the aurochs (Bos primigenius), both of which did, they are attuned to our environments. Britain once hosted a broad range of great beasts. We slaughtered the bears, elk and lynx many centuries ago. The wolves lasted longest. Now, only the names of their crags, hills, meres or the ubiquitous deep pits where we caught and bound them for torture recall their once being. Like the aquamarine blue moor frogs, black storks and night herons, we were the end of them all.
One in seven of our surviving species is now also threatened with extinction. In large part, much of the landscape so seemingly green, which we traverse with daily indifference, is dead. Chemicals and pesticides in the soil have killed the very small things. The passing of these has so starved, poisoned or otherwise compromised the other slightly larger, but still small things, that shockwaves of depletion now ripple upwards through every level of natural dependency. Gone is the food for some creatures or the cover for others. The living space that remains is highly restricted and commonly of poor quality. The absence of one pivotal creature can mean the loss of natural function upon which others depend. Even when our understanding of this is crystal clear, we act in reluctant slow-motion response.
Conservation comes in many forms and my beginning was not with the wild but the tame. At a time when you can drive through the landscape and see so many of the old black or spotted sheep, white long-horned cattle, or brick-red pigs more or less everywhere, it’s hard to remember that these relict sorts were by the 1970s nearly extinct. Farming at that time was already set to conquer its Everests of ‘improvement’. Rivers of government cash flowed into subsidises for everything imaginable. The import of faster-growing continental livestock, new and super productive crops, fertilisers that flowed from white plastic sacks rather than freely from cows’ backsides, pesticides that killed their target species and much more besides. Guilds of focused advisors in drab brown overalls and tiny vans met farmers free of charge to explain how to employ this largesse. Colleges produced legions of indoctrinated students who marched out in ranks to feed the world. Research stations, laboratories and experimental farms, all centrally funded, were established throughout the land. Meadows full of dancing wildflowers or woodlands where spotted flycatchers dipped and weaved to catch beakfuls of insects twirling in sunlit strobes did not fit the narrative of those times. Most were ploughed under or ripped free from the soil that had held them for centuries for incineration on pyres well prepared. Birds of all sorts died in myriads when cornfields, old pastures and orchards were sprayed with new toxins. Frogs returned to breed in the spring to ancestral ponds now filled in. There are pictures of them in black and white, sitting in massed aggregations on their drying spawn with no water.
The photographers who took these images wept.
Breeds of livestock with their roots buried deep in Britain’s culture were discarded as well. It did not matter that they had adapted to frugal living to produce something – a little meat, milk, horn or dung to fertilise small fields – for folk who had nothing and could offer them less. Who cared if they had been brought by the Norse or the Romans or the Celts? They were out of time. Small or slow growing. Difficult to handle with independent spirits. The sooner they were all gone, the better. Their other qualities of disease resistance, fine wool or superlative meat meant nothing. Any adaptation to specific environments was meaningless in a time when whole landscapes could be rearranged.
To be clear, as individuals I like farmers very much. It’s the great false idol of the industrial machine that so many unblinkingly worshipped that’s the problem. In the main they are a well-humoured bunch. The old ones with the good stories always are best, and I have spent many hours sitting in their cosy kitchens listening to their tales where small dogs snoozed next to Agas and busy wives bustled to serve cakes. There was slight Henry Cowan who regretted till the day he died that he’d allowed a passing dealer to buy his last two horses, kept long after the others had gone, for the glue works. Tall Francis Watson, a big bear of a man who at the age of seventeen had guarded the palace of the Nizams in Hyderabad and whose great joy it was to linger for no particular purchase in our village shop to converse with its Pakistani proprietors in Urdu. Slight Miss Bartholomew whose old cats pissed on her house chairs and whose ancient pet pigs were turned by her stockman daily to ease their bed sores when they could no longer stand. All once of great colour who have passed now in time.
Their world was simpler, of clear rights and dark wrongs. The reapers who harvested in their golden youths are not of the sort that scythe the earth today. The prospect that the land that they had cleared of rocks and drained and deforested, and then reforested and enriched and impoverished in the swiftest succession, would ever be used again for any purpose other than farming would not to them have seemed plausible at all. The notion that some of the oldest beasts could be restored to accelerate nature’s gain would have seemed absurd.
So why bother to bring back bison to Britain when we could be content to sit back in our slippers to reintegrate beavers into the countryside, which, in theory at least, is as easy as falling off a stationary bus? The answer in large part is process. If, as it seems tantalisingly tangible, we are going to move from an era of unequivocal public subsidy for farming 70 per cent of the British landmass (23 million acres) in some form or another to a time when public money will be employed more evenly to repair nature, then at least a few of the large creatures we hunted to extinction may be restored in a limited fashion to assist this endeavour. Bison, for example, are not cattle. They are high forest browsers. If you reinstall them in dark, dull plantation woodlands with little biodiversity value, they will smash and debark big trees, wallow in sand soils, gouge out damp clays, provide pesticide-free blood and dung in abundance for insects, and crunch down woody scrub at random in a jagged and irregular manner.
The bark they rip from the stems of broad-leafed trees in a frozen winter by inserting the teeth of their lower palate under its surface, gripping it tight with their upper jaw and tugging sharply downwards will ‘whip crack’ the length of the stem before it tumbles downwards like a falling curtain to be consumed. A single bison can eat thirty-two kilos of bark in a day. Multiply this by a stamping herd, hoar frosted with steaming nostrils, and their impact on woodland structure becomes obvious. Whole groves of succulent, young trees are retarded or misshaped. Their wounds leach resin or sap, which snails cluster in to exploit. Some bare areas may scab and scar over while others decay completely for woodpeckers to pock full of voids. Bats, martens and birds use these cavities as nesting sites while specialists such as willow tits make their own abodes in desiccated pockets rotted down by mycelia of many sorts. Nature loves random and there is more in the simplest of forms. The fur from a bison’s woolly coat will be gathered by birds from the grasping thorns of bramble or rose, or from their backs directly when it peels in scrofulous mats in the spring time. This warm snuggly material, which is ideal for their nests, will be filched from them in turn by small mammals to take underground. The repetitive wallowing of bison in dry sand banks scours these features free of vegetation in random patches. In their well-trampled base lie easily excavatable egg-laying areas for sand lizards, while mining insects pit with their tunnels any exposed standing banks. Over time, there is always the fragrant possibility that the child-painted wonder of yellows, blues, browns and greens that is the European bee-eater will one day grace them as sites for their nest tunnels.
Bison will, in short, do some things that cattle are not capable of doing and others that cattle don’t do very well. This of courses is hardly surprising, given that ten thousand years’ worth of preparation for domestication has profoundly altered the shape, biology and behaviour of cattle, while bison have retained their wild being intact.
For all these reasons, herds of wisent already roam Dutch nature reserves, such as the sand dunes of Zuid-Kennemerland National Park within easy reach of Amsterdam. The visionary thinking behind projects of this sort in Europe is well over half a century old. With flare and imagination, they are not hard to accomplish and could easily become a British reality.
Large wild herbivores running around developed human landscapes are, however, a problem. If you think not, then the figure of around twenty human fatalities from collisions with approximately seventy-four thousand deer on UK roads annually may persuade you otherwise. If bison are to free live again in Britain, it will either be in the kind of large 205 hectare forest pens proposed for West Blean woods nature reserve near Canterbury, in a partnership between the Kent Wildlife and Wildwood Trusts, or perhaps at a time when technology controls their ranging with electronic neck collars, grazing tall around the standing sarsens of Stonehenge.
In my time, I have tried hard to save some things from slipping away. Rotund furry water voles with their black, beady eyes, cinnamon-yellow dormice, ball-nesting harvest mice with curling prehensile tails and rust-red squirrels. All of these are now lost from much of their former range and are continuing to fade fast. Over time, I have kept and bred in captivity most of the mammal species that belong on our islands and a random spectrum of others that got here and otherwise do not. It’s been an absorbing experience and, although some of the knowledge I have acquired is of dubious relevance (did you know that tame roebucks can’t gore you if you cut off their bone-hardened antlers once their rich velvet has shed and fix short sections of garden hose to their stumps with jubilee clips or that hand-reared brown hares can jump as high as waist height to bite you firmly in the groin?) I have nevertheless learnt a lot. I have bred many creatures which were once considered common and realise full well that their existence in abundance is no longer the case. Long years after his death, the ebullient zookeeper Gerald Durrell’s vision of using captive breeding to save endangered species has become a mantra for zoos worldwide. That the route he espoused is not easy or straightforward does not mean it’s wrong, it’s just not as simple as he understood in his time. While for some creatures the circumstances that diminish their being are easy to fix – just stop killing them as a whole society and they will bounce right back when you put them in suitable environments or make new space using natural architects such as cattle and bison, beaver and ponies or boar and water buffalo – others are not so simple. The grey-breasted corncrakes with their short pink bills and barred brown backs, whose repetitive rasping calls were once so ubiquitous that they stopped country dwellers from sleeping on warm summer nights, are silent because the vast hay meadows grown to feed the working horses are gone. The insects that filled the hay crop full have gone. The untidy countryside that left random rough edges in plenty has gone. Untidy corners are few and, even where these exist on a scale that seems large like the Nene Washes in Cambridgeshire, every predator that can consume them is hunting there for food. The corncrakes’ own short lives are complicated by long annual migrations, which ensure that they are exposed to a multiplicity of further hazards. Although projects to sustain them, such as that developed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in the western isles of Scotland, show that you can collaborate with sympathetic farmers, they will require detailed cultivation if they are to survive.
Thirty years on, I am working with some of Durrell’s disciples in an effort to restore species such as red-backed shrikes, white storks, glow-worms, beavers and wildcats. Together with the fine folk who work with me, I have helped to advance a case for the restoration of others like the eelpout or brown marbled burbot – a torpedo of a fish with a single chin whisker – or the dapper dalmatian pelican with its bright yellow beak and bouffant head curls. Other individuals of great worth have fought their own battles to ensure that coal-black choughs with curving red beaks birl in the skies over Jersey or to enable a growing flock of barrel-bodied bustards to strut in a military manner across the grasslands of Salisbury Plain. The champions of curlews and cranes, of kites and godwits, or for the last of the sad pearl mussels confined as a population to a single Welsh fridge, are all truly remarkable people.
I have reformed my farm of 300 acres on the wet, windy Cornish border with West Devon into an independent wildlife centre where wild creatures of any sort required can be bred in captivity for further study and released back into areas of suitable habitat in time. The land itself is being rewilded to enable any life that has survived to recover from farming, if it can. While many other individuals and organisations are attempting the same, it is nevertheless sobering that, in this time of near miracles, when reintroduced white-tailed eagles and ospreys soar with growing confidence above southern seas, every graph there otherwise is of natural life resembles the trajectory of a Thunderbirds’ rocket that has run out of fuel.
Plummeting in an accelerating arc of downwards destruction.
It does not have to be this way. We know and can accomplish so much.
This is the story, in large part, of my own life journey (which is, I earnestly hope, not quite over yet), from breeding endangered breeds of domestic farm livestock at its beginning to restoring a broad array of the most marvellous native creatures back into habitats they have lost at its end.