THERE is a lively debate going on in Scotland about restoring the country's extinct mammals. It is the same argument as surrounded the sea eagle, red kite or capercaillie.
The candidate species are the boar, bear, bison, musk ox, moose, beaver, wolverine, lynx, walrus and, perhaps most challenging, the wolf. |
Yet the argument seems to me to omit one large element - the business potential to be derived from these creatures' restoration to the Scottish hills.
We banned fox hunting at the behest of Lord Watson of Invergowrie but I see a lucrative potential in boar hunting. In France this is a sizeable and profitable market. La Chasse is a combination of hunting, sporting and hospitality in the forests of France. It could be so again in Scotland.
The wild boar that have either escaped from farms or been released by enthusiasts will breed into menacing numbers rapidly. They need to be hunted to contain their numbers. They make great sausages. Humans are their only predators.
Scotland's rural economy is fragile. It is also too dependent on subsidies.
As the EU restricts these fountains of cash, a post-sheep landscape will re-establish itself - birch, ash, elder, rowan, juniper, oak and, of course, Scots pine will flourish again.
Yet these hills' appeal would be enhanced far more if visitors could encounter moose or beaver or bison or lynx. Their presence would transform the personality of the islands and glens where they roamed.
This is not mere theory. Across the continent, the missing species have been restored. I know of no adverse experiences or evidence.
People flock to the Pyrenees, the Dolomites and the Alps in the hope of an encounter. Romania's biggest growth industry is eco-tourism. So is Poland's. In the vast Bialowieza Forest, the European bison, long thought extinct, has survived. Its numbers have been built up again. They can be seen and enjoyed mooching at the Highland Wildlife Park at Aviemore.
I am not proposing captive animals. Initially perhaps they could be enclosed - but the commercial appeal, as well as the magic, is in having them wild and free again.
Take a remote community like Unst, still at a loss after the withdrawal of the RAF. Imagine if its shores had walrus basking and if its freshwater lochs had sturgeon again. Unst caviare could be a prize. It would also be a sustainable income.
On the outer fringes of the eco-enthusiasts who want to restore the animals that man obliterated in the past is a conspiracy to restore grey whales to the Solway Firth.
I rate this a magnificent idea but I can imagine the whales might swim on and away.
Bob Glynn, a sporting entrepreneur who runs shooting syndicates, has no doubts about the business appeal of species that could be hunted or merely observed.
He and others regard Scottish Natural Heritage as far too conservative and cautious. Perhaps they have been captured by the farming lobby. SNH has opposed the introduction of beaver. Yet Scotland now has four semi-illicit beaver colonies.
They are happy - the test is simple, are they breeding? One colony is sponsored by the London School of Economics, my former haunt. The founders of the LSE, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, nominated the beaver as their badge and mascot as they saw it as emblematic of co-operative socialist virtue.
I see comedy in Rhona Brankin, the Labour Scottish Executive minister, blocking all official attempts to restore this socialist icon.
The beaver has a natural companion - the moose. The moose is the largest deer. It was hunted to extinction, we think, by Roman times. Its preferred habitat is shallow pond plants - preserved in turn by the beaver's presence.
Scotland has a gross over-supply of deer. Nature could resolve this by the introduction of lynx, wolverine (a giant badger) and wolf.
So, they would fit an ecological niche easily but also offer a huge boost to the Scottish tourist trades. It is the wildness that people come to enjoy.
That quality of untamed nature would be enhanced by the howl of a wolf pack in moonlight over Morvern or Assynt.
I rate the lynx as the most beautiful of all the extinct animals. There is a menacing hint they would pounce on innocent rambling folk. In fact they will prefer voles and rabbits. The lynx makes the wild cat look like a mere moggy.
I think it may be time that Scottish officialdom relaxed its inhibitions and allowed our long-absent animals to return.
Who doubts the osprey's restoration has not been an asset to the locations where it has come back? If a relatively small feathered creature is a popular magnet, what power would bears offer?
Yes, there are hurdles of judgment to be tested but the core idea of re-establishing all the native species hunted out represents a huge opportunity for businesses in Scotland's more remote locations.
There is something symbolically apt in Scottish Natural Heritage being opposed to such a fertile notion.
Like its bigger cousin, Scottish Enterprise, SNH seems to doubt the integrity of any project that does not need a subsidy. None of our extinct mammals need anything but freedom. They are nature's entrepreneurs.
John Blundell is director general of the Institute of Economic Affairs.