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Jordan Lee: Spain shows how rewilding in the UK could work

In the remote hilltops of Andalucia, buried in the thick scrub that litters the landscape, a wildcat stalks its prey. The only sound to puncture this primordial scene is the occasional haunting cry of a lone stag. But these cats are after a much smaller prize: rabbits.

Jordan Lee, CEN's Nature Programme Manager

The Iberian lynx is the most endangered wildcat in the world. In 2002 less than 100 lynx lived in the region. Now there are over 400. This is thanks to the work of those like Fernando Moran and Jess and Alex Hohne at El Encinarejo.

Smaller than its Eurasian cousin, Iberian lynx weigh around 10-13 kilograms and grow only to around 100 centimetres in height. It is for this reason that they are rarely seen, even by those charged with their protection.

Despite their elusive behaviour, they play a vital role in maintaining order in the ecosystem. By controlling the native rabbit population, lynx prevent the desolation of scrub and farmland. When combined with other species, like wild boar and bison, which disturb and fertilise the soil, greener, healthier landscapes are maintained.

Earlier this month, the Conservative Environment Network and Oikos took Sir Robert Buckland MP and Mark Jenkinson MP to Spain to meet with political representatives and to see the groundbreaking work to reintroduce native species to the region.

In the UK, the debate around species reintroduction has become stale. The prospect of wolves, bears, and other predators is raised by detractors as a serious threat to farmers and rural communities. Those in favour can be just as vitriolic, riding roughshod over farmers’ understandable concerns. As a result, few species reintroduction projects have been successful.

The conversation in Spain, however, is more developed. Regional government has worked together with local landowners, conservationists, and businesses to ensure that all projects carry community consent.

Compensation schemes have been devised to pay farmers market rates for any losses they do incur, although only 40 such claims have been made by sheep farmers across Spain and Portugal in the last year. These are often the result of problem individuals and are easily dealt with.

Another factor in the success of species reintroduction in Spain is its desperate demographic squeeze. Many here speak of “empty Spain”. Decades of migration towards urban centres has left much of the country abandoned. But the reintroduction of native species, like the lynx, has prompted a resurgence in tourism.

“Empty Spain” has stumped the political establishment. Polling a close third in many rural regions, the hard-right Vox party has denied both the moderate centre-right Partido Popular (PP) and the socialist PSOE a majority.

Despite losing the popular vote in July’s general election, the incumbent socialist government has refused to loosen its grip on power. Spanish voters now have an uneasy wait until 10th November - the deadline to form a majority government. It was in this febrile atmosphere that we met with representatives of the PP and key Spanish think tanks.

First up was Reformismo21, a new liberal conservative think tank aligned with the PP. They were grappling with the issue of how to reach these lost rural communities, many of which felt disaffected with the political process. Similarly, FAES, an established centre-right think tank, was concerned about the rise of Vox at the expense of PP’s environmental ambition and urbanisation.

Both groups were interested in CEN’s work to positively campaign on the benefits of ambitious environmental action: warmer homes, lower household bills, and greater access to greener spaces. By championing the benefits of moving towards net zero and restoring nature, whilst ensuring that the costs of doing so are not met by those least able to afford it, we can build consensus.

In the Chamber of Deputies we were greeted by the General Secretary of PP, Carlos Rojas Garcia as he fought to maintain party discipline in the wake of a gruelling couple of months. Sr Garcia shared his concerns about Spain’s rural voters but noted the success of species reintroduction programmes thanks to local government’s engagement with affected communities.

Time and again throughout these meetings the restrictive, overly-bureaucratic nature of the EU came up in conversation as a limiting factor to environmental ambition. This became particularly evident when meeting with the Andalusian regional government and Life 19 which runs the Lynx Connect project in Spain. Both had to comply with burdensome restrictions and cited the exciting environmental opportunities the UK now has outside of the EU.

Outside of the EU, the UK is now free to forge an independent environment and life sciences policy. The new Environmental Land Management schemes are a great example. Replacing the EU-era Common Agricultural Policy, farmers are now rewarded for their stewardship of the natural world, rather than simply on the basis of how much land they own.

Now is the time to fully seize the benefits of Brexit, including the freedom to reintroduce native species like pine marten or white tailed eagle. Provided that local land managers and communities are fully engaged from the beginning of the process, as they have been in Spain, there is no reason for conflict. They could even help to boost regional economies and create green jobs.


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