10/06/2015 11:50 BST | Updated 10/06/2016 06:59 BST

Are We Ready to Let the Wild Back In?

Rewilding. Most people haven't heard of it yet, but you'd have had to be a hermit not to notice the announcement of the ambitious plan to bring back lynx to the UK. Reintroducing previously-extinct big mammals isn't the only way to rewild - planting a wildflower meadow or reshaping a stream so that it meanders instead of going in a straight line counts just as much - but it is of course the most striking, and the most controversial.

We Brits have a curious relationship with nature. Although we love it, this often depends on nature not being so beastly as to misbehave. We eat up David Attenborough's documentaries and hurl disgust at the killers of tigers, rhinos and elephants. And we expect people who share habitat with rare and powerful creatures to do so without complaint. I wonder what a woman in the Sundarbans afraid of a crocodile attacking her children would think if she were to read the headlines that flare up every time a fox walks into a house in London. And yes, there have been three attacks on children by foxes in recent years, but such events are incredibly rare given the density of the urban fox population. 1,159 children under the age of nine were attacked by dogs just in the last year, after all. One might argue back that this statistic is to be tolerated because most dogs bring so much joy and are so useful to us. And that brings us to the impasse that must be crossed if there is to ever be a chance of restoring our broken ecosystems to all their messy toothy glory:


Many risks are quietly shrugged at because they have an instant function and/or "economic value". Cars take us from A to B. Chips and chocolate gratify. Dogs are ready-made companions. But the risk of the wild - a lynx, or a boar, or even an otter daring to take the wrong fish - this is something that we have systematically cut out of our lives over generations. Some people think this has hurt us deeply, psychologically; George Monbiot calls it ecological boredom. When I interviewed residents of the Forest of Dean last year for my Masters dissertation on relations between humans and wild boar, several people described how the thrill of fear was part of the joy of meeting boar, and the two emotions could never be separated. I understand that - I'll never forget the time a black-tip reef shark uncharacteristically approached and then circled me instead of hightailing it as usual, a grey eye with a black slit staring into mine. I gave in to fear and in the few seconds it lasted wondered if I was going to be attacked. The shark lost interest and swam away.

On our tidy island where the most dangerous animals are the livestock, we've forgotten the fear of the wild and become used to the wild being afraid of us - so no wonder we bridle when the wild does something to threaten this comfortable position. I don't think there's a clearer case of this than in the Forest of Dean. A beautiful area of woodland where people and wildlife have always lived at close quarters, the recently-returned boar do things differently; they attack dogs in defence of their young, they stand their ground when deer and other animals run, and they even approach people - or charge them, as some believe, though no one's really sure (the Forest of Dean boar seem determined to maintain an aura of mystery). The thing is, I came to the Forest to do my research expecting to find just a lot of hysteria towards these creatures. There is some; the ridiculous coverage in the last few months of boar eating dead and almost certainly car-hit lambs is a case in point. But I spoke to someone whose dogs had almost been killed by a boar, and to another who can no longer ride her horse in the woods because it panics and endangers her when it senses boar (a common habit among horses, apparently). There is true fear, and anger, present there. And whether or not the oft-used prophecy of It'll Only Be A Matter Of Time Before A Child Is Killed ever comes to pass in the Forest of Dean (personally, I can't imagine it doing so), the fact remains that the boar have not yet been accepted, that the main reason many more of them haven't been culled is probably because the Forestry Commission there just lacks the resources to do so. They've been judged extraneous to our modern lives; a risk too far.

Maybe the lynx has better prospects. After all, there has never been a single recorded lynx attack in Europe, and a recent survey has shown that in theory there is widespread public support for its return. The stumbling block is far more likely to be the threat of livestock loss, another risk, though one measured in money rather than blood. If not even an unassuming creature like the lynx can get a passport to the UK, there is surely no hope for other missing pieces of our British ecosystems such as wolves. As much as we love to watch it on screens and decry its demise at the hands of hunters and poachers and people who want easier lives, most of us still baulk at the possibility of letting a fragment of that wild into our own lives.

There's no simple answer to the philosophical and perhaps even moral question of whether in removing risk we also remove meaning from our brief, potential-filled time on this planet. I don't share my habitat with crocodiles or elephants or tigers, or even boar. But I do know that the eye of that reef shark will be etched forever in my mind, and that I can't bear the thought of a world where no creature could ever make me afraid.