At what point does a species become a native species? That’s a question that’s been floating around in my mind with increasing frequency today – but does it have a definitive answer? And if not, does that really matter? The Brown Hare, for example, was introduced to Britain 2000 years ago, but many people think of them as indigenous wildlife and an iconic component of the British countryside. Fallow Deer were also brought over by the Romans around this time, yet endear themselves to many in the country. But then you have the Grey Squirrel: brought across the pond from the Eastern United States during the 1870s and demonised, justifiably, by most as an invasive species requiring eradication at a cost of many millions of pounds.
So is it merely a question of time? As it passes, memories fade, attitudes soften and, imperceptibly, the species becomes part of a nation’s native fauna. Or is there a lot more to it than that? Well, yes. How the creature interacts with its surroundings and, crucially, the existing wildlife, undoubtedly sets the tone for its integration, or segregation. The Grey Squirrel has contributed to the decimation of Red Squirrel populations, whereas Brown Hare have left an altogether more benign and less disruptive imprint on Britain’s ecology. So species we can tolerate, or even grow to like, are destined to become thought of as native, but those that disturb the ecological balance will always be thought of as ‘alien invaders’?
Chronologically speaking, where do you draw the line when deciding what should and should not be classed as a native species? With increasing calls for species reintroductions, it’s worth careful consideration. Wolverine roamed Britain around 8000 years ago – should they still be classed as a native species ripe for reintroduction? Or how about the Eagle Owl, a millennium or so before that? Where should the line be drawn?