How maverick rewilders are trying to turn back the tide of extinction
In a beautiful meadow filled with wildflowers and birdsong, a man of late middle age wearing a faded camouflage sun hat knelt beside a clump of clover and prepared to break the law. Martin White removed a carrier bag from his battered rucksack and began quickly opening the lids of dozens of matchbox-sized pots. As he shook each pot, a flake of brilliant blue fluttered free. Over the course of about five minutes, White released 72 mazarine blues, a small butterfly named after the striking colour used in 17th-century porcelain. For the first time in more than a century, this rare insect took to the skies of Britain.
One by one, the butterflies spread out on the pink clover. Some flashed silver-blue as they zigzagged across the meadow. White watched closely. A darker-coloured female curled its abdomen around a clover flower. “She’s dossing an egg off,” he murmured. The butterfly placed tiny white pinheads inside the flower. Satisfaction spread across White’s face for a second. Then he scanned the dark woods beyond the meadow.
“I’d be worried if someone came out of there,” he said, pointing to the distant trees. “But I’d pick up my bag, amble off, and they probably wouldn’t notice a thing.” It was against the law to release a species here, an area designated as a site of special scientific interest. What if White was caught and prosecuted? “There would be an immense public outcry,” he told me in his blunt Nottinghamshire accent. “I would be an instant martyr, and that’s the last thing they want me to be.”
“They” are the government agencies, scientists and charities who for 70 years have decided how nature should be protected in Britain. These illustrious groups and experts have tried to save wild places and stop the loss of species. They’ve scored some notable successes – once-endangered species such as peregrine falcons have been revived and the Wildlife Trusts alone have created more nature reserves than there are branches of McDonald’s – but, broadly speaking, they’ve failed. Britain has lost more of its nature than most other countries in the world. Almost every species or measurable wild habitat produces a graph plummeting downwards.
Over the last 70 years, 98% of wildflower meadows in England and Wales have been destroyed; three-quarters of ponds and heaths have vanished; half the remaining fragments of ancient woods have been obliterated. The creatures inside this habitat have gone too: since 1970, more than half of Britain’s farmland birds have disappeared, while a quarter of mammals are endangered and three-quarters of butterfly species have declined. Overall one in 10 species are threatened with extinction; 500 species have already disappeared from England. Most alarmingly, this dramatic loss of biodiversity has accelerated in the last decade. During the same period, government funding for British wildlife and the environment has been cut by 30%.
Can one individual do anything about an extinction crisis caused by the way we live, farm and build? White is doing something. For almost all of his 61 years, he has laboured mostly alone; for the last 10 years, he has been breeding native butterflies from his modest terraced house in the East Midlands for release across the country. He is part of a small, scattered band of secret breeders – or “introductionists” as they prefer – who have taken it on themselves to bring back wild species that have fallen victim to what one nature writer calls “the great thinning” of non-human life.
White and his peers have quietly released captive-bred wild animals that were once commonplace in Britain: beavers, turtle doves, butterflies, even glow-worms. One introductionist I spoke to, Graham Wellstead, has released hundreds of polecats into the English countryside, helping this once-persecuted small carnivore spread across the south and east of the country once again. Another man’s captive-breeding programme has revived the endangered sand lizard.
The introductionists are not feted. To the conservation establishment, these men – and it is overwhelmingly men – are not allies, but pests, who do more harm than good. Professional conservationists complain that unsanctioned reintroductions mess up their data. If conservation scientists can’t accurately measure whether a wild population is increasing or falling, they can’t understand what’s causing a decline or take steps to stop it. Releasing a captive-bred water vole into the wild won’t save that creature if the marshland where it lives has been drained; releasing a swift won’t save the species if air pollution has removed the insects on which it fed.
Conservation organisations in the UK tend to focus not on saving individual species, but on saving habitats. Conservationists act slowly because they must bring people with them, while maverick releases are more likely to antagonise. Illegally releasing a beaver on to a Scottish river, say, which then floods farmers’ fields, leads to the persecution of that species. No one wins. Professional conservationists disparage White’s work. “I’m just seen as an interloper, an attention-seeker. They called me a ‘schoolboy introductionist’ until recently,” he said. “Anything to undermine what I’m doing.”
White believes introductionists face such opprobrium because they challenge the power of the establishment. But, according to White, public opinion – suspicious of experts, hungry for change – is on their side. Besides, he said: “I’ve been releasing butterflies since I was eight years old. I can’t stop now.”
I first met White on a bright winter’s day at Worksop railway station in Nottinghamshire. He was a tall but unremarkable-looking middle-aged man who seemed to have a knack for blending into his surroundings. He led me, on foot – he does not drive, and usually cycles everywhere – to his home, where he lives a spartan existence. He was virtually zero-carbon long before it was fashionable. His electricity comes from solar panels and his last holiday was to Blackpool, in 1974.
His narrow back yard was filled with dozens of large plant pots. Each one was covered by a neat dome of green wire, double-wrapped in netting. Inside were bonsaied blackthorn, clovers and violets; on them, or in the soil below, were hidden hundreds of butterfly eggs and hibernating caterpillars. He told me he had undertaken 2,500 successful butterfly reintroductions over the years, “putting down” 40 species of butterfly and three moth species, mostly in the Midlands, returning native insects to nature reserves, golf courses, even disused coal tips. Seeing White’s meticulous notes – he recorded in blue ring-binders the progress of every release – his claims were believable.
“Technically,” said White, who punctuates his sentences with a big barking laugh, “I started when I was three.” He retains a vivid picture of that moment: he was gazing at some Michaelmas daisies when a red admiral flew in. “I was blown away. A jet-black butterfly with scarlet markings. I was hooked for life.” Like other boys growing up in the 1960s, he collected and killed butterflies, stowing them in drawers treated with an insecticide, paradichlorobenzene, the strong-smelling substance used in old mothballs, which also repels mites and beetles. Aged eight, he began to breed live ones. Beyond the house where he grew up was six acres of glorious meadow. Every summer afternoon, after school, he would walk through it, alongside thousands and thousands of butterflies. “That meadow was destroyed when I was 11,” he said. “That crucified me. It just broke my heart.”
As a teenager in the 1970s, White became a life member of Butterfly Conservation, a charity set up in the previous decade to protect British butterflies. He trained as a horticulturalist to learn about the plants on which caterpillars feed, and his first job was in a council parks department. In his 20s, however, he quit and began supporting himself by selling captive-bred butterflies to other enthusiasts. (These days, he sells them online.) “I probably spent one day a week making a living, six days a week doing something else,” he said. That something else was releasing butterflies.
He also quit his life membership of Butterfly Conservation. One of the group’s founding principles was “to breed rare butterflies in captivity and where practicable introduce them into the wild”. But by the 1980s, the charity was run by conservation scientists who sought to save species through habitat management, rather than “throwing out” captive-bred butterflies. White felt that amateur introductionists were no longer welcome. Breeding and releasing into the wild was “my mantra”, said White. “It’s like listening to Buddha, and his words completely gel with what you think – and then Buddha says: ‘I didn’t say that.’”
Aged 26, White did his first major reintroduction. He spotted on butterfly distribution maps that there were no marbled whites across a 90-mile swath between the Midlands and the Yorkshire Wolds. “I thought, I’m going to fill that gap,” he said. “I got marbled whites into about 100 sites. I’d plugged that gap by about 1991.”
Since then, he has released dozens of species. Some days, he will take a rucksack full of, say, captive-bred dingy skippers, get on a train, and head off to release them at six new locations, often derelict mining sites that are rich in wildflowers. He uses botanical distribution data to identify potential sites, and spends days inspecting their soils, food plants and “companion” species, which some butterflies need.
White’s claims about the return of the marbled white is supported by data from the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme, the world’s longest-running dataset for butterfly distribution. It shows how the marbled white was absent from the Midlands in the 1980s, but is today found continuously in a northwards line through Nottinghamshire and South Yorkshire. The dingy skipper is also found on dozens of former mining sites around Worksop, where it was absent 30 years ago.
How much of this is due to White, and how much is caused by climatic or habitat change, remains a matter of dispute. Although plenty of his reintroduced species reproduce and survive for a couple of summers, White concedes that many soon disappear again, for the same reasons they originally vanished – lack of wild habitat, say, or destructive human interference. Conventional conservationists occasionally give White grudging credit. It’s widely accepted that he put the purple emperor back into Lincolnshire – but critics argue that the butterfly would have returned eventually. White acknowledges that climate change has “hugely” helped warmth-loving butterflies expand their range.
In January, White was in the midst of his most ambitious reintroduction yet: to return the mazarine blue to Britain. Unlike other reintroductions in which he helped a surviving British species recover its former range, the mazarine blue had completely vanished from the UK. White studied the reasons for its decline and set about identifying sites abundant with the things it needs to survive: black ants and zigzag clover. A friend caught four ageing butterflies for him from a site in France and smuggled them back to Britain. White kept them in his cages; they laid 680 eggs. Over two years, he released the offspring on to five meadows in the Midlands.
It was a big project, and White was working alone, apart from occasional conversations with a few fellow breeders. This attempt would probably fail, he said, but at least he would learn from his mistakes, and future tries might succeed. And it would cost almost nothing. Authorised reintroductions require surveys, forms, permissions and lots of money.
“Good luck to the people who want to go through the paperwork, but you’ll get nothing done,” said White. “We’ve reached crisis point. I come along and my first reintroduction of mazarine blues cost £6.28.” He checked himself. “I don’t know the exact amount, but it was less than a tenner.”
Given the climate and global extinction crises, and the dramatic loss of nature in Britain, is it time for the conservation establishment to welcome these maverick reintroductions as complementary to NGOs’ slower, more scientific work? When I put this to Nigel Bourn, Butterfly Conservation’s director of science and policy, I sensed him gamely trying to entertain this argument. But when I mentioned that two secret butterfly breeders had told me the purple emperor had moved back into eastern England in the last decade because of their reintroductions, including from breeding stock sourced in Germany, he was unimpressed.
“Introducing the purple emperor from 300 miles away – I’m sorry, that’s just not right,” said Bourn. “That’s just a shallow argument. That’s made me quite angry. If you’re bringing other species from Germany, you’re increasing the likelihood of pathogen spread.” As well as spreading disease, breeders change the genetics of a captive-bred species, which can adapt very quickly to life in a cage. (“Rubbish,” responded White.)
Bourn said that to suggest maverick work could complement conservation science was to underestimate its negative impact. The scientists’ picture of the purple emperor’s expansion, for instance, has been muddied by breeders. “We’ll never be totally sure if the purple emperor is responding to climate change, or changing woodland management practices, or whether people have been shoving them out the back of their cars.” The risk, argued Bourn, was that unofficial reintroductions “corrupted” datasets, research priorities and, ultimately, the practical act of actually saving a species.
Society could not learn from rogue reintroductions, argued Bourn, since mavericks rarely publicised their work – often because it was illegal. But Bourn was overseeing an “official” reintroduction himself: to return the chequered skipper to England, after it vanished from Rockingham Forest, Northamptonshire, in 1977. “Reintroductions have a role to play. I’m slightly nervous of calling all reintroduction projects vanity projects, because that would include me,” he laughed.
Bourn insisted that his project was based on solid research, including four PhDs and good habitat management. British-born offspring of wild butterflies collected from Belgium (authorised by the Belgian authorities) and brought to Rockingham Forest via Eurostar (an operation costing around £10,000) were doing well so far.
Successful reintroductions usually require money and time. Bourn’s chequered skipper reintroduction is part of the Back from the Brink project, a £4.6m Heritage Lottery-funded multi-charity programme to revive 200 species and their habitats. This will fund one further year of chequered skipper releases from Belgium, but Bourn said Butterfly Conservation retained a long-term commitment to the reintroduction effort, and to monitoring its success.
Rewilding – allowing nature to take care of itself by removing human influences from land, rivers or sea – has animated people in recent years. Its less radical sister, restoration, which means returning natural habitats to their former glory, is increasingly influential in conservation. But many conservationists still believe that scarce resources are ultimately best devoted to preserving what’s left. “This has to be the top priority,” argued Bourn. “We know this country is one of the least wooded in Europe. We know this country’s wildlife has been in severe decline for a long time. We know we need to do more about it, but the scale of what needs to be done is massive.”
Many of those who buy butterflies from White in order to conduct their own releases are well-meaning landowners and wildlife-loving farmers. But Bourn argues that what will be much more decisive for the future of nature in Britain are big structural changes to the way we produce food. “We need to switch all the drivers that have destroyed our wildlife, such as the common agricultural policy. If we get the new farm payments policy right post-Brexit, and get farmers well paid to restore the countryside, we’ll fix it, and make the country much more able to cope with the horrors of climate change. That is how you conserve habitats and species in the UK.”
I met Britain’s most notorious and successful introductionist in a Devon pub at the start of the year. That morning, Derek Gow had released a pair of beavers into a large enclosure on the National Trust’s Holnicote estate, as part of an officially approved conservation scheme. Gow, who is widely known as Mr Beaver, had transported the animals from Scotland. The door of a wooden crate carrying the first beaver was lifted up in front of a tempting pool of water. Cameras were raised, but no beaver emerged. Six minutes passed. Still no beaver. Gow walked over to the crate and peered inside. “The beaver is asleep,” he muttered, so he reached into the crate and gently pulled it out on to the bank. The beaver slipped into the water without complaint.
Later, Gow’s assistant, Coral Edgcumbe, quietly ticked him off for not following protocol. He should not have grabbed the beaver. But Gow is someone who has dedicated his life to breaking the rules.
The beaver was hunted to extinction in Britain more than three centuries ago, but is today the rewilding movement’s pin-up. Beavers are sometimes admiringly referred to as “ecosystem engineers”. By damming streams, they reshape valley bottoms, creating new ponds and waterways that rapidly fill with birds, amphibians, dragonflies, and other insects and fish. Research also shows how dams filter polluted water, and store huge quantities of floodwater. Beavers’ dams can even prevent towns being flooded. But the water has to go somewhere – and the farmers whose fields are flooded as a result tend to detest these rodent engineers.
Most people agree Gow has almost singlehandedly brought back the beaver. Quite how is a little mysterious. “Somewhere in Derek’s barn there’s a big red button,” joked one scientist at the Exmoor beaver jamboree. “It’s like a Bond film,” laughed another – “‘Release. The. Beavers.’” Alongside “unofficial” releases in Scotland and Devon (where the animals were first rumoured to be living wild in 2006 and first filmed in 2013) was an official trial that began in 2009, carefully placing beavers in a Scottish glen from which they couldn’t spread. By 2016, the Scottish government recognised that more than 400 wild beavers, most released unofficially, were now so dispersed that they should once again be considered a native species. The government in England this year declared that Devon’s unofficially released beavers, which have multiplied to a population of more than 50 on the River Otter, could stay there permanently.
“Derek did very consciously adopt the strategy of, what’s the phrase, ‘creating facts on the ground’, and it worked,” one conservationist told me. “If something is there, it becomes a reality. I’m not saying it was him,” they added hurriedly of the unofficial releases. “And it’s not always brilliant if it’s not well considered. You can lose the animals or the animals can cause problems.” Others have called Gow a “one-man wrecking-ball” and a “cowboy operating outside the law”. But these days, most conservation scientists give him grudging respect.
Gow, who runs a wildlife consultancy from a former sheep farm he is rewilding in Devon, is a charismatic talker who affects to despise both conservationists (“children and idiots whose idea of production is to do a lot of tedious reports that nobody ever reads, which cost a lot of money and sit on a shelf in a cupboard”) and farmers (“They say: ‘Poor me, we’re struggling on, despite the fact that somebody’s given us £40,000 of taxpayers’ money just to fuck about, own a pickup, shoot a few foxes and get pissed with my mates.’”).
He was inspired by Gerald Durrell’s books as a boy, worked in farming for a few years, and then began to manage zoos. He started captive-breeding water voles, which are on the “red list” of mammals in danger of extinction in Britain. Since 2000, working with conservation organisations and landowners, Gow has supplied 25,000 water voles for release into 25 wetlands across the country. In Queen Elizabeth Forest Park in Scotland, 1,000 water voles released in the mid-2000s have expanded to occupy more than 22 square miles.
Gow admits to plenty of failures as well, and acknowledged that even this tiny mammal required major habitat restoration. “These animals are hanging on in a landscape that’s shattered. There are very few environments suitable for them. Then you begin to look at beavers. You see them living in Poland in vast swamps full of orchids, the huge clusters of frogs, the damsel and dragonflies, the small fish jumping in profusion in the dams. You see how around this animal, ‘the water saver’, all life revolves. It became abundantly obvious that this animal could be the mechanism that provided living space for so many other things.”
Gow’s consultancy makes around £150,000 profit a year from work including wildlife photography courses and services for wildlife film-makers. His services are increasingly in demand from a new generation of rewilders, including wealthy landowners wanting to bring back beavers, as well as harvest mice, wildcats and white storks. Gow helped release the storks on the Knepp estate in West Sussex, where nesting pairs fledged chicks in the wild for the first time this summer. But even this has attracted opposition from some conservationists who argue that these large omnivorous birds should not have been released without a scientific assessment of their impact on rare amphibians.
Gow is scathing about such arguments. “A conservation culture says: ‘We need to spend £100,000 looking at the genetics of a glow-worm before we can move it from Berkshire to Basingstoke, and now we’ve run out of money and we’ve achieved absolutely fuck all,’ and the farmers hate you for it – and they’re right.” The government’s own conservation agencies “are so [financially] broken, or so science-based, they have very little practical experience of doing anything any more”, he argued. Meanwhile, charities have lost government grants and EU funding, and cannot risk wasting money challenging the government to allow radical changes in the countryside.
According to Gow, the official beaver trial in Scotland was so hidebound by caution that without the unofficial releases it would never have led to them becoming officially recognised as a native wild animal again. Ultimately, however, as Gow reveals in an enjoyably rude book he’s written about reintroducing the beaver, it was not maverick action by “little people” that brought back the beaver, but political machinations. Gow has been financially supported by the multimillionaire board member of Defra, Ben Goldsmith, brother of environment minister Zac, for more than a decade. He obtained backing from wealthy landowners such as Knepp’s Charlie Burrell and the philanthropist Lisbet Rausing, who owns swaths of the Highlands. Civil servants and politicians were lobbied at the highest level.
“Yes, without them we would’ve been screwed,” said Gow. “That’s what’s wrong. The reason some individuals are able to talk to government [about beavers] – and we can probably still drop notes into Boris if we want to – is because people at the top of this ‘meritocratic’ chain want it to happen. I appreciate that tremendously, and I am very grateful, but I do not think that that is a fair or responsible way for governments to act. It is actually abhorrently wrong.”
I planned to meet White again in the summer, to follow the release of his 2020 crop of mazarine blues on to a secret site in Lincolnshire. Could it work? As the world became convulsed by the coronavirus pandemic, it seemed impossible. When I phoned White as lockdown eased, he uncharacteristically asked if I might drive him to his release site, which he had always cycled to – 46 miles in three hours – since he was a teenager.
White had survived the threat of coronavirus, but had been diagnosed with advanced cancer of the throat and oesophagus. He could hardly eat, had lost two stone and had undergone a blood transfusion to strengthen him for radiotherapy and, later, if he was fit enough, chemotherapy. Doctors gave him a one-in-four chance. Normally, he’d spend 16 hours each day ensuring his plants and caterpillars were in perfect condition. Now he was struggling to do two. “I want to get these butterflies out before treatment,” he said. “This is what’s keeping my sanity up, keeping this project going.”
When I picked him up, White was wearing a jumper the same hue as the male mazarine blue. His skin was yellow. He had liberated most of his stock, giving rarities to breeder friends, putting out common species in promising sites. During the drive, he talked about the butterflies he had put down around a secret meadow in Lincolnshire. It was a wildlife-rich nature reserve, lovingly managed by the conservation charities that White scorned. Like so many parts of lowland Britain, it was encircled by huge stretches of intensively farmed land. Species that had vanished from the reserve needed help to ever find it again.
Many of White’s reintroductions appeared doomed to fail. On this site alone, he had tried the high brown fritillary, Scotch argus, small heath, marbled white, grizzled skipper, wood white and chequered skipper. All had failed. So much diversity and complexity had already been stripped from ecosystems that it seemed beyond the ingenuity of humans to put anything back. But White had some notable successes, particularly with butterfly species that lived in trees – black and brown hairstreaks, and the purple emperor. “Remember, none of my actions have ever resulted in the loss of any butterfly colony, rare or otherwise,” he said. According to White, clumsy “habitat management” by mainstream conservationists has resulted in local extinctions of some colonies.
White talked about perhaps his greatest success: returning the rare marsh fritillary to Lincolnshire. The butterfly had thrived, and conservation charities now supported and celebrated its presence there, 100 miles from its nearest colony. But conservation scientists remained critical. According to Bourn, this species only endured here because volunteers picked up its caterpillars before meadows were mowed, and returned them after, and there was no prospect of the marsh fritillary spreading across the countryside. “It has only survived with that level of intensive care,” said Bourn. “No one is telling you that putting it into two small fields in Lincolnshire and gardening that for 30 years is a success story, because it isn’t. It’s a distraction from the real work of saving the marsh fritillary with habitat management where it is still found.”
White and I walked somewhat furtively to the meadow. He looked relieved once the mazarine blues had flown free. Then he abruptly declared: “I do believe the whole thing is going to be a failure.” That month, the species had failed to emerge on four of five sites where he had released them last year. He blamed the sunny, dry spring shrivelling up their clover food plant. “I acknowledge all my failures. The conservation charities don’t do that,” he said. “I’ve discovered a hell of a lot about its habitat and zigzag clover. It’s not a waste of time. Although it will be if I die of cancer and don’t bloody write it up.”
As the afternoon sun dipped and softened, we sat on the verge of the lane beyond the meadow. White was in no hurry to leave. “It’s been bloody wonderful to get out. They’ll be all over the meadow now. There’ll be 100 eggs at least.” Will he see mazarine blues here in a year’s time? “I don’t think I’ll be alive in a year’s time.”
He was not shocked to get cancer. He believed his butterflies were to blame. “I like a nice bit of irony, really black irony,” he said. “I used paradichlorobenzene in my butterfly collection. It’s the worst, the most carcinogenic of the lot. It’s in my bedrooms, my store boxes, cabinets, everything. My mother used to complain about ‘that horrible stink coming from your room’. I didn’t want pests. I wanted an immaculate collection. A mate of mine had exactly the same cancer in the same place. A lot of breeders have died the same way.”
He was content. “My life hasn’t been a waste. I would have loved to have had another 30 years, I could’ve done so much bloody more, I really could. But when I was a teenager I would’ve never imagined doing so much.
“It sounds a bit big-headed, a bit crass, but you do realise how much you’ve put back. All other people seem to do is criticise you for doing something. They’ve done nothing. I like to think I’m leaving some sort of legacy, I must admit. I don’t personally believe humanity is going to survive very long. Stephen Hawking’s prediction is 500 years, and recovery from humans might take 1 million. I hope some of my butterflies might still be around.”
Martin White died on 12 October