Wildcats and golden eagles could be reintroduced in England and beavers could be released into the wild more widely, the Government has indicated.
As part of efforts to boost wildlife, a taskforce will be set up to look at bringing back species which have long been lost from England and introduce declining species into new areas, Environment Secretary George Eustice has said.
In a speech from Delamere Forest, Cheshire, where beavers are being kept in a fenced enclosure to manage habitat, Mr Eustice also said the Government was “looking positively” towards the reintroduction of the semi-aquatic mammals.
Beavers, hunted to extinction in Britain by the 16th century, have already returned to live free on the River Otter in Devon in England and a number of other waterways, as well as in enclosures in many counties.
Conservationists back the return of the animals because they create and manage habitat for other wildlife, improve water quality and curb flooding downstream – though landowners raise concerns about local impacts.
A consultation on the approach to beavers and managing them in the wild will take place this summer, and animals could be released into the wild next year, Mr Eustice said.
He said: “After a successful release in Devon, we are now looking positively towards the reintroduction of beavers and the further releases of this iconic species in England.
“We will particularly consider reintroductions where the benefits are clear, there are strong partnerships and agreement from stakeholders, and our approach will acknowledge the potential of beavers as a keystone species, while working closely with local communities.”
And he said: “We want to see a nature-rich Britain with further action to bend the curve of species loss in this country. We will recover threatened species and provide opportunities for reintroduction through a range of projects.”
This will include feasibility studies looking at reintroducing the red-backed shrike as a breeding bird, and golden eagles, which are found in other parts of the UK, into England.
A new taskforce, made up of experts, landowners and charities, would consider reintroducing species such as wildcats lost from England, and the release of rare wildlife including curlew and pine martens into new areas.
The wide-ranging speech on tackling nature and the climate crisis also set out plans to protect peatlands and increase woodland cover in England, and to set a new 2030 legal target for species abundance to halt declines in nature.
Under the plans to protect carbon-storing peatland, green-fingered householders will be banned from buying peat for their gardens from 2024, a move which conservationists said was long overdue.
Quizzed as to why the ban could not be brought in earlier, the Environment Secretary said it was subject to consultation and he hoped it would drive action by retailers ahead of any ban being brought in.
There is also funding to restore 35,000 hectares (86,000 acres) of peatland in England in the next four years – around 1% of the UK’s total – and measures to make farming of lowland peat soils more sustainable to cut carbon emissions that come from degraded peat.
The trees plan includes a goal to treble tree-planting rates in England to 7,000 hectares of new woodland a year by 2024, paid for through a £500 million fund, while a new multimillion pound tree-planting grant will provide more incentives for landowners and farmers to plant and manage trees.
At least three community forests will be created, there are plans for some natural regeneration of woods alongside planting, and to provide funding for wet woodland buffer zones alongside rivers to help wildlife, including beavers, and improve the water quality.
Eva Bishop, communications director at Beaver Trust, welcomed the Government’s intent to restore species such as the beaver.
“We now want to see a bold and ambitious strategy to increase their numbers, with robust and adequately resourced management plans.
“Beavers are an important ally for us in building climate resilience across our river networks and their return, if carried out collaboratively, offers great hope for nature restoration,” she urged.
Craig Bennett, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts, said: “It’s exciting to hear talk of reintroducing wildlife such as wildcat and golden eagle but the success of such projects entirely depends on making a huge amount more space available for nature.
“What we need is all nature to be abundant once more – humming and buzzing all around us – and we hope that a new legally-binding target to achieve this will step up action across Government.
“So, while seeds of hope were sown today, root and branch change is still needed on a mammoth scale.”
The Wildlife Trusts are calling for “vast restoration projects” which need funding by Government, to reach a target for 30% of the UK’s land and seas to be properly protected for nature – up from an estimated 5% today.
Rebecca Wrigley, chief executive of Nature charity Rewilding Britain, said: “Carefully considered reintroduction of native species now missing – which includes the right consultation and ensuring enough suitable habitat, together with increased action to protect species still here but also facing declines and extinction – can play a key role in rewilding and helping nature heal itself.”
She welcomed moves to bring back the golden eagle, which she said was an apex predator that could ensure a fully functioning food chain.
“The return of golden eagles to England – in areas where we know there is enough habitat and after the right public consultation to ensure the birds would be welcome, combined with measures to prevent persecution as needed – could be a positive, big step forwards for nature’s recovery in Britain,” she said.