Gerald Durrell, somehow, has escaped mention in 11,281 previous posts over the last decade+ on this platform. Today is the day to begin correcting that oversight. His novelist brother Lawrence is worthy of his own post here another day. And the family name was recently popularized on television. While Gerald’s own legacy is not easy to categorize, a good starting point is to look at Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and his related conservation work. Books are a big part of the legacy and the one to the right has had a tangible influence:
Derek Gow’s maverick efforts to breed and reintroduce rare animals to Britain’s countryside.
Derek Gow decided to abandon conventional farming about ten years ago, not long after the curlews left. At the time, Gow, who is thickset and white of beard, had a flock of fifteen hundred breeding ewes and a hundred and twenty cows, which he kept on a three-hundred-acre farm of heavy clay close to the border between Devon and Cornwall, in southwest England. He was renting an extra field from a neighbor, and a pair of curlews had come to forage for a few days. A farm worker spotted the distinctive brown birds; they have long beaks that slope downward, like violin bows. “He didn’t even recognize what they were,” Gow told me.
Curlews are Europe’s largest wading bird. They used to be a common sight in British marshes and meadows during the summer but have all but disappeared from the south of the country, which is intensively farmed. Gow, who is fifty-six, has experimented with breeding animals since he was a teen-ager. For decades, he worked on conservation projects, mostly to restore almost-extinct British wildlife, while looking after his sheep and cows and also running an ecological consultancy. He called a friend at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds to tell him about the curlews. “Derek, they’re in their late twenties, early thirties,” Gow remembered his friend saying. “They’re just having one final look before they die.” The curlews left a day or two later; Gow has not seen any since. “These old, old birds coming back to this landscape to see if there was any possibility of breeding, to see if there were any mates left, to see if there was any hope of life,” he recalled. The departure of the curlews caused Gow to rethink how he used his land. “That began the whole pain of bringing the farming to an end,” he said.
When I visited Gow, in August, the last of his sheep were grazing, penned on a slope, awaiting their sale at auction in the coming weeks. We drove past them in his white pickup truck. “I don’t look at the sheep anymore,” he said. “I don’t come here. I don’t want to see them.” Gow has spent the past decade building a different kind of farm, emptying his fields of routine livestock and restocking them, at much lower densities, with the ancestral inhabitants of the northern European landscape: enormous cattle, wild boar, water buffalo, Exmoor ponies, and mouflon, a type of feral sheep. A digger was arriving that afternoon to bust up drains, tear up holes, and allow Gow’s fields to flood and fill up with water in interesting ways. Gow likes the word “contusions.” Some life was beginning to return. Greylag geese had noticed that Gow’s land was more accommodating than before, and dozens swung across the sky above us. At one point, we looked up and there were two white geese among the gray—escaped farm birds flying neatly in a skein.
Much of the unwinding of the old farm has been prosaic: removing fences and gates, to allow the new animals to move freely; repurposing sheds; retiring the dogs. This winter, Gow plans to erect two large catching pens, so that his new livestock can be examined by vets and, at least in theory, remain subject to his control. “We can have hiccups and we can have things that are tricky, but we can’t have no ability to manage this. It’s like ‘Jurassic Park,’ ” Gow said, in a way that made me feel unsure that he has seen the movie.
In its way, what Gow is doing is similar to other “rewilding” projects across Britain—a term that has become faddish and covers everything from letting a few fields go to seed, for tourist purposes, to major conservation projects, such as breaching a seawall along the Lancashire coast to restore salt marsh that had been claimed for agriculture. But what is different about Gow’s farm is that he wants it to be a breeding colony, a seedbed for a denuded island. “The outreach, if we can get this right, is going to be much bigger,” he told me. Gow is a disciple of Gerald Durrell, the writer and conservationist. In 1990, when Gow was working at a country park in Scotland, he attended a summer school at Durrell’s zoo, on the island of Jersey, in the English Channel, about the captive breeding of endangered species. In the book “The Stationary Ark,” which Durrell wrote in 1976, he argued for the creation of small, specialized zoos dedicated to propagating “low-ebb species” that were vulnerable in the wild. Such “zoo banks” would be motivated by saving animal populations rather than attracting human visitors. “The whole organization would act not only as a sanctuary, but as a research station and, most important, as a training ground,” Durrell wrote.
Gow’s farm is a zoo bank. The first enclosure that we passed held a pair of common cranes, which were hunted to extinction in Britain in the seventeenth century. In the next were black storks, which have been scarcely present since the Middle Ages. I sensed only a vague outline through the vegetation. “We’re not in the least bit interested in displaying these to people,” Gow said cheerfully. Small, whitewashed farm buildings held multitudes. One workshop was stacked with cages for young water voles, the population of which has fallen by around ninety-seven per cent this century. Gow breeds around three and a half thousand of the creatures a year. No one else does this. Cages for wildcats stood on a hillside; Gow is aiming to produce forty kittens a year. If he wants to get hold of a species, he has found that there is usually someone he can call. The problem is infrastructure for reproducing the animals: tanks, cages, food, skilled staff. “We stripped these life forms from the whole island,” Gow told me. “Replacing them is going to be an industrial process and it will go on for generations.” There are limits to what Gow will undertake. He has three lynx on his farm, and he does not want to breed them because there is no realistic prospect of their being welcomed back to the land. But pretty much everything else is there to be multiplied. When people ask Gow where his animals are supposed to live—the boar, the cranes, the pine martens, the snakes—he replies: everywhere. “That has to be an ambition for all the animals that were once here,” he said. “We should start a conversation about the wolf.”
In conservation circles, Gow is known for his impatience…
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