I must admit, I have quite a fun job. Working as a guide on a wildlife watching boat off the west coast of Scotland certainly has its perks. Taking guests to see some of Britain’s most charismatic wildlife and their overjoy at witnessing a whale, otter or an eagle in the wild is infectious.
I used to live and work as a Wildlife Rehabilitator in BC, Canada. After 18 months of seeing more animals than humans, coming back to tiny, overcrowded Britain was a bit of a shock. As I travelled on my train from London back to Newcastle, I stared out of the window the whole way looking for wildlife.
All I saw was a pigeon.
I’d always considered myself as living “in the countryside”. My village was surrounded by fields and when I opened my windows I could hear sheep bleating from the nearby farms. But as each carefully manicured corn field whizzed by it suddenly dawned upon me that I needed to recheck my definition of “countryside”, because it certainly didn’t involve the wilderness you’d expect.
These rolling fields as far as the eye could see were managed, agricultural land. How could foxes or deer hope to live in the tiny handfuls of trees scattered every few miles? And this isn’t just restricted to a small part of the UK – from the air these thousands of fields make Britain look like a giant patchwork quilt. The home I’d always regarded as full of wildlife now seemed more barren than ever.
This was when I decided drastic action was needed. No sooner had I been home to see my beloved family was I planning to move away again. I was determined to find wildlife in the UK – I would just have to look harder to find it. Within weeks of being back I’d gotten myself a job on a whale watching boat on an island in the Scottish Hebrides. The website warned that there was no phone signal on the island.
This was going to be my kind of place.
The west coast of Scotland is one of the best places in Britain for wildlife – it hasn’t yet been kicked out to make way for growing crops (only because the soil isn’t fertile enough to grow much). But that doesn’t mean that species don’t face threats from logging companies, game keepers and sporting estates. In my mind, the crux to help save wildlife is to make species worth more alive than dead.
And so enters ecotourism.
Wildlife doesn’t usually come to us does it? We have to travel to it – whether it’s to see polar bears in the Arctic, or kangaroos in Australia. And when tourists travel to see wildlife they eat in restaurants, stay in hotels and spend money in shops, bringing money into local economies.
The trips I work on see a great diversity of wildlife – from whales and dolphins to eagles and otters. Probably the most controversial of the lot is the white tailed sea eagle – wiped out from Scotland in 1916 by farmers and game keepers. In 1975 the eagles were reintroduced from Norway and we now have around 44 breeding pairs on the west coast. Success! You might think, but it hasn’t been without resistance. Since the release, sheep farmers have argued that lambs are heavily predated by the eagles. To what extent lambs are taken is much debated amongst conservationists and farmers. Either way, farmers have been compensated by the government for any lambs taken by the eagles (but I imagine anyone seeing the amount of claims submitted would think our sea eagles have a severe obesity problem).
Regardless of how many, if any, they do take – the market value of a lamb is around £30-60. Sea eagle tourism is worth £5 million a year on the Isle of Mull alone. In my mind, it’s fantastic to have these magnificent birds back where they belong – both for the environment and for the economy
Similarly, porpoise populations on the west of Scotland have recently recovered from the use of tangle nets, which killed an estimated 10,000 porpoise each year around the UK. Since being banned throughout the west coast in 2004, porpoise populations have recovered astronomically, and the Firth of Lorn (where we take our guests) is now one of the two best places in Scotland to see harbour porpoise.
So wildlife does have the capacity to support businesses and generate considerable income. We just have to let it. A dead eagle isn’t much use to anyone. But hundreds of tourists happy to pay £65 each for an afternoon wildlife tour? Now that makes sense. Of course this assumes that all tour operators across the world are responsible ones, which isn’t always the case. However, it is obviously in the interest of their business to preserve wildlife and the habitat in which they operate.
What does the future hold for Britain’s wildlife? Who knows – but if wildlife stands in the way of any industry making money, then wildlife will nearly always suffer, with potentially disastrous consequences. Albert Einstein said that if we lose bees, then the entire human race would only have 4 years left to live. Well, for years our bees have been dying in their millions from a mystery illness (dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder – “CCD”). Only this year have scientists discovered this is being caused by a man made pesticide. Subsequently farmers have to rent significantly more honeybees to pollinate their crops and food prices increase. CCD is projected to have a $8-$12 billion cost to America’s agricultural economy. The term “shooting yourself in the foot” comes to mind.
I truly hope we will start to learn from our mistakes and that our future will see an increase in valuing the other species with whom we share this planet. It’s not them that need us, but us that need them. We don’t have to demolish habitats to make money – conservation and business can come hand in hand. As the Native American prophecy goes, only when the last tree is cut down, the last river poisoned and the last fish is caught will we realise that money cannot be eaten.
As for me, I’m back out on the water and soaking up one of the few wild places left in Britain – and I hope it stays this wild forever.
Join Sara out at sea in the Hebrides and watch her film Wild Islands! Click the image below.