A new “species reintroductions task force”, run by Natural England will examine how to bring back species lost due to human activities, restore natural habitats, and aim to meet new legally binding biodiversity targets to reverse the decline of wildlife.
As well as species reintroductions, action will be taken to boost populations of vulnerable animals through releases of declining species in new areas. This will be done for species including the pine marten, dormice, corncrake, short-haired bumblebee and large blue butterfly.
The new legislation will be brought in under amendments to the government’s long-awaited environment bill.
Announcing the new policies, the environment secretary George Eustace noted the “UK is sadly one of the most nature depleted countries in the world”.
Golden eagles have been almost entirely absent from the skies over England for 180 years, while wildcats are not believed to have lived in the country for over 200 years.
Conservation organisations have welcomed the government’s announcement to reintroduce keystone species.
Rebecca Wrigley, chief executive of Rewilding Britain said: “There has been a massive decline in wildlife over recent decades, leaving Britain one of the world’s most nature-depleted countries. But the return of such apex predators – which humans have either driven to extinction or left facing a precarious future – can play a key role in helping nature get back on its feet, including by ensuring a fully functioning food chain and balancing our broken ecosystems.”
England’s golden eagle population began to decline in the 18th century as a result of illegal killing by sheep farmers, and was hastened in the 19th century through shooting by gamekeepers.
The golden eagle was exterminated in England and Wales by 1850, with populations also killed in Ireland by 1912, though it has hung on in Scotland, where numbers have slowly risen in recent decades.
Ms Wrigley added: “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.”
Speaking about the golden eagle reintroduction feasibility study, an RSPB spokesperson told The Independent: “The RSPB is broadly supportive of this idea and we’re looking forward to seeing the detail of the proposal.
“Seeing these magnificent birds back in England’s skies would be marvellous and restore a sense of wildness to some of our upland landscapes.”
The UK’s only existing wildcat population is also in Scotland where around 300 animals are believed to live, however it has been described as “functionally extinct” due to interbreeding with domestic cats.
It was also hunted to extinction in England and Wales, but new plans mean breeding centres in Devon and Kent could soon take delivery of their first cats, depending on the success of an existing project to restore populations in Scotland.
Natural England chair, Tony Juniper, said: “A new target for nature recovery enshrined in law will be a powerful new driver for coordinated action, as was found on cutting greenhouse gas emissions following the passage of the Climate Change Act.
“Meeting a stretching nature target can be done, so long as we can join up different policy areas, such as farming, housing development and infrastructure, while also improving overall environmental quality in terms of air and water pollution.
“Natural England stands ready to work across government to help make it happen, including through the delivery of an ambitious Nature Recovery Network that will see not only the improvement of our vital protected areas, more green spaces and trees in towns and cities and the restoration of lost habitats, including woodland, wetland and heaths, but also the return of lost species.”