‘Re-wilding’ Natural Surroundings?

The concept of ’re-wilding’ has become rather fashionable in British conservation circles. And, on the face of it, it is easy to see why – most of the British Isles is anything but ‘wild’, and much of the wildlife that remains is threatened on all sides. Why not let nature take it’s course and get some wildlife back? I have not studied the subject extensively, but I have read George Monbiot’s book Feral, and I must confess to being a rewilding sceptic for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because we don’t really know what ‘wild’ is (or rather was) in Britain or even Europe. Nobody can agree what Britain looked like before farming began to have really obvious impacts on the environment around 5,000 BC. Was most of the land covered in ‘wildwood’, or did fires, floods and large herbivores create extensive areas that were not permanently wooded? Furthermore, farming arrived here just 7,000 years ago, a drop in the ocean in the lifetime of many species of plants and animals, which evolve over hundreds of thousands to a couple of million years. To understand what the environment was like for most of the lifetime of these species we have to go way, way back, before the last Ice Age and perhaps even before the arrival of humans in Europe. We probably have to figure not just beavers, wolves and bears into the equation, but also mammoths, elephants, rhinos, and hippos, if we want to understand what sort of ‘wild’ environment many species of plant and animal need to thrive . Truly ’wild’ might be a lot wilder than we would be comfortable with. Defining what we mean by ’wild’ is an important question because it rather defines what the target of any ‘re-wilding’ project would be. It is a question that has intrigued biologists for a long time, because a large proportion of the native flora and fauna of Britain are not well-adapted to closed-canopy forest, and if the land was covered in trees, allowing a squirrel to go from coast to coast without touching the ground, where did all our sun-loving birds, bees, butterflies and plants live? I worry that ‘re-wilding’ may replace habitats such as heaths, fens, bogs and brownfield sites which are clearly man-made but also rich in a very diverse range of wildlife, with closed canopy forest that is just as ‘artificial’ because it lacks all the big, scary but extinct animals that knocked down trees, made clearings and generally shook things up a bit. I worry that the resultant forests would be a lot poorer in species than the habitats they replaced: not ‘Greenwood the Great’, rather ‘Mirkwood’. Secondly, I am concerned because there is no real agreement about what ‘rewilding’ is; on the one hand there seem to be purists who want fully-functioning ecosystems with a full complement of top predators and no human management at all. Others will settle for some human intervention, and use domestic animals such as cattle or ponies. Thirdly, I have the impression that many of the champions of ‘re-wilding’ do not have a broad knowledge of natural history. They are interested in Wolves and Aurochs, and in remarkable trees, rather than lowly creatures, or in grasses and sedges. ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ and it would be all too easy for species such as Fen Orchid to slip into oblivion. (In fact, ‘re-wilding’ all seems a bit macho: harking back to an imagined time when man vs. wilderness.) Fourthly, it is simply impractical in most of Britain. I worry that a focus on Wolves and Beavers will take energy and resources away from goals that are attainable. Here in Norfolk there is no chance that thousands of hectares will be set aside to ‘re-wild’, no chance that top predators will be introduced. There is, however, a good chance that wildlife-rich heaths, fens and meadows can be managed more sympathetically and effectively using  grazing and other forms of traditional human management, and that better connections between these scattered habitats (wildlife corridors) could be developed. This brings me to Natural Surroundings and the Glaven Valley. There is good evidence that the valley has been intensively used by people for a long time (e.g. there a lots of ‘pot boilers’ in the valley, piles of fire-shattered stones dating from the early Bronze Age). At the time of the Domesday Book the valley had 19 watermills. And, all along the lower valley there are meadows, including here at Natural Surroundings. A meadow is an area of permanent grassland that produces hay – once vital to keep livestock alive over the winter. The meadow would be protected from grazing animals in the first part of the year before being cut in mid summer. Once the crop of hay had been taken off it could be grazed by livestock for the rest of the season. (There was no such thing as a ‘wildflower meadow’ – the farmer was interested in hay, not pretty flowers and pollinators, but over time a wide variety of colourful wild flowers would arrive.) Hay-making probably died out in the valley a generation or more ago, but cattle continued to be put out onto the valley’s grassland until recently. Now, large areas have been abandoned and left to ‘nature’. I can think of grassy places in Hempstead, Edgefield, Hunworth, Thornage and here at Bayfield that are crying out for management (= human interference). I do not want them to ‘re-wild’, but that what’s happening. Without cutting or grazing the grassland is so rank and dense that a lot of the smaller and more delicate plants cannot survive, and soon it will turn into thickets of willows and poplars. These are good for lots of creatures, but as meadows and wet grasslands everywhere are either ‘improved’ or abandoned, unimproved wet meadows have become a really rare habitat, much rarer than willow scrub. Luckily, at Natural Surroundings we can do something. We are in the process of cutting our few acres of wet meadow, some of which is very, very rank, and I am really excited. What will happen next summer, and the summer after that? Will we see an improved diversity of plants. Will some of the specialist meadow plants re-appear? Will we still have our Barn Owls (not, as far as I am aware, known to be woodland creatures)? Our meadows are not ‘wild’, but we hope that they will be full of wildlife.

Early Marsh Orchid: One of the scarcer meadow plants that we hope will return to Natural Surroundings.

Early Marsh Orchid, one of the specialist plants of wet meadows that we hope will return to Natural Surroundings.