Why ‘Re-wilding’ the UK is a Good Idea

According to Wikipedia, re-wilding is:

large-scale conservation aimed at restoring and protecting core wilderness areas, providing connectivity between such areas, and protecting or reintroducing apex predators and keystone species. Rewilding projects may require ecological restoration, particularly to restore connectivity between fragmented protected areas, and reintroduction of predators where extirpated.’

For thousands of years we have radically reshaped the Earth’s surface—modifying, manipulating and managing nature in order to satisfy our need for food, water and shelter. The most profound change began about 7–10,000 years ago when Neolithic societies first began to domesticate plants and animals, and moved from being hunter-gatherers to settled agriculturalists. The transformation through agriculture is now so comprehensive that in many parts of the world people view farmland and countryside as synonymous. In the UK, for example, many landscapes that are widely considered to be entirely ‘natural’ are in fact the unintended by-product of centuries of low intensity agricultural or recreational land use. Contrary to popular belief, few of the UK’s national parks preserve wilderness, but are instead ‘cultural’ landscapes created and sustained by rural activity. The New Forest for example is a man made Royal hunting estate.  Many habitats of high conservation value, such as coppiced woodlands, calcareous grasslands such as the South Downs and lowland heaths, require continual intervention through traditional agricultural techniques such as hay cutting, livestock grazing and burning. These are ‘plagioclimax’ communities (an area or habitat in which the influences of the human race have prevented the ecosystem from developing further) in which the farming practices act to stop the vegetation from developing towards a mature, stable state; effectively making permanent a naturally ephemeral habitat stage. This disturbance typically enhances biological diversity, both locally by providing an environment in which early and late successional species can coexist and regionally by producing a more varied landscape in which a range of different vegetative stages are represented.
However, many traditional rural practises have ceased to be economically viable and replicating them ad infinitum for the purpose of conservation may be unsustainable, effectively committing conservationists to a ceaseless battle against ecological succession that is both expensive and labour intensive. Increasingly, the conservation of man made landscapes through continuous intervention is being questioned. Proponents of ‘rewilding’ advocate a more process-orientated approach, one which allows natural ecological processes, and not traditional management, to shape biological communities. They argue that perpetuating the landscape that existed prior to the advent of intensive agricultural practises (in essence, the landscape immediately before the Green Revolution of the mid 20th century) constitutes an arbitrary and unambitious baseline for conservation. Furthermore, they suggest that much current conservation management may well be based on ‘anecdote and myth’ rather than verifiable scientific evidence.
Rewilding involves understanding the ecological processes that shaped the landscape prior to the substantial impacts of human societies.  The rewilding approach requires that absent or defunct components of an ecosystem are identified and then successfully reinstated or replicated. Large predators and herbivores, often perform a key role in shaping natural ecosystems. Consequently, the rewilding ethos encourages the reintroduction of large animals including predators or suitable alternatives.

In the middle of my garden is 50 year old silver birch, now about 40 feet high.  Throughout the seasons it dominates the garden, providing much needed shade in summer, colour and leaves for compost in the autumn and a home for birds all year round.  In spring and summer especially it literally sucks hundreds of gallons of water from the ground, meaning that my garden is never waterlogged.  It’s a forest tree and really should not be in a small garden.  It should be alongside other broad leaf species in woodland.  Much of the UK’s uplands were once covered with broadleaf woods and forest, long ago largely cleared to provide grazing for sheep.  In West Oxfordshire through into Gloucestershire on a ridge between the Windrush and Evenlode Rivers was Wychwood Forest, a Royal Hunting Forest until about 1850 when the masters of the then universe, the Victorians, saw an opportunity to create grazing for more sheep to feed the wool industry based in nearby Witney.  So they cut down 95% of the forest for grazing, but in the meantime the wool industry all but died so the land became used for arable farming.  A drive along the Windrush valley now is difficult because of the flooding which almost certainly would have been substantially less had we still had the forest.  This is because the trees in the upland forest would have held the water, preventing it from reaching the valley quite so quickly and allowing a more natural drainage flow.

Another Victorian triumph is the Somerset Levels which were once an impenetrable marshland, in which Alfred the Great hid for years from the invading Danes.  Drained in the 1800’s and artificially protected with dykes for agriculture to provide arable land and grazing to support a growing and increasingly wealthy industrial population and worldwide colonial army, they have gradually become more and more populated.  But as climate changes and with a much larger population increasingly reliant on ‘somebody doing something’ we are discovering that the role played by wild areas in the natural landscape is vital to stop or minimise for example the flooding seen in the early part of 2014.  Draining moorland marshes just means that the water that falls gets downstream much faster.  Cutting down upland forests to provide grazing for sheep means the same.  Water gets into the rivers much more quickly, and thanks to ‘management’ of river channels, again to help farmers, the water gets all the way downstream faster still, dumping silt into estuaries.  This is exactly what has happened on the Levels.  Victorian agricultural engineers used drainage channels flowing into arrow straight ‘drains’ to carry water faster into rivers courses also straightened and cleared of obstacles to speed things up even more, causing greater erosion and silt dumping.

We have understood the folly of building houses on flood plains for a while.  Building entire communities and enterprises on the largest natural flood plain in the UK next to one of the largest river estuaries in Europe with the second highest tidal rise in the world on some of the only land in the UK below sea level that has now flooded badly is however apparently the fault of poor dredging, and not an act of massive human arrogance & stupidity.  Surely this was a problem we should have seen well before now and realised that if we received record rainfall of the magnitude experienced over the last two months there would be a problem no amount of dredging could have fixed.  The Levels are simply doing what Nature intended and we have no place there.

The World WIldlife Fund is already working with eight farmers on the River Nar in Norfolk in an experimental project to restore upstream rivers to their original state. Rivers have been squeezed into straight, fast-flowing channels over hundreds of years to hurry rainwater off fields.  But that has contributed to flooding of prime agricultural land downstream. Fast-flowing rivers also carry silt which causes rivers to clog up.  Using old maps, the experimental Norfolk scheme redirects rivers into their original meandering pattern.  Trees have been felled into the stream, leaving the river to find its own way and when rain falls heavily the river floods and water soaks into the soil.  WWF said the speed of water flowing through the River Nar had fallen noticeably.  “Lazy rivers” do not have the energy to carry much silt either, and this should reduce the need for dredging downstream.  Special ponds have also been created to catch much of the fertile silt running off fields and keep it for local farmers to spread on their land.

In another scheme in Scotland the reintroduction of beavers in the uplands has led to the damming of rivers and streams, slowing water flow to lowland areas and allowing more isolated pools to develop upstream rather than flooding downstream.

These are the sorts of scheme the Environment Agency has in mind when it says dredging the rivers in the Somerset Levels may not be the best solution.  Re-wilding uplands and moorlands will not only help prevent flooding, but provide potential habitats for lost species like beaver, and corridors to link national parks, forests and reserves.  They will become of tremendous importance as recreational areas for horse riders, walkers, wildlife watchers and contribute to a healthier population.  Having trashed our wild areas over centuries we have a duty to show an example to others.  Across the other side of the world in Vietnam rainforest is being sacrificed square mile after square mile to grow coffee largely for Nescafe.  In the same way as we have lost all our large animals they have lost the rhino, and have no more than a handful of forest elephant and tigers left.  The coffee boom in Vietnam cannot last because the land becomes quickly exhausted and infertile, by which time the rain forest will be all but gone.  We have already learned some of the lessons the Vietnamese will come to very soon, and should now lead by example, demonstrating how restoring wilderness helps maintain balance in Nature, with which we meddle at our peril.


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