Rewilding Britain 2020
‘For most of history, man has had to fight nature to survive; in this century he is beginning to realise that in order to survive, he must protect it.’
– Jacques Cousteau Oceanographer, Conservationist & Film maker
One of the lessons of Covid-19 is that science is generally not black or white but a wide grey spectrum. We choose the facts that suit our arguments. The same applies to Climate Change.
Judging by the high percentage of principal authorities and Town and Parish Councils that have declared climate emergencies, not to mention central government, it would appear that there are more people in the UK who believe that climate change exists than do not and most of them undoubtedly lay the blame with mankind. Over population and CO2 levels are acknowledged by science to be a significant part of the issue.
Climate Change provokes many theories and it is true to say that as yet governments, capitalists and industry are not committed to taking the best action to save the planet for future generations. General agreement is that there is no silver bullet to reverse Climate Change. This being the case, the need is for a multitude of actions to mitigate the problem and all the symptoms.
It is the many symptoms of Climate Change that create impacts on England’s countryside. Flooding, higher temperatures, soil erosion, reduction in flora and fauna, pollution, changing and intense weather patterns have all impacted on everyone’s lives in the last five years. Whilst CPRE continues to lobby government on major topics, it should also seek to promote organic movements that are spreading across Europe and being pioneered by true innovators who are investing in nature to solve some key environmental issues. Rewilding by its very nature is part of a positive response to Climate Change by reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, increasing biodiversity and natural landscapes.
For nearly 100 years man has assumed that the planet’s resources were infinite. The realisation now is they are not.
It is only in more recent times that studies have shown how man is causing the problems and serious consideration been given to how nature can help us repair them.
Almost our entire English countryside has been crafted and maintained by man. There is little if any truly wild countryside. Even barren hills are generally the result of grazing by deer and sheep.
Rewilding is one microscope through which we can take a long hard look at England today and explore how we might adopt new ideas and enable nature to assist us. This project helps counter some of the Climate Change symptoms by locking in CO2 and delivering a greener future with more diverse ecosystems.
This is about working with nature and letting nature take the lead with only very minimal intervention. It is about standing back. The beauty of this solution is that it requires so little input from us. In appropriate places it is simply necessary to let nature flourish.
One definition of Rewilding
“Rewilding is a progressive approach to conservation. It’s about letting nature take care of itself, enabling natural processes to shape land and sea, repair damaged ecosystems and restore degraded landscapes”. (rewildinggroup.com)
Nature has always demonstrated long term viability by allowing itself to adapt. Man, over a relatively short time, has sought to intervene and tried to manage nature. Man’s population explosion and increasing pollution has stressed nature to its limit. Now it is understood that wildlife and biodiversity flourishes best when we do not play an active role. Science is indicating that we should step back and let nature manage itself.
Rewilding Britain, one of the leading charities at the forefront of Rewilding says: –
“We want Rewilding to flourish across Britain – to tackle the climate emergency and extinction crisis, reconnect people with the natural world, and help individuals and communities thrive with new opportunities”.
Their four principles are: –
- People, communities and livelihoods are key
Rewilding is a choice of land management. It relies on people deciding to explore an alternative future for the land and people.
- Natural processes drive outcomes
Rewilding is not geared to reach any human-defined optimal point or end state. It goes where nature takes it.
- Work at nature’s scale
Rewilding needs sufficient scale so that nature can reinstate natural processes and create ecologically coherent units.
- Benefits are for the long term
Rewilding is an opportunity to leave a positive legacy for future generations. It should be secured for the long term.
On the Rewilding Britain site there is the best possible visual presentation of rewilding at Carrifran in the Southern Uplands of Scotland. It illustrates the valley in 1999 and then again in 2015. The contrast is startling and convincing. See – https://www.rewildingbritain.org.uk/rewilding/what-does-rewilding-look-like
History is the illumination – Why we need a different approach
It would be easy to fill an entire book outlining the loss of habitat and species in England but suffice to list just a few to frame the need for rewilding.
- 97% of lowland wildflower meadows in England and Wales were lost between 1930 and 1984 and 90% of unimproved grassland lost since 1950
- 80% of the UK’s heath land, the majority in England, has gone since 1800
- The area of coppiced woodland fell by 90% between 1900 and 1970
- Wetlands were drained at rates of 1000 square km per year since the mid-19th century.
- The 2019 IPBES global assessment report which CPRE highlighted at the time https://www.cpre.org.uk/news/reversing-biodiversity-loss/ proved that the biggest driver of biodiversity loss is land use change and rates of extinction are fast accelerating
The UK’s ongoing loss of wildlife and plants is showing no signs of slowing. The most comprehensive assessment yet of the state of nature in the UK has found that the area occupied by more than 6500 species has shrunk by 5 per cent since 1970.
Of the species that we have more detailed data on, nearly 700 saw their numbers fall by 13 per cent. The declines have left 15 per cent of species facing extinction, including the turtle dove, numbers of which are down 98 per cent in half a century.
“We have this pattern of ongoing loss, which is showing no slowing in the rate of decline. Overall, we are losing more species than we are gaining,” says Daniel Hayhow of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. The RSPB is a member of the State of Nature partnership alongside other conservation groups, such as The Wildlife Trusts, and government bodies such as Natural England. – (taken from the New Scientist).
There are many scientific studies such as State of Nature 2019 and a WWF study that identify the considerable threats to our wildlife in England. Most conclude that the biggest drivers of this change are the intensification of farming and agriculture (including pesticides), followed by climate change, plastics pollution and river damage and air pollution.
Soil is a much under-studied and little recognised essential asset.
In an Environment Agency report in June 2019 they highlighted that UK soil contains about 10 billion tonnes of carbon. (Roughly 80 years of greenhouse gas emissions.) Intensive agriculture has caused arable soils to lose 40% to 60% of their organic matter.
Some of their key findings were –
- Over 2 million hectares of soil are at risk of erosion in England and Wales
- Almost 4 million hectares of soil are at risk of compaction in England and Wales affecting soil fertility and increasing the risk of flooding
- Microplastics are wide spread in soil with unknown consequences.
- Spreading of some materials can give rise to contamination. Some 300,000 hectares are contaminated in the UK.
- The proposed Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) provides an opportunity to reward farmers for protecting and regenerating soils.
The EA report goes on to highlight the following facts: –
- A bare slope can be eroded 1,000 times faster than one covered with vegetation
- In the uplands overgrazing by sheep and footpath use exposes the soil and is believed to cause 75% of erosion
- The total cost of topsoil erosion in England and Wales is estimated at £177 million
- Every year 2.9 million tonnes of topsoil are lost
- In England only 1 in 8 fields have high earthworm numbers.
- Much of the above is due to significant reductions in orchards, grassland and wetlands.
These facts are mirrored and further explained in the CPRE Food & Farming Foresight report of 2018 – Paper 3 – Rethinking our approach to soil (https://www.cpre.org.uk/resources/back-to-the-land-rethinking-our-approach-to-soil/).
It too brings into focus –
- 70% of our land is farmed
- We should make protection of soil a headline goal
- We are losing a finite resource
- The main threats are –
- Loss of Soil Organic Matter
Two of the many CPRE key policy recommendations the report put forward which are very relevant to rewilding are –
- Under the new agricultural policy design a new package of public investment and regulation to halt soil degradation and promote measures which protect and regenerate soils.
- Revise the NPPF and national planning guidance to fully recognise land and soils for their vital natural capital and ecosystem services and to minimise their avoidable degradation.
The UN has gone on record to state that it takes 1,000 years to generate 3 cms of topsoil and at the current rate of degradation and erosion the majority of the world’s topsoil will be gone within the next 60 years. It is the world’s topsoil that feeds the planet.
The above paints a bleak picture and makes the tasks all governments face seem daunting. However, the new proposals within the ELMS paper could give us all hope. Climate Change should be driving all decisions across government and through all organisations right down to an individual’s actions.
This is why rewilding can contribute in so many ways by letting nature heal the problems man has created for our planet. From a small beginning rewilding offers solutions to many environmental issues. It is not a complete solution in itself but is part of a holistic approach to address balance in our countryside; it is a very important step.
Commercial and Environmental Sense
By careful location and land selection rewilding presents unique opportunities for land owners to improve nature and in many instances create profitable new business initiatives whilst solving many environmental challenges. Farming subsidies have halted innovation in land ownership and perpetuated non profitable farming by simply paying out for ownership without any obligation to significantly improve the environment. In the uplands, the UK has traditionally given farmers subsidies to grow crops that don’t want to grow there and, in the process, the fact that uplands are primary water capture areas has often been lost.
There is a growing body of evidence that managing flood risk naturally by restoring natural processes can be cheaper and more sustainable. This also has the additional benefit of creating vibrant natural landscape and helps bring the economy to carbon neutrality. See www.rewildingbritain.org.uk/blog/rewilding-flooding-report
Today it is not uncommon to find farming activity being carried out on very poor soil that is not producing sufficient income. Upland farming is an example which in the main consists of sheep grazing and has removed virtually all forestation and shrubs. This increases volume and speed of water runoff, which will in turn cause rivers to swell and flood downstream. With weather patterns changing this is a familiar story.
There is no suggestion that the answer is rewilding across all farmland. Good, fertile soil is needed to grow food and some farmers combine excellent production with good environmental husbandry. But it needs to be recognised that a whole series of unsustainable and contradictory norms have been allowed to develop. On the one hand the UK imports much of its food. On the other it throws away food throughout the entire chain which amounts to approximately 40%. In addition, the current system encourages crops to be grown for bio-digesters, not food.
These anomalies need to be addressed whilst also looking more closely at the poor soil areas and see if income can be matched or improved by handing parts of our countryside to nature. Much of the UK’s farming today is not profitable without subsidy. This in itself is another subject that government must come to terms with. Expected increases in land values are the mainstay of many farming enterprises but this is not a sustainable or comfortable position. This becomes investment business rather than agriculture in its traditional state.
Myths and opposing views of Rewilding
There are many myths about rewilding and many views that do not support the concept. Apex predators are often mentioned and the carnage they bring with them. George Monbiot’s book ‘Feral’ is good reading to help shape a view on rewilding on a global basis. His research is exceptional and he is very questioning of all sources and opinions. It is not as intimate as the Knepp story but looks at society and governments and how we generally and erroneously fight against nature rather than harmonising with it.
As part of the myth busting his preface deals with perceptions that often get broadcast about one engrained terror, the wolf. In the USA he states that only one person has been killed by a wolf in the twenty first century. This averages out at 0.08 of a person a year and compares with those killed by vending machines 2.2 people a year; cows kill 20 people a year; dogs kill 31 people a year; and surprisingly 170 people a year are killed by toothpicks.
Yet myths and beliefs abound around Europe and England about big cats in the wild taking farmer’s lambs and sheep. Yet there has never been a big cat captured or shot and no indisputable evidence linking a big cat to a specific kill of livestock. Some opinions are even harder to understand. There is a strength of feeling against beavers being introduced into parts of Scotland on the grounds that they will eat the salmon stocks. Beavers are herbivores and eat only bark and vegetation.
There is no suggestion that apex predators are essential to rewilding in the UK at this time. The UK’s island status will not deliver true apex predators as a matter of course. However, Europe has seen an extension of their range and numbers as a result of rewilding. These include the wolf, bear and lynx but they are still in exceptionally small numbers. As more rewilding takes place communities will see the true and enjoyable advantages that nature can deliver.
But, even without the inclusion of large predators, there are those that do not agree with rewilding. Many farmers are highly suspicious of losing stock, losing land or losing their livelihoods. This is even when they realise that they only continue to farm due to subsidies. Many of these fears may change when the ELMS proposals come forward. Farmers may even embrace the whole concept if and when incentivised to get involved. Some are concerned that rewilding will simply create theme parks although it is difficult to see how this conclusion is reached. Letting nature take its course is surely the opposite.
Some scientists say that the evidence supporting the benefits of rewilding is at best limited. However, as each year passes the benefits at established rewilding sites like Knepp do seem to be very evident and consistent.
In some areas it is suggested that wild nature will make us prone to bush fires as we have seen elsewhere in the world. It must be acknowledged that this is a risk but it is very unlikely that substantial parts of England will be turned over to rewilding, it is far more likely to be well spread out small pockets around the country.
What is at the heart of rewilding?
Retention of habitat, reversal of soil erosion, creating new and much needed environments such as peat bogs, wetlands and specialist ecosystems, supporting ‘At risk’ flora and fauna, where appropriate reintroduction of those species that have died out in England are just some of the many supporting arguments for rewilding. Where Rewilding is already well established new business opportunities in tourism is paying dividends across a wide spectrum of communities. People want to see the likes of eagles, osprey, storks, pine martins and beavers in their natural habitat.
Whilst the overriding reason for rewilding is ultimately to give back to nature and to let it flourish, there also needs to be a recognition that there are benefits to the wellbeing of the wider community. Many studies now conclude that mental health is considerably improved through exposure to nature. Communities benefit both educationally and through amenity.
Trophic rewilding is often mentioned which is restoring big wilderness areas, and usually based on the regulatory role of large predators. This is described as the cores, corridors and carnivores concept. The introduction of wolves into Yellowstone park is a key example. Rewilding in its broadest sense is large scale and long term but does not have to introduce apex predators. Knepp is after twenty years demonstrating how nature needs time to deliver the success now witnessed.
There are many areas where rewilding could be a preferred opportunity for existing land owners and society if its aims and opportunities were better understood. Such locations could be: –
- Poor soil areas where traditional farming methods do not deliver profitability without subsidy.
- Upstream areas where water runoff is increasing and creates flooding.
- Where barriers between intensively farmed areas and rivers could once again slow down river systems but equally importantly avoid contaminated water runoff high in phosphates and nitrates.
- Areas known for flooding that are currently used for arable farming.
- Areas of land that already hold or did hold at risk plants or wildlife that could be at risk.
CPRE could help to influence opinions and demonstrate how different approaches in the right areas can bring forward significant environmental benefit for all. It would not be alone in this task as already many individuals, estates, farmers and other non-governmental organisations have started to recognise how rewilding can be a significant asset.
Giving land over to nature is never easy and careful planning and consultation is key. Boundary strips may be necessary if the land is connected to arable farming crops. Thistles may be very good for butterflies in a rewilding environment but seeds blowing across to neighbouring fields would not be appreciated. Results to date do show that nature does have a way of evening out dominant species of flora or fauna over time. Where large herbivores or indeed any free ranging large animals are part of the rewilding project, first class fencing is essential.
The Knepp Estate
Perhaps one of the best known promoters and pioneers of rewilding in England is the Knepp Estate in West Sussex. Their journey has been captured in the superb book ‘Wilding’ by Isabella Tree. Isabella and her partner Charlie Burrell since the year 2000 have followed first the idea and then the reality of rewilding. Their journey was not without many obstacles but they have worked together with many agencies to continue pushing the boundaries on what could be achieved.
The results are outstanding in what must be seen from environmental terms as a very short time. It is perhaps their single minded focus that has allowed them to achieve so much. Nature has delivered so many twists and turns but now they have the return of turtle doves, nightingales, breeding storks to name but a few of the fantastic results rewilding has delivered. It has not been without some managed interventions as it became clear that to achieve complete ecosystems there were wild animals that would have performed critical tasks. As a result, free roaming Longhorn cattle, Tamworth pigs, Fallow deer and ponies from Poland and Exmoor were introduced. All performing specific tasks as nature intended to fertilise, forage and disturb undergrowth and soil,
A five year monitoring survey carried at Knepp reveals astonishing wildlife success including breeding skylarks, woodlarks, jack snipe, ravens, redwings, fieldfares and lesser redpolls, thirteen out of The UK’s bat species and sixty invertebrate species of conservation importance including the rare purple emperor butterfly.
More recently Knepp has finally achieved permission to add beavers as part of its natural management scheme for woodland, ponds and water meadows. DEFRA has acknowledged Knepp as an outstanding example of “landscape-scale restoration in recovering nature”
Kingfisher Bridge Fen
Rewilding has already been embraced and had great success in parts of the Cambridgeshire fens where much of the wetlands already have a high degree of protection. Water buffalo were introduced in Kingfisher Bridge wetland to help manage grazing and by trampling reeds and creating paths, fish dispersal is expanded which in turn has made more attractive feeding grounds for the likes of bitterns. The buffalos’ work has also created the perfect environment for a very rare plant called a Germander.
Another new rewilding initiative which has recently been announced is not on poor soil or barren uplands but in one of the most fertile parts of the country in East Anglia. The project called WildEast is also unusual in that it has been started by three farmers. Their collective farms cover about 8,000 acres of the most intensively farmed area of England. They are seeking to persuade farmers, councils, schools, business and all interested people to pledge 20% of their land to wildlife and nature. Their vision is to have 250,000 hectares of East Anglia dedicated to wildlife. Together they want “To wake up the regional collective consciousness” and if you are prepared to rewild 20% of your backyard, that humbles the farmer because you are not getting a grant for it.” This is a plan to reverse post war losses in biodiversity without subsidies. Farmers can contribute a lot but their thrust also wants to include churchyards, barnyards and backyards.
They concede that farmers have been fortunate and in East Anglia have been unscathed by the many issues that have fallen upon other industries so their understanding and support for rewilding is refreshing and commendable. Their all-embracing aims also take a very pragmatic view on apex predators. One of them a sheep farmer is all for the reintroduction of lynx. As he points out far more sheep die of parasites than lynx where they are part of the natural ecosystem. This initiative really does put rewilding firmly into the farming mix and it demonstrates how we are realising the importance of nature in all our lives. There is so much more to read about this project at www.wildeast.co.uk
Kent Wildlife Trust and Wildwood Trust
This is a very recent initiative that will see bison reintroduced to Kent. Vast herds of European bison used to roam the grasslands of Europe up until the first world war when they were virtually eliminated when hunted for food. Bison have performed an important task within Europe’s ecosystems for thousands of years and we are now understanding how important it is to have such animals to create specialist ecosystems; for other species they are wildlife engineers. By felling trees, eating bark and grazing they create a more complex and diverse habitat. This then opens up the landscape to a more diverse and sometimes threatened range of plants and wildlife.
The reintroduction of bison not only improve and create habitat but they also expand tourism opportunities and save the large costs and time of habitat management, which often falls short in effectiveness, carried out by staff and volunteers.
The Ennerdale Valley
On the edge of the Lake District National Park the remote Ennerdale Valley is a partnership between land owners, the Forestry Commission, National Trust, United Utilities and Natural England. The partnership has a vision to allow evolution and nature to shape the landscape and ecology. Their stated vision is –
“To allow the evolution of Ennerdale as a wild valley for the benefit of people, relying more on natural processes to shape its landscape and ecology”
Examples of some of their 15 key principles are –
- Protect and enhance the sense of wildness
- Give freedom for natural processes to enable more robust, resilient and better functioning ecosystems to develop
- Only intervene where complementary to the vision or where a threat to the vision is posed
- Promote improved structure and diversity of habitats to sustain healthy wildlife and functioning ecosystems based on the Lawton principles of ‘more, bigger, better and joined up’
Ennerdale is a wild valley but one that is also an important amenity asset for wellbeing and community. Access allows walking, biking, canoeing, climbing, orienteering and horse riding as well as performing a learning and educational service. Like all rewilding it also locks in carbon and thus helps push back climate change.
There is also a project underway on 6,500 acres of Derbyshire’s Burbage Moor in the Peak District. Grouse shooting has been stopped, once intensive grazing has been reduced to 20 sheep and 30 cattle, bracken is being supplanted with various vegetation including bilberry and sphagnum and natural woodland is set to increase from 15% to 35% due to re-planting. In addition, a large blanket bog and hay meadow will be restored. The alliance behind this scheme includes the Peak District National Park Authority, the National Trust and the RSPB.
There are possibilities for rewilding in some urban environments. Such sites tend to be small in scale but they may provide very desirable and unique ecosystems within our cities and towns. Whilst this report sees all rewilding as a positive step, those within urban environments generally rely heavily on community involvement and local authority support and agreement and perhaps a more managed approach with greater intervention by man. These initiatives to green our streets and bring nature to communities must be encouraged and another positive step to combat climate change. Managed well they also provide great educational benefit.
The case for rewilding in the UK is very strong, especially given the Government’s Environmental Land Management paper. The paper completely supports environmental care and initiatives. It is suggested that three tiers of environmental management may be adopted.
- Tier 1 represents small scale proposals such as leaving field margins for wildlife
- Tier 2, for larger projects, is for leaving large areas of the farm for wildlife
- Tier 3 is for landscape schemes which could include very large scale areas for rewilding. It is hoped that government may specifically recognise and name rewilding due to its potential and significant contributions to wildlife, ecosystems and contribution to climate change.
Rewilding fits this brief so incredibly well in that it also impacts in a positive way climate change initiatives. Rewilding supports the ELM and vice versa. As well as producing rare and new ecosystems which in turn encourages wildlife it also stops soil erosion and holds back water flow and helps prevent flooding. Over time soil quality improves and invertebrates thrive.
Our lives are also enhanced by natural spaces where we can walk and learn in nature.
When nature is healthy, we are healthier too. We rely on the natural world for water, food and air. There is a growing realisation that connecting with wild nature makes us feel good and keeps us mentally and physically well.
Rewilding is about reconnecting a modern society – both rural and urban – with wilder nature. We invite people to experience and live in these new, rewilded landscapes.” (Quoted from Rewilding Europe)
Rewilding is so important because our environment and ecosystems urgently need all the help they can get to recover and reboot. Today much of the world around us is broken and our lifestyle is cause and effect for climate change.
Where rewilding is already starting to establish itself whole new and sustainable industry opportunities are appearing. What was subsidised and poor return farming is changing to profitable tourism. This is delivering permanent jobs across the community throughout the year. As populations grow in urban environments there is a desire for exposure to nature and to see real wildlife in its natural surroundings. Visitors and tourism help hotels, restaurants, pubs, B&Bs, farm shops and the whole community. Pastimes such as bird watching, photography, nature walks, and education all present new business opportunities when rewilding is the catalyst.
Rewilding also presents new opportunities to educate the urban population and improve wellbeing and mental health. It can be used to bring whole communities closer to and more understanding of our planet as an ecosystem of finite resource. There can be few better ways to understand landscape and wildlife than to take part in wildlife based travel experiences such as a safari around the Knepp estate or on any of the other rewilding sites in England or abroad.
In Devon, beavers have already improved water management and quality. Tourism and the economic benefits are directly linked to wildlife and landscape.
There are immeasurable benefits to us and the planet by adopting rewilding as one small part of our Climate Change agenda and our desire to green our planet for future generations.