Born to rewild?

Born to rewild?

Pine marten. Photo, Terry Whittaker/2020VISION

It’s a much-used term and very much ‘on-trend’, but what does ‘rewilding’ mean and what is its implication for us in Devon? DWT’s Pete Burgess explores this controversial issue.
A corncrake calls from a wildflower meadow

Could the corncrake's wonderful call be heard in Devon again. Photo, Fergus Gill

Imagine a place where nature has been put back in the driving seat – no longer a passenger, or even worse squeezed into a rear-facing seat after we almost forgot to invite it along for the journey!

There are landscapes where nature and people have formed vibrant and colourful coalitions. These are exciting, inspirational places where nature is given room to breathe, to shape the land and all it contains.

Beavers building dams, water alive with insects, meadows a riot of colour

Here industrious beavers are building dams which hold water in even the driest months, which are alive with insects, amphibians and fish. Bankside trees are coppiced, light penetrates the ground and a flush of wetland plants erupt in colour. Meadows and woodlands are in a dynamic battle for supremacy – no side ever wins but the mix of flower-rich pastures, scrub and woodland always generates wildlife riches and high quality fodder for livestock. Water is given space to flow naturally – what a revelation to see rivers and streams where they should be….in a lattice work throughout the floodplain – not hemmed into deep channels, out of sight and mind (until of course the time comes when nature stages a coup and temporarily takes charge during the inevitable flood event).

Nature within these landscapes is joined up – it isn’t akin to a single glorious flowerbed in a car park – more like a thread of priceless natural jewels within a rich tapestry of cultural landscapes. These areas are so well connected that species not seen for hundreds of years are making a comeback. Even wolves have been spotted in search of pastures new, stealthily moving within the tall riverside scrub that link floodplain deltas to mountain refuges. And amongst all this wildlife is us – people are part of it and we love it, farmers are making a good living producing high quality meat from native breed cattle grazing the land. Local residents can explore anywhere they wish, go wild swimming in rivers which haven’t been so clean for 50 years; there is only one rule, keep your dogs on a lead – and people do! 

Highland cow with calf stand looking at the camera

Highland cattle: one of the native grazers with a part to play in rewildling. Photo, David Tipling 

Closer than you think...

You may be thinking I’m describing a remote corner of modern-day Latin America, or else an imagined futuristic land. But no, this is a place only a few miles from the UK’s shores. It’s the Rhine Delta region of the Netherlands, one of the world’s most densely populated countries, yet large tracts of land here have been given back to nature, they have been ‘rewilded’.

Rewilding has to be the most contested phrase in modern conservation and land management circles. Debates have been highly charged and often unhelpfully polarised – even down to whether the prefix ‘re’ is correct – or if this should be just ‘wilding’! Passions from both ‘sides’ are at their most intense when a pure wilderness approach is promoted, where vibrant local cultures, land use industries, farming and people seem to be excluded. But rewilding is a solution, a very exciting and inspiring one, to reversing the catastrophic declines in nature we have witnessed for decades.

Before I saw the rewilded areas of the Netherlands first-hand I had so many questions about what the same process might actually mean for us in Devon. The idea of wilderness stirred intense internal conflict in me. I love the Devon countryside and I feel a deep sense of place and relationship with the land, my closest friends and family generate a living from it. These emotions of connection are not felt when I have explored some of the most remote and wildlife rich parts of the world. This is possibly down to the fact we can read the imprints we have on the Devon landscape through the long history we have had shaping the land through traditional farming practices, cottage industries and rural settlements; things we are an intimate part of.

But true wilderness isn’t the only goal for the ‘rewilder’. It is just one end of a broad spectrum. There is a form of rewilding, an even more exciting option in my view, where space is made for nature on a grand scale, but where cultural and natural heritage aren’t placed in a head-to-head attritional fight for supremacy!

Great cranes comes into land on the Somerset Levels

The Great Crane Project has seen these wonderful birds returning to the Somerset Levels. Photo, Nick Upton/2020Vision  

Nature reserves - the beating heart of a landscape

In these landscapes nature reserves would continue to be the beating heart, but they would be more numerous and larger, carefully managed as ark sites which are literally overflowing with wildlife which colonises surrounding countryside. Land neighbouring the reserves will be rested and allowed to recover, soils and water will recharge their health, and wildlife will recolonise. Crucially farming will be very much part of the picture here, but its land will be shared sensitively with nature.

These neighbouring areas, the ones which surround nature reserves, aren’t places where big agri-businesses control swathes of land and produce monocultures of grass cut for silage four or five times a year. Instead flower rich pastures, wetlands, scrub and woodland will be given space to regenerate. Herds of native cattle will ensure these landscapes remain open, diverse, and constantly changing – the same results that roving herds of aurochs would have had in times gone by. In addition these landscapes will be producing other high quality products which are the planet’s life support systems – clean air, fresh water, and productive and healthy soils.

There will be space for us to take a harvest of key products such as timber and also high quality meat from livestock. The big difference would be that natural processes will be in charge, not hemmed in on our terms or confined to reserves. Species such as pine marten, corncrake and curlew will recolonise these landscapes and perhaps as time moves on proposals to reintroduce once native carnivores will not evoke such visceral and negative reactions. 

A wilder future

This article I hope prompts us to think about a wilder future. It doesn’t prescribe or identify areas where such wilding could occur – these are decisions custodians of the land will make. As we progress through a tumultuous period in land use policy change as a result of Brexit, landowners and farmers will consider changes to their land management and Devon Wildlife Trust will be at the fore of supporting a wilder Devon. This article I hope stimulates discussions and feeds into debates
about wilding in rural and urban, land and sea, and, crucially, within our own minds but in a way which is constructive and not polarising. 

Peter Burgess is Devon Wildlife Trust’s Director of Conservation and Development


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