In the month since I wrote in this column about wildling at the Knepp Estate in West Sussex, there has been considerable coverage of other similar projects in the national press. It is a fascinating subject that is attracting increasing interest amongst land managers and conservationists and an approach that is likely to be encouraged by future Government policy. So what can be learnt from the pioneers such as Sir Charles and Lady Burrell to guide future projects?
The first thing that struck me reading Isabella Tree’s extraordinary book was the challenge to the accepted view that the British Isles were once covered by the wildwood, primeval closed canopy forest. There is strong evidence to suggest that the wildwood was in fact wood pasture grazed by large herbivores such as bison, tarpan (wild horses), auroch (wild cattle), wild boar, brown bears, elk, roe deer and beavers. The aim of many who advocate rewilding is to recreate this landscape.
The first and best known such nature reserve is at Oostvaarderplassen in the Netherlands. The area was created in 1968 when an inland sea was drained for two new cities but an industrial zone lay undeveloped until the Dutch ecologist Frans Vera came up with the idea of turning it into a wilderness. Red deer, Konick horses and Heck cattle were released into the 5,000 hectare reserve to mimic the large herbivores of the Neolithic period.
Mild winters in the middle of this decade provided food and habitat such that the population of these three species reached 5,230 until the harsh winter of 2018. The policy of zero intervention was challenged when starving animals started dying in huge numbers in the reserve and the Dutch state forestry organisation stepped in to cull the starving. The population fell to 1,850 with some 90% of the 3,380 animals that lost their lives shot.
Amongst the stories appearing in the media is the plan to release bison in Kent. The Wilder Blean project is based in Blean wood near Canterbury owned by the Kent Wildlife Trust. It is primarily a conifer plantation amongst ancient semi-natural woodland and it is intended that the bison will destroy some of the conifers opening up glades and allowing the indigenous vegetation to come through. The steppe bison lived in the British Isles until around 6,000 years ago, the European bison a direct descendant. Initially one male and three females will be released in a 150 hectare enclosure where there are no footpaths but, if successful, the enlarging population could spread out into the 500 hectares of the reserve. In the Netherlands, members of the public have been able to wander amongst the bison without incident. As at Knepp, there will be Longhorn cattle, Exmoor ponies and ‘iron age’ pigs.
Ambitious projects have been launched in East Anglia. Rewilding Britain has called for 300,000 acres to be rewilded over three years whilst Wild East has a goal of rewilding 250,000 hectares over fifty years. This represents 20% of all land in East Anglia and the promoters hope that a million people will sign up by 2025, all to devote 20% of whatever land they have to nature, including gardens and churchyards.
There are some larger areas too. On the Ken Hill Estate bordering the Wash in Norfolk, 1,000 acres is being rewilded including woodland and wetland. Beavers have already been introduced and it is planned to release wild cattle, ponies and pigs next year. A further 1,000 acres is managed in a similar way around the 150 acre Fritton Lake on the Somerleyton Estate in Suffolk. Here there is heathland with sporadic trees, wet woodland, alder carr, acid grassland and marshes with areas covered by ornamental and commercial trees. Some of the trees have been removed, along with Victorian rhododendrons to create wood pasture grazed by red and fallow deer, pigs, cattle, ponies and sheep. At some point, the Eurasian lynx might be reintroduced, the emblem of Wild East.
The word rewilding means many things to many people. To some it means leaving land untouched to let nature take its course, in which case it is likely to turn to nettles, thistles, ragwort and scrub before eventually becoming woodland. Without any management the result is likely to elicit criticism especially if predators such as foxes and corvids reduce the range and population of wildlife species.
On a larger scale, such as Somerleyton and Knepp, large herbivores are introduced to maintain a wood pasture landscape, hugely increasing wildlife. To avoid unintended disasters such as occurred at Oostvaarderplassen, careful management is undertaken to ensure a balance as outcomes are closely monitored. Can this be replicated across the country and, if so, would that reduce our ability to feed ourselves? The estates taking this approach thus far have well developed tourism enterprises which bring more income than conventional farming on poor soils. Obviously if a large number of farmers took similar decisions, that would not apply and food production would diminish.
The aim of Wild East, however, is that as many people as possible will take part, even if only by encouraging wildlife in their gardens and that would not come within most people’s definition of rewilding. It is critical, however, that such initiatives are coordinated as we have learnt over the decades that small silos of nature conservation do not achieve very much. To use the words of Sir John Lawton in his Making Space for Nature Report, Nature conservation must be ‘bigger, better and more joined up’.