Rewilding Fairy Tales

 

Summary

Rewilding schemes across the UK and Europe have been attracting a lot of attention. Here I present a farmer’s view on some of the irrationalities of such schemes. Ecologically the UK has changed out of all recognition from its original baseline before interventions from humans. Wide ranging prehistoric mega-fauna and predator extinctions caused by early hunter-gatherer societies effectively broke natural food chain webs whilst subsequent agricultural practices dramatically changed landscapes. This makes it extremely difficult to design appropriate new baseline-themed targets for rewilding schemes as many key species are long lost. Rewilding schemes also have a catch 22 whereby human activities are often key to economic success but the same disruption can negatively affect outcomes. Schemes need also to be realistic about additional indirect unavoidable human influences too; in particular the roles of invasive species, transient pollution, aircraft and transport influences and noise/light pollution. Schemes also overlook the many benefits of unnatural human-engineered landscape features such as hedges and wild bird covers. Rewilding projects should also consider the implications of exporting our environmental footprint to other countries when food/fibre production is deferred to other overseas producers when biodiversity is the only objective. I propose a greater emphasis on nature friendly farming initiatives and projects to promote sustainable farming; balancing the needs for food, climate mitigation and biodiversity enrichment.

Historical background

Once upon a time The British Isles was a magical place full of exotic creatures and plants. From brown bears to bison, great auks to aurochs, wolves to pelicans the ecosystem would be completely unrecognisable to any modern ecologist.  Before humans encroached into Northern Europe even elephants, rhino and hippo species would have been found roaming the British Isles (which in earlier times were physically connected to the continent). Undoubtedly these headline species would have had a complex entourage of associated bird, insect and plant species also long lost and forgotten. For example it is believed today that many tree species can withstand coppicing because of the natural equivalent disruption these ancient mammals would have wrought. The top of the food chain was shared by lynx, scavenging hyenas, leopards and even cave lions. It’s hard to envisage now but Northern Europe had just as impressive an itinerary of mammals as Africa still does today:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_extinct_animals_of_the_British_Isles

The debate is still open about why all these species were lost. Was it due to climate change as the Ice Age declined or was it due to the sophisticated hunting techniques of early hominid species? Whatever the reason the ecosystem we see today in the British Isles is a husk of its former glory.

There is also mounting evidence to challenge the theory that ancient Britain was closed canopy forest. The aforementioned megafauna probably engineered the landscape to give a patchwork of pasture woodland with clearings and sunny areas. This was until early humans came along and slowly changed from hunter-gathering to farming practices. In fact the early hunter-gatherer methods for gathering food were arguably far more destructive to ecosystems than early farming practices. Early man was just as much a specialist in mass extinctions and tree felling as modern man today despite the much lower population levels! We were particularly efficient at cutting down trees to create fields.  There is more relevant background information on ancient British landscapes here:

https://nerc.ukri.org/planetearth/stories/608/

Why does this matter? In my view it matters because in trying to determine where we want to get to it is important to understand how things looked before we started ‘fiddling’! It might be the right moment to mention ‘shifting baseline syndrome’. George Monbiot first introduced this concept to me in his book ‘Feral’. The basic premise is that an individual recognises how biodiversity has changed during their lifetime but makes the flawed assumption that how things were when they were a child is how they ‘should be’. Giving some personal examples of this I remember seeing lots more caterpillars as a child (especially those black ones on nettle patches) but I don’t see them so often now as an adult. I remember seeing lots of lapwing on the farm as a teenager but see them rarely nowadays. However my father, grandfather, great grandfather etc. would have had completely different baseline perspectives on what ‘normal’ should be with very different examples. I have never seen glowworms but I’ll bet my Great-grandfather did! In reality all of us have distorted perceptions of optimal baseline, right back to when the first humans started interfering with the ecosystems around them in the dramatic ways already discussed. We are way off what normal should look like and our ecosystems are arguably broken; we are the apex predator now whether we like it or not and we are responsible for shaping the environment around us in the best way possible and keeping things in balance as best we can.

Ecological baseline distortions

Today just over 70% of the land-use in the UK is for agricultural purposes. Much of this area is farmed extensively for grazing ruminants. The wet, temperate climate is optimal for growing grass and ruminants are the best way to utilise this for food. About 13% of the UK is forested; lower than much of continental Europe but it is worth noting this level is well above historic lows; England’s forests and woods had dwindled to only 5.2% coverage by 1905 but have since been recovering!

https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2013/jul/27/history-of-englands-forests

The current UK population is around 68 million with about 83% of people considered to be living in urban areas. Sadly the majority of the population are disconnected from the natural world and many do not visit rural areas. Approximately 6% of the UK could be classed as being ‘built-on’ (9% for England). Despite the majority being used for agriculture the UK is less than 60% food self-sufficient and therefore depends on other nations to supply many of our calorific needs. Within this backdrop I want to make the obvious point that the UK landscape, whether urban or rural has been shaped by human intervention. Road and railway verges are some of our more ‘wild’ habitats. Parks and golf courses are significant habitats too. 27 million people in the UK partake in gardening and are inadvertently managing wildlife habitats to varying degrees. Looking specifically to farmland over 500,000 miles of hedgerow are managed by UK farmers. There are massively important habitats despite not being a natural feature. Though environmental schemes myself and many farmers manage fallow areas, wild bird covers, arable reversion land, hay meadows, ground nesting bird areas and many other diverse but totally unnatural habitats which are nevertheless essential to British wildlife today.

I have touched on how UK fauna and flora is totally changed from the original pre-human baseline but there is another massive side to our meddling; the introduction of non-native species. The list is endless; I could write a very large blog on this subject alone but here’s a few examples of species which are not native to the UK and in effect shouldn’t be here:

Grey squirrel, American Mink, Harlequin Ladybird, Japanese Knotweed, Asian Hornet, Rhododendron, Muntjac, Pitcher Plant, brown rat, rabbit, hare, Fallow deer, parakeet, Common Pheasant, Canada Goose, Mandarin Duck, Goldfish, Common Field Speedwell & Buddleia.

This is a taster of UK non-natives; the list is much bigger than this and as shown includes some iconic much-loved species but the point is that, again, our theoretically aspirational ecological baseline is impossible to achieve because our ecosystem is so far removed from where it should be with species which basically shouldn’t be here.

The general gist of what I’m showing is that the UK landscape is a human engineered and managed landscape far removed from aspirational baselines. Dropping in a sprinkle of high profile introduction species like storks, beavers or wolves really isn’t going to be a game-changer and magic back ecosystems to where they should be.

The Climate Change ecological tsunami

Climate heating scares the hell out of me. I like to think of myself as a fixer of problems but this one is way beyond my abilities and literally keeps me awake at night. We already have around 1.2 degrees of climatic heating locked in and with so much inertia it will very difficult to stop unavoidable negative feedback loops worsening the problem. This backdrop for rewilding is significant simply because evolutionary adaption is really not going to be fast enough to adapt to climatic shifts. This is more evidence to the case for actively managing habitats; farmers will need to introduce new, appropriate species to the environment to maintain reasonable levels of biodiversity because in some cases, tragically, native species just won’t be able to adapt fast enough. It is still unclear where the British climate is headed but hotter, drier summers and wet, mild winters seems a reasonable assumption. With active planning landscape managers can incorporate fauna and flora species better suited to the changing environment to make the best out of a bad situation. Personally, in the context of inevitable rapid climate change, I believe leaving habitats to just get on with it themselves without active intervention is ill-judged and irresponsible.

Human disturbance

OK so I’ll freely admit I had a cracking day at Knepp wildlands last Summer. I went with a best mate and anyone with the remotest interest in wildlife cannot fail to be enthused by what they can find. The Burrells showed extraordinary courage and foresight to follow an unconventional path. The highlight of the day, which I will never forget, was when a Purple Emperor butterfly landed on my shirt sleeve. I’ve tried to ignore the fact that these beautiful butterflies are known to be attracted to dirty, smelly things! I also enjoyed seeing fields teeming with grasshoppers and many dragonflies. It was a good day, I learned a lot and it lit the touchpaper on several new ideas. However there is always a ‘but’! It was notable that the estate was having a growing issue with over-dominance by a herb called fleabane. It is unclear whether Knepp will self-regulate to deal with this as it did for thistles a few years ago but the plant was clearly smothering out other flower species and becoming a problem. Putting aside this botanical issue there was also the obvious paradox of high levels of human activity. Being a bit of a Mecca for wildlife enthusiasts unsurprisingly the footpaths across the estate were well-trodden. It was high summer but there was a very busy feel to the Estate. It is understandable that camping is part of the income stream for the business but the noise disturbance and trampling by people has inevitable consequences for wildlife. Where I’m getting at is obvious; Yes, Knepp does have some impressive recolonization stories but also has the Catch 22 whereby really rewilding should remove people from habitats but inevitably estate economics means the opposite needs to happen to replace income from food production with income from eco-tourism.

Looking to other planned rewilding projects there is also the issue of what I’ll call the ‘Sloth effect’. It was also a theme in the Jurassic Park movies. My daughter is mildly obsessed by sloths for no obvious reason. Cue multiple visits to wildlife parks and zoos to catch a glimpse of said Sloth. Unfortunately despite these steady creatures having relatively compact enclosures they are pretty damn hard to see by day. We had many failed trips before finally finding a camera-friendly sloth. Apply this problem of naturally shy animals to large rewilded estates and the problems are obvious. Lots of punters pulled in to catch a glimpse of a handful of wolves, beavers or lynx and having to make do with a look round a shitty visitor’s centre with lots of glossy pictures. Such creatures don’t tend to avail themselves to conveyor belts of gawping people when they have large areas at their disposal to hide in. There is therefore a risk of future rewilding projects using flagship controversial introductions as a lure finding they have disappointed visitors who see diddly squat except for a few grainy webcam vids.

On farms we have comparable issues with dog walkers and ground nesting birds. People do love to visit the farm and let their energetic pet run free. I regularly see walkers diligently keeping to the footpath whilst their dog pack sweep through a 250 metre zone on either side of the path clearing out the wildlife. “But what harm are they doing” I get told. And this is before you consider the added disease risks such as Neospora caused by dog poo. I do understand the vital importance of public access and agree with the Vitamin-N initiative but there are downsides to public access too for livestock and wildlife.

This makes me wonder which eccentric but pioneering estate owner of the future will decide to rewild an area with a condition of no public access at all. In my view true, honest rewilding projects should imply minimized human presence and not be themed around the eco-tourist.

As a footnote even if hypothetically you do remove physical human presence from a habitat there are of course still human influences. Whether by light pollution, micro and macro plastic pollution (think of all those deflated helium balloons dropping in), noise pollution (aircraft or traffic noise) or imported watercourse contaminants human influences will still be present without the people found throughout the UK.

Scale and tenure constraints

Rewilding projects are often ambitious and at scale. Many ecologists feel that unless this is the case renewed habitats are not fit for purpose for pioneering species reintroduction. For those advocates of flagship introductions such as lynx and wolves such scale is also entirely necessary; just as seen in Africa such apex predators need huge hunting ground areas to support them. On my own farm I have many field corners within our HLS scheme which to to my eyes are my own micro-rewilding projects. Some have popped up displays of orchids. Others are full of shrubs and small trees or dense patches of willow. I find lots of interesting wildlife on these patches but obviously they are not going to fit a big cat! They are, however, suitable to the scale of our farm and have their own merits and value. They also reinforce the long-term nature of rewilding projects; you have to have patience to see results. Such changes take a few years to bear fruit and here is a complication. The average English farm is 86ha in size. Around a third of this farmland is rented either on shorter term FBTs or old AHA tenancies. For most farm large scale rewilding is not a viable option both because Landlords are unlikely to support such a change (it can seriously affect the land asset value) and farms are just not big enough for a meaningful project. Sometimes, perhaps, local farms can collaborate for a larger combined project but this is often equivalent to herding cats as neighbouring farms often still retain a competitive streak and there will always be a rebel to a cause. So those advocating large scale rewilding initiative should be wary of tenure and viable scale complications.

Migration and global environmental footprints

This morning a tweet showing illegial bird hunting in Malta reminded me about the importance of joined-up conservation measures across migratory routes. As Spring unfolds and valued species such as Swallows, House Martins and Turtle Doves return to the UK from Southern Europe and North Africa it is a reminder how our best intentions here in the UK can so easily be undermined by poor practices elsewhere. As a butterfly enthusiast I am aware too that even insects are part of this migratory story; species such as the Clouded Yellow and Painted Lady also migrate long distances. No matter how good our conservation projects are in the UK for many species with multi-site homes the whole annual cycle is important and good work here can be undone elsewhere beyond our control.

There is some reverse logic to this regional narrative too. The UK has an environmental footprint far beyond its shores for food, fuel and all imported products. We are currently around 60% self-sufficient for our food. Hypothetically if the UK wound the Rewilding dial right round to full we would maybe see self-sufficiency halve from this level to around 30%. However our food would have to be grown (and then hauled) from elsewhere. Putting aside the risks of disrupted supply if this imported food comes with associated greater environmental degradation (including for all those migratory species) this decision would actually have damaged global biodiversity not improved it. Policy decisions here can have knock-on consequences elsewhere and as is so often repeated we must not export our environmental footprint and conscience or there is no net win.

An alternative path

Late last year Rewilding Britain pulled out of the Summit to Sea rewilding project in mid-Wales which they helped set up. It has become a classic example of why rewilding projects should engage and get the endorsement of affected local communities. The UK has 68 million people sharing the environment and landscape with our wildlife. I earlier, tongue in cheek, implied true rewilding should probably come with a zero-human commitment but in practice this is impractical for our populous nation. Both from an educational and eco-tourist perspective I understand how the commercial side of rewilding is inevitable and projects have to engage people and communities. However, as a farmer, I ask myself if there an alternative pathway to wildlife recovery/protection? Is there another way farmers could step up a gear for habitat restoration and have bespoke initiatives they are super proud of? Is there a way we find balance for the triple challenges of supplying wholesome, affordable food, climate change mitigation and biodiversity enrichment? Are we going to be dictated to or are we going to be proactive and make our own solutions? Will we patiently wait for Governments to spoon out meaningful funding via ELMS (over a depressingly long start-up phase) or find a way to get stuck into our own agendas? Is there a way we can design and manage new habitats to match the scale and character of our own farms? Can we then intensively manage them proactively to maximise gain whilst still involving the people living and working on those farms? Can we demonstrate how livestock, incorporated sensitively and appropriately within these new schemes, can enhance the biodiversity of farms and not degrade them? Can we attract finance from the private sector to pilot fund these flagship projects? I believe the answer to all these questions is a resounding ‘Yes’ and farmers have a ‘can-do’ attitude. But the baseline for moving forward with these challenges has to be profitable farms. Only businesses with sufficient resources and capital to invest in their holdings can be enabled to reasonably contribute to projects and drive agendas. If farmers find themselves constantly treading water struggling with marginal market prices ambitions will be drowned out to financial realities. But onto specifics; what actions should farmers and land managers actually do? Of course every farm is different depending on their circumstances but in general a good place to begin is to plant more trees and hedges. Perhaps we can subdivide fields again putting back old historic boundaries? We must certainly conserve existing notable habitats. Try to reduce energy and fuel usage. Use improved varieties and wide cropping rotations including Spring Cropping. Minimise use of mineral fertilisers, agrochemicals and cultivations where possible. Experiment with cover crops, herbal leys and companion cropping and try to avoid exposed bare soil especially on sloping ground. Use buffer strips, beetle banks and grass margins to protect adjoining features. Use animal manures with best practice. Avoid compacting soils. Don’t overstock or overgraze. Dedicate an area of the farm to wildlife habitats. Investigate agroforestry opportunities. None of these ideas are rocket science and all can help to improve farm biodiversity and profitability. Beyond these generalised guides individual farm will have their own projects and initiatives often championed by being part of a growing network of farm cluster groups. I will discuss my own flagship project concept in a near-future blog which is called the ‘Intensive Habitat Project’.

UK agriculture is already much more focused on environmental targets than was the case in the past. Farmers are already engaging with ELMS pilot schemes to develop the ‘public good’ schemes of the future. I am sure with the right encouragement and political atmosphere farmers will get stuck right in to new challenges.

 

Conclusion

Rewilding agendas clearly frustrate me as a farmer but also leave me a bit conflicted. As someone who loves to experiment I understand and commend attempts to do something different. I accept there is a niche in the marketplace for rewilding projects and that they do have genuine value. My primary concern is that they will be overbaked and alternative more balanced and compatible alternative schemes will be lost in the excitement and noise. As I have outlined I am sceptical about the conflicts of human interventions into these sites and cynical about the use of honey-trap apex species introductions to lure in visitors. There needs to be acceptance that a true representative ecological baseline is unachievable because 1) so many keystone species have been long lost, 2) the environment is distorted by multiple non-native species 3) climate change pace is running far faster than ecosystems can adapt to and 4) human influences are unavoidable in the UK context. A plus for me of rewilding projects is how they use ruminant animals sensitively to enhance biodiversity. The disturbed mosaic habitats created by mega-fauna are much more diverse and enriched than closed canopy woodland habitats. This is a story worth telling but rewilding also displaces food production to other parts of the world and can inadvertently cause indirect, unseen habitat destruction offsetting the visible benefits.

Farmers need to be proactive, collaborate locally and develop their own alternative schemes. Such schemes can involve local communities and employed labourers to design, shape and then manage sites to optimise biodiversity. Nature never invented the hedge; people did and yet hedges are now one of the most important features in our landscape. Water features, wild bird covers, scrapes, tree belts, ditches, wild flower hay meadows, nest boxes, predator control, supplementary feeding, fencing and so many more other direct intervention tools can be used to manage and adapt the landscape in conjunction with livestock to create admirable, eye-catching sites well suited to the scale of individual farms. Will farmers chose to be led or do the leading themselves?

 

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