Rewilding the Great Un-wild

This blog is a summary of what I have learned about the British environment and it informs the design of my Wilding Environment Print. 

  1. The Great Un-wild
  2. Re-wilding
  3. Un-wilding

You can learn more by following the links and by downloading the reading list I have put up in the Community part of this website. 

1. The Great Un-wild

When I first visited Europe, a long time ago, I threw myself into the heritage buildings and history, the shops, the transport, the theatre, the galleries and the countryside. I had to see castles, cathedrals, country houses, daffodils, tulips, oak trees and all I had encountered vicariously in literature and on TV. 

Near Llowes, Wales [Photo: Trevor Richard, Creative Commons]

But after a while, I felt a growing hole. Food tasted ‘manufactured’. Fresh produce markets sold perfect unblemished fruit and veg, packaged, chemical-laden and unlocal. The fields and hedges were too neat. I craved scraggly, uncontrolled spaces and wide skies. I longed for home where there was less resolution and order, and lots of wild. 

Zebras and wilder-beast in Gosho Zimbabwe
Zebra and wilder-beast, Gosho, Zimbabwe [Photo: Aron Mazel]
Savannah Woodland Environment Print

When I designed Savannah Woodland, I knew the animals and plants from deep within. They were the wild flora and fauna of my youth. Creating a companion piece for Britain has been much, much harder. 

To design Wilding, though, I needed to read and learn a great deal. Fortunately I live next to the River Tyne and I walk in the north Pennines almost every week and so I now have 20 years of being in British nature. This means I’ve been able to connect my heart to what I have been finding out with my head. The reading and internet searching have thus been a gift because I now feel more rooted in my northern home. And those perceptions of something being missing that I had as a young traveler have been confirmed.  

  1. Haydon Bridge on the River Tyne 2. The North Pennines [Photo: Aron Mazel]

Something big has happened to Britain in the last 100 years.  The natural environment, imperceptibly for many, has been harmed on a grand scale. It has been turned into the great, neat and tidy unwild outdoors with more sheep than it should carry.  

For a summary of the damage that I have learned about, go to 3. Un-wilding.

 For my design Wilding, though, I have focused on the re-wilding that is happening, which you can read about next. 

2. Re-wilding

Good Science

Our eyes are beginning to open. Scientists and nature conservationists are writing and making documentaries about threatened species and species extinction, land degradation and climate change in a way that people like myself can understand. More people are becoming aware. 

As an ordinary somebody, I am beginning to recognize a wood that is being managed to support wildlife and one that is not. I now know when I’m walking in a restored meadow full of interesting grasses and flowers or a pasture that has been ‘improved’ for grazing and higher yields but has choked out the biodiversity. I can see the drains and ditches in moorland that were dug to extend sheep farming. The markings of burned heather on the North Pennine moors, burning that is carried out by the grouse shooting fraternity (which damages the peat bogs, one of Britain’s best carbon sinks), is now apparent to my better-trained eye. I now understand why Haydon Bridge, the village where I live, has been more frequently flooded  – not just because of heavier rainfall and not enough sandbags on the night of each disaster, but also because of practices that have harmed the water retention capability in the surrounding upland. 

All these new lenses are thanks to the amazing books I have read, documentaries and YouTube videos I have watched, and my own lived experience in the North Pennines. And, having grown up on a farm, I also understand the tension between achieving yields and changing practices to protect the environment.  

Changing Forest and Woodland Management

You might have noticed that in parks, like Richmond Park in London, or any other woodland park, dead trees and branches are being left on the ground. This is not because of staff cut backs with austerity. It is because there is growing recognition of their value in supporting soil organisms, beetles and other bugs and the wood wide web – the micorrhizal fungal network that forms mutually beneficial relationships between trees and with the soil.

Understanding of Peat Bogs as Carbon Sinks

Peat land in the North Pennines
Peat land, North Pennines [photo: Aron Mazel]

A carbon sink is an area of vegetation, like a forest, that absorbs the carbon dioxide that we produce when we burn fossil fuels. Scientists have shown that Britain’s peat bogs are one of our most efficient carbon sinks and they are advocating for their restoration and protection. Scientists also say that because peat bogs can hold a lot of water, restoring them can slow down rapid water runoff and flooding.

In 2021 the government passed legislation to stop the burning of heather on deep peat bogs (about 40% of Britains peat bogs ) for grouse shooting. Some feel that this is not enough, but it is a start. And more people are becoming aware of the damage being done to peat lands by burning heather, ditch digging and drainage and by sheep overgrazing. 

Though overdue, the UK government has passed a bill to ban the sale of compost with peat in it to gardeners by 2024.

Meadow Restoration

Meadow restoration projects as well as support for ordinary people to grow their own garden meadows and sow patches of wild flowers are increasing. Some councils are sowing wild flower seed on verges, which not only helps bees and butterflies, it also reduces the cost of verge maintenance. 

The Re-introduction of some Keystone Species

A keystone species is one that has a large effect on rebalancing the environment. They restore and revitalize ecosystems. The re-introduction of wolves into Yellowstone Park in America, for example, had a positive cascading effect on the parks’ entire ecosystem. 

Keystone engineers

The re-introduction of beavers in a few places in Britain is helping to control flooding and restore biodiversity. Beavers coppice trees to build dams that re-establish wetlands and create the right conditions for many other species like reeds and rushes, waterfowl, dragonflies, birds, otters and fish. Their dams and the wetlands they create, then slow down and filter flood water, making it cleaner for users downstream. 

bison

Three bison females and one male will be introduced to the dense ancient West Blean wood in Kent in 2022 as an experiment in woodland management.  The bison will clear trees naturally by chewing their bark. This will create a supply of dead wood, benefitting insects and micorrhizal fungi. The work of these animals will also let in light. Because bison roll around on cleared ground, they break the soil for the reception of seeds.  Deciduous trees, scrubland (e.g. blackthorn, hawthorn, dog rose) and open glades of wild flowers will re-establish themselves in what has become a dark conifer-dominated forest. With the restoration of a variety of trees and scrub, and with wild flowers growing again, insects, birds and small animals will return to the forest. 

Keystone predators

Some keystone species are predators, not engineers. For a long time now, Britain has not had any apex predators like wolves, bears and lynx to control the deer population. As beautiful as they are, deer are multiplying too fast. They have a choice of delicious crops to nibble and in woods they eat saplings and new growth from coppiced trees, so that mature mother trees are growing old without building an understory to take over when they die. 

Scientific conversations with stakeholders, like farmers and foresters, about the re introduction of wolves or lynx to control the deer population are increasing. It is quite possible that lynx will be re-introduced under controlled conditions in the not too distant future.

Letting Go and Reinventing the Land

Some farmers have let go. They have stopped ploughing, stopped applying chemicals, reintroduced wild animals, and turned some or all of their land into woodland meadows or nature reserves. An example of this is on Knepp farm in Sussex. By creating facilities for visitors and selling wild game meat, they are able to make a better living than when they farmed using expensive machinery and chemical products. 

Return to Wilding Environment Print.

3. Un-wilding

“any species that takes a hit passes on the pain to all that like to eat it.”

Mike Burners Lee, There is No Planet B

Chemicals

Since World War II, the use of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides at an industrial level have increased agricultural yields exponentially. But this use of synthetic chemicals has compromised the wild flora, insects, birds, small animals and soil organisms at a level never known to nature, and a wide range of of plants and animals have taken a hit.

Clearing Land

With the power of big machinery, woodland, hedgerows, wetland, and scrubland have been cleared, drained, ploughed, and fertilized to increase outputs. This human capability has pushed wild habitats into isolated pockets or destroyed them.

Plant species have narrowed, and so have the animals, birds and insects that depend on them. Purple Emperor butterflies, for example, nearly disappeared because of the clearance of sallow, a species of willow that they require when they are caterpillars. Nightingale numbers have plummeted because scrubland, particularly blackthorn, was only spared in the remaining hedgerows, which are brutally machine flailed every year. 

Loss of Meadows

With the clearing of land, use of chemicals and other modern farming practices, Britain has lost 97% of its species rich meadows in the last 100 years. Meadows were full of diverse grass and flower species that supported insects, like bees and butterflies, birds and small animals and maintain good soil structure.

Woodland Loss and Wrong Management

Apart from the loss of 40% of broadleaf woodlands (i.e. not conifers) in the last century, the way woods actually work co-operatively was not understood. Micorrhizal fungi, which live in the ground in tree root systems thriving on rotting organic matter, are key to creating a healthy collaborative wood wide web through which resources are exchanged. But this was not seen as a resource.

Until not long ago dead trees and branches were systematically removed to reduce the ‘threat’ of fungal diseases and commercially less valuable tree species were removed.

This form of management weakened the wood wide web and the habitat for ground organisms, insects, and birds; in effect the conditions for biodiversity and healthy trees. Insects, birds and small animals had less to eat and numbers fell.

The practice of coppicing (felling trees to create a stool that sends up shoots to cut for firewood and small timber projects) began to diminish 200 years ago when coal became the main fuel source.  With less coppicing, less light has reached woodland floors and many plants and insects have been unable to thrive, which has had a negative consequence for all the birds and animals that like to eat them such as caterpillars, woodcock and hedgehogs.

Monoculture 

Because of large machinery, it has become possible to cultivate large areas with the same crop. This large-scale farming goes hand in hand with the use of chemicals, with soil degradation and the loss of biodiversity. Commercial forests have been planted in this way too, resulting in dense,  dark, lifeless green deserts.  

Pasture Improvement

Through pasture ‘improvement’ for increasing sheep and cattle outputs, plants with high grazing value, supported by fertilizers, have choked out meadow diversity along with the mycorrhizal  soil fungi, vital to soil and plant health.

Burning Grouse Moors

Shooting grouse on grouse moors in upland Britain is a business. To plump up the birds, the heather gets burned to send out new shoots for them to eat.  But burning the heather on grouse moors degrades peat land, releases global warming gases, increases flood risks and reduces biodiversity. 

Commercial Peat Digging

Peat, which takes thousands of years to build, is a vital carbon sink. It absorbs the carbon dioxide from the fossil fuels we burn. Yet in Britain people continue to harvest peat compost at an industrial scale, to sell to gardeners and whiskey makers. 

If you go to YouTube and search for peat cutting, you will see very graphically how peat cutting works.

Summary of Habitat Losses

40% of broadleaf woodland
200,000 miles of hedgerows
95% of lowland bogs / wetland
97% flower rich meadows

Note

In this blog I have shared with you the things that I have been learning. You will be able to see that my design of Wilding has been informed by these things. I am not an expert at all; but I am committed to sharing what I learn. The inverse of that is that I want to learn what I don’t know. So if you want to share your own knowledge or correct something, please feel free to comment or contact me.

Wilding Environment Poster.

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