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.

A Child in the Wild

My life was intensely happy until I was six. I was completely clear about what I loved most: being outside with plants and animals.  

These are the sort of things that the child in the wild loved

At six and a half, suitcase in hand, I was sent to a boarding school run by Irish nuns. This was the early sixties, so no child-centred nurturing of an individual’s interests, but rather a focus on sin. Going to school was a life changing shock. For the next eight years (I moved to a freer school when I was fifteen) I spent over two thirds of each year feeling restricted. I longed for the holidays and half term weekends just to be back in savannah expanses, miles away from that dreaded barren place. 

On arriving home, as soon as I was out of the car, I changed into comfortable shorts and a T shirt and set about hardening my feet with no shoes. I would rush outside and just listen, soaking in the singing insects and birds, especially the different doves filling the warm midday air with unhurried tunes. It would be no time before I found a chongololo or an ant lion. 

a chongololo

Looking back through the long lens of time and my temperate northern home, I only now grasp the diversity of wildlife surrounding my earlier self. It was not unusual to spot a reedbuck or a duiker, a kudu or a mongoose.

kopjes
Granite kopjes – huge boulders balancing in on each other

We would picnic in granite kopjes, and there, rock rabbits roamed and porcupines hid, and in winter sprigs of seemingly dead resurrection plant greened up in a glass of water.  We often saw chameleons, watching them change colour. Once, I found a tortoise with a broken shell on a road, and I nurtured it back into the wild. There were civet cats and night apes that came out in the dark.  Our dogs occasionally went hunting at night, and came back stinking of polecat (a skunk) and or with porcupine quills in their cheeks.  Once a bush pig mauled one of the dogs. There were aardvark too, in burrows near trees and termite heaps.  And, one year, the day before Christmas, an Egyptian cobra wrapped itself around the engine of a new car. At night, I sometimes switched off my reading light when too many moths and beetles were dive bombing my book.  Then if I listened carefully, I might hear nightjars, or jackals with pups in the distance.  Thus the savannah woodland became my haven and fed my soul. 

As I grew older, drawing and water colour painting became an important part of my love of nature because I discovered that they were powerful observation tools. I mainly painted wild flowers, grasses and trees, because they would keep still. 

Some of the wild flowers I painted in the school holidays

I tried to draw animals but only put down fleeting lines, managing better with small creatures that I caught and put in a large jar for a short while.  Being the youngest in the family, I was on my own in the last few years, and feeling lonely or free from squabbles, I began to really ‘see’ what was around me. And it thrilled me.  

Some of the quick sketches of small creatures – one or two feature in my poster!

Return to the Savannah Woodland Environment Print.

Our Fragile Earth

Filled with a burning urge to tell a visual story about our fragile, irreplaceable earth, my ideas and drawings entered an intense synchronized dance on a mandala format. Partly planned, partly unfolding from expanding thoughts, this environmental earth mandala emerged and crystalized into its final form. 

Environment poster
Our Fragile Earth: a visual representation of our rare and precious earth in the universe, a think piece

What is a mandala? And what are they used for?

Mandalas originated in Asian cultures. They are used to visually represent the universe and they act as guides for meditation practices and for teaching. Filled with symbolism and meaning, they work as mental maps for concentrating the mind. 

What do the colours in the Fragile Earth mandala design mean?

Yellow: joy and happiness
Red: energy and passion
Blue: healing and inner peace
Green: connection and love of nature
White: awareness and truth 
Black: deep thinking, individuality, and facing our dark side 
Pink: love

What are the symbols? And what do they mean?

The stars: the universe
The sun: life and energy
The large trees (usually bell entrances to the centre of a mandala): openness, allowing entrance to wisdom and clarity 
The trees and plants: energy and the air we breathe
The animals: sentient life 
The land and river: the saying: stand like a mountain, flow like water
Flowers: unlocking a healthy life
The lotus flower in the centre: perfect balance, beauty, knowledge and clarity.
The swallow (my logo): the northern and southern hemispheres as a whole, equality

I will now leave you to generate your own meanings and think about the implications of this Fragile Earth mandala design. 

Should you wish to purchase this design click here or on the image above.

Journey to the Haydon Bridge Village Cup

Haydon Bridge – a heavenly place to live

When I came to Haydon Bridge, in 2002, I was disorientated and I didn’t really know where I was.  My life had changed utterly.  I had left my job in Cape Town, a huge city at the southern tip of Africa, on Friday the 26th April 2002, flown to England on Saturday the 27th and arrived in London on the 28th.  I was in Haydon Bridge on the 29th. This happened because my eldest daughter could only access my British citizenship and accompany me, as a minor, if she entered the UK before her 18th birthday on the 30th April. It was a tight fast move. 

Aron, my partner, was to follow and start at Newcastle University a few months later. We found ourselves in Haydon Bridge because Peter Stone, who had visited us in South Africa on work trips, had met us at the station in Newcastle and brought us to his home, then in Church Street. 

And, thereafter, we never left Haydon Bridge.  

The girls and I went for a walk along the river to the pump house on our first afternoon. We spent the following week looking for for a place to live in Newcastle. After a week of searching, I gave up. Blindly, we rented 13 Ratcliffe Road, and a year later moved across the road to number 12 – our home ever since. 

For the first few months, Haydon Bridge was unreal. I remember feeling as if I was moving around in a film set. Our youngest started at the high school and later, Aron arrived from South Africa. Initially I worked at the Co-op, and then I secured a teaching position at Newcastle City Learning. 

Gradually, I gained a sense of place, and began to unpack and treasure Haydon Bridge and the surrounding area.  A year or two ago, I began drawing and painting elements of the village that give it character. I worked up all my drawings into a design that would offer a sense of belonging, village pride and story.  And this was how the cup came to be.

Drawings done outdoors, or from photographs taken by Aron Mazel

In a world of urban anonymity, pollution, consumerism and fast living, Haydon Bridge is a heavenly place. A soothingly beautiful river glides through the middle of a village that is neither too big nor too small. People greet each other in the street, children can play safely and know their neighbours. Different generations mix, shopping is a social event around essential needs, and nature surrounds us in every direction. 

Who could ask for more? 

If you would like to purchase a cup, visit my shop. To avoid shipping costs if you are a local Haydon Bridge person, then select ‘local pickup’ rather than ‘flat rate’.