Rewilding and ‘soft’ rewilding

The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology  which in its own words ‘produces independent, balanced and accessible briefings on public policy issues related to science and technology‘has produced a briefing on rewilding. The POSTnoteexplores the consequences of increasing the role of natural processes within landscapes. Evidence from the UK and abroad suggests that rewilding can benefit both wildlife and local people, but animal reintroductions could adversely affect some land-users‘.

Its summary states:-

There is no single definition of rewilding, but it generally refers to reinstating natural processes that would have occurred in the absence of human activity. In the long term, self regulating natural processes may reduce the need for human management, but in some circumstances human interventions may be needed to kick-start natural processes, such as tree planting, drainage blocking and reintroducing “keystone species” like beavers.

Key points in this POSTnote include:

  • Rewilding aims to restore natural processes that are self-regulating, reducing the need for human management of land.
  • Few rewilding projects are underway, and there is limited evidence on their impacts.
  • Rewilding may provide ecosystem services such as flood prevention, carbon storage and recreation. It often has low input costs, but can still benefit biodiversity.
  • Some valued and protected priority habitats such as chalk grassland currently depend on agricultural practices like grazing. Rewilding may not result in such habitats.
  • No government policy refers explicitly to rewilding, but it has the potential to complement existing approaches to meet commitments on habitat restoration.

You can download the full POST report on rewilding here. It is a good independent, well referenced account which includes a number of mini cases studies (e.g. Knepp in Sussex and beavers in Devon). It also makes reference to the Great Fen project which I helped initiate in the 1990s and to the National Trust’s Wild Ennerdale Project in the Lake District.

The report doesn’t specifically mention the Wicken Fen Vision which I set up in 1999 but you can read about that project here in Decolonising Nature: Beyond preservation – the challenge of ecological restoration  see pages 247-267. This project shows how rewilding or ecological restoration if you prefer can enhance and protect a core area of high nature conservation value (and landscape and cultural value) as well as creating new wetland habitats along with a range of other social benefits such as access, flood protection, carbon storage and recreation.

Wicken Fen Highland Cattle 3

One of the key principles behind the Wicken Fen Vision and other rewilding projects is allowing natural processes to determine the outcomes. This means setting some parameters (the kick-starting referred to in the POST review), at Wicken these were water table levels and a low level grazing regime using konik ponies and Highland cattle and then letting nature determine the resulting habitats and species. This is a different approach to say the bittern recovery work which RSPB led on in the 1990s where habitats were specifically manipulated to be attractive to bitterns. The latter technique  is the one that nature conservation organisations have traditionally followed in the past. The former approach is more novel and as the outcomes are unknown is perhaps less attractive to those who want to ‘control’ habitats and species.

You can read more about this approach in Restoring Riparian Ecosystems: The Challenge of Accommodating Variability and Designing Restoration Trajectories, work carried out at Wicken Fen and led by Dr Francine Hughes and Dr Owen Mountford.

So how does this debate on rewilding fit into the Dartmoor landscape? There are of course some (for example George Monbiot – see here and Peter Taylor in Beyond Conservation) who specifically advocate a full blown rewilding approach with re-introduced herbivores and carnivores.

I, however, do not support such an approach here as it would lead to the loss of Dartmoor’s historic landscapes (its reeves, hut circles, standing stones, stone circles, pillow mounds, tin mining artefacts, medieval farms etc etc), it would lead to the loss of Dartmoor’s cultural landscapes (the Commoners, the Commons and the tenements etc etc), it would lead to the loss of Dartmoor’s existing and ecologically important habitats and species and it would lead to the loss of Dartmoor’s landscape  with its ‘long views for which Dartmoor is renowned‘ (Ian Mercer’s words in his Collins New Naturalist page 27).

That is not to say that everything should remain as it is. Matthew Kelly writing in the updated paperback edition of Quartz and Feldspar perhaps makes the best case for what could happen in the future. This is where he introduces his phrase ‘soft rewilding’.

Those awakened to the issues by winter flooding should need little persuading of the pragmatic reasons for one what might call soft rewilding. Uplands denuded of trees and shrub absorb less water, particularly if soils are compacted by sheep hooves, which leads to faster run-off and more flooding in lowlands. Monbiot, Colston and others argue—with varying degrees of emphasis—that the water storage capacity of the uplands should be increased by creating hydraulic roughness through more trees, more scrub and gully reforestation, as well as less dredging of rivers and, most excitingly, the re-introduction of beavers, water engineers par excellence. All of which would produce richer wildlife habitats. The government should be lobbying the EU, seeking changes to rules which makes agricultural land eligible for financial support only when ‘permanent ineligible features’ like trees, scrub and ponds are removed in order to create land in ‘agricultural condition’; farmers will need to be compensated, but that would be much cheaper than the huge clean-up operations and insurance costs currently faced by lowland communities.

O Brook 3

Such ideas are ‘of the moment’ as they chime well with the current debate about what should happen to agricultural subsides following our vote to leave the European Union – the ‘public money for public goods’ expression. The recent report from the National Trust ‘New Markets for Land and Nature’ (see here) shows how ‘soft re-wilding’ could provide a series of public and environmental benefits and improvements whilst still offering the opportunity to look after the existing historic, cultural, ecological and visual landscapes of Dartmoor.

Of course if Government fail to come up with a timely new settlement to replace the Common Agricultural Policy subsidies which is sufficiently funded and attractive to the various stakeholders then a much harder rewilding of the moor may take place by default.

O Brook 2

8 thoughts on “Rewilding and ‘soft’ rewilding

  1. Ah-ha. Whether by coincidence or not, this goes some way to addressing a question I asked after 18 September’s post. Very handy – thank you.

    By the way, does the photo show the O Brook, or am I completely off track…?

  2. good piece Adrian. I’m thinking of peppering my talk to the Dartmoor society with your quotes. “As Colston said…” “Colston’s view of rewilding on Dartmoor…” etc.

  3. Pingback: The politics of rewilding on Dartmoor – A Dartmoor blog

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