Upland farmers are no longer alone. George Monbiot has now turned his attention to conservationists and environmentalists in his rewilding talks. I wrote yesterday on his recent talk at the University of Exeter where he scolded National Park Authorities, the National Trust, Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB for managing the uplands as over grazed and burnt landscapes when they could instead be Britain’s restored rain forests. For me personally it was pretty uncomfortable listening. When you hear George speak his logic and arguments raise your spirits and I guess most people in the audience end up agreeing with his proposition in principle. As high level strategy it is convincing – surely there must be places where such an approach could be adopted? Yet when you burrow down into the detail, starting thinking about places and practicalities it all becomes very, very complicated.
Herdwick sheep on Dartmoor
The interesting question for me, now, is to try and answer how mainstream conservation has ended up in a place which is at such odds with the thinking of George Monbiot and come up with a way forwards.
In his talk George talked about ‘shifting baseline syndrome’ – which suggests that we can only ‘frame’ our vision for the future by comparing what things were like a couple of generations ago. By doing that we forget what things were like centuries and indeed millennia ago. In this respect nature conservation strategy and thinking is guilty. But there is a massive reason for this for that which has been omitted from the debate.
The place where nature conservation finds itself today has been hard fought for. The prospects for nature in the UK changed dramatically after the First World War for woodlands and forests and for the rest of the countryside after the Second World War. This is a long and complex story which I’m not going to attempt to tell. If you are interested, Peter Marren’s Nature Conservation is a great account of it up to 2001, whilst the story of Dartmoor is well told by Matthew Kelly in Quartz and Feldspar. The legendary battles on Exmoor are set out in fine detail by Ann and Malcolm MacEwen in National Parks: conservation or cosmetics?
The point I am trying to make is that following the two World Wars there was a massive drive in Britain to intensify agriculture and forestry which had a huge toll on wildlife and habitats and indeed still does. The legislation we now have such as The National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (WCA 1981), the Habitats Directive and many others took a massive effort, often against the odds, to achieve. It was a battle to try and conserve important places that still survived before they were cut down, replanted with conifers or ploughed up. Conservation tried to save an early 20th century suite of habitats and species – the ‘framing’ that George discusses.
With the legislation came a responsibility to scientifically pick the best places and species so that they could be conserved. Derek Ratcliffe (one of the conservation greats) and his team at the Nature Conservancy Council in 1977 produced the epic 2 volume ‘A Nature Conservation Review: the selection of Biological Sites of National Importance to Nature Conservation in Britain‘. This review identified the sites to be protected and set out the criteria used to make the choices. The WCA 1981 was introduced and the sites were designated (or redesignated) as Sites of Special Scientific Interest. The plan was in place to protect what was important and still survived – implementing the plan and ensuring that the sites were then managed for the benefit of the habitats and species has been an ongoing project for the conservation community ever since. This task has not been easy. As my blog from last December shows, that work is not yet complete. The story is the same across much of upland Britain.
I think it is also important to remember that when the uplands are in good nick they can be fantastic places for wildlife. It is when they are over grazed and burnt that they become monotonous. Previous practices have removed some of the iconic species – on Dartmoor for example there used to be populations of black grouse, hen harriers, golden plover and strong populations of curlew, snipe and ring ouzel. The prize for the future is to help these species return – when talking about the uplands we mustn’t forget these ‘ghosts in the landscape’.
Creating new habitats has had a chequered history in the story of conservation in the 20th century. For a long time it was seen as a mechanism to offset damaging developments – you grant us permission to build houses here and we will create a custom-built nature reserve over there. Whilst that undoubtedly still happens the conservation movement has moved on. I like to reflect on my time in Northamptonshire where The Northamptonshire Wildlife and the Nene Valley Project campaigned against the loss of wet meadows of conservation value to gravel extraction – we largely lost. Though thanks to careful and rigorous planning conditions a great many of the created gravel pits were designed in a way to be valuable to wildlife and now 30 years on the Nene Valley has been designated as a Special Protection Area for birds – the highest of designations possible at a European level.
My own work in Cambridgeshire in creating the Great Fen Project and the Wicken Fen Vision are habitat creation schemes closely aligned to the rewilding model – both have their roots in the pioneering work of Frans Vera at Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands and show that conservationists now realise the importance of creating new places for wildlife and people.
Painting by Carry Ackroyd of Wicken Fen
However I do diverge somewhat from George’s thinking when it comes to rewilding on sites that are designated as Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) for their moorland/upland habitats and are (as in the case of much of Dartmoor) of European importance for their historic / archaeological landscapes and treasures.
The people in conservation and environmental organisations who I have worked with on Dartmoor really want to get the management right to benefit the wildlife and habitats, the historic landscape, the landscape, the people who actually carry out the management (i.e. the Commoners), access, recreation, carbon sequestration, water supply and flood prevention. We should also within this vision be able to see a wilder landscape with more trees and scrubs.
Yes – it is a tall order – we have not got near that ideal yet but that is the goal and the challenge but it is very difficult!
So my argument looks like I am rejecting rewilding – I am not. I think like most conservationists we would love to see the plans George Monbiot espouses come to fruition in many places. It is a breath of fresh air to the debate, massively exciting and it gives us hope. The challenge is to work out where and how. Trying to implement such schemes on land designated under the Habitats Directive as SACs could cause division and would lead to possible legal action in the European Courts. The ‘conservationists’ (including Nature England/DEFRA) need to sort out the SACs and be held to accountable for that and we need to see the ‘ghosts in the landscape’ return.
At the same time we need to work with George and Rewilding Britain to find places where we can rewild Britain.