During the Second World War small groups of people were thinking about how wildlife and the countryside might best be conserved in the hoped-for aftermath of the conflict. From such discussions emerged in 1949 the Nature Conservancy, the first government conservation body in Britain. It sought to protect examples of heaths, meadows, moorland and coppiced woodland. These were, by then, starting to disappear rapidly as farming and forestry responded to postwar pressures to increase food and timber production.
While much was and is still being achieved by the Nature Conservancy and its successors, there has been an overall decline in even formerly common species and habitats across Britain. So as we enter another period of national turbulence, should we similarly be considering new approaches in how we do conservation?
Over the last decade or so, the idea of “rewilding” has worked its way first into conservation thinking and increasingly into more general discussion. From Caithness moorland to the New Forest in Hampshire, our landscapes have been altered by thousands of years of management; there is nowhere that is “wild” in the sense of never having been influenced by people.
However, could the same results be produced in other ways? Rather than digging ponds for wildlife, let beavers dam streams to form new wetland; let wild cattle create flower-rich glades and pastures rather than maintaining them by mowing; let wild boar churn up the bracken on hillsides to expose the bare soil where birch and oak seedlings can establish; perhaps even bring back the lynx to see if it could help control the ever-increasing numbers of deer that eat their way through our woods. (One lynx, which broke out of a Dartmoor zoo last week, is perhaps currently “rewilding” itself.)
How far back might we go in deciding what to include in our rewilding? Should we try to create a wildwood such as developed after the glaciers retreated? This vision lies behind some of the large-scale tree planting and woodland restoration schemes promoted by conservation bodies across the country.
As a schoolboy, I imagined that even into medieval times much of Britain was still tree-covered: how else could Robin Hood have hid from the Sheriff of Nottingham? But modern archaeology and reinterpretation of historical sources reveals that much of Britain was open farmed countryside, even before the Romans came.
Some dispute whether wildwood as extensive closed forest cover ever existed at all and prefer a landscape vision like that of the modern New Forest – large open areas interspersed by scattered trees and woods, with herds of aurochs (the now extinct wild ox) keeping the trees in check.
Some go even further back in their thinking of what a natural landscape would be like to a time when there were few or no modern humans in northern Europe, to when there were straight-tusked elephants, hyenas and lions roaming what is now our countryside.
By this yardstick, our ancestors, who contributed to the extinction of mammoths, woolly rhinoceroses and the like after the last ice age, effectively put the landscape on to a new, partly cultural trajectory. So should we add elephants to our list of possible reintroductions for rewilding?
The past, though, to borrow a phrase, is a foreign country. Even if we could agree on what landscapes looked like 7,000 or 10,000 years ago (let alone those of earlier interglacial periods), we could not recreate them.
Some of the relevant species are extinct, with no modern counterparts; the soils have changed under centuries of cultivation; the atmosphere, even the climate, is different now to what it was then.
Rewilding cannot be about recreating the past, but it could be a way of developing wildlife-rich, exciting and interesting landscapes that depend less on human intervention.
Rewilding is already happening inadvertently. Around our towns, in old industrial areas, disused railway sidings, fields cut off by new bypasses, wildlife creeps in as humans turn their backs.
Across Europe, there are many areas where marginal farmland has been abandoned, particularly in the mountains. There are social and personal costs to this, but it has allowed species such as wolves to recolonise parts of their former range.
Rewilding is a way of thinking and approaching conservation rather than a fixed end-point to be achieved. The corner of our garden where the grass is left rank is a very small step along the way; reintroduction of red kites to England a slightly bigger one; the Knepp estate in Sussex and Ennerdale in Cumbria, where farming activity has been scaled back and the landscape is changing in unpredictable ways, a bigger one still.
Elsewhere in the world, on a 5,000 hectare nature reserve on reclaimed land in the Netherlands – the Oostvaarderplassen – cattle and horses have been allowed to run wild. The reserve has been steadily changing over the last few decades but on the whole has been growing richer in wildlife.
Sea eagles have returned there without the need for reintroduction, as in Britain. At Yellowstone national park in the US, the reintroduction of wolves seems to have triggered bursts of regeneration as the deer populations have been reduced or moved to other areas of the park.
Rewilding is not the right answer to conservation problems everywhere. The bigger the area, the easier it is to reduce, over time, the levels of intervention and still maintain, often increase, the wildlife that is present. In Britain, most of our protected areas are far too small to take such risks, so we will still need to manage most of them for conservation for the foreseeable future.
However, over the next few years, we have to rethink policies and support for farming. Might there not be scope for some large tracts of land to be treated in less intensive ways? There are landowners who would like to go down such a route; there are visionary projects such as the Great Fen restoration in Cambridgeshire that start to show what might be possible.
The question is whether we have the imagination and determination to see such ideas through to reality in the way those postwar planners did.
This article was first published by The Guardian on 17 Jul 2016.
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