Wednesday 29 May 2013

Putting the “Wild” into “Wildlife”

BBC2’s Newsnight programme on 28th May had a fascinating discussion about the idea of “re-wilding”.  I haven’t read it yet, but this comes from George Monbiot’s book “Feral”, and it looks like it will give a welcome boost to a public discussion on the “nature” part of nature conservation.

Re-wilding is something I've been fascinated about for many years.  The whole idea of “managing nature” seems an oxymoron – why should we have to look after nature when, by definition, nature is something outside the human so should function for itself?  I used to give talks entitled “if it isn't bust why fix it?” – alluding to the idea that nature is not something that inherently needs tending by humans.  And I've represented the Trusts in meetings of the Wild Britain Initiative on occasions.  Also in Sussex we have established large non-intervention areas on our Reserves where nature is given more of a free hand and we work with one landowner in particular who is experimenting with naturalistic grazing in a large rewilding project.  So the Wildlife Trusts are not strangers to the idea.

It is, however, also true that we live in a “cultural landscape”, where the value of our landscape says something about the interaction between people and nature.  For thousands of years people in Britain have been interacting with nature so the wildlife and habitats we see today is largely a product of that interaction.  It is patently obvious that we do not live in a natural wild state, with the full grandeur of nature all around us, but in a heavily modified environment. Humans manage their environment in order to get products and services (like food and water).  In the process, however, sensitive management for farming and forestry should also be in harmony with nature.  Much nature conservation today aims to look after the best of what remains from this interaction, so very often it is traditional management that we focus on as it is this that has given us the wildlife we have today.

So we apparently have two opposing philosophies: one about nature being a system outside the human and so functioning for itself, the other about a landscape formed from the interactions of people and nature so needing continued management.

But these are not opposites in terms of having one or the other.  Unfortunately the Newsnight discussion did develop towards an all-or-nothing debate but this can be avoided if you see these approaches as being at two ends of a spectrum, rather than opposites.  However, (and here’s the surprise) neither end of the spectrum actually exists!

Nowhere in the UK is truly wild.  Many of the most important species, those that drive the country’s ecology, are extinct here.  Some perhaps never evolved (the mammoth should probably have evolved into a European elephant after the ice retreated).  Humans also constrain nature massively – even the biggest nature reserve you can imagine is tiny in comparison to the area needed for nature to have free reign.  So nowhere is wild, nowhere is natural.  But you might be able to get closer.

Alternatively, however, nowhere is truly artificial either.  Even a field of wheat – managed, sprayed, fertilised and cultivated – is not just the product of human hands.  Humans did not create the soil and soil organisms that are so essential to the crop, nor did we plant all the weeds, introduce the insects or create the water cycle and atmosphere that the crop lives within.  So even “artificial” systems depend entirely on nature.  Much of our landscape, however, is far nearer the artificial than it is the natural.

So, parts of our landscape could be said to fit at different points along this spectrum.  The idea of moving significant areas further along the spectrum towards the natural is an extremely valuable concept and one that the Wildlife Trusts have promoted for years.

To promote the wild we need a deep understanding of what this means in practice.  Wild nature should be one in which all the ecological processes are working – all forms of growth, decay, and in particular natural disturbance.  If some of this is absent then the result would be neglect, not wild nature.  So, to promote the wild, we need to understand natural disturbance – this includes storms, erosion, fire (sometimes), but particularly grazing/browsing and the effect of predators.  Miss out these processes and you do not end up with wild, you just end up with another human artefact. 

It is not possible to have the full range of ecological processes in the UK.  Areas for nature are too small and constrained.  People will not allow all forms of natural disturbance to take place - storms get cleared up, erosion is prevented, natural functioning of rivers is constrained and so on.  Furthermore, we do not have the wild free-ranging herbivores that drive vegetation ecology and we certainly do not allow wild free-roaming packs of top predators, who have a driving influence on herbivore behaviour (the “ecology of fear” effects where herbivores graze and therefore how vegetation grows). 

There are two answers to this shortcoming.  One is to endeavour to put back those ecological processes – and I am completely with George Monbiot on this.  We can re-wild river systems, and the Wildlife Trusts now have several examples.  We can increase the size of our reserves (see The Great Fen Project), and allow storms, erosion and other disturbances to take their natural course, and again we have several examples of this.  We can also put back some semi-wild grazing animals that are often absent (see the Knepp project).  It is perfectly reasonable to aim to reduce management intervention and re-establish natural processes.  We can sometimes get nearer to the wild in a spectrum, even though it may not be possible to actually get there (and in practice we do not know what wild looks like in the northern temperate zone anyway).  Furthermore, we have far too few examples in the UK from the wild end of the spectrum.

The other answer is human intervention.  Some management intervention can be good as it effectively re-establishes the diversity that is lost through a lack of natural processes.  Woods are too small to hold the full cycle of growth, disturbance and decay; so coppicing (for example) puts back a disturbance cycle.  Grazing can be put back in ungrazed areas and even cultivation and soil disturbance just mimics what wild boar would have done naturally.  In practice the vast majority of the English landscape will end up in this category, and rightly so – the continued positive interaction between people and nature in a cultural landscape.

There is space in the UK for more large areas at the wild end of the spectrum, even if they never become totally wild.  But it is essential that we have a good understanding of how wild nature functions and how we can put back some of the missing elements.  Otherwise, instead of getting the wild, you’ll just get degradation and neglect.

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