Wildernesses in Waiting
My last column focused on a report about the loss of plants and animals in recent decades in Britain. There was a sense in which that report looked back, so it was useful that its appearance coincided with the publication of a book* by George Monbiot containing some bold ideas about how we might move forward in nature conservation. The ideas, going under the general name of 'rewilding', captured the media's interest.
The concept of rewilding was treated as if it were new and original, but Monbiot was merely picking up on something which has been gaining increasing interest and practical application for some years. Examples include the work of Trees for Life in Scotland, the National Trust and Forest Enterprise in Ennerdale, and the Wildlife Trusts' Great Fen Project in Cambridgeshire. Closer to home and at a more modest scale, there is the Staffordshire Wildlife Trust's Staffordshire Washlands Project along the rivers Trent, Sow and Penk, and the Shropshire Wildlife Trust's Stiperstones Project. The keys to such initiatives are finding ways of restoring nature whilst sustaining people's livelihoods and quality of life, shaping rather than controlling nature.
Discussions about rewilding often centre on the reintroduction of once common but now absent animals, including such as the wolf, lynx and bear. (Not that anyone is yet suggesting their return to Staffordshire, or to ancient, but now heavily populated, landscapes like the Forest of Arden.) Beavers and sea eagles are now thriving in Scotland, to no one's disadvantage, although the National Farmers' Union (NFU) has a knee-jerk reaction to any proposals for reintroducing or helping almost any species. Their concerns are a bit rich considering the number of exotic species that the farming industry has itself brought into our countryside. Examples include chickens, goats, ostriches, and crops such as wheat and barley. Ironically, and to the NFU's embarrassment, wild boar reintroduced themselves by escaping from farms!
Monbiot's most exciting ideas relate to the uplands, and particularly those closest to the West Midlands - the welsh uplands. I have always been struck by the contrast between British fells and downs and many of those elsewhere. Ours are bare, monotonous, bleak landscapes. Not without attraction, but nothing compared to the wooded and wildflower-rich uplands of other places. The reason is sheep - Monbiot aptly describes the hills as 'sheep-wrecked'. Not only do sheep change the landscape, they have a profound effect on water retention and run-off. Flooding in the Severn Valley would be much reduced if the sheep did not remove the vegetation which would naturally serve as a giant sponge.
Rather than focusing on what has been lost is it not better to think about what we can be gained? Big beasts on Cannock Chase will always be controversial, but wooded hillsides in Wales, wild boar in the Forest of Dean, and wolves in the Highlands should not be.
*Feral, published by Allen Lane.