Rewilding

A wheat field

You don’t have to go back many generations to a time when the landscape and soundscape of our countryside was quite different. The State of Nature report, published in 2019, told us that in the UK, since 1970, we have seen a 13% decrease in the average abundance of wildlife with the average number of mammals falling by 26%. Looking further afield, the Global Assessment report, also published in 2019, gave the grim news that around 1 million plant and animal species are now threatened with extinction. These are big scary numbers. Something needs to be done – but what?

Once a common sound in the British countryside – the cuckoo.

Farmland accounts for over 75% of all land in the United Kingdom. With an ever growing population – the demand for food is ever growing too. The then Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, said back in 2014 that here in the UK we faced only another 30-40 harvests in some parts of the country before there was a fundamental eradication of soil fertility. Farming has come on leaps and bounds over the past few decades in terms of increasing yields – however the question every farmer should ask themselves is am I farming? Or am I mining? The use of heavy machinery and chemicals to increase productivity does have a long term impact on the land. So what’s the answer? Organic farming and crop rotation are two things that certainly play a big part in this. But there is one other thing which I believe, if done appropriately, will also help – rewilding.

A farmer ploughing a field by tractor

As a term – rewilding has a host of connotations. In simplistic terms – it’s giving nature the space and opportunity to do what it does. It’s a light touch / hands off way of managing the land. As the landowner – you may decide to introduce specific species onto the land but from then on they are pretty much left to their own devices. In a landscape that has been stripped back for agriculture it’s important to try and bring back species that would have once lived or roamed there wildly in years gone by. It can create a field of dreams scenario in terms of attracting wildlife back to land that now appears barren – build it and they will come.

The remains of the original Knepp Castle

There are a couple examples of rewilding projects that I would like to use to demonstrate the impact on the natural world. To start with – let’s look at the Knepp Estate in West Sussex, UK. Knepp comprises 3,500 acres which up until 2001 was a traditional, intensive, arable and dairy farm. With a self described amateurish love of wildlife and a loss making farm on their hands, Charlie Burrell and his wife, Isabella, embarked on a project to restore the land to what it once would have been and see what happens. If you’re interested to understand what they did – I heartily recommend Wildling by Isabella Tree which tells the story. Suffice to say that nearly 20 years on from taking those first tentative steps into bringing nature back to their farm – suitable habitats have been created (naturally) for rare species such as the turtle dove, the nightingale and the purple emperor butterfly.

A licence has been granted for the controlled release of beaver at Knepp. Beaver were once wild in the UK and are considered a keystone species. Where they thrive – so do many other species thanks to their impact on the environment. We await to see what their impact is in times of flooding (a fairly regular occurrence due to the clay soil) to both the estate itself and to land downstream.

In the spring of 2020 they made the headlines (again) with news that the first wild white stork has hatched in the UK for what is believed to be around 600 years! Create the right environment – and wildlife will return.

It isn’t a case that they no longer farm at Knepp. They do – they just do it differently. Cattle are left to roam freely – as are some Tamworth pigs and deer (red, roe and fallow) with organic, pasture fed meat from these free roaming herds being a source of income. In addition – they also have a revenue stream coming in from their nature based tourism offering.

Knepp is a great example and blue print for landowners / farmers to rethink how they manage their land and the possibilities around what could be. But what about you, me and those we know who don’t have thousands of acres to play with … 

When the naturalist, author and broadcaster, Simon King OBE first moved into a property on the outskirts of Frome in Somerset, UK he had a nearly 10 acre garden that was pretty much devoid of life. There was a stream running through the middle of the land, bordered by mature trees but the rest was pretty bland paddocks. Over time Simon lived at that property he set about turning the land into a haven for wildlife. It started with the planting of around 2,500 native tree species, the sowing of a wild flower meadow, the digging of a lake to offer a body of still water and the creation of an artificial kingfisher chamber, otter holt, badger sett, bird boxes and multiple feeding stations. Slowly but surely – the wildlife came. Foxes and badgers came nightly to feast on a scattering of peanuts, the stream was home to a family of otter, all manner of small critters were spotted (including shrews, voles, mice and rats) and the nest boxes became homes to new families of blue tits, jackdaw, great tits, nuthatch, robin, wren, tawny owl – and kestrel (who actually nested in a void in the front of the house). It was another example of the field of dreams – the environment was created and the wildlife came. 

An otter

Top Tips

Now we know that not everyone is as lucky as Simon in having a 10 acre plot of land to play with – but there are some things that you can do to rewild wherever you are.

  • Put a nestbox up. You can get one with a built in camera system where you can sit and watch the goings on your computer, smartphone or television.
  • Leave a pile of logs in a corner of your garden. They’re a great way to attract insects in and provide shelter. The insects will be a great natural food source for birds and other wildlife. Bug hotels are another great way to attract insects into your garden.
  • Create a pond in your garden – make sure you have a gentle ramp or slope coming out of it to ensure young frogs, toads and mammals can get out easily.
  • Plant native flowers that specifically attracted bees and butterflies – this could just be in a pot or window box if you don’t have much space available.
  • Instead of disposing of fallen leaves in a bin – leave them in a corner of your garden for worms to dispose of. 
  • Provide small gaps in your boundary fence for hedgehogs to easily get through. Ask your neighbours to do the same so you create a hedgehog highway.

It’s essential that we bring nature back to where it once thrived. It’s the responsibility of all of us to play our part. We are just guardians of the earth, looking after her in anticipation of the next generation and the one after that. If we don’t act to look after her – who will?

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The Global Wildlife Rescue Project is a registered charity in England & Wales. Registered charity number 1188557.

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