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“Rewilding” is fashionable but there is more to it than letting Nature run free

My article for The Critic:

Near Fukushima, ten years after the nuclear accident that followed the tsunami, wild boar have colonised the suburbs. Near Chernobyl, bison and wolves wander abandoned streets. There is no doubt that if humans vanished, indigenous wildlife would return in abundance, minus the mammoths and sabre-tooths that our ancestors extinguished.

Rewilding is all the rage, and it is coming soon to a hillside near you. But what form should it take and how should it be done? In practice, rewilding began quite a long time ago. A recent study found that, contrary to what most people believe, the world now has more trees than 35 years ago and much of the regrowth is natural regeneration: Europe alone has gained an area of tree cover greater than France.

New England was once wall-to-wall fields; now it is a deer-filled forest pockmarked with cities and freeways. Wolves and beavers are spreading in Europe; cougars and bears in North America. There are 80,000 humpback whales today: there were 5,000 in the 1960s. Where I used to fish in the river Tyne as a boy, otters, buzzards and salmon were vanishingly rare; now they are common.

Of course, biodiversity and wildlife abundance are declining in many places and some habitats. But pause for a second to reflect that the global population has doubled in 50 years while the amount of farmland has hardly changed: thanks to innovation the world uses 68 per cent less land to grow a given amount of food compared with the 1960s.

The more productive we make farms, the less land we will need. At one extreme, Japanese semiconductor factories have been converted to grow lettuces, using hydroponics and electric light: it requires a hundred times less land to produce a given quantity of lettuce that way. By 2050, with global population flatlining, we will be freeing land from the plough and the cow at an accelerating rate.

So what do we do with spared land? Britain’s answer so far has been to find other ways to produce stuff on it, such as hobby farming or dark forests of Sitka spruce planted on Britain’s hills in a vain hope there might be a profitable market for home-grown timber. This was an ecological as well as economic mistake, as it turned diverse moorland rich in birds, flowers and insects into grim monocultures with acidified water, eroding peat and blocked views. The Forestry Commission, a nationalised industry that — true to type — has never made a profit, rules this empire as both regulator and producer (a stark conflict of interest).

When we felled a small spruce plantation on our land in Northumberland 25 years ago, a mass of birch saplings sprang up. I appealed to the Forestry Commissars to be allowed to let these flourish, rather than spray them off and replant expensively with a supposedly “commercial” crop. It took years of obstinacy, but eventually they agreed and today it is a wild birch wood full of birdsong and insect life. Nearby, this spring, I introduced a couple of huge wood ant nests.

That’s rewilding of a sort. But the purists would say I should be turning over fields as well as woods to moose and wolves. At Knepp in Sussex, the Burrell family, fed up with unprofitable farming, have rewilded their estate: cattle and pigs roam the forest and hedgerows turn into thickets. It has been a spectacular success for nightingales, turtle doves and other rare species, and they have now brought back white storks.

But this is not the only way of doing rewilding. Consider the fact that certain birds thrive in arable farmland: yellowhammers, linnets and more. They grew scarce as farming got more efficient, but they would be even scarcer if the land was one big forest. It is well known among farmers that if you abandon a field to nature, it attracts far fewer birds than if you plant it each year with bird-seed crops like linseed, quinoa and kale.

Off the Northumberland coast lies Coquet island, managed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds as a truly spectacular nature reserve with huge numbers of puffins and terns of four species: common, Arctic, sandwich and roseate. It’s the only colony of roseate terns in Britain and the numbers of this beautiful, rare bird breeding on the island every summer have rocketed in recent years from 18 pairs to over 140.

This would not happen if the island was left “to nature”. The roseate terns only come because the wardens build shell-strewn terraces equipped with wooden boxes for the birds to nest in. Their chicks only survive because the wardens deter the large predatory gulls with lasers and recorded alarm calls. There is an otter-proof fence around their terraces and a few years ago a rat that somehow reached the island had to be caught by a local gamekeeper’s terrier before it decimated the puffins and terns.

I have a holiday home in a Durham dale where each spring the dawn reverberates to the song of curlews, peewits, redshanks, oystercatchers, snipe, woodcock, dunlin and sandpipers singing over the meadows and moorland. These rare wading birds thrive here at higher densities than anywhere else in Britain for two reasons: grazing by sheep that keeps the vegetation short, and hard work by gamekeepers to kill the foxes, crows, gulls and stoats that would otherwise wipe these species out. The threat from such predators is unnaturally intense because of the “subsidies” they receive from human activity in the form of roadkill, litter, landfill and farming.

My point is that management is indispensable to maximising biodiversity. Britain can never be a pristine wilderness, not least because of the lack of aurochs and mammoths, and the presence of parakeets and grey squirrels. Whether we like it or not, the human imprint is there on the quilt that is Britain’s countryside.

The saga of Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands demonstrates the point. A polder was fenced off and filled with deer, horses and feral cattle. To its fans this is a success: the low-lying reclaimed land is now rich in eagles and other birds. To its critics it is a disaster following the mass starvation of many mammals when the population was too high in a hard winter in 2005. Migrating is not an option for such mammals in modern Europe. So now the deer, cattle and horses are carefully culled.

Rewilding should start with the worst landscapes, not the best ones. In the uplands, privately funded moorlands managed for grouse are a fine example of managed wilding: unsprayed, unfertilised, uncultivated, rich in mosses, moths, lizards and birds. Let them be.

By contrast, the owners of commercial forestry plantations of alien Sitka spruce should be incentivised to turn them into open, mixed-age woodland of oak, birch, rowan, alder, willow, pine and lime as fast as they can, with large clearings and no straight lines, and maybe moose and boar and feral cattle and wood ants and wrynecks and eventually even wolves.

Butand this is vitalthey should manage them, to cull and crop certain species regularly and often: to recognise in effect that people are part of the ecosystem too.

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By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  biology  the critic