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The new nature

  • Written by  Derek Gow
  • Published in Opinions
A reintroduced deer in Oostvaardersplassen in Holland A reintroduced deer in Oostvaardersplassen in Holland Gertjan Hooijer
23 Nov
Rewilding can present many long-term benefits, but do we have the short-term political will or social desire for change for the movement to ever take root?

Although the concept of ‘rewilding’ has invigorated social debate regarding British land use, how practical and appropriate is the ambition to restore the grey wolf to the glens of Scotland? Is the widely touted mantle of food providers for the world an honest aspiration for British farmers and do we really need to utterly drain the last dregs of biodiversity that remain from our increasingly lifeless landscape to satisfy this illusory goal? Do we have the political will to return areas of land won from the sea, where communities now live and work, back into wilderness environments which are vast? Is it right that the uplands denuded of their natural forest cover by long spent industries, should remain so for all time to provide nothing more than sunny, summer views and savage winter floods? How will politicians react when the first reintroduced elk is hit by a smart car on a dual carriageway killing all of the occupants inside?

It is clear that urgent action is desperately required to reverse, secure and enhance the prospects of our fragile natural heritage. Do we need to rewild to achieve this broad aim or do we go with a ‘greenwash’ to ensure business as usual employing the worn-out mechanisms which have consistently failed in the past?

In Holland they have developed a creative, landscape philosophy called ‘New Nature’ – a term which perhaps conjures an image of looking forward rather than back. The most iconic illustration of this philosophy is a site called the Oostvaardersplassen near Amsterdam where, throughout 6,000 enclosed hectares, feral Heck bulls excavate amphibian ponds with their hooves and horns while stags and stallions battle fiercely for the possession of their harems. These creatures submit a living vision that many ‘rewilders’ quite simply adore. Although this project may present a primeval impression, in reality it is a completely artificial – though courageous construct – which is limited by the mendacity of fences, budgets, an adjacent main railway line, surrounding land users and fickle political support. Less than a lifetime ago the landscape these ‘wild’ herbivores now occupy was the bed of the North Sea.

How will politicians react when the first reintroduced elk is hit by a smart car on a dual carriageway killing all of the occupants inside?

While it is a fascinating project, it is also contentious. Animal rights and farming groups have pilloried the idea of a ‘Serengeti’ in the Netherlands with its concept of process-driven environmental change through the exertion of grazing, browsing, death and other behavioural pressures. There are no top predators and although – incredibly – wolves could conceivably reach the site as their range expands through the landscape corridors being compiled along river corridors on a pan-European scale, the hyena-like wild boar have not been introduced due to their paucity for escape. While it is probably too small an area to contain a viable population of elk, beavers have found their own way back by escaping from a local nature park.

Despite the contentions that surround projects of this type, it has produced some inspirational results. Spoonbills have returned to breed in ever increasing numbers creating a surplus population which overtime has overlapped back into Britain. Sea eagles have raised their first nestlings in centuries on the bounty of dead deer the site affords. Projects of this type, which return keystone species or re-engineer landscapes to allow natural processes such as seasonal flooding or forest fires to reoccur, have demonstrated quite ably that when nature is given free rein, the results which arise can be truly spectacular.

Are we, however, prepared to live in landscapes where these processes, even if appropriately modified, become part of our own experience?

Projects which return keystone species or re-engineer landscapes to allow natural processes such as seasonal flooding or forest fires to reoccur, have demonstrated that when nature is given free rein, the results can be truly spectacular

While space is without a doubt one of the biggest obstacles facing rewilders, a range of structural, social and cultural issues can also conspire to stultify change. As an example, I have been involved with the restoration of the Eurasian beaver in Britain since the early 1990s. Although they once had a world range which extended from Britain to China and numbered tens of millions, beavers were hunted virtually to extinction by humans as a result of an insatiable demand for their fur, scent glands and meat. They have been widely reintroduced throughout much of their former European range as an awareness of their critical role in the creation of wetland habitats (which greatly enhance biodiversity and biomass) has developed. Beaver-generated landscapes also have a significant function in the retention and purification of water.

There is an abundance of entirely suitable beaver habitat available in Britain and despite the fact that occasional conflicts will arise between their engineering activities and human land use, European experience again demonstrates quite ably that these conflicts are manageable. Despite this well-established knowledge, the restoration of beavers in Britain has proven to be a pitifully slow process. Political inertia and disinterest has coupled with the ignorance of opponents who simply want no change to the status quo. The official trials in Scotland and England have focused on the creation of tiny populations which remain extremely fragile.

If a species as benevolent as the beaver presents a significant challenge, then how much more difficult will it be to restore predators? While science and experience may dictate that wolves present no significant threats to humans, their tentative re-colonisation of many western European countries over the course of the last few decades has often evoked a primal response. Farmers groups have trapped them in pits in France and burnt them to death; hunters have poisoned them for killing ‘their’ deer; kindergarten teachers have implored forest authorities to remove them from the landscape to ensure that their medieval menace does not lurk in the dark when their tiny children go to school on a winter’s morning. Attitude change, it would seem, is a slow and painful process, one not easily turned round by knowledge.

Many farmers, despite the sums, will not wish to see their once-drained bogs rehydrated, their carrion consumed by sea eagles or their pastures revert to scrub

Any start to rewilding is therefore likely to be humble. Despite a measured approach, it is probable that fishermen and their strident support groups may not welcome the enrolment of the pelican in a predator’s guild which they already detest. The scientific community may dislike the pragmatism required on a semi-industrial scale to restore small species to remake the base of essential food chains if newly available habitats emerge. Many farmers, despite the sums, will not wish to see their once-drained bogs rehydrated, their carrion consumed by sea eagles or their pastures revert to scrub.

In the end it comes down to changing patterns. We have moulded the landscapes of the world as a species to suit our own passing needs, predilections and pleasures. While change is commonly opposed on whatever basis arises, change is nevertheless a constant in life. Over time, great civilisations have risen and departed, empires have been created and destroyed. Human habitations, hairstyles, dress codes, modes of communication and transport have all changed beyond recognition.

It is likely that ‘rewilding’ or ‘New Nature’ – call it what you will – could become a base movement which affords a fresh opportunity to approach nature conservation in a fashion which will, over time, be all the more rewarding for the surprises it presents.

Derek Gow is an ecologist from West Devon who advised on the reintroduction of beavers at Knapdale.

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