Guest blog – The taming of nature by Steven Robinson

IMG_0861I occasionally post on Mark’s blog as Apus Apus. I live in London and do not work in the conservation sector. I like swifts, birds of prey, trees, wolves, trophic cascades, LACS and Richard Mabey. I have written a guest blog, as I would like to see more naturalness in UK conservation. I have used the writing of Mark Fisher, Peter Rhind, and Clive Hambler and Martin Speight as a framework for this.





The taming of nature – why is naturalness undervalued in UK conservation?

All woods need managing or they become overgrown and uninteresting’ (Surrey Wildlife Trust).

As a regular visitor to nature reserves in the UK, I often feel saddened by the way nature is controlled and what has been lost in terms of naturalness. I’ve come to the conclusion that nature conservation in the UK has badly lost its way.

Following the last ice age and before agriculture, Britain was largely a landscape of trees. The only open habitats would have been river valleys, fens, lake shores, areas above the tree-line and exposed coastal sites or appearing from natural disturbance, such as wind, fire and seasonal flooding. Gaps could then be maintained, but not created by herbivores (apart from beaver).

This wildwood was full of unimaginable life – an estimated 8 million wood warblers, 66,000 wildcats and 6,600 wolves lived there. Today, we have not only lost many of the mammals, birds and insects, but also the trees. In 2015, woodland covers only 11.8% of the UK, although it is increasing, with conifers making up nearly 50% of it. As woodland is the natural state of much of Britain and with such low coverage compared to historical times, why do conservation organisations cut down trees and use domestic livestock to maintain open landscapes?

Birch woods on Bickerton Hill by Espresso Addict

Probably the most striking example of this is the creation or restoration of heathland (a more appropriate term would be deforestation), but it also occurs with the coppicing of trees, the clearing of scrub and the grazing of grasslands. For me this raises a number of questions. As these landscapes or practices resulted from agriculture or the extractive management of woodland, why are they being replicated on nature reserves? Why should one habitat or species be favoured over another? How can natural processes occur when an environment is controlled so intensively? Why should the needs of butterflies and sun-loving plants dominate the insects, birds, mammals, plants and fungi that require shade, moisture or a more complex, three-dimensional structure? How can habitats mature if they are constantly disturbed and degraded?

A recent example of heathland “restoration” has occurred on the National Trust’s Bickerton Hill site. This involved removing birch trees by felling or spraying saplings with herbicide to open up the area, but with the unwanted result that the spraying also affected the target species, heather, at the same time. This is what the manager responsible for the project had to say, “Our big issue here is regenerating birch, birch trees are things that threaten, they proliferate more readily than any other species and we have to control them. If we can control them, heathland vegetation has an opportunity to flourish. If in the process of eliminating birch trees there is a minor element of collateral, that’s unfortunate, but fine in that once the threat from the birch has gone, it will recover.”

Tree felling at Bickerton Hill by Espresso Addict

From reading his words, you would think he was talking about a pernicious, alien invader, rather than a native tree that is one of the best for wildlife. To make matters worse the inevitable grazing animals were then brought in to eat the saplings with mixed success. First cattle, then ponies were tried and now sheep plus fencing should be in place. The response from the local community has unsurprisingly been one of opposition, with one member of the friends group saying “the trees have an aesthetic beauty, are good for the ecosystem but also provide shelter for walkers and stop the hill feeling bleak and barren”.

Not very natural - cows grazing in birch woods at Bickerton Hill by Espresso Addict
Not very natural – cows grazing in birch woods at Bickerton Hill by Espresso Addict

Woodland management involves creating or maintaining glades and rides or coppicing trees. The rational for coppicing is usually because it is traditional, it encourages butterflies, it benefits some species of birds (although nightingales have largely moved to scrub) and it varies the woodland structure, which increases habitat diversity.

Of course, coppicing may benefit butterflies, but it is often too rapid and drastic for many woodland species and creates more edges, which could be detrimental to woodland specialists. Also, coppicing hasn’t been around long enough or been consistently practised for species to have evolved dependency. And though it may give the impression of structural variety it may not have this effect for smaller organisms, as architectural diversity is scale dependent.

The current status quo encourages excessive management to benefit favoured species or habitats. For example, SSSI designation provides little room for natural succession. I believe conservation organisations have vested interests in this, since SSSI status can encourage intensive management and provides the opportunity to tap into significant income streams, such as agri-environmental schemes or funding from the likes of the SITA Trust.

Here’s two examples of funding provided for the type of conservation projects I’m referring to – £325,000 over 10 years through HLS for the National Trust at Bickerton Hill and nearly £1million for Surrey Wildlife Trust’s heathland restoration (tree felling, scrub clearance, turf stripping, controlled burning, grazing) of Chobham Common over 10 years also via HLS.

It’s also telling that an alternative to these highly managed landscapes – rewilding has not been promoted or embraced with any real enthusiasm by the main conservation organisations, but has been brought to the table by the likes of George Monbiot and smaller conservation organisations like Trees for Life.

Perhaps the tide is changing with the growing interest in rewilding, but even projects championed for their naturalness, have been diminished by the use of livestock grazing, as in the case of “Wild” Ennerdale where cattle are favoured over roe deer (around twenty roe are culled each year) or the Forestry Commission/Suffolk Wildlife Trust/RSPB’s version of “rewilding” at Dunwich Forest where secondary landscapes are restored with the use of Dartmoor ponies.

One solution to remedy the lack of naturalness in the UK is the idea of untamed nature reserves to complement species preservation reserves and traditional agricultural reserves; with the latter two accommodating managed nature. Untamed nature reserves, would ideally receive no management and the longer they were free from human intervention, then the more importance would be placed on them. For me this would create a wilder Britain and help nature conservation in the UK get back on track. The wildwood may be long gone, but some of its naturalness could live on.


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57 Replies to “Guest blog – The taming of nature by Steven Robinson”

  1. Steven is right to highlight the opportunities and potential of rewilding an I believe correct to point out how reluctant many organisations seem to be to embrace the idea. Could this, in part at least, be due to the lack of funding and action required to achieve an outcome? Without a management goal there would be no need for Grant Officers to raise money for Project Officers to do work, which then requires more funding for Education Officers and Interpretation Officers to tell people about it?

    I think though that the Conservation Sector does need to manage land for specific biodiversity goals where the have been identified, as in SSSI and Nature Reserve designations. There is also a need to work with landowners to make space for nature on land not primarily set aside for conservation.

    But we could be missing the opportunity to identify areas where we do not NEED to manage wildlife, where it could get on with being truly wild. It’s cheap, it’s readily achievable, it can’t fail to meet it’s target and at all sorts of scales, from landscape to garden, it can be good for wildlife.

    1. I want to point out that the figure I used for woodland coverage in 2015 (11.8%) is inaccurate, as I mistakenly used information from 2010 (Sorry – not sure how that happened!). The most update figure I can see is from 2014. This says that woodland coverage in the UK is actually 13%. ($FILE/WAPR2014.pdf)

      A 1.2 % increase in 4 years is pretty impressive, but does not diminish my point that there is a considerable lack of woodland compared to historical times, especially when half of it is made up of conifers. It also compares unfavourably to most other European countries (for example, Spain has 36%, Germany 32%, and France 29%). In addition, ancient woodland only covers 2% of the UK in 2014 with 400 sites under threat from development (

      Despite this increase, the Woodland Trust reports in 2014 that the number of trees being planted in the UK is falling far short of targets for creating new woodland.

  2. I agree with much of what you say. It’s a difficult issue though because we have so few semi natural areas left that we have to make choices about the sorts of wildlife that we want to look after. If we don’t intervene to prevent natural succession then we will lose a lot of wildlife. Not just butterflies and plants but bitterns, bearded tits, marsh harriers, woodlark etc etc. Having said that I do think that naturalness should be valued more highly. Nature reserves can feel more like theme parks these days with their fences, walkways and information boards. When a new site is bought as a nature reserve the first thing that often happens is some of the wildlife habitat is destroyed in order to provide space for people. Boardwalks, hides and visitor centres all take up space and all detract from the ‘natural’ feel of the site. Even the wildlife is not expected to fend or itself. Often the birds are provided with limitless food and little man-made boxes for them to nest in. One of my favourite habitats to spend time in is woodland that is often described by wildlife bodies as ‘neglected’ which says a lot about our attitudes.

  3. I very much enjoyed this blog, as a thoughtful and provocative contribution to the debate about the direction of nature conservation in Britain.

    All conservation is about choices and, to quote Rush, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice”. So what do we want? I’ve spent much of my career trying to conserve flower-rich marshy grasslands in south Wales. They are places of immense wildlife and cultural value; look at the number of Welsh place names with the element ‘Rhos’ in them. One threat, if you want to call it that, is the cessation of cattle grazing and succession to birch woodland. That woodland would be of value for wildlife, but then we don’t have a massive shortage of that in Wales. But we are down to our last marshy grasslands. Do we really want to lose them, in the name of some vague idea of naturalness?

    I’d dispute that conservation organisations have not been open to allowing succession to take place. Look at the Cwm Idwal NNR project, where grazing was excluded in the late 90s, a visionary project by CCW staff long before ‘rewilding’ was heard of. But that was also a choice, in that case to try to extend the habitat for cliff plants and create woodland in exchange for upland acid grassland.

    Untamed nature reserves are an idea I’d love to see tried. But we need to think about where we do it and what we want. Babies and bathwater, and all that.

  4. A well written and thought provoking piece. I think your last paragraph provides a sensible objective i.e. the creation of untamed nature reserves to complement more traditionally managed reserves. I think the latter will remain important because of just how unnatural our entire countryside has become – we are thousands of years away from the wildwood and the processes that then intervened to create habitat patches for non climax species have been largely tamed. I think it is important to intervene to ensure that such species continue to find a space to survive in our country and I would suggest that it is not just butterflies and a few wildflowers that need such help.
    We do certainly need areas of wild high forest but even there it would be wise to accept that management may sometimes be necessary. I am thinking, for example, of the Caledonian Forest where control of deer is a management necessity if natural regeneration of the trees is to be possible (and I don’t believe there is any realistic likelihood of wolves being reintroduced any time soon to do the job more naturally). That said, it would be wonderful to have extensive areas of mature woodland with minimal intervention.
    I agree very much with Ian Carter’s comments about the presence on every reserve of large amounts of unnatural clutter in the form of boardwalks, interpretation boards and such like. It would be nice to have much less of this. There again a balance needs to be struck. It is easy to be cynical and suggest that all the paraphernalia is simply designed to bring money into the coffers of the conservation organisations but I believe it is also an important function of nature reserves to enable the public to see and enjoy wildlife and some infrastructure is necessary to enable this. The trick I suppose is to be able to provide some areas where the public, including those with reduced mobility, can see and appreciate the wildlife and other areas where there is no intrusion of man-made clutter.

    1. “Bring money into the coffers ….” That reads perjoratively to me, is that due to the current fashion to criticise charity fund raising? More people engaged = better understanding of the issues = more donations certainly but where do you think that money then goes, parties for reserve managers?
      Do the birds, inverts, plants object to info boards or do they just offend the eye.

      1. Roger, I missed this comment when it was posted and it may be too late to respond now but here goes.
        For the record I do not think that it is a bad thing for charities to engage in fund raising but on the contrary consider it a very necessary part of their activities. I assure you (do I really need to?) that I do not think the money is spent on parties for reserve managers and I fully understand that money has to be raised to fund all the activities the charity does to fulfill its charitable purpose. I did think that the formulation “It is easy to be cynical…but…” would signal to the reader that I was suggesting that we should not in fact be cynical but I am sorry that my meaning was apparently unclear to you.
        As I suggested in my post, hides, boardwalks and interpretation panels have their place in helping to provide access and understanding to everyone to the delights of nature and as such they are a justified presence on the nature reserve. You are probably quite correct that birds, inverts and plants do not object to info boards (although it is perhaps also reasonable to acknowledge that every square inch of car park, visitor centre, board walk etc, represents a square inch of lost habitat) and I am sure that they do not even offend everyone’s eye. They do offend some people’s eyes though and even if that is a purely aesthetic consideration it is not unreasonable to request that at least some parts of our nature reserve portfolio are left as uncluttered with such paraphernalia as possible. It is, after all, possible to go and look at birds in an aviary but for many (most?) people that is a much less satisfactory experience than seeing them flying free and wild in their natural environment.
        When managing a nature reserve all sorts of balances need to be struck; I am merely suggesting that one of these balances lies between providing facilities for those visitors that need and want them and an approximation of wildness for those who prefer their nature reserves to look natural.
        I hope that that is a little clearer now.

  5. A really interesting blog, Steven. I’d like to take you up on your statement: ‘Also, coppicing hasn’t been around long enough or been consistently practised for species to have evolved dependency.’
    I am currently reading George Mobiot’s book, ‘Feral’ and one chapter I found especially interesting describes the megafauna that once dominated Northern Europe. Monbiot quotes the late Oliver Rackham in saying that coppicing and pollarding are perhaps ‘adaptations to recovering from the assaults of elephants and other giant herbivores. The extermination of the great tree-breaking beasts in Paleolithic times may have been mankind’s first and farthest reaching influence on the world’s forests.’ So perhaps in practising woodland management that includes coppicing and pollarding we are reproducing an even older ecosystem than when wolves and lynx roamed wild.

    1. Thanks for everybody’s kind comments.

      Hi Lynn – it’s certainly interesting what George Monbiot has to say about elephant adapted ecosystems, although since straight tusked elephants went extinct in Britain 115,000 years ago, I’m not sure what relevance they have to modern day conservation? I feel we should probably draw a line at the end of the last ice age.

      When I made my comment about coppicing, I was thinking about cultural interventions, which have only been carried out, on and off since the Neolithic period (4000-2300 BC) rather than natural ones from beaver or even elephant (which of course, I wouldn’t have an issue with). I’m sure Monbiot wasn’t advocating for the practice of coppicing, as some kind of substitute for an elephant, as he prefers wild nature.

      What I was trying to put across in my blog was that I want to see less intervention and more naturalness. I don’t really want to see cultural coppicing as an attempt to restore some long lost ecosystem or expanding further, domestic livestock acting as proxies for extinct aurochs or tarpans.

        1. Some of George’s comments re Ice Age Fauna at home and abroad were a bit questionable in ‘Feral’ (e.g he said the macrauchenia was a llama, it was a totally different group the notoungulates and am surprised he made that mistake to be honest) and I think direct evidence that humans killed off the straight tusked elephant and woodland rhino is probably very weak – could hardly be anything else given time it happened – but megafauna did come regularly into Britain at every previous interglacial, then human presence on continent became stronger and elephants and rhino are now notable by their absence from this country which is actually unusual. So not necessarily a poor supposition. Do think that George’s comments re how our trees and woodlands are adapted by and for being munched on by big herbivores are still relevant and certainly fascinating subject.

  6. Steven has done a good job of bringing out some the underlying fault lines in current conservation thinking. Yes, the worship of grazing (and one-size-fits all thinking of all sorts) has to be a concern. Of equal concern – and especially frustrating for anyone involved in woodland – is the perception of doing nothing as ‘naturalness’, especially as it tends to be attached to the widely held feeling that woods don’t change much. I’m afraid we really do have to take responsibility for our actions which have been spectacularly more dramatic than most conservationists realise: most spectacularly, in 1947 49% of our broadleaved woodland was coppice, scrub or bare. By 2002 97% was high forest. But if you ask most conservationists if there’d been much change they’d be rather vague. Then there is the issue of scale: were we looking at 90% of woodland in coppicing that would be one thing, but the opposite is the case with 500,000 hectares of unmanaged woodland in England (and that does not include woodland like the New Forest Ancient and Ornamental where a positive decision to minimise tree management has been taken). There is room for – and a need for – both re-wildling and more intensive management, including more restoration to heathland. And there most categorically is not some mythical return to a lost Eden that simply requires doing nothing: read George Peterken’s ‘Natural Woodland’.

  7. What strikes me is the incredible reticence from many conservation organisations to actively promote what a real wood is – dead wood and trees, and an under storey with young trees and scrub. I know of one organisation where there are regular rows in the office as staff are expected to do what they know is actually bad for woods and their wildlife as it has been decreed in a ‘public consultation’ exercise that they don’t like the sight of dead trees or bushes scare them because naughty people could be lurking behind them. One of our big local woods has a couple of magnificent old and dying trees, because the public consultation exercise which said that some people wanted them removed as unsightly was quietly ignored (Thank You!). One of the trees has a large area of bark peeling away from the main trunk and is used as a bat roost, it’s beautiful if you know anything about ecology. If not for conscientious staff it would have went up a stove pipe some time ago. It’s appalling that conservation is being practised as subterfuge instead of via education, what’s the problem?

  8. Les, I hope this might help a little, from the FC national conservation guidelines published 25 years ago !
    -Trees become more valuable for nature conservation as they become older and eventually decrepit
    -Great care and thought is necessary before deciding to fell existing old trees
    – Excessive gleaning of firewood can be detrimental to the conservation value

    BUT ‘younger woods, regardless of specie, do not provide a suitable habitat for some flora such as lichens which require the attributes of older bark on which to develop’ . Stood over coppice is neither a return to the wildwood not going to rpovid abita fr rare dad wood species any time soon.

    1. Thanks for this Roderick, but I was actually referring to FC staff when I mentioned the public consultation exercise that was quietly shelved so some excellent dead and dying trees were left alone. The FC staff on that estate remove dead wood from main paths to put out of sight behind bushes etc so as not to ‘offend’ the public. I’ve read the excellent ‘Life in Dead Wood’ document produced by the FC, so my main point remains why the hell isn’t more, in fact any, effort being put into public education to tell people why they should appreciate and understand the role of dead trees and wood in a woodland? Baffling and incredibly frustarting. There is a community woodland group in Fife who have actually started to stack dead wood in an ‘aesthetically appealing’ manner on the floor of the wood to make it more publicly acceptable. Well meaning, but this makes me grind my teeth in frustration, so much effort to accomodate ignorance or apathy towards woods and their wildlife rather than proper education! A group of us made an effort to challenge this, please look at the article ‘Dead Wood is Someone’s Home’ on page 11 of this environmental newsletter

  9. Check out the amazing luxuriant and superb Bialowiesza Forest in North Eastern Poland – untouched, un-managed, just observed and left to get on with its natural life and simply superb. That’s the example we should be following.

    1. Would love to see it, first heard about 40 years ago when a wee boy first becoming interested in wildlife. Last I heard there plans to start ‘managing’ it, taking out dead wood and ‘sustainably harvesting timber’. Obscene that this is even being considered. There are political and economic interests that wouldn’t like us to start taking a more hands off approach with woodland, although with more sensible consumption and more emphasis on reduce, reuse, recycle and use of recycled material in products that would certainly be possible (and also create far more jobs).

      1. Bialowiesza Forest is well worth a visit, but understand that it is not in any sense virgin forest. There are two parts; the strict reserve (where you are required to be accompanied by a guide) and a very much larger managed area (which is where Bison mostly hang out) where you can wander at will along the grid system of rides. This area has always been subject to harvest and it doesn’t surprise me that there is talk of renewing this.

        Surrounding the forest,and intermingled with the larger forest reserve, is classic high nature value farmland; peasant agriculture in the true and honorable sense of that word, where you’ll see far more wildlife than in the forest itself (nb see – the beasties in the old forest are either the very small kind beloved of Martin Speight et al or well hidden!). Both parts together make up this outstanding site.

        I was there about 20 years ago and am plotting a return soon. Also about 20 years ago I went to see Oostvaardesplassen in the Netherlands, an example of rewilding long before the term was invented. When I saw it in the early 90s it was fabulous, stuffed full of birds like marsh harriers with a superb emerging vegetation structure from all the unmanaged grazing from Heck Cattle and Konik ponies and red deer. Back then it was the 6000ha holy grail of non intervention nature reserve management. I saw it again in 2010 and was horrified. Without carnivores it was grazed to oblivion, an ugly barren mess of dead trees and starving or dead animals. The incipient floristic diversity seen 20 years before has gone. It is an object lesson in in the limits of rewilding even over such a large and completely undisturbed site (zero public access) without either carnivores or culling.

        For rewilding to work we need both an understanding of the ecological processes that drive diversity (which is what I think is lacking in Steven’s piece) and a huge scale – that’s where Monbiot’s romantic vision fails for me. It’s certainly why I would disagree profoundly with Steven’s blanket criticism of UK nature conservation. I also think he’s being very unfair in ignoring the huge amount of work, both physical and intellectual, being done to explore rewildling as a practical proposition (see eg Sussex WT’s The Mens and Ebernoe/Butcherlands reserves). But you do need scale, and you do need a pragmatic approach. There won’t be wolves back in the SE of England this side of Armageddon.

        There is another unmentioned aspect though; coppice and meadows and the like are highly valued and endangered cultural landscapes, in addition to their role for biodiversity. Replacing them with yet more commonplace low biodiversity secondary woodland would be a huge cultural loss as well as a loss for wildlife, a break with 6000 years of human involvement in the landscape. At what point between the invention of fire and the invention of the A bomb does Steven believe that humans ceased to be part of nature?

        I’ve long had in interest in prehistoric landscapes, both from a romantic/scientific viewpoint and as a practical reserves manager. If I’ve learned one thing it’s that we have greatly underestimated the impact of our ancestors on prehistoric landscapes, right back into deep time. Completely ceasing to have any input now is probably the most unnatural thing we could do.

        1. JBC – OVP is not an example of rewilding, even though it claims to be. Vera’s project at OVP is a flawed experiment, as the European landscape did not look like this. It was primarily a landscape of trees. OVP is unnatural in that it is fenced and overstocked with red deer, plastic aurochs and tarpans and as you point out free of carnivores. FYI they have started to cull in winter to reduce pressure due to concerns about animal welfare.

          I did not want my blog too be long and trying to cover all bases would have made it unwieldy. This is why I did not focus on ecological processes in any detail. What I did want to highlight was the lack of naturalness in conservation that prevents natural processes from occurring as a result of it being so tightly controlled.

          It is obvious that the “wildwood” can never be recreated, but we could create a new wild by leaving nature alone. Although less than ideal, without key species to influence ecosystems (such as wolves, beavers and boar), I do believe that naturalness can still occur without them.

          I did criticise the main conservation organisations and some of their practices, but actually suggested a compromise for both managed and unmanaged nature in the final paragraph – Peter Rhind’s 3 different categories of reserves. I am realistic enough to know that the gardening of nature is not going to stop.

          It is also telling that the highest category for the IUCN (rated out of six) is for areas to have minimal or no human intervention – “…. where human visitation, use and impacts are strictly controlled and limited to ensure protection of the conservation values”. The UK ratings for NNR and NP’s is IV and V. Where are the rated I and II reserves? There is simply no understanding of wilderness in the UK, as land has always been exploited.

          You also asked at what point do I believe humans ceased to be part of nature? I don’t have an answer to that, but believe that the human domination of nature started when we learnt to control fire (1 million years ago?) which allowed us to turn into a super species. And was something that accelerated with the advent of agriculture, so as I wrote in my blog, why replicate it on nature reserves?

          Sent from my iPad

          1. Steven, OVP is not Vera’s project; I’m not even sure he was born when it was created. But it is an example of the “future natural” you want to see more of, ie starting from a very unnatural situation and then leaving it entirely alone to see what happens. Just like leaving an 8000 year old heathland to turn into birch forest, except that the heathland was an awful lot less unnatural to start with.

            BTW, the discussion about what the mesolithic was like isn’t as nearly as closed as you seem to think, even if you have made your own mind up. Vera being challenged isn’t the same thing as there being 100% canopy cover, the debate is still about where reality might have sat between those two extremes. That’s partly what I meant about understanding how important our ancestors were, because I for one think that without them the modern biodiversity of the UK and Europe in general is inexplicable. Advocating a less biodiverse world in the name of naturalness is not, I think, what you intended.

            I think we’ll have to differ about the importance of the ecological drivers of diversity(“processes”) in any future natural site if the aim is to conserve biodiversity. But in focusing on the very last fragments of biodiverse grasslands, managed coppice, and heathlands for your proposed abandonment, you’ve picked exactly the wrong target.

            The vast majority of these ancient habitats have already gone; if 100% of flower rich grassland was lost, rather than 98%, would those last few scattered hectares of new low value secondary woodland to add to the 00,000s that already exist really make a big difference to Martin Speight’s beloved spiders? I don’t think he’d think so (he was one of my tutors at college – we argued about coppicing then!).

            The uplands are a different story. Many are biologically degraded, not the species rich crown jewels of our ancient landscape like the meadows or downlands. They have the necessary scale, and have not on the whole been deforested for anything like as long. Maximum gain for lowest potential losses. Advocating for a radical change in how our uplands are managed, I think you’d be pushing at an open door with most conservation professionals. It’s winning the public round that is the hard part.

            Woodlands are more mixed, but given how many unmanaged woods there are your ideas are being put into practice by default, even if the results are not labelled “nature reserve”. But you can also find excellent examples that are reserves, like The Mens which Sussex WT has left to non intervention since they acquired it in the 60s. There’s a lot more dead wood there than in most woodlands, and it’s all the better for it.

            I don’t think that there is really any argument about principle here; it’s an argument about practicalities and priorities. I say start by conserving what’s left of the best of what we have, and then get ambitious about rewilding the rest wherever we can. But bringing back nature is a journey, not a fixed destination, and we have to bring enough of the public along on that journey if we’re even going to get to the next skyline. I think we have a lot of work to do on the way.

          2. Mark – please can you put this after Jbc’s last comment, as the reply feature is no longer there.

            Jbc – Sorry for the late reply – New Year got in the way. Happy New Year by the way!

            OVP was there before Vera, but he has been involved with the reserve since 1979 and has had enormous influence over the management, as he was part of the team that introduced horses, cattle and red deer in the 80’s and has used this experimental site to test his own wood-pasture hypothesis.


            A few other points –

            In my blog I did say that there would be open areas, which suggests that it can’t be 100% canopy.

            I also wanted to highlight that there could be another approach to nature conservation, one that did not have maximising biodiversity at its heart.

            I’m not sure why meadows should necessarily be at risk – it does not have to be all or nothing. They could be accommodated in agriculture or species reserves.

            I’ve never really liked the label secondary woodland and how it is so easily dismissed by the conservation sector, as being low in value. Another view is that it is restoration of the land.

            I knew that my blog would be not be liked by everybody and particularly from people who work in conservation, but thank you for making your comments, as it has been interesting discussing this further. I will also check out The Mens!

  10. A provocative post and well put, but after consideration I cant really agree with too much of it. I speak only as an enthusiastic amateur Bird/Bugs and Botany man, although I am a member of the South Peak Raptor Study Group.There is certainly too little woodland in the UK, but heathland is far more threatened. What chance for the Silver studded Blue, Woodlark or Nightjar if we allow Birch encroachment on all of our lowland heaths? Unfortunately many of our reserves are tiny pockets of a once more widespread habitat, it wouldn’t make sense for an NGO to purchase a remnant heathland for instance and then allow it to revert to woodland. Replicating ancient management techniques as best possible seems reasonable to me,(at least if we want to protect some of our most loved flora and fauna).
    I suppose there is the argument that if it cant survive in the modern world then it should be allowed to die out, perhaps you mean this? but what a dull world that would be.
    No SSSI should have to pay lip service to dog walkers and day trippers (Bickerton Hill). Conservation techniques are often unpopular but it doesn’t mean that they are wrong.
    The beauty and interest of a great Forrest is in its mosaic of habitats, would it really be improved if it was allowed to become a huge wood? I’m afraid the age of a genuine wildwood has gone for ever in the UK sadly.
    With the exception of the Woodland Trust, which don’t seem to conduct reserve management I think the UK wildlife organisations do a decent enough job within their means.
    To finish on the one point that I do agree with you on, some reserves do feel a little like theme parks with their boardwalks, interactive signposts etc.

  11. Stephen – interesting post, enjoyed it. Re. your comment on England being a landscape of trees see Rackham’s Woodlands for the views of Tansley and Vera on what the ‘wildwood’ might have been like…

    1. Have a look at the reference that I provided for this. By analysing pollen data, Vera’s wood pasture hypothesis is rejected; the conclusion being that open woodland only occurred due to human activity over the last 3000 years.

      1. The Sussex heaths were certainly (at least) open woodland back in the mesolithic, and I’d be amazed if there were not similarly old dates recorded for other heathland sites too.

        But even more generally, and even if we accept your hypothesis that it’s all man made (which I don’t, but since neither of us was there at the time maybe you’re right and I’m wrong about this!) 1000BC is a very very late date to propose for the creation of extensive open woodland/open ground. All those stone circles weren’t built in dense woodland – 1000BC is quite late in the Bronze age – did you mean 3000 BC ie 5000 years ago?

        6500 years ago, 4500BC, (UK) minimum (ie the start of the Neolithic) is more like it, and even older on the continent, getting older still as you head east. The time depth of these ancient biodiverse landscapes is one of the reasons that I disagree so profoundly with you about their value to nature conservation as habitats and as cultural connections in and of themselves. I love the romantic notion of returning wild nature too, but let’s get the facts right about where we’re starting from in this debate.

        Oh dear that sounds more aggressive than I intended! But you see what I mean about baselines. Thanks for stimulating this debate, Steven. it’s a topic we need talk about more if we’re going to find ways to really make it happen.

          1. For some reason the link you gave which worked fine last night won’t work today from my workplace, so forgive me if I can’t reference specifics. Ironically I have a copy of Mitchell’s 2004 paper at home anyway!

            He doesn’t say what you say he does, at least not at all in the absolute terms you’ve quoted him as. Veg analysis from pollen has its own issues and errors like all other methodologies.

            Because I can’t check the original, I can’t check if it contains your assertion that “open woodland only occurred due to human activity over the last 3000 years”. If it does then either you’ve taken it out of context or it’s plain wrong.

            There are literally hundreds of thousands of monuments still standing that were clearly created and designed to be seen in open ground, all across Europe. Stonehenge, Avebury, the prehistoric Orcadian complexes, Carnac, all the barrows on the Downs, and lord knows how many others are all millennia older than 1000BC.

            For there to not have been very extensive open ground before 1000BC requires that there was no Neolithic or Bronze ages as we recognise them, and the entire field of European prehistoric archaeology to based on incorrect dating. I doubt that Mitchell would have made such an absurd assertion so with respect you must have misunderstood or misquoted him.

            Just as one pollen diagram does not make Stonehenge disappear, it also does not prove conclusively that there was little or no open ground in the Mesolithic (even in the study area where the samples came from), particularly if other lines of evidence indicate otherwise. It’s one important strand of evidence to consider alongside the others. I think Mitchell himself noted this in his introduction, talking about the need for further studies and confirmation.

            fwiw I don’t buy Vera’s extreme open woodland either, but be aware that it is always wise to look at multiple sources and not just the one that suits your desired conclusion. If you do that with the mesolithic, you’ll find many more lines of study suggesting a good proportion of open ground, at least in some areas, than suggest a (nearly) closed canopy all the way from Land’s End to Orkney.

            There’s plenty of room for uncertainly and interpretation about the mesolithic, so I’m not saying that I’m certain to be right and you’re certain to be wrong – either or more likely neither of us could be correct. You’re wrong to think it’s settled though.

            But sorry, when it comes to the dating and/or existence or otherwise of Stonehenge etc you really are are simply wrong! I was at both Stonehenge and Avebury at the weekend as it happens, and they are definitely there and definitely older than 1000BC… even if most open ground in the UK is man made, it’s much older than you have given credit for.

            Happy new year!

  12. Being close to a number of heathland sites down south that are very much part of this debate (eg. Thames SPA, with this areas open heathland of particular importance to nightjar and DW) I think it’s a very interesting one to have.

    If I were to cast out a couple of immediate thoughts:

    Your nature reserve is of little value if it keeps bursting in to flames and destroying all your hard work – this seriously limits the utilisation of preferred ‘natural’ states, since as vegetation increases, fire load increases resulting in unacceptable risk, it’s also important to note here of course that the greater the fire load, th hotter the burn, which can seriously impede recovery. In and around many southern heathland sites, fire I’d the biggest long term risk.

    Fragmentation of sites has made micro management of habitat more common – it is difficult to get rotational management going, this also fits in with the difficulty of recovery after fire, losing a couple of acres to fire (or felling) is ok on a 300 acre site and may well create a rotation of renewable habitats, giving you that broad biodiversity through vertical structure on a macro scale. this is seriously limited on small fractured micro nature reserves, where the greatest long term retention biodiversity can only be reached by maintaining a sub climax community, which of course requires constant intervention.

    There remains a desire to retain otherwise unsustainable species that have developed in a landscape long managed by humans due to the inherent value of biodiversity. This can often lead to unexpected results, the history of the large blue butterfly being a prime example of the danger of withdrawing a non-natural action (grazing) that we paradoxically thought was harmful (the inherent presumption that grazing/management is bad, natural/wild is good) – I have yet to hear moonbat tackle this example in his quest for rewinding, and his entire approach leaves me with the question “very good, but what current species would be negatively impacted by rewinding ?” Personally I suspect that many moorland waders would be severely affected by his proposals for increased scrub cover in upland areas as he proposes (in part due to increased cover for predators) and it could see the complete loss of the black grouse – mark mag disagree here, but I am putting it out there as an example of possible ‘negative or unintended consequences’ that I just have not seen Monbiot discuss in any way.

    A final completley alternative consideration – the best way to secure a future for heathland, woodland and similar sites might be to ensure it is financially viable through being productive rather than a draw on resources – if a series of nature reserves costs £50k per year net from the public purse to manage, then it is always going to compete with schools and hospitals. Your ‘less intensive management’ option might reduce this to £20k net, However, if we make it productive by Licencing the harvest wood for timber and firewood instead of cutting it and leaving thousands of tons to rot, if we graze it and then sell the sheep and beef, if we (horror of horrors) lease the deerstalking rights and actually take a view of managing this land as a resource that can be managed sympathetically for its wildlife and conservation value but STILL be productive, (indeed, this would make it saleable at a premium) then we could actually run it well without impacting on the public purse. Crucially, if we do it well, we might also begin to see a greater connection between local people and their environment and their food.
    Here’s my dream, I walk into my local butchers, and there I see ‘surrey wildlife trust free range beef’ or ‘Hampshire wildlife trust wild venison’ – and I buy it because I know that it had a good life, and I know it was grazed sensitively to the local environment, and because I know that the money would be going back into doing more of the same -and we both know that it would absolutely sell.

    1. kie – thank you for this comment. I agree with much of it – at least partly with most of it. I am not firmly in the ‘let’s rewild everything’ camp either – but then, who is?

      As far as Black Grouse and predators are concerned – just look abroad. Black Grouse live in just the landscapes you worry about over much of their European range. When the Norwegians start burning their hills then we should start thinking we have a point.

      1. Thanks Mark

        I hope you see that the black grouse point was, like the butterflies, illustrative of a wider one. yes we could both argue till the cows come home about the outcome either way for any particular species, but the point regards unintended consequences from ‘Monbiot style rewilding’ stands – the concept is being thrown around as something of a panacea, without real critical analysis or discussion of the potential negative outcomes.

        1. kie – yes of course. There are consequences of any public policy – some of which will be unintended. And of the unintended ones, some will be downsides and others will be nice surprises. We just have to do the best we can.

          Too often, the fear of unintended bad consequences is used to scare people from doing things that will have blindingly obvious intended good consequences. The forces of conservatism always highlight the potential unknown downsides of everything in order to maintain the status quo (and sometimes they are right).

        2. “Unintended consequences” – surely that is the beauty and the whole point of rewilding? Leaving nature to do its own thing free from human interference, rather than, as Monbiot said treating it like a jar of pickles!

          1. “Crucially, if we do it well, we might also begin to see a greater connection between local people and their environment and their food.
            Here’s my dream, I walk into my local butchers, and there I see ‘surrey wildlife trust free range beef’ or ‘Hampshire wildlife trust wild venison’ – and I buy it because I know that it had a good life, and I know it was grazed sensitively to the local environment, and because I know that the money would be going back into doing more of the same -and we both know that it would absolutely sell.” – Absolutely, with the lack of large predators there needs to be population control of the grazers/browsers, provided copper rather than lead bullets/shot were used and the produce marketed at a reasonable price not a fancy ‘premium’ so as to be accessible to more people. Deer are such a problem in many ecosystems now that venison should be almost free! Locally sourced free range Wisent burgers one day?

    2. Kie, appreciate your comments re economic returns from nature reserves, but leaving wood to rot is not wasteful and in fact one of our biggest conservation issues is the very large number of species struggling due to absence of the dead wood they need and which they break down into constituent nutrients for new life as part of the recycling process. We need more dead wood, a lot in fact, not less.

      1. oh, I don’t necessarily disagree, however I would suggest that a balance can be found, allowing a ‘sustainable crop’ of timber to be removed and sold to fund positive management and retain the land as ‘productive’ whilst also leaving dead wood to benefit conservation as well – we can do both! We ought to maybe also consider the wider impact too – timber that is produced sustainably from sites managed positively for wildlife and conservation replaces timber that is sourced from less sustainable management (and even wider, used as firewood it offsets fossil fuel use) so while your point about dead wood is valid on a micro scale, thinking on a macro scale might lead to different conclusions.

        Arguably the problem is that we often seem to tackle these things with an over simplistic either/or solution, and in the long term that that helps nobody – I would stress that this ‘sustainable crop’ applies to my whole hypothesis, Deer are possibly the best example of how many of the wildlife trusts and other quasi-public land managers have visibly withdrawn from active wildlife management for many years, only reacting when the deer population has grown such an extent that they are having a huge detrimental effect on the condition of sites – of course, the reaction will now be a huge ‘panic’ cull whereby we have to cull them to a level that will allow regeneration… of course, they will then cull for a few years till the regeneration has established, then defend into benign inaction until the next time – a detrimental cycle of boom and bust mismanagement.

        Of course, if they had taken braver and less populist decisions in the past and continued a sustainable cull throughout (cull management based on surveying levels of grazing and damage) we would never have got into this mess in the first place, and there would have been a sustainable cull of venison coming off this land for many years. We all knew this was the case, we all knew in theory that it could and should work that way, but how many of the wildlife trusts were leasing out their deerstalking? How did the deer population at RSPB reserves like Leighton Moss and Minsmere climb to such an unsustainable level that they have had to go in and ‘nuke them’ – and (central to my argument regards funding) possibly the biggest crime, how come the RSPB and wildlife trusts are now actually having to PAY contractors to go and do it when they could have MADE money leasing stalking out for decades? Deer management is the perfect example of a single conservation issue that, tackled correctly, could have, and should have, been utterly sustainable – both from an ecological and financial outlook.

        My ethos is of course that we could expand that concept much wider to the whole gambit of conservation management, with things like deer, forestry, grazing/livestock etc all paying into the pot so that, well managed, nature reserves/conservation are ecologically and financially sustainable.

        1. Thanks for this Kie, we can have both extraction and dead wood, but you can’t have the former without compromising the latter. Some dead wood would leave its locale via falling into a river or I suppose going up in smoke on a very, very rare natural fire, but most would rot and be recycled in the area from which it drew most of its nutrients in the first place. We have a very heavy dead wood and older tree deficit in most of our forests and extraction isn’t going to help put that right. More existing dead wood than ever is being picked up for stoves and where are the next generation of ancient trees going to come from, is there a plan, or are they more likely to be ‘sustainably’ harvested for hardwood furniture before they become the ancient trees we supposedly appreciate so much?

          I was reading a supplement for the Woodland Trust’s Scottish members yesterday and saw that they had just bought a wood that had been ‘neglected’ for 35 years, and now they were looking at ‘managing’ it economically, fuel and timber. Not too much about protecting and enhancing wildlife value, community use seems to the in thing with wildlife and certainly conservation education being marginalised. Certainly nothing about dead wood there being good for wildlife and how they would keep it. We waste disgusting amounts of energy from poor insulation standards and not using thermostats properly and I think there’s something obscene about cutting down trees for fuel on top of this, is it really necessary or sensible? Wood is like any other natural resource to be used very wisely, most certainly not the case.

          1. Some people need to shake off the notion that land needs to be ‘productive’.

    3. I’d class this post as a very good example of everything wrong with UK conservation. It treats nature and the environment purely as a resource to be extracted from, whilst advocating for the preservation of clearly degraded environments on account of speciesm, even though the landscape scale benefits far out weigh it.

  13. Your piece reminded me of a friend who worked near the Eco Centre in Ballymena. She saw contractors cutting down some old trees and asked them why. It turned out they were employed by the Woodland Trust , and planned to plant trees in the area.
    Woodland edge has its supporters- does it not create opportunities for “micro-habitats” that some species are able to use?
    There has been a series of interesting articles in Conservation Land Management issues recently. They gave details of the Ennerdale , Knepp Estate and other “rewilding” projects. They highlight the problems with the definition of “rewilding” and the absence of large carnivors and scavengers.
    There is a good deal of “woodland creation” going on- much to be welcomed, a little to be more cautious about. Locally a start has heen made in attempting to create a little diversity in a few acres of recently planted “new native woodland”.
    Phil Allen

  14. What a thought provoking blog and subsequent debate. I’m not qualified to bring much science to the table but I’ve found myself agreeing with much of what I’ve read yet not entirely agreeing with anyone. But at the same time it’s left me wrestling with my own thoughts and principles.

    I’ve always had a firm foot in Steven’s camp that we should just leave well alone and dear old Mother Nature will take care of herself. After all she’s much better at it than we are. But would I really be happy to see the demise of our nightjars, woodlarks, dartford warblers, heathland butterflies and reptiles. to name but a few. Not really but does that make me a hypocrite? Probably I think. As a devout Darwinian I should take a loss of biodiversity on the chin if natural selection dictates shouldn’t I?

    Of course, we’ve already committed grievous bodily harm on our nature. Have we vandalised it to the extent that it can’t fix itself. How can she restore balance when we’ve removed all the apex predators for instance. Many serious injuries can never heal properly without surgery. I wonder what the British Isle would look like in future millennia, if mankind were suddenly wiped out today.

    Very thought provoking. Thanks Steven.

  15. Yesterday, to avoid walking through the dreary forest to Slippery Underfoot, we ventured out in the jamjar to Bentley Wood. Very pleasant it was walking on hard tracks with herds of deer threading furtively through the pines and birch and beech in the pale watery but we didn’t see a Purple Emperor or Dingy Kipper and not even a Dodgy Geezer. Nevertheless I enjoyed this in the same way I used to enjoy the open wooded commons of Wickham, Hayes and Keston, Friday Street and other freely accessible “wild” places in Kent and Surrey with their beautiful silver birches and once upon a time where I walked my children in Delamere Forest and on Bickerton Hills. They seemed large then, pushing a buggy, but in reality they are small refuges of accessibility in a landscape otherwise closed. Seeing what has been done to Bickerton I’m grateful – that I’m not there no more. Now my favourite river walk is on Common Marsh by Marshcourt River – a back-stream of the Test at Stockbridge. Or it was, until a hideous barbed wire fence was erected to stop me. It’s for my own good, obviously, but who am I to decide that?

  16. Excellent blog.

    I don’t know how animals and habitats survived before we came along?

    That’s all.

  17. What a lovely and amicable festive discussion you have started Steven.

    I agree with most of what has been said because of course it is ethically and logically entirely compatible to want to have more areas where wildlife can thrive in a less intensively managed environment and to continue to manage the remaining fragments to maximise the number of species that will survive long enough to populate the new areas.

    I certainly don’t encounter resistance to the concept of rewilding in the conservation sector, but of course there is a fear that the current miniscule resources that are invested in the emergency life support system for other species will be cut because of the rewilding concept.

    And they are miniscule amounts – the £130K per year put into heathland restoration through the NT and Surrey WT initiatives that you quote is the equivalent of about a day’s takings in any one of the 1,000s of big supermarkets trading in the week before Christmas. In 2012 the UK governments spent just £12.75 on your behalf to protect the UK environment, the vast majority on collecting your rubbish. To put this in perspective they spent on your (and each and every individual’s) behalf £420 on military defence and £1,616 on the National Health Service. (See more at:

    In the current climate it is not unreasonable to imagine that a minister might say – “look the current system is not working, we need to do something different, rewilding is easier to sell and looks very high-level and strategic, it even reduces flood intensity – let’s do that instead.” The minister would then turn to the Treasury – who have the ultimate say-so – and would, however good the initial intentions, get convinced that the only way to do this rewilding would be if it was cheaper. So money would be cut from maintaining the quality of remaining habitats and a much smaller amount of money allocated to helping upland farmers cope with a repurposing of their land.

    The risk of rewilding is that its glamour could reduce the funds available to conserve wildlife, the process of rewilding would still be slow, piecemeal and little more than landscape ‘wild washing’. Meanwhile the species continue to go, even more quietly, extinct.

    One other point – nitrate deposition. However attractive the concept of naturalness, we are deluding ourselves if we believe that we can withdraw our influence. Not only are we slowly warming up all the habitats – well alarmingly so if today’s reports that the temperature at the North Pole is currently 1 degree centigrade – 30 degrees higher than it normally is – we are also changing habitat fertility.

    Nitrates from burning fossil fuels and fertilizers are exceeding the critical limits of most habitats. This means that they are subtly but profoundly less ‘natural’ than they would once have been. This effects plant growth, competition, ground temperatures, bare ground and many other ecological processes. At one extreme we are losing the bare open ground that are entirely necessary for the continued existence of a wide range of endangered species – for instance sand lizards and heath tiger beetles on heathland – but this is just the tip of the iceberg.

    Sustainable management of wildlife, which ultimately requires elements of rewilding, has more work to do simply to counter the growing impacts on species and ecosystems from nitrification and warming.

    As the ailing patient falters and is patched up on its hospital bed, surrounded by caring doctors, we can all dream, with hope and zeal, about it running wild, free and healthy, but this won’t be achieved by simply turning it lose in the mountains.

    1. Matt

      – In my last paragraph I suggested a solution that should please everybody – untamed, species and agriculture reserves. I’m realistic to know that the cultural interventions used in UK conservation is not going to stop, so on the flipside why can’t areas be left as wildland?

      – I believe that these areas can still be natural even though they will be very different to woodland 7000 years ago. It will be natural, as long as it is free from human influence. Ecosystems will simply accommodate the new conditions that they face.

      – Why will species go extinct – when I am proposing three different categories of reserves? Rather than thinking what lives here, why not think what could live here? If the uplands experienced ecological restoration for example – if they went from degraded to an environment that contained more trees and scrub – how can that not be a good thing? You mentioned the fear within conservation of losing their pot of money to rewilding, but apart from initial land purchase, removing fencing etc it should not be a significant cost in the long-term, unless you wanted to reintroduce species as there will be little or no management.

      1. Not a thing wrong with your vision of a spectrum of intervention levels across a series of wildlife sites. Indeed, if it delivers a much larger area of connected habitats and reduces the fragmentation of the most endangered habitats then it is not only sensible, it is also an essential progress towards a sustainably healthy natural environment in Western Europe.

        The problem is the assumption that what we have achieved in terms of halting the declines in certain species, is firstly adequate to halt all extinctions and is secondly in a steady state.

        When you look at the vast majority of species the declines are still widespread and rampant. Not only are invertebrate extinctions continuing, the amount of funding and level of activity by Government has dropped since the zenith of the UK Biodiversity Action Plan in the late 1990s. Funding for work conserving the less glamorous species has been slashed – Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund – gone, BBC Wildlife Fund – discontinued, Environment Agency species work – discontinued, Landfill Sustainability Fund – slashed by a third in the latest budget, etc. For more on the impacts of these cuts on the conservation of a globally endangered species see more here –

        The work of the RSPB and others on a small number of our closest relatives may give the impression that UK extinction is yesterday’s problem, but for the 75% of declining butterflies and moths, the bevy of endangered bee species and the cornucopia of beetles on the brink this is not the case. Not only is their condition getting worse, the efforts to address this are in decline.

        While you are right that in the long term rewilding should be cheaper per hectare than the retention of the more sensitive habitats and species, in the short term it will not be politically acceptable to simply turf people off the land, (can you imagine a modern day Enclosures Act in reverse?). Either attractive land purchase offers will have to be made, or more likely landowners will have to be supported financially to repurpose their land. This is expensive and probably not easily achieved through CAP, so that’s much more expensive than it is now. It would be good to think that rewilding would simply be taking the fences down, I am not sure it will be that simple, a lot of farmers will want more fences – ‘wild in there, but not amongst my lambs please’. In any case there will be really substantial set up costs, so you do come back to the question – where will this money come from?

        You say that “It will be natural, as long as it is free from human influence.” we might want to look more closely at this statement. If we are heating it up with CO2, fertilising it with NOX, defining its boundaries, deciding when to intervene or not intervene, allowing a whole bunch of plant species we have gathered from every corner of the planet to run riot, introducing and managing big mammals, visiting, managing access and disturbing, then the idea that it is ‘free from human influence’ seems a little fanciful. Of course the alternative is to conclude that we evolved from other apes, we are part of nature, and the above activities are all perfectly natural things for us to do!

        1. – You say that there is no resistance to the concept of rewilding in the conservation sector, but if your two comments are in anyway representative of the sector that you work for then that is clearly not the case. It is completely understandable to be wary of a different concept, particularly when your sector’s income streams could be affected by reducing the need to farm and garden nature reserves.

          – I don’t want to see any extinctions either, but I’m also not sure that keeping land in an arrested state of development is the right thing to do either, particularly when we have so few endemic or globally threatened species. It could also be argued that species that favour open habitats have increased their populations artificially thanks to the human activity of clearing woodland. Since 70% of the UK is farmed I would say that there is one of the main reasons for the risk of extinctions, especially for insects when much of it is repeatedly drenched in chemicals, not some areas left to rewild.

          – I’m not sure why you mentioned turfing people off the land, as I didn’t. Why would letting trees grow mean this?

          – For the uplands some of these costs could come from flood protection. On the lowlands it does not cost anything to not cut down trees.

          – Why would farmers be concerned about the lack of fencing from letting trees grow? Rewilding can occur even without mammals.

          – Being free of human infuence would be the ideal, but I am pragmatic enough to realise that there will have to be some interventions to start with, removing fencing (I did use an etc in my previous post, but I will go into it in more detail now), or even putting up fencing if there were only deer and no predators to enable regeneration to occur, unblocking drains, removing non-native plants and there may even need to be some intervention in future if absolutely necessary, eg if non-native plants invaded the site or as a last resort, as it is something that I am very uncomfortable with – culling deer if there were no predators and they were severely damaging the woodland ecosystem.

          – We of course evolved from apes and are part of the natural world in that sense, but I feel that as a species we have dominated the natural world so relentlessly and are generally so removed from it now that in the interests of the rest of the planet we have to adopt a hands off approach and to let wild nature breathe. It always strikes me as a bit of a cop out when people raise this argument – as an attempt to absolve man from all of the damage he has done to the natural world – we can do what we want to it since it is natural.

          1. Steven, I think Matt makes some fair points that it’s not so easy for you to dismiss.

            Your concept of ‘wild and untamed’ reserves is limited by their interaction with the wider ecosystem surrounding them, you have to accept that animals carry no respect of convenient land management boundaries, which means that your reserve becomes either a ‘harbour’ for species that eat surrounding crops, or a ‘larder’ that surrounding species come in to feed on. Your ‘natural’ ecosystem is nothing of the sort as it is not a closed loop. Deer are an easy example, but what are you going to do about the rookery, the badgers & the foxes? How ‘wild’ is your nature reserve if it’s full of foxes at an ‘unnaturally’ high level because they are supplementing their diet with next doors free range chickens? Eqally, just how ‘wild’ is your nature reserve if it’s full of cats from the neighbouring housing estate? Your finely balanced ecosystem is suddenly anything but ‘wild’.

          2. My apologies if I leapt a couple of squares ahead re. turfing people off the land. It would be possible to do rewilding without significant land ownership reform, but we would have to find a way of maintaining the livelihoods that depend on the current management of the landscape, and as the areas would no longer be agricultural they would not qualify for agri-env payments – hence would need a new long term funding mechanism. The alternative is of course land purchase, which could be compulsory or voluntary, the first is cheaper, more effective, but not politically acceptable, the second is expensive and unreliable – the rewilded areas would be those where the land owner was willing to sell.

            I caution against implying that conserving species in the UK may not be important because other countries have more endemic or globally threatened species, other countries also have more wilderness than we do; it’s just not an argument for leaving it to others to do what is right for a healthy planet.

            You acknowledge rewilded areas will still require a considerable management effort to negate latent human impacts such as the invasion of non-native plant species and the effects of having removed the top predator (not quite sure what your justification for unblocking drains would be?).

            Do you also think we need to take action in the same areas to strip soil nutrients and/or remove vegetation to mitigate the impacts of nitrate pollution? If not why not?

            Do you think that we need to create bare ground to mitigate the loss of coastal and river bank erosion? If not why not?

            Do you think we need to maintain open areas to mitigate the loss of circumlocutory herds of large grazing mammals? If not why not?

            Why would we be free from responsibility to manage our impacts on succession?

            Following the last ice age very large areas of the UK were bare ground, the uplands rubbed raw and rocks and parent material smeared over the landscape by glaciers. The colonisation of this desolation by trees would have taken centuries or millennia. We are now in control of the global thermostat, and hence the future of glaciation, so what does this mean for rewilding and vice versa.
            In my view we have to take responsibility for our species and its impacts. We have to take positive action to help the other species that we are putting in danger, it is our duty to the wonder of life that we must acknowledge the huge harm that some of our actions cause and do our utmost to mitigate and remediate those impacts. Most nature conservation efforts have been back foot defensive measures – because this is all that can be afforded – they tend to be small scale and intensive, although there are of course great examples of large scale conservation with lower intensity management – the Abernethy reserve, the Great Fen Project, Knepp, etc. We will have to have more such projects in the future, but I think it would be a tragedy if we did not also do much more across the board to prevent the current declines and extinctions.

            Do you think that taking a post Darwin view of humans as part of nature excuses our actions because our actions are therefore natural? I can only see how this concern arises if one considers that all that is natural is also good. That does not necessarily follow, it may be that nature can be bad. For instance some actions by humans are wrong because they imperil the future existence of other species, while some actions are good because they improve the health of the environment and the ability of other species to survive. My fear is the reverse of yours, by defining humans as not being part of nature, as being unnatural, we condemn ourselves to only being able to have negative interactions with other life on earth.

            It seems to me profoundly unhelpful and divisive to consider humans to be apart from nature and therefore that nature is better off without us. I also fear that it could lead to an abrogation of responsibility for the pervasive impacts we are having across all habitats, regardless of drawing lines on maps to exclude ourselves from some places.

            If we could accept that we are part of life on earth perhaps we would find it easier to accept that some of our interventions have been hugely positive, and have derived from strong altruistic motives (not vested interests as you seem to think) and that this work should be continued and expanded upon, not attacked and shut down as is currently happening.

            It is profoundly human to feel sadness at the loss of innocence and to wish for things to be the way they once were. However, it is part of our process of growing up as a species to acknowledge that we are now in control, our influence has a heavy effect everywhere and we must mitigate, and indeed retreat, to enable ourselves to secure a healthy environment where other species can survive and thrive. This does put us in the position of having to make difficult decisions about what we prioritise – which species or habitat we favour and where. I do think that the needs of other species should be high in our prioritisation system, and that this should be as taxonomically level a playing field as possible.

            Rewilding should not simply be designed to gratify our own desires – aesthetic views, wanting to believe that there is a place where non-humans are free from our decisions, or a romantic affection for large mammals. My instinct is that we should, as best we can, distance the priorities for rewilding from the immediate foibles of human nature.

            P.S. In your blog you say that “SSSI status can encourage intensive management and provides the opportunity to tap into significant income streams, such as agri-environmental schemes or funding from the likes of the SITA Trust.” I am not sure the extent to which SSSI status helps to access agri-environment scheme funding, but it certainly does not help access SITA funding as they have just closed all their nature funding in England

          3. I do like your blog Steven! And do think there is plenty of common ground on rewilding being a concept that could help us to achieve a range of objectives. I do think it is worth fully exploring our motivations, objectives and expectations.

            The funding question may be difficult but it is important, currently as set out huge decline in investment in saving most species, how will rewilding be funded, and where will the money come from?

            Nitrates come out of the air, not just via water, plants including trees can absorb them, but they are derived from fossil fuels and deposits and recirculating thousands of tons of them into ecosystems every year is having a profound effect. There has been a 6-fold increase in N deposition rates since 1860, and it is predicted to double again by 2050.

            We are literally fertilising the planet. There is more about what can be done at site level to mitigate global fertilisation here –

            But how what this means for rewilding is less clear.

            It is also important that we are clear that nature can of course cope with everything, including being swallowed by a black hole, but life on Earth would not cope with this, and fertilisation of habitats at current rates is more than many species can cope with. Unless we take responsibility for this impact, then nature will of course adapt, but that may mean more nettlebeds and fewer species.

            Here are some relevant quotes from this year’s encyclical ‘Care for Our Common Home’ by Pope Francis.

            “67. We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us. This allows us to respond to the charge that Judaeo-Christian thinking, on the basis of the Genesis account which grants man “dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), has encouraged the unbridled exploitation of nature by painting him as domineering and destructive by nature. This is not a correct interpretation of the Bible as understood by the Church. Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.”

            “105. In this sense, we stand naked and exposed in the face of our ever-increasing power, lacking the wherewithal to control it. We have certain superficial mechanisms, but we cannot claim to have a sound ethics, a culture and spirituality genuinely capable of setting limits and teaching clear-minded self-restraint.”

            “118. Human beings cannot be expected to feel responsibility for the world unless, at the same time, their unique capacities of knowledge, will, freedom and responsibility are recognized and valued.”

            I welcome these statements, but would take them a step further – humans are not super-natural, nor are we unnatural. We are natural, entirely part of and dependent on a complex and planet wide ecosystem of other species. The sooner we step up to the plate, celebrate our very special role as part of nature and take the range of actions needed to maintain and restore this beautiful web the better.

            Happy New Year


        2. Hopefully this will appear as a reply to Matt Shardlow’s last comment, as there was no reply button after it.

          Sorry for the late reply – New Year got in the way. Happy New Year by the way!

          I wanted to highlight that there could be another approach to nature conservation, one that did not have maximising biodiversity at its heart, but where there could still be room for species conservation in other classes of reserves. I would disagree that what I suggested involved considerable management. And this wouldn’t be needed for every site, as everyone will have different conditions. As I said in my blog – “Untamed nature reserves, would ideally receive no management and the longer they were free from human intervention, then the more importance would be placed on them”. Cutting down trees and then sticking cows on the land is considerable for me.

          Sorry if it was unclear about the drains! It should have read blocking drains and I should have given more of an explanation. What I was getting out is that I would not have a problem if the effects from an artificial drainage system, say in the uplands were removed, as part of a restoration project. I would not advocate the other things that you posed though, as it would perpetuate management. As I have I stressed we can’t create past conditions and why should we? But we can let nature create new ones, even if we have to give it an initial helping hand. The ideal would be to reintroduce the lost mammals who can help to drive these changes and enhance trophic diversity. Of course, these animals have charisma and seeing one in the wild is an amazing and special experience, but they also have significant roles in achieving healthy, functioning ecosystems, something that is sorely lacking in the UK.

          I agree that factors such as high nitrate levels for example, are less than ideal, but nature will adapt to these circumstances. I’m not an expert in this area or any other! But wouldn’t trees help to absorb nutrients? If riparian woodland was allowed to develop this would improve water quality and bank erosion, and also increase a habitat that is sorely lacking in the UK.

          Humans can and do good things for nature, but overall as a species this is not the case, as generally nature has been ruthlessly persecuted and we are responsible for the sixth extinction. With this in mind, I would say that nature is better off without us. This is also reflected in the IUCN’s categories for nature reserves. With the highest being for areas that have minimal or no human intervention – “…. where human visitation, use and impacts are strictly controlled and limited to ensure protection of the conservation values”. The UK ratings for NNR and NP’s are IV and V. Where are the rated I and II reserves?

          I knew that my blog would be not be liked by everybody and particularly from people who work in conservation, but thank you for making your comments, as it has been interesting discussing this further, even though we don’t seem to have much middle ground! I would appreciate your thoughts on the role of trees in absorbing pollutants like nitrates though, as I only have a little understanding of this.

  18. Bialoieza is interesting from so many angles. First, as George Peterken points out, you won’t get there by abandoning stood over coppice, at least not any time soon ! Second, when I was there there was a stark contrast between the (small) pristine reserve – where nothing was touched – and the much larger surrounds which determined foresters were trying to turn into pure timber producing forest, despite the fact that the expansion of the reserve and tourism would probably have been far more profitable.

    And there is the rub to a whole range of issues – especially money: conservationists can be quite silly about money – making money is not necessarily corruptive – the key is to do it strictly within your set objectives, and to be fair there is always pressure from foresters and farmers for ‘mission creep’ away from conservation towards production. Removing dead wood being an obvious example !

    I wonder what can be made of current events ? Everyone is talking about spending more on flood defence but could we actually spend LESS ? Doing less – especially grazing – in some of our uplands and dropping the struggle against water on some of our lower flood plains could actually save money in the end and whilst the main objective may be flood prevention, surely we’ve got to a stage where we could achieve multiple benefits – wildlife habitat, beautiful places for people to go ? And wouldn’t it be incredible if David Cameron went back to Europe with this sort of flexibility within CAP as one of his negotiation demands ?

  19. Well, God help us in south London, as the Great North Wood is about to be ‘saved’ by LWT, with access improvements as the focus it seems. We couldn’t let nature be the priority here could we? Despite human wishes having total priority in the other 99% of London. It’s true some work needs doing, but I hope you’ll all jump in and wave the flag for maximum naturalness and minimum intrusion when the time comes.

  20. I was the original ‘upland planter’ working for the RSPB. In 1983 I employed 24 folk on job creation. We did not own 1 acre but planted on land that was offered to us which was mainly bracken. Not one plastic tube. Not one rabbit or deer proof fence just hard graft including teaching the art of stone walling. All trees were planted in line because have you ever tried finding them in bracken without lines! All were ‘weeded’ when needed. The main grass that came in was Sweet Vernal along with natural generation of especially Birch as we had disturbed the ground by planting. In some cases establishment was over 200%!! Even one farmer made the remark ‘If I had known there was that much grass I would not of allowed planting!’ Today I can see some of the plantations from my house and walk in others. Broad Buckler Fern has taken over from the Bracken along with Wood Sorrel, Bluebells Creeping Cordialis. I am sure once the RSPB bought land on the reserve and I was removed due to Hen Harriers these plantings were the reason for the mass planting they have today.

  21. Matt Shardlow, the director of Buglife, a charity involved in invertebrate conservation, is a committed advocate for his favoured species and an article of his in ECOS in 2007 showed his absolute dedication to the approach of single species action planning in the BAP. Thus there are 37 species of moth and 53 species of beetle identified in the BAP, all with their own Species Action Plan, compared to say two sea corals, or about six woodland plants. How this works to the disadvantage of landscapes and wild nature is shown in Shardlow’s response to a request for his views on rewilding. He dealt first with the implications of whether his invertebrates would be capable of migrating into and making use of these reinstated natural landscapes. He then showed the reality of the orthodoxy in nature conservation and the barriers facing true rewilding (and perhaps his limited understanding of it) when he wrote:
    “Rewilding itself can be overplayed, in the UK there will always be fences, health and safety concerns, and grazing management decisions”

    If this is him being a part of nature, then wild nature is condemned to a continuing human exceptionalism that has persecuted to extirpation pretty much everything that inconveniences that exceptionalism. However, I guess his bugs will be OK.

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