Guest blog – New Natural Areas by Steve Jones


Steve Jones has worked in conservation in the UK and overseas for two decades, promoting wildlife-friendly farming and designated site conservation in the UK, and large mammal conservation in the tropics. He writes on wildlife-friendly farming, land sparing and rewilding and wrote a guest blog, England’s Serengeti, for this blog, back in January.




Our impending withdrawal from the Common Agricultural Policy presents risks and opportunities. One opportunity is to develop a new class of countryside land use, both in remote regions and close to towns and cities, fully accessible to people, where nature is left to recover with limited long-term, active intervention. For want of a better term, here I’ll call these pilot sites New Natural Areas.

Playing tunes with the system to get just what we want

Here in the UK we deploy a wide variety of tactics to achieve biodiversity conservation. We offer agri-environment payments to increase biodiversity on farmland. We afford legal protection to remnant patches of species-rich ‘old farmland’ such as chalk grassland and hay meadows to ensure their current interests are maintained long-term. We restore the (post-beaver) ‘natural’ sinuosity of engineered rivers. We’re creative and industrious: we know how to engineer just the right water levels in monodominant stands of reed to please bitterns; we know exactly how to ‘play tunes with the system’ of floodplain tilting weirs to maintain just the right soil wetness to satisfy snipe. We know precisely what sort of NVC plant community a particular SSSI unit ought to support and we’ve set out all the attributes that make that community what we want it to be. Even gardeners can’t achieve the level of precision we’re capable of.

And long may these tried and tested approaches to nature conservation continue. They are critical to sustaining what little nature we have managed to hang on to. The habitats we like have assembled under centuries of hitherto benign farming and, to maintain these assemblages in place, we conduct intensive conservation management.


Making space for wild nature

But, going forward, we need to make some space for wild nature – nature that does its own thing in its own way and in its own time. Not to replace the prescription-based approaches we’ve pioneered, but to compliment them. Here in the UK we need to make space for nature unhindered by human management in a way that does not compromise assemblages we’ve managed to retain.

The Common Agricultural Policy has inadvertently caused farming to sprawl into some very marginal areas, which yield very little other than subsidy payments. Withdrawal of farming from such areas will not impact food production. In fact, we waste a high percentage of food, and we use large areas to grow biofuel crops. Getting a grip with food waste and transitioning to electric vehicles will serve to free up more land.


New Natural Areas: where wild nature does its own thing

We need a representative set of large-scale rewilding pilots and, for want of a better term, I’ll call these pilot sites “New Natural Areas” (NNAs). I hope others will devise a better term. NNAs will compliment our National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty which, sadly, have failed to deliver nature recovery.

Within each pilot NNA we can test how to re-build naturally-functioning ecological systems. The pilot NNA suite should cover a representative sample of biogeographical contexts, including: marine, coastal, lowland grassland-forest mosaics, closed forest, connected river-floodplain systems, upland and urban.

I suggest that NNA pilots should be as large as possible – a few thousands of hectares at the very least, expanding to tens or hundreds of thousands of hectares through time and as they prove their worth. This is because some key ecological processes that we wish to re-establish, such as seasonal movements of grazers, and viable predator populations, operate at large spatial scales. NNAs should be forward-looking, appropriate to the current situation and free to adjust as, for example, further climatic changes cause ecological assemblages to reshuffle.


Rewilding in half-empty landscapes

I see the recovery of a near-complete trophic structure as a defining character of rewilding. Two attributes of wild nature will present difficulties in the UK: large body size, and intact predator-prey communities.

Globally, we have decimated large-bodied animal populations, both their abundance and richness. In north-west Europe we drove the European water buffalo and aurochs to extinction and nearly did the same to bison. Animals with large body mass tend to be significant ecosystem engineers. They shape landscape form and function. Beavers, of course, are relatively small but are among the most potent ecosystem engineers: if we can accommodate beavers, we can probably find space for a herd or two of back-bred water buffalo and aurochs.

We’ve also succeeded in breaking apart predator-prey systems. Consequently, we have an over-abundance of smaller predators and medium size grazers and browsers.

A landscape subject to rewilding but in the absence of larger-bodied species and functional predator-prey communities is a depauperate, half-empty landscape. This is light-weight rewilding. But in many NNAs it’ll be as good as it gets, for now.

For each NNA we should evaluate what the original regional species pool would have looked like – what predator-prey communities would have been present prior to extirpation by people, and what sorts of assemblages could exist given current and projected future climate and other attributes.

In some pilot NNAs, we should allow the remaining depleted regional species pool to find its way without deliberate reintroductions. In others, where space allows, we should re-introduce predator and prey species as early as possible, as we’ll want to know to what extent these influence natural landscape development. Some species are globally extinct and we may wish to install surrogates with traits that match as far as possible these extinct species.

In the absence of apex predators at a given NNA, humans could stand in to regulate over-abundant species. Conservation biologists have developed sophisticated spatial metapopulation and metacommunity models to evaluate the densities of species one might expect in a particular landscape given such attributes as proportions of habitats, resource abundance etc. Metapopulation management allows a scientifically-determined number of individuals to be translocated from one NNA to another. One NNA thus becomes a ‘source’, supplying animals to other rewilding projects. Of course we could also act as stand-in predators, harvesting a scientifically-set proportion of individuals. However one achieves population regulation (through artificial dispersal or predation), the end result would be to maintain the large herbivore populations at a level that one’s population model suggests would be expected. This isn’t natural, but it’s pragmatic.


Places for people

NNAs should be fully accessible to people wherever possible and host new nature-based, largely non-extractive economies. The economic potential of each NNA will need to be investigated. Does an area of floodplain currently drained to provide grazing for livestock generate more income for the land owner and local community than would the same land converted to a mere with fringing wet grassland and beavers, water buffalo, ospreys, an overlooking restaurant selling buffalo burgers and locally harvested freshwater fish dishes? This question has been posed with regard to the Somerset Levels and Moors (a new Westcountry Lake District). The local communities concerned may well not be in a position to recognise this alternative, devise business plans, and build operations to exploit the opportunity. Therefore, within each NNA, I suggest that the government provide investments for business options appraisals, business planning, and grants and loans for nature-based business development.


Targets versus Expectations 

We tend to set targets and then strive to achieve them and that, by definition, demands active, long-term intervention. Within NNAs and other rewilding areas, setting targets for particular habitat types is largely unnecessary.

If we must set targets, here are some options. We could set area targets for the number of hectares enrolled into a given NNA pilot by a given date. We could also set density targets for, say, deer populations. We could derive such density estimates from areas with reasonably intact predator-prey populations elsewhere in Europe, or use population models. And we could set trophic targets, statements of the number of trophic levels we’d expect in a more naturally-functioning system. We could set access targets – the number of people visiting a given NNA. And economic targets for, say, a nature-based tourism business.

Maybe stating well-informed ‘expectations’ is a more useful approach: that way we can accept the unexpected as part of the learning process, rather than lament our failure to hit targets. Such expectations could be formally stated as hypotheses, and we could set students – undergraduates, Masters and PhDs – the task of testing these hypotheses. For example, the hypothesis that assemblages of larger grazing and browsing herbivores are capable of maintaining species-rich open habitats within a forest-grassland mosaic under prevailing conditions could be tested if we’re able to assemble a realistic large herbivore community at ‘natural’ density.

At or close to each NNA we need research facilities, the sorts of research stations common in the tropics, where the approach to nature recovery we’re just discovering in the UK has been common-place for decades. We should fund students to conduct research at each NNA, in line with carefully defined science strategies.


Making it happen

How can we possibly make sufficient space available for such a venture? A national call for proposals could solicit submissions by consortiums promoting a particular pilot project. Government funding might be used to establish charitable entities at each selected pilot NNA.

A variety of land tenure regimes are likely to be involved at each pilot: public, private and civil society. One or two NNAs may be anchored by existing publicly-owned land – say at Salisbury Plain, and Thetford Forest. Large conservation land owners, such as the National Trust, may step forward. Some are already delivering large-scale schemes, notably the RSPB and Wildlife Trusts in the East Anglian Fens.

Private land owners could be invited to add parcels: I’d suggest that a fair slice of CAP cash be used to fund a new incentive scheme, paying land owners for the various ecosystem goods and services they contribute through withdrawal of agriculture within pilot NNAs. I suggest that such a scheme avoid the detailed prescription-based approach of the agri-environment schemes. Rather, payment should be per-hectare, and perhaps should increase as more land and more land owners enter the scheme within a given NNA. The scheme could also offer funding for business planning and enterprise infrastructure.

Community Land Trusts should have a major role to play, as they do in similar large-scale habitat conservation and restoration projects in the US and Latin America. To me this is the most exciting opportunity. Ultimately, I’d like to see Land Trusts taking on much of the land within each NNA, either through purchase or leasing arrangements. These Land Trusts should be capitalised by central government with endowments yielding a constant flow of income for long-term operations (noting that the costs of land management should decline with time as interventions end, enabling resources to be re-focused on, say, further collaborations with land managers adjacent to each NNA).

Some NNAs will support large animals unable to spread into farmland without insurmountable conflict. Farmers at the edge of NNAs supporting, say, herds of buffalo will not be impressed by crop-raiding. Many NNAs will be developed on marginal farmland with existing dense internal boundary networks (stock-fenced grass fields, for example). Internal boundaries will no longer be required and should be removed, but retaining and bolstering outer-edge boundaries of an NNA may be necessary reduce human-wildlife conflicts, at any site where larger animals are present. As long as people can easily traverse such boundaries unhindered I can see few real problems with boundary fencing. Technologies may well emerge that enable invisible boundaries that deter wandering animals. Control of some animals dispersing from NNAs will be necessary.



Of course, all I’m really calling for here is a representative set of pilot rewilding projects under a unified banner that I call (New) Natural Areas. It’s time we got stuck in. This is distinct from the ‘wildlife-friendly farming’ we strive to secure through agri-environment payments. These are new areas set aside for wild nature and people.


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18 Replies to “Guest blog – New Natural Areas by Steve Jones”

  1. I enjoyed your article but fear that progress towards extensive rewilding will require a socially progressive government prepared to tackle issues around property ownership. In our countryside and our towns too much property is managed for the benefit of rich owners who through social networks and funding of political parties, especially the Conservative Party, exert undue influence. However in the absence of such political change we must continue the struggle.

    1. I say let’s get stuck in and show some leadership to whichever government we happen to be enduring at the time! They come and go; we don’t.

  2. Thanks Steve, your NNA ideas are brilliantly set out. Your emphasis on access is crucial but don’t bother about restaurants perched on the edge of these areas.
    No, instead we need NAA’s adjacent and in the vicinity. That’s ‘New Affordable Abodes’ – rented eco-accommodation that belongs to the nation in the form of new hamlets, villages and towns. There, that’s your access dealt with. (By the way you may well find some of those new villages replacing the ones, ousted in mediaeval times, to make way for sheep….) OK, cater for tourists as an add-on.
    Of course both NNA’s and NAA’s are vote losers or non-starters. People as a whole are satisfied with the countryside as it is (shifting baseline syndrome). And then people with one or more houses don’t give a toss about those who hate living in concrete blocks or who’ve got nowhere to call their own.
    Widespread big area rewilding will never happen until this young generation of voters and their successors are won over. Therefore, why not combine NNA and NAA and create a powerful vote winning synergy?
    (As for space, there’s loads of it, even in the SE.)
    In short, for the rewilding debate to capture the public imagination, it has to put people first. For example, a good starting point is to debate the fundamental unfairness of a depopulated yet second home owning countryside.
    Off-topic? No, both subjects are underpinned by the same things: land ownership and the power that emanates from that.

    1. Interesting comments Murray. I reckon that creating new, accessible, existing natural open spaces will win more votes than it’ll lose, and will gain popular appeal through time. But we can only work through these sorts of questions through pilots in various sorts of contexts. The vibes I pick up from the younger conservation crowd, e.g. those currently going through university, is very much ‘pro’ trying new things and rewilding is a constant topic of debate among this group. I think businesses catering for folks visiting New Natural Areas will spring up whether or not they receive any sort of government support. The biodiversity baseline can shift in a positive as well as a negative direction. Even if we have ten NNAs, each of a few tens of thousands of hectares to start off, we’ll still be left with millions of hectares of conventional, degraded countryside for people to stare at and keep out of!

  3. Thank you, Steve, for a stimulating blog that recognises both the baby and bathwater of nature conservation. I’m very much in favour of the sort of New Natural Areas you describe, though I think that turning ambition into reality may be more complicated than you imply.

    You suggested Wiltshire Plain as a rewilding area. Leaving aside the military, who could probably co-exist with dangerous wild cattle better than your average dog walker could, the Plain is also a prehistoric ritual landscape of global significance. It speaks to our sense of ourselves as a people, our cultural story, our roots in time and place. How does rewilding fit that story? How would rewilding preserve that cultural and archaeological heritage? With some difficulty I suspect.

    If you go to the highlands of Scotland, more prime rewilding territory, you’re not looking at an empty land. You’re looking at an *emptied* land. That story of dispossession is fundamental to the Scottish identity, a particularly sensitive issue just now. The land was emptied by outsiders (not entirely true but that’s the story that the Scottish nation tells itself – and maybe the Clan Chiefs who cleared much of the Highlands made themselves outsiders by their betrayal anyway). Are we the outsiders now? I think we’re seen that way by many rural communities and not just in Scotland.

    Many of the activities that created and maintain our cultural landscapes are damaging to wildlife. That doesn’t mean that they cannot have any value in their own right. Coal mining was dangerous, dirty, and polluting, but it created and supported vibrant communities that fought to the death to protect their sense of themselves.

    We don’t have the power that Thatcher had to force change, even if we wanted to. I’m sure we don’t want the legacy of loathing that her victory left in its wake.

    Rewilding will be a journey. For it to succeed, we must understand and respect the other interests at play; social, cultural, economic, national. That means a lot more legwork before anyone proposes yet again to dump carnivores on a struggling rural community, or tells upland sheep farmers yet again that they have no place in our vision of the future.

    It means that rewilding must also be a conversation – one that respects other interests and looks for common ground, even if we seem to be starting from a very different place from the communities whose future we’re discussing. It will take time to bring people with us, but if we don’t or can’t we will never succeed anyway.

    The UK’s landscape is almost entirely a cultural landscape. We have to incorporate that reality and the communities it encompasses into our vision for wilder and more natural landscapes. I’m not convinced that any of us who would like to see more rewilding happen have really understood how big that challenge is or how to overcome it. Until we do, we should tread very carefully.

    1. In response to JBC – I see what you are saying and I agree that cultural values are clearly very important to many and must be respected.

      However, if we are too cautious in presenting an alternative model (eg. presenting a watered-down compromise as if it is what we really want) then no progress will ever be made. You can’t please all of the people all of the time. I agree with Steve that some bold initiatives are required and if if is done by incentive, then we are not imposing unwanted change.

      We do need to proceed with caution but not too much!

    2. I agree that creating a set of New Natural Areas will be complicated – all the more reason to get started and tackle the complications head on.

      Funnily enough, I’m doing a piece of work to explore how ‘land sparing’ (e.g. arable reversion) could be used to protect sub-surface archaeological remains such as one sees across the Wessex Downs. I suspect that open grassy plains grazed and browsed by mixed herbivore communities could be more friendly to pre-historic features than ploughing and tanks. But one would need to mitigate risks.

      I sort of buy the ‘cultural landscape’ idea but much of the British countryside has been changed pretty dramatically post-war that much of its deep cultural essence has already been erased. Besides, as I commented above, ten naturally re-vegetation landscapes of a few tens of thousands of hectares each would occupy a tiny portion of the British countryside, and the evolution of these rewilding landscapes will be almost imperceptibly slow (we’re not in the tropics where trees can put on several meters a year). You’ll only really notice how much things have changed by retrospectively looking at fixed point photographs. I think British culture can cope with having a few bits set aside where nature does its thing.

    3. Im afraid i have to take issue with this.

      Whose culture? Whose landscape?

      I have no idea about the academic origin of the cultural landscape idea, nor its application other than in the UK.

      However, in my experience of coming across these terms in the UK they are almost exclusively restricted to ‘farming culture’. So when people talk of the ‘communities’ whose future we are discussing, it is the farming ‘communities’ and their culture we are talking about, no one else’s. All the thousands of people who live in rural communities are lumped under this one banner. We are all the same. We all support fox hunting, we all support badger culling, we all support driven grouse shooting.

      It is cultural hegemony.

      In the Lake District the term ‘cultural landscape’ is being used simply to try and legitimise socially and environmentally damaging practices. It is the last refuge of the scoundrel. The ICOMOS report that accompanied the subscription demanded that money be moved away from environmental subsides in order to be given to farmers for ‘existing’, no strings attached. It went as far as to state that natural flood management measures, being developed to help protect peoples house from flooding, were a ‘risk’ to the cultural landscape. In other words, let people flood, the cultural landscape is more important.

      The result of this inscription will be an increase in demand for limited accommodation in the lakes, driving up prices and forcing those less well of citizens away from the area. Generations of urban northerners have taken their holiday in the lakes, a refuge from the smoke of the city. They will either have to pay more or go elsewhere. What value their culture?

      Of course, all of this is based upon the lie that the farming we see today is in any way cultural. Plastic bags of silage, chemical fertilisers, quad bikes and a monoculture of sheep.

      Ill leave the last word to a local if I may. Someone who made the mistake of not being born into the correct ‘culture’

      1. Neil,

        Sorry but I think you’re taking my thoughts completely out of context – I don’t disagree with you at all about the Lake District (or any other of the places I have lived and worked where incomers and second homers have sanitised the area and excluded locals from residence or influence).

        I also don’t disagree with you a jot about the unfairness and dishonesty of lumping all rural dwellers together as “country people” who support “country sports” (and if like me they don’t they’re called townies by people who can afford live here because they have London money behind them).

        But I’m talking about something else. Anyone who has done something as simple as reintroducing grazing onto a nature reserve knows the hard way that if you don’t get the local dogwalkers on side they can make life extremely difficult. But if you do get them on side they can be real assets. I’ve managed to do both and I’m quite certain which path I would want to follow next time.

        Most people do not make perfectly rational decisions based on evidence. They just don’t. So no amount of telling them that Lynx won’t be a danger to their kids will work unless they already have a reason to trust you. I’d love to see Lynx back but I fear that the lack of genuine community homework to create that mutual respect and trust has put back the reintroduction process by a decade.

        For many people rewilding has become synonymous with reintroducing wolves, and they KNOW with absolute conviction that that is a stupid and dangerous idea. They’ll listen to the Daily Mail, not Monbiot, about that. We need to shut up about wolves and spend time showing, not telling, how valuable (in every sense) keystone species like Beavers are, and how manageable any downsides are. How otter recovery is making a huge impact on the mink problem. Things like that. We need to build trust beyond our own bubble. If rewilding is done to communities they will resist – we need to find more ways to do it with them. That has been one of the greatest successes of the Beaver projects, in fact.

        I agree that there ought to be a few places where a few 10,000s of ha could be set aside for nature. I think there are. I’m just saying that we need to do it with the broad consent and participation of the people who live in the area and who will be affected by the changes, and that will take more time than has often been recognised by conservationists like me. A reasonable prospect of community consent should be one of our “search criteria” when choosing sites. And yes, amongst other things that does also mean making sure that the people on the council estate have a voice and not just the well-connected posh incomer or rich landowner.

        A few years ago I was involved with an environmental project that the local MP, one Therese Coffey, was initially quite opposed to. What changed her mind was the fact that ordinary local people supported us, and whether you agree with her politics or not she ended up being very supportive. I like to think she learned a bit more about the issues as a result of our work, too. But that wasn’t because I told her the facts, it was because many diverse people in the local community told her that our project was valuable and she listened to them.

        1. Hi,

          Thanks for the reply. I think we largly agree but I don’t see why you brought in the ‘cultural landscape’ aspect. It has no bearing on your point that I can see.

          You say “we need to do it with the broad consent and participation of the people in the area”. With regards Lynx I would suggest you have that broad consent. All the surveys seem to show that rural communities are happy for Lynx to be reintroduced. Is there anyone outside farming communities who seriously think Lynx will attack children (I suspect most farmers dont believe it themselves)

          If what you actually mean by “communities” is ” farming communities”, which is what I suspect, then you might as well give up the idea of reintroduction as there will always be a vocal minority opposed to any kind of reintroduction from that community.

          Still scratching my head as to why you bought ‘culture’ into this.

      2. Personally I love an old industrial landscape in the process of being reclaimed by nature. It always makes me happy.

  4. Thanks Steve, this is great – sign me up! I think it’s important to start setting out clear visions, rather than regurgitating vague statements about ‘restoring natural processes’.

    I think the bit about humans stepping in to control herbivore (or meso-predator) numbers is particularly important. Reluctantly, I can’t imagine wolves being introduced into anything other than medium-size enclosures. Without the real deal, perhaps humans need to step in as ecological surrogates.

    There seems to be a feeling among shooters that ‘rewilders’ are anti-hunting. This is a shame, and means ‘we’ are marginalising potential allies.

    1. Thanks Tom.
      I personally have zero problem with people standing in for natural absentee predators as long as what we take is informed by science, so we truly replicate natural kill-rates, and it’s not used as an excuse for having ‘fun’ at an animals’ expense. I’d like to see the hunting community as potential partners at each NNA.
      I thoroughly agree that we need to get beyond vague statements. Back in about 1986 Dan Janzen published his blueprint for creating the Guanacaste National Park in Costa Rica. 1986! That’s a rewilding project on a grand scale in a country that probably destroyed as much of its original forest cover as we’ve managed to destroy. If Costa Rica was managing to pull this off in the 80s, I’m sure we can.

  5. What saddens me a lot nowadays is pressure from people on our wildlife. For example the latest trends seem to be putting on a wetsuit and either swimming down rivers or using it to navigate inaccessible bits of coastline. As these kinds of adventure activities expand, wild things in wild places will never be free from humans and in many cases their dogs, trampling their nests, displacing their eggs from the gravel, scaring them off their last refuges, all manner of ill conceived disturbance.

    It seems to me that very few people, despite the signage, keep their dogs on the lead, when walking on the moors over Sheffield in the breeding season. I also find it quite depressing when taking the children (both small), to some of the LNR’s and on short rambles around Chesterfield, because of the sheer amount of dog poo lying around.

    I personally used to go rock climbing and I would never have considered interfering with wild birds. Most climbing guides have rare bird notifications on certain routes and I would never have breached these or any local notifications. It seems now though that swarms of boulderers find access to every single rock in the Peak district and clamber across it endlessly. Round about Easter and Mayday bank holidays this year I was very disappointed to find that some people had managed to find their way down to lesser known crags around Chatsworth. I also remember distinctly the angry scalding of ring ouzel near Burbage South being almost relentless this year, upon my visits.

    Hence in my opinion human access should be tightly managed and limited in many areas.

  6. Steve

    Great blog and I agree with much of it. Difficult to achieve in practice,but the alternative is watching our wildlife continue to decline. I’m paritcularly interested in the work to “evaluate the densities of species one might expect in a particular landscape given such attributes as proportions of habitats, resource abundance etc” Any links to this research?

    1. I disagree that this is wild nature, as how can this be achieved when you are proposing the introduction of a proxy for a mammal (Bubalus murrensis) that has never been recorded in the UK. This will mean it’s substitute will have no legitimacy here and as it will likely come from domestic stock, will differ from the wild species in terms of both genetics and behaviour.

  7. Racy idea #2. Another spinning of sugar by Steve Jones to confect a tower of candyfloss. I do wonder if we are not past the “big idea” stage when its detail is insignificant, and its reality non-existent – and that is before questioning its ecological literacy. All I can see in this racy idea is the creation of an open air zoo of curiosity animals, such as plastic aurochs and fake water buffaloes, and a PLANT BLINDNESS that is typical of open habitat species fetishists. This is not the Netherlands, and we can do much better than that! Our wild nature deserves it, as do our former native species that at least still exist in Continental Europe, without the falseness of the artificial (cattle) and non-native species (bison). I wish I could be more charitable, but we must move past process to consider outcome.

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