Lee Schofield is senior site manager at RSPB Haweswater, where partnership work with landowner United Utilities is aiming to find a balance between large-scale ecological restoration and hill farming in the Lake District National Park. He is also a nature writer, working on his first book which will be published by Penguin/Transworld in 2022. Follow him on Twitter: @leeinthelakes
Last week a beautiful new illustration of Exmoor National Park was unveiled. The work of Norfolk-based wildlife artist Richard Allen, it depicts the rolling landscape around Porlock Bay on the rugged Somerset coast. Burgeoning hedges and scrubby woodland full of wildlife break up a patchwork of valley bottom fields, encircled by heather-clad hills lightly grazed by cattle, ponies and sheep. Busy with people working and enjoying themselves, it is every bit the bucolic, rural idyll that the countryside inside a national park should be. But this is no ordinary illustration – it wasn’t drawn from life. It is instead a rendering of a possible future, commissioned by the Exmoor National Park Authority to help people picture a landscape where nature has been reinvigorated.
Though less visually appealing, the report that accompanies the illustration is no less stirring. In its 24 pages, it explains how desperately nature is struggling, even inside the boundaries of national parks and other protected areas. It makes an incontrovertible case for change to address both the biodiversity and climate crises that we’re all facing and describes how a nature rich future could be brought into being.
As the site manager at RSPB Haweswater, a large upland nature reserve in the Lake District National Park, I find Exmoor’s vision ecologically credible and thoroughly inspiring. Richard’s illustration depicts many of the habitats and species that we’re also working to restore on our land.
I wasn’t the only one to find it so uplifting. The vision received the thumbs up from nature enthusiasts for its clear, uplifting portrayal of the future; such a departure from the ecological doom and gloom we’re all used to. However, not everyone was so enthralled.
Articles in the Mail and the Telegraph appeared quoting an Exmoor farmer who claimed that realising the vision would turn the national park into a ‘rich boys’ playground’. Others worried that the landscape that was being presented didn’t have enough farming in it, reducing our nation’s ability to feed itself and impacting livelihoods.
A more dramatic manifestation of this same narrative occurred last year, when the charity Rewilding Britain was forced to pull out of a landscape scale nature recovery project it had initiated in Wales because of pressure from disgruntled farming groups. Their primary complaint was that they were having changes imposed upon them rather than being part of the design and planning process.
Part of the problem stems from how grand the ambitions of these projects are. The Exmoor illustration shows land extending to well over a thousand hectares; land owned and worked by many different people. Even though the national park authority worked hard to engage, they can’t possibly have spoken to everyone with a stake in the scene. How would you feel if someone presented a design for how you should look after your garden, without coming to talk to you first? Formulating a vision for the land of others is always going to be inflammatory. But how else to communicate what change might look like?
Some of the concern is down to the R word. Even though the term doesn’t appear anywhere in the Exmoor vision document, detractors were quick to brand the vision as ‘Rewilding’. It’s true, it includes an ambition for 10% of the National Park to be a place “where nature and natural processes are allowed to take their course.” Beavers, pine martens and red squirrels are mentioned as species that might recolonise. This sounds a lot like rewilding to me.
Rewilding is a word that seems to be able to enflame passions on all sides of the debate about the care of our countryside. To some people it means hope for a better future for our wildlife, trusting that nature can repair herself when given more freedom. To others, it speaks of land clearance, the sweeping aside of traditions and the imposition of a liberal elite agenda that excludes farmers and their families.
Like it or loathe it, rewilding is gaining traction. Last week Rewilding Britain launched the website for their rewilding network. With 17 sites totalling over 200,000 acres of land, it’s an impressive start. What marks these projects out as being distinct from the land in Exmoor’s vision, is that they are virtually all happening on large estates, owned by individuals, government agencies or NGOs. No surprise that Rewilding is seen as a something for the ‘rich boys.’
Rewilding is busily shaking up the world of nature conservation, forcing a fresh look at practices which, while having been successful at saving species and improving habitats here and there, are not keeping pace with catastrophic wildlife losses. To conservationists like me, this is a stark and sobering truth. Rewilding isn’t a silver bullet, but it is undoubtedly part of a multifaceted solution to the wickedly complex problem of biodiversity decline.
Farming is currently undergoing its own comparable revolution. Regenerative agriculture, a style of farming that focuses on the health of the soil is also gaining ground, quite literally. By employing pulses of grazing, mimicking roving herds of wild herbivores, farming innovators are building up their soils, reducing their reliance on chemical inputs, locking up more carbon, and leaving more space for flowers, insects and birds. Like rewilding, it’s bold, innovative and exciting and could well prove a valuable part of the solution to our global woes. Unlike rewilding, it doesn’t piss farmers off.
The Exmoor vision hopes to inspire an even larger area of regenerative farming as it does of rewilding. In truth, it will probably be hard to draw lines between them. Rewilding often uses hardy native breeds of livestock to simulate natural grazing patterns. Regenerative agriculture does that too. Regenerative agriculture claims to be able to reduce flood risk, mitigate climate change and boost biodiversity. So does rewilding. Both are at the cutting edge of their respective fields, being practiced by innovative people, passionate about doing their bit for the natural world.
Is it surprising that the vision for Exmoor upset a few people? Not at all – change is always difficult. Is it likely that we’re going to stop arguing about the best ways to care for our countryside? Not very. Is it time to stop quibbling about what different approaches are called and get on with the urgent task of breathing more life back into our land? Undoubtedly.