Who I am – Scottish with a fascination for wildlife from childhood – in lieu of formal qualifications (and not being able to flash them about!) – was on the 1990 International Youth Conservation Exchange to Hungary, was the 1993 winner of the BBC Wildlife Magazine ‘Realms of the Russian Bear’ competition and spent nearly two weeks in the Aksu Zhabagly Reserve in Kazakhstan as the prize – found the local stomach bug was much more dangerous than the brown bears. Especially interested in the removal of invasive non native plants and conservation of dead wood and trees and associated fauna/flora as conservation issues – my personal experience suggests they are badly neglected topics. My main background is in recycling and waste reduction.
Nature Uninterrupted, UK
If we are going to win over the British public to rewilding then we really have our work cut out. It’s like having a disassembled car, with some pieces currently damaged or missing, and trying to explain how they’ll work when put together in the form of a car to someone who’s never seen one. It doesn’t help that vested interests opposed to rewilding like to spread misinformation, selling overgrazed and overburnt hills as cultural landscapes and unique ecosystems, claiming that reintroduced big predators will threaten other wildlife.
When the reintroduction of the beaver was being posed it was often stated that it was far more important to concentrate resources on the endangered water vole before bringing back the beaver. Of course, the beaver was brought back, officially and unofficially, and it has transpired that they are the most effective conservation tool we have in helping many other species including the water vole! The complex structure of beaver dams means that even in the presence of American mink they can find cover and survive, and it looks likely they’ve co-evolved to live with the beaver over millions of years, they fit in hand in glove. The role of a keystone species was easily dismissed when it was absent. The same arguments are still being directed at the lynx reintroduction, that resources would be better spent on saving Scottish wildcats and that the lynx could threaten them. It’s far more likely they’d help wildcats by reducing grazing pressure from deer that would allow more cover for the small prey that wildcats prefer, plus, by killing foxes, lynx would reduce competition from another meso-predator.
Then we have the much-admired movement to grow more flowers for our threatened pollinators. We need pollinators for many of our crops and of course few people have objections to more flowers even wild ones. That’s all to the good, nothing to complain of there and much close mowed grass has indeed been replaced by wildflower meadows. If you take time to look a little deeper the picture isn’t quite so encouraging. Many of the meadows sown use garish flower mixes that have more to do with creeping ‘gardenisation’ than proper wildflower meadows and even worse it seems that in as many cases when close mowed grass was replaced, weedy areas comprised of dock, nettles, brambles, willowherb etc have been replaced too. These of course are valuable wildlife habitats in their own right not least because they are the larval foodplants for many of the pollinators they’re trying to help!!! Public appreciation of conservation issues can be well meant, but limited and backfiring, a little knowledge being a bad thing. Deadwood can be removed at public direction for being ‘untidy’ and ‘causing disease’. The necessary culling of deer benefiting from the lack of their predators denied on ‘conservation’ grounds. It goes on and on. How can we get across all these issues to the general public and point out things such as meadows without ponds, the occasional bush and bits of dead wood and scrapes are unnatural and structurally poor for wildlife. Solid blocks of planted trees won’t really create a woodland.
I was pondering this point way back in February 1998 in a caravan on a farm in Ipswich, it helped take my mind off the lack of heating. A long list of points and principles to get across, how to present them cohesively and effectively to people who might not have a strong interest or background in conservation, but whose support was going to be vital if it was to happen to an extent where it can start being effective. It was the phrase ‘the big picture’ that sparked something off, why not just show a fully working ecosystem in operation, a moving car rather than separate piles of car parts. In simple terms this would be picturing a country which had never had any human influence, where there was no damage to be repaired so we would see what we’re aiming for. What would Britain look like if people had never been here? How would the capercaillie survive without intensive habitat management and with even more predators than we have today? Let’s see how it managed to survive for so long without us. No one to remove deadwood so how did the forests avoid becoming diseased…there never was any risk of that, in fact there couldn’t be any it’s entirely natural and vital for the natural recycling process. Wild boar churning up the soil may mean less of our famous bluebell beds, but they’d create opportunities for far more plant species and another British icon the robin would profit from following behind the boar and eating up any worms and bugs especially in winter. We’d see how we’ve lost species like the great auk to no benefit to ourselves, very much the opposite. How would auroch affect the landscape, how would even more exotic species do so, ones that we didn’t even know existed, far less know they were probably part of our natural fauna?
What would a natural river look like, why would it be good for wildlife? How did species which need open areas survive if everything was under closed forest canopy…well it wasn’t. What about the big predators how did they effect their prey and landscape? We’d see how when we could watch a television documentary of a wild Britain never touched by humanity made with film taken of the natural sites we do have made into a composite feature with added CGI when there was no alternative. We could observe all the relevant issues unfold in front of us, what happens exactly after an auroch poops out a patty? There are of course other places in the world with more intact ecosystems than we have, but they would be harder to relate to our situation when British species aren’t being used, they won’t excite the public about what we had here and in some cases could have back! That wouldn’t tell us we’d almost certainly have a species of temperate elephant living here if people had never existed. Just imagine what Britain would be like if people had never been and create a documentary around that using fact, and entertaining, but valid speculation.
An incredibly simple idea, it had to be, or I couldn’t have thought of it. There have been speculative natural history programmes and books before, what would the world be like if the dinosaurs hadn’t become extinct? What will life look like in the future, what path will evolution take? If everyone suddenly disappeared what would happen as nature reclaimed our cities, towns and farms (see the excellent ‘The World Without Us’ by Alan Weisman)? The suggestion I’m putting forward is far simpler than any of them, what would the world (specifically our little part) be like if people had simply never existed, nature had just proceeded without interference in any form from us? Some of this would be surprising, some obvious, some very exciting and it should pique curiosity, it’s an interesting question.
For years now I’ve been passing the suggestion on to conservation groups and individuals in the field and, with one exception – which was neutral, those who replied were positive. The weakest response from a well-known conservationist was that ‘it is a nice idea’. Many others were extremely positive, and some took it upon themselves to pass on the idea on to media companies, and documentary makers they knew which was extremely encouraging. TBH I did approach the BBC in the very early days and they did give me a long, sympathetic and considered reply stating that they felt Alan Titchmarsh’s series on British natural history at that time covered the same ground pretty much…well it didn’t as I politely pointed out, but their response didn’t change.
Since then, I’ve periodically sent the suggestion out again just to see if there would be continued interest. This guest blog is part of that. I would be extremely grateful if as many as readers as possible go through my own speculations about the Britain that would exist in a world which never knew any form of humanity, see if they agree, what ideas of their own they might have and generally comment on the concept and generally have some fun with the idea. It’s intrigued me for many years now and I hate letting the idea lie unused when at the very least it could be entertaining.
Forest or Savanna?
Perhaps the most important key issue in any reconstruction of a truly natural landscape never influenced by humanity is how significant tree cover would be, what form it would take. In the past few years there has been significant to-ing and froing between the traditional view that a closed canopy forest would dominate and a more recent one developed principally by Frans Vera that with the presence of large herbivores it would be far more open, perhaps even savanna like. The difference has major implications many species would not be able to survive under a closed canopy forest, others would not do well in an open one so it’s a point worth consideration. We do know that as well as the existing native deer species there would be the auroch, the mighty wild cattle six foot plus at the shoulder – a powerful browser/grazer that would certainly have impacted upon tree growth. Then there’s the elk, the world’s largest deer that the North Americans call the moose, acting predominantly around waterways. The wild horse would be a major element in determining whether we had closed forest or open/savanna…..if we knew whether or not it would be a native of a post glacial Britain. Did the wild horse die out in Britain when the trees returned, or did our ancestors kill it off and its absence help the subsequent establishment of closed canopy woodland?
There’s a degree of uncertainty here, but perhaps it’s more of a limited viewpoint caused by looking at the very end of prehistory from the present-day perspective. We know best the impacts closest to us in time, but of course human prehistory went on for a very, very long time, when did human influence truly begin? I humbly suggest it did so when a certain biped learned that it could pick up a rock and smash open a giant tortoise about 2.5 to 3 million years ago in Africa. That’s certainly when giant tortoises begin to disappear from there and in every other territory reached by our ancestors. Animals protected by various forms of armour had been a major element of the world’s fauna for hundreds of millions of years even before the age of the dinosaurs. You know something truly new has arisen when something that had been a constant disappears. There were other examples, sabre toothed cats diminish and the giant versions of familiar species such as ostrich, hyena, hartebeest, horse, baboon and so many more vanish.
What’s most relevant for the current point is the conspicuous absence of the temperate elephants and rhino in postglacial Britain that had been present in previous interglacials. It’s no coincidence that the last megafauna extinctions were of the northern giants mammoth, woolly rhino and Irish elk in the places least hospitable to humans, the last where they’d be able to penetrate without developing more sophisticated technology including cold resistant clothing. Straight tusked elephant and Merck’s rhino would have been so much easier to polish off in places where the conditions were temperate rather than sub arctic. Long gone before cave art came along to record what was left for our ancestors to see.
So, the case for straight tusked elephant and temperate rhino in our alternative land perhaps makes the presence or not of the wild horse pretty irrelevant re whether or not we had close canopy woodland or near savanna. If anything is going to open up the forest, it’s a twelve to fifteen ton straight tusked elephant ably assisted by five ton Merck’s rhino. These and similar species were regulars in the British landscape whenever the ice sheets retreated. The most keystone of the keystone species, bulldozer herbivores providing copious quantities of dung and eventually massive carcases. The effect of their absence on the ecosystem is difficult to quantify but is likely enormous. We have so much more to consider than the usual suspects of lynx, bear, wolf, auroch and elk with Britain’s missing fauna.
The Seas and Seashore
It’s good to start with what makes Britain an island. We tend to think of the seas as wild, but they’ve been just as hammered by people as the land has. So, what would they be like without ever having been under human influence? Magnificent certainly. The seabed would be intact without dredging or bottom trawling. Massive beds of mussels and oysters keeping the water clear and providing an enormous habitat for marine life. Although not as species rich as tropical ones, the temperate seas around Britain are incredibly fertile with tremendous production of algae the very basis of the food chain. Standing on the shore the one thing that would probably stand out is the number of whales off the coast, rarely would there not be at least one within sight. Their impact on marine ecology is immense. By discharging their faeces higher up within the water column they further add to its fertility. They all have different feeding habits including the grey whale which can take sediment from the bottom and filter out the good bits. And they get fed from themselves when they die, principally in the sea or when washed ashore, whale carcases are a regular bounty for beachcombing bears and wolves, occasionally lethal though as they tend to violently explode as gases catastrophically build up in their stomachs so scavengers can become the scavenged. Birds and smaller mammals come to feast too, but the presence of larger predators tends to suppress the numbers of foxes beachcombing which is good news for the many shore nesting birds.
Seabirds are of course incredibly common with so much available food in the sea and on the shore. The natural strandline on the beach has no entangling plastics, but all that seaweed covers vast numbers of scrummy sandhoppers. The sea marshes are extensive and likewise excellent feeding grounds for birds, great for waders. The one bird you’ll not find in a saltmarsh, but on isolated rocky islets free from mammalian predators is the great auk, our very own ‘penguin’, a flightless bird many people probably don’t know ever existed, what a terrible shame oblivion added to extinction. But here it lives, dives, feeds, and breeds in all its magnificence.
Perhaps what would be an even stranger sight to us takes place off the western coasts. It used to be believed that when leatherback turtles appeared around our coasts they were lost, taken away from usual feeding grounds by ocean currents. We now know that this is not the case, they may be reptiles, but they can cope with our chilly seas which are definitely preferred by the jellyfish they suck down their spiky gullets. With no holiday resorts on beaches, no poaching of eggs, tangling in nets or choking on plastic bags impersonating jellyfish leatherback numbers are considerably higher than we could ever imagine. Likewise, the un-persecuted walrus extends so much further down into our seas in substantial numbers although perhaps the Orkney and Shetland Isles are the only place with actual breeding colonies. So, what this means is that a turtle normally associated with the tropics and another animal associated with the arctic swim amongst each other, quite naturally, off our coasts. What’s really strange though is that we’d think it strange because we’ve interfered with the natural order of things. And the seas have other ‘exotic’ visitors like swordfish and the great white shark which certainly finds an abundance of seals and walrus to its taste.
Natural recycling – Deadwood, Dung and Carcases
I would put money on the most significant difference between our landscape and this hypothetical one is the fully intact natural recycling system in the later. There’s no one here to cut down trees before they become ancient ones with dead holes and branches and eventually fully dead trunks. Deadwood is not particularly nutritious, but it’s plentiful, long lasting and varied which means it creates a tremendous number of niches for fungi and invertebrates – a study in Scandinavia found that ten percent of all species, yes all species including marine ones, were saproxylic (deadwood) specialists. This land is paradise for them dead trees, ancient trees and prone deadwood are everywhere they make up approx. thirty percent of all the wood in the forests. Tragic that in our world they are sometimes removed for being ‘unsightly’.
I grew up in a Scottish council house, but it backed onto a farm (am I a country person?) that had a herd of dairy cattle. My most vivid memory of walking across that field to go to school was the sight of fresh cowpats absolutely seething with dung flies and not a few dung beetles too. I’m glad that I saw it because I’ve never seen it anywhere else here or abroad. I would have assumed the dead cowpats with not as much as a midge on them that I saw everywhere else were like that naturally and wouldn’t have realised it was due to parasite treatments administered to the livestock. Given that the invertebrates produced by aurochs, straight tusked elephant and Merck’s rhino fertilising the land must have been awesome. Not just the reprocessed dung would have been valuable to the ecosystem, these invertebrates produced as a by product would have been a staggering food source for predatory invertebrates, birds and bats – with all those old and dead trees providing holes for them bats would find this world paradise. Sadly, in our world this is another virtually absent ecological element – it’s not as if we don’t have domesticated livestock that could form a proxy for the missing giant herbivores, but it’s largely treated to prevent parasite infections in the gut which unfortunately means very little if any associated insect life.
Then to stress my point as to why I think the lack of natural recycling is the most significant difference between the two worlds, the real one and our imagined one, there’s the issue of carcases. Again, we tend not to have the dead bodies of large mammals lying around in the countryside – domestic animals are eaten and even wild deer if shot are taken away for reprocessing into venison. There’s little if anything left of the natural nutrients to be returned into the local food chain. Now think of what would be provided by the body of a ten ton straight tusked elephant, a Merck’s rhino half its size or even a ‘measly’ auroch. That vast mountain of blood, skin, muscle, sinew, marrow provides a mass of high-quality protein for everything from scavenging bears to specialist flies and beetles that feed on specific parts of the corpse. Even the nutrients draining from the body will affect soil chemistry and what grows there for years afterwards. So more highly productive localised food webs created that it’s even difficult for us to imagine, scenes reminiscent of elephant carcases in Kenya being fed upon, but here in old blighty.
There’s one last example of natural recycling that must be brought up because it too is virtually extinct here now. Although greatly diminished the salmon runs on Canada and America’s west coast are now being recognised as important for the great forest there. Even though natural recycling processes are highly intricate and efficient nutrients still get leached from the soil, trees, branches and bodies get carried down rivers into the sea. But when salmon return upriver to spawn they bring nutrients back into the system as they die and are eaten by local predators which spread them through the ecosystem via faeces and uneaten remains, fish and forest strongly interlinked. Our salmon must in the past have been important contributors to this process here when their runs were much stronger before they had to deal with barriers on rivers, netting and industrial pollution. There weren’t just salmon but two species of shad coming up the rivers to spawn like the salmon, smelt, sea and river lampreys and not forgetting the mighty sturgeon. Sonar surveys in the Hudson River on the other side of the Atlantic detected a monster of fourteen feet in length. We used to have fish like that come up our rivers in good numbers – not just an impressive sight, but very good news for local vegetation when one gets hauled out by a mighty bear.
Our imagined world would be a twitcher’s dream for the very simple reason there’s not one single square millimetre of land or sea that isn’t natural habitat. There is no concrete, no farmland of any description, no golf courses – everything ‘produces’ nature and nature only. There are an awful lot more birds in this world and so therefore a lot more exotic species getting lost or blown in. Maybe species like the passenger pigeon and the Labrador duck, the Eskimo and slender billed curlew would be among them. With more floating rafts of vegetation carried down rivers into the sea that’s also potentially more stopping off and resting points for weary birds blown off course. Who knows with more birds blown in could they become established breeders, pied billed grebes a resident species? There would certainly be far more vultures too – perhaps if the British countryside was not open enough for them, they could scavenge dead whales along the coast. Vultures in Britain.
We’d get far more foreign butterflies, dragonflies, beetles and bees blown in from abroad too. The big and beautiful carpenter bees would be more likely to become settled breeders as would the scarce swallowtail and map butterfly. Perhaps these and many other species were British residents, but we lost them, we’ve certainly lost over twenty species of deadwood associated beetles since the Bronze age.
The seas would also bring in more strange visitors – deep sea cetaceans becoming stranded on the beach, warm water sharks making an appearance – so much more common without longlines and the demand for shark fin soup. As opposed to the deliberate travels of the leatherback, there would be many more genuinely strayed green, hawksbill and loggerhead turtles hitting the shore. Perhaps a distant relative could sometimes join them there – every now and again a giant tortoise in the warmer southern half of Europe (it has hippos too, and in the far southern extremities Nile crocodiles) gets carried by a flood into a river or loses its footing and falls in. It then gets swept into the sea and if wind, currents, and tides are right in its buoyant shell encased body it will be taken to an island to the north. If it goes into a state of torpor in the chilly seas it might awaken on reaching the shore and who knows while summer lasts Britain will have a giant tortoise joining its fauna.
There are of course the big three – lynx, wolf and brown bear, or perhaps four? Is it possible the wolverine would have been resident in northern Britain at least? It’s by no means impossible that it was wiped out by our ancestors (too reluctant to skedaddle from carcases when approached by funny upright things carrying pointy sticks?) but as yet we’ve found no bones indicating its post glacial presence here. The remains of predators are always rarer, much rarer usually, than their prey almost to the point of invisibility. We know wolves were present here without question, it’s recorded historically, but British finds of their remains are vanishingly small. It was the discovery of a few lynx bones in a Yorkshire cave that shifted the last known date of their existence in the UK hundreds of years closer to the present day, the early Middle Ages. One scrap of wolverine bone and we could be up for the return of the big four, not three.
That’s existing species, what about extinct ones, ones our relatives probably killed off? The cave bear was certainly killed in its dens by early peoples, an easier target than the brown bear? It’s a pretty safe bet that the cave bear would be a resident in our imagined landscape. Others are not so certain. Would the landscape ever be open enough for cave hyena and cave lion, would they need very open country to live and hunt in? If straight tusked elephant and the other big herbivores were ‘destructive’ enough perhaps. A dig by the Time Team in series three that was looking for signs of early man in 250,000 year old deposits in an Oxfordshire clay pit did indicate that the land was savanna like and a type of mammoth plus straight tusked elephant were present – so perhaps, maybe.
It’s funny, but a more likely candidate could be the dirk or scimitar toothed cat Homotherium latidens. It had been assumed that the very last of them in Europe had died out approx. 300,000 years ago. Sabre tooth cats don’t get on well with people. In North America, which in many ways serves as a pretty good control to see if people were responsible for the loss of so much megafauna in Eurasia, both the sabre tooth cat Smilodon fatalis and scimitar/dirk toothed cat Homotherium latidens lived in stable populations right up to the appearance of people about 15,000 or so years ago. It was the same story for their stag elk Cervalces scotti, a close relative of the Eurasian species the broad fronted elk Cervalces latidens which died out tens of thousands of years ago. However, the scimitar cat in Eurasia may not have been quite so unlucky as first appeared. In a jawbone from one was dredged from the bottom of the North Sea. Radiocarbon tests have confirmed, and reconfirmed, that it’s only 28,000 years old, a nearly 300,000 year jump forward in the date of the last known individual in Europe. That’s a remarkable finding, again one piece of bone dramatically revising what we know of Eurasian fauna in this case a significant carnivore.
As more of an ambush hunter than the cave lion, the scimitar cat may have been a more realistic candidate for inclusion in our imagined landscape. Now that’s a very strange thought, a British sabretooth, the scimitar cat! The bare bones of rewilding are exciting but delving a little deeper into what we’ve truly lost provides amazing information, images and reflections.
Of course, you can’t begin reviewing what our wetlands would have been like without us without making a bow to the beaver. There would be little disagreement that a very significant proportion of the country would be directly affected by them. Even on the hills where streams had moderate flow and slopes were not too severe beavers would be coppicing trees, building dams and impounding water. The benefits for everything from fish to dragonflies to specialist invertebrates are very well known and there would certainly be an explosion of life. What we aren’t so sure about yet are how the beaver would interact with species such as the black grouse, ring ousel, mountain hare and a long list of other species. It’s terrifying how close we came to losing both the North American and the Eurasian beavers, we would be totally lost in our understanding of how important beavers are ecologically and we’re still learning. In Chernobyl returning wolves seem to be halting the expansion of the beaver population so perhaps they would not have had quite as high an impact as we might think, but they would never be insignificant.
There might be some unexpected occupants of their beaver ponds though. We’ve almost certainly lost a very wide range of waterbirds, there can’t have been any real barriers to stop them spreading to Britain after the retreat of the glaciers – wetlands would have formed very quickly so there was nothing to stop them moving in. Drainage and persecution in previous centuries certainly cost us birds like the purple heron, little bittern and night heron. Cattle, little and great egrets have moved back of their own accord. Even the ankle bones of pygmy cormorant have been found in a well in East Anglia, so why not have that as part of our avifauna as well? It’s more difficult to find reasons to exclude it.
Then there are a few unfeathered denizens of the beaver ponds that are rather surprising and even colourful. We came to realise very late in the day that the dwindling number of pool frogs found in Norfolk were not the survivors of an introduction of European amphibians, but a remnant group of natives. Too late to save that population, but closely related ones were brought in from Sweden for a reintroduction project. Compared to the continent we’ve always had a rather piddling number of amphibian species so it’s encouraging to hear that we may have more natives than was thought. A population of tree frogs in the New Forest that has died out may have been like the Norfolk pool frogs the last of a native species that people thought were non-natives and sadly overlooked. They are a definite candidate for our hypothetical landscape. We have found remains though of both agile and moor frogs so their natural presence here is not conjectural, there is evidence. Human caused changes to the landscape look like the probable cause of their demise. There’s a nice little twist to having the moor frog back – in the mating season the males turn bright blue, yes we could have blue frogs in the UK and they would certainly add some rare colour to the landscape in our ideologically constructed alternative world.
This blog wouldn’t be following the ‘tradition’ though without adding one extra little twist. In the beaver pond there’s a beaver – not surprising, but this one is extra large, 25% bigger than the standard beaver. It’s Trogontherium, a different beaver species to our familiar Castor fiber. Again the Eurasian situation mirrors the North American one – it has two co-existing species of beaver Castor canadensis and Casteroides Ohioensis the latter being the giant, but it’s the size of a smallish black bear not just 25% larger than the other species. The latest remains of Trogontherium in Eurasia have been found in North East China and they date to approx. 40,000 b.p – it’s been stated that they may have been killed off by hunter gatherers. Well the giant beaver in America existed perfectly well with the other species right up until people arrived, then its population fell just as quickly as its smaller relative felled a tree so perhaps worth considering. If these species would have continued to exist without human interference we can’t say for sure, but it’s a possibility. We don’t know how the two species would have interacted, maybe that should be left to the imagination if that’s not what we’ve been doing already of course!
That’s the outline for the concept, what ideas would you like to see put in and do you think it’s worth pursuing it with a media company, would it create a publicly accessible documentary getting the whole point about rewilding across including its working mechanics, the full and complete big picture. Comments below please![registration_form]