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“Simon Says” – Gardening the wilderness

September 20, 2016

In this new blog at the beginning of each month I hope to be giving some insights into what goes on behind the scenes in conservation and environment.  I will try and be thought-provoking and sometimes even controversial, but I hope not divisive.  In conservation many things are not as simple as they appear. The views expressed here are not necessarily the policy of DWT, but are my own thoughts laid out for you to judge – for better or worse.

Gardening the wilderness

Relatively all of a sudden there is a lot of talk about wilderness and rewilding.  It’s on TV, in erudite editorials of newspapers and is even one of the questions within the government’s consultation on the effect of Brexit on the natural environment.  It’s an idea whose time seems to have come – or is it?  To see if it is the next biggest thing after climate change, or a wacky distraction we need to look at what it actually is and how sensible an approach is it for our crowded little island?

To those ends it might be useful to start on the other side of the Atlantic.  A recent published paper (

has shown that wilderness areas currently cover 23% of the land surface of the Earth.  That’s rather more than I expected, but then most of it is in N. America, N. Asia and Australia – think Outback and Siberia.  The worrying thing is that about 10% or 3.3 million km2 has been lost since the early 1990s – that’s equivalent to half the size of the Amazon in just 20 years.  As the Wildlife Conservation Society say: there has been a lot said about the loss of species, but little about wild places.  True enough, though we in Dorset have focussed on the loss of habitats such as grasslands, heaths and sea grass, as a proxy for groups of species.

The report hit particularly hard in North America but was hardly mentioned in Europe despite the rewilding debate.  Why is that?  I believe it is because wilderness and rewilding are two different things.  Wilderness has a huge place in the national psyche of Americans and Canadians and perhaps permeates through to their views on self-reliance, the right to bear arms, and even private healthcare.  It was only 100 – 150 years ago that Americans were surviving off the land whilst we in Europe were busy fighting amongst ourselves rather than for survival in a hostile countryside.  In Britain we have, I believe, a rather romanticised view of wilderness harking back to Heathcliff striding across the moors, or Robert the Bruce defending the Scottish Highlands (with an Australian accent).  So talk of wilderness and rewilding in the UK has a rather different meaning to that in N. America, not the least because of the vast differences in scale available.  We have a rather soft, furry view of rewilding here compared with outside of Europe, but then maybe that’s appropriate for our heavily manicured countryside.

So what is wilderness and rewilding, at least here in Britain?  There are many different definitions and understanding.  These range from withdrawing management so that nature looks after itself, as in the Oostvaadersplassen in the Netherlands; through to the reintroduction of species such as Devon Wildlife Trust’s work with beavers.  The Knepp Estate in West Sussex is always quoted when an example of rewilding is needed, but even that is still managed through various interventions such as grazing by cattle and deer.  The problem with leaving nature to get on with it is that diversity can actually decrease as areas scrub over and dominant species prevail, at least at the small scale commonly relevant to the UK. has though some interesting larger scale ideas that don’t seem to require the complete withdrawal of management.

Conservation is often said to be, at least in part, the maintenance of different historic landscapes so that a diversity of habitats results and leads to a diversity of species.  Those landscapes, even though they look wild, do though need to be managed careful, e.g. heaths would revert to woodland if they were left alone, with the resulting loss of a wide range of heathland species.

True, rewilding elements of a landscape can give valuable benefits in terms of countryside health and services that landscapes provides.  So moving sheep off uplands could reduce the risk of flooding in the lowlands.  Reintroducing beavers also seem to be showing great benefits for wetland management and flood risk reduction.  Keeping trawlers and dredgers out of marine protected areas allowing the bottom fauna to regenerate, as in Lyme Bay, can provide huge benefits in terms of both productivity and biodiversity.  DWT’s own work putting bends and plants in various Dorset rivers from the Frome to the Allen, and regenerating banksides is certainly a localised and successful element of rewilding.

There is then in my view a difference between wilderness and rewilding.  The world needs big wilderness areas and we need to ensure that landscapes from the Amazon to the tundra are protected for the health of the planet.  I suspect though that wilderness which is large enough in scale to allow minimal management will in Britain be difficult to achieve except in a few places, unless we are going to send Scotland back to the Neolithic, which probably isn’t one of Nicola Sturgeon’s priorities.  Rewilding on an achievable scale seems more relevant to us.  We need to aim for restoring ‘wild’ habitats and species at a local level with appropriate management which is as non-interventionist as possible.  Why didn’t we think of that before?  Wait a minute – we did!

Simon Cripps, DWT Chief Executive

Photo: Upton Heath © Tony Bates, MBE.

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