Rewilding – where might it fit in British conservation policy and practice

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Rewilding – where might it fit in British conservation policy and practice. Keith Kirby http:// How do we do conservation in Britain?. Nature conservation often ‘gardening’ Cultural landscapes Inevitable with small sites Hostile socio-political environment - PowerPoint PPT Presentation

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Rewilding where might it fit in British conservation policy and practiceKeith Kirby

In my former life I worked as forestry officer for first Nature Conservancy Council, then English Nature and its current incarnation Natural England. During the late 90s and early 2000s the question of rewilding came to the fore, particularly because at that time there was a feeling that CAP reform would lead to a lot of land coming out of farming which it did on the continent, but not in Britain as it happened but also because of the interest in Frans Veras ideas about Grazing Ecology and Forest History which was published in English in 2000. VERA, F. W. M. 2000. Grazing ecology and forest history, Wallingford, CABI.

English Nature therefore commissioned some work in this area, which was published as HODDER, K. H., BULLOCK, J. M., BUCKLAND, P. C. & KIRBY, K. J. 2005. Large herbivores in the wildwood and modern naturalistic grazing systems. English Nature Research Report 648. Peterborough: English Nature.We also sponsored a special issue of British Wildlife on the topic (June 2009, special supplement to Volume 20)

1How do we do conservation in Britain? Nature conservation often gardeningCultural landscapesInevitable with small sitesHostile socio-political environmentSpecific habitat/speciesDriven by target-focused conservation approachMany strengths to this

2We live in Britain, but particularly in England, in a cultural landscape, shaped as much if not more by human influences over millenia, as by environmental factors. There is no untouched, pristine wilderness. This applies as much to forests as to other habitats. So nature conservation has evolved to be largely about maintaining habitats and species that are survivors of former farming and forestry systems. Often the best way to protect them is to try to continue with something like the past management practices. To put it crudely, it is about conserving the 19th/early 20th century landscapes and species as described by Tansley or Ratcliffe: or at least that is what it has been about.RATCLIFFE, D. A. 1977. A nature conservation review, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.TANSLEY, A. G. 1939. The British islands and their vegetation, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

But wouldnt it be nice to let the wild things out of the cagerewildingTotal freedom not possible, But the acceptable limits can be stretchedScience-base must be sound

3There are no situations in England where human influence can be withdrawn completely, although on the coast sea-walls have been breached to allow the development of salt-marsh as part of managed retreat programmes. Inland, more limits are likely to be set on the degree to which natural processes are allowed to determine the outcome. However perhaps we could try to reduce the level of intervention, but if we do what will be the consequences?

Can re-wilding deliver biodiversity objectives?What is our template if we move outside the cultural landscapes that we have inherited?What are we trying to conserve?

So the first question is what are we trying to conserve if not 19th century landscapes?

In many parts of the world the template is generally what is considered natural, which usually means pre-European colonisation.

4We cannot go back through rewilding Natural past is not tenable as a modelConditions uncertainClimate and soils have changedSpecies gained and lostHuman influence being pushed back in time

Can we go forward?Develop towards future natural regime?Withdraw obvious driving human influencesGive up targetsFocus on allowing natural processes

However we cannot pretend that we are going to re-instate the original natural state in Britain. Leaving aside that there is uncertainty as to what it was like closed forest or Veras half open landscape and when the landscape was last natural (human influence is more or less pervasive throughout the Holocene), the climate and soils have changed, species have been eliminated and others introduced.

But we could use rewilding as an alternative approach to future conservation, focussing less on targets for specific habitats or species and more on letting natural processes determine what happens.5Re-wilding proposalsLandscape scale, mosaics of habitatsNatural(-istic) processes such as grazingPossible driversLand abandonment under CAP reformForestry renaissanceSpiritual/moral reasons

6So there have been various rewilding type proposals. These aim to create landscape mosaics involving usually domestic stock, particularly cattle, as substitutes for lost herbivores such as the aurochs. Their role is (in theory) quite distinct from that in conventional farmland where they are essentially a product or producer but also from that in most nature reserves where they are used as management tools, for example to prevent tree regeneration on heaths or maintain short turf conditions on chalk grassland. In rewilding schemes the large herbivores are themselves to be part of the wild system. British examples?Knepp Estate In 2001 we shifted our focus entirely and embarked on a series of regeneration and restoration projects aimed primarily at nature conservation and a less intensive way of meat productionWild Ennerdale The Wild Ennerdale Partnership is allowing the landscape to evolve naturally with reducing human interventionGreat Fen a 50-year project to create a huge wetland area; ahaven for fen wildlife, a massive green space for people, opening new opportunities for recreation, education and businessAlladale The purpose of the Alladale Wilderness Reserve is to restore a remote area of the Highlands to its former natural glory.

So what are the closest we have to practical examples? The following are the big ones usually discussed, but there are others of varying size and wildness.Wild Ennerdale a partnership between National Trust, Forestry Commission, United Utilities and local groups. Estate lowland farm, privately owned in Sussex, taken out of conventional agriculture but maintaining some extensive grazing Fen area of farmland south of Peterborough, being built up by purchase to control water table, link two National Nature reserves, wetlands and grassland creation; an estate in Sutherland where the owner would like to establish a wilderness reserve (20,000 ha fenced) in which re-introductions such as wolves might live. Currently the re-introductions are in large enclosures.

7Conservation issues?Are we prepared to allow change?Re-wilding is unpredictableWood may go to heath, but heath may go to woodland quicker!Re-wilding may mean losses of abundance of species, even extinctions

Keep some targets?8But what is actually going to happen in these areas? Here it seems to me managers could face some interesting dilemmas. The assumption is that that we are going to get these rich mixed landscapes but what if we dont at least in the short term?

Current areas of high value grassland and heathland areas may be lost to scrub and then woodland for tens or hundreds of years. The grazing area must be large enough for replacement areas to develop in an acceptably short time.Some species may be lost permanently if the micro-habitats they depend on occur at too low a density or at too infrequent intervals under freerange grazing. For some species there may not be other source populations near enough to allow for recolonization when conditions do again become suitable.In some conditions landscapes may move towards permanent open habitat or permanent woodland, even under free-range grazing.

Regulation issues

Welfare legislation exists Feral animals are not wild Deer within fenced areas may fall into the category of kept animals. Re-introductions difficult (cf beaver!) Unless unofficial wild boar But dont mention carnivores Disease issues

Legal constraints

9There are also issues relating to public acceptability, public safety and animal welfare that need to considered before any proposal can be adopted (see section 4 of the report by Hodder et al 2005 for English Nature). While re-introducing lost species sounds fine, it has taken a long while to get even a limited beaver re-introduction in Scotland. Ironically there has then been an unofficial release on the Tay which seems to be going better! Wild boar have also been unofficially re-introduced escapes or deliberate releases from boar farms have led to 3 or 4 reasonably stable populations. After a consultation Defra agreed that these should be treated as wild and no attempt made to eradicate them.However tempting such unofficial releases might seem it is worth remembering that the same sort of people who released wild boar released mink; and if conservation groups break the law, they cannot then complain if farmers or landowners do the same with respect to controlling unwanted (by them) species such as hen harriers!Disease control issues can also be important: had the boar releases happened in East Anglia, I suspect eradication would have been much higher up the agenda. The Chillingham herd barely escaped being slaughtered in both the last two foot and mouth outbreaks.Public support issuesLose treasured landscapesHistoric environment alteredMuch likely land has public accessFootpathsRight to roamDomestic stock kill people Extra problems of dogsStallions and horse ridersJurassic Park planningDealing with escapes

Be prepared to compromise10And will there be public support? Yes there are high profile and vocal supporters of rewilding, but also equally vocal opponents.Probably most people dont know what it means or dont care.Moreover it is easy to raise objections once specific cases come up (cf renew