I recently read a blog entitled, ‘The taming of nature’ by Steven Robinson. I have a lot of sympathy with the views he expresses. An area of disused gravel pit that I had frequented long ago was acquired as a nature reserve, and I was enthusiastic about it from the star but when I was invited to join a work party, I was confused as to why we were cutting down trees. Fifty years later, I am leading a similar work party, and explaining to volunteers and visitors what our rationale is that includes the activities listed by Steven.
The natural state of Britain if left without human intervention would gradually move toward a largely wooded landscape, and after many years would no doubt produce wonderful results, but the time scale would be extensive. A yardstick for identifying ‘ancient woodland’ is that, which has been continuous in the records for more than an arbitrary 400 years. In my early days at the reserve I thought that we should embark on a non-interventionist rewilding that would take many human generations in our reserves in order to become wild and inspiring, progressing to the legendary wildwood.
I soon came to see that habitats are not stable. In a dell with 50 common spotted orchids one year, there was just one amongst a lot of nettle and elder a few years later. Nettle and elder are fine but such things would dominate widely over time, so over the years we have maintained glades, used various techniques to maintain some grassland, dredged out ponds, and coppiced one or two plots, in order to maintain conditions for some of our extant animals and plants. In this we have been reasonably successful.
I am confident that if we had done nothing, the only open ground left would have been along a track which is a right of way for a farmer. He would have pushed back fallen and encroaching trees, which would have maintained a small proportion of our species, those that need the light. This would have been offset by an increase of opportunity for other species, mostly those associated with closed canopy scrub. Given the passing of more time, some colonisation may have increased the range of what was present, but in my view this would be a rather dull habitat.
Britain has been largely deforested for around 5000 years, since the Neolithic age. The places where the species of the wildwood have persisted are few and far between. Probably most of the species in Britain depend on the areas of warm micro climate created by open pastures, coppiced woods and heaths.
The great majority of woods are no longer managed at all. They only exist because of their importance in past rural economic activity, which is no longer practised. The effect of non-management of woods can be observed in the great majority of private woods already. A de-facto rewilding is already happening on my patch, and on almost every nature reserve, because there are seldom enough resources to manage every part; usually management and non-intervention go hand in hand.
The area of Chernobyl in the Ukraine, set free from the constant intervention of humans has according to all accounts been spectacular. This is a big area, and there has been scope for the trophic cascades caused by having wild boar to disturb the soil, beavers to create marshes, and wolves to disperse the deer. In the 15 or so hectares of my patch, no amount of non-intervention is going to achieve similar results.
I have mixed feelings about the infrastructure of reserves, because paths, boardwalks, hides and notices indeed detract from naturalness, and they also require maintenance, but they do have the advantage of channelling reserve visitors to defined places. We need as many people as possible to become interested, so some public facilities for people who don’t like their trainers to get wet in the dew, are probably a worthwhile feature.
I am however extremely enthusiastic about rewilding. The organisation ‘Rewilding Britain’ aspires to create some landscape schemes dispersed in the four provinces of the UK and in the seas. These will need to have the scale to enable natural processes to take over. This will not be cheap, and will almost certainly not be near me in lowland eastern England.
The broad principle of management of nature reserves should be that existing long term practice should where appropriate be maintained., but a hands off approach would be very worthwhile in all sorts of sites, for example, on the edges of old wood pastures such as Epping forest, where at least some of the species of the wildwood may be able to colonise.