Rewilding under attack

Carrifran Wildwood near Moffat, Scotland

I read a recent article by Josie Appleton on ‘Rewilding and the attack on civilisation‘ with a mixture of dismay and incredulity. I had to look Josie up, but find that she is the convenor of the Manifesto Club which describes itself as a civil liberties group and that she writes for the Guardian and The Spectator and has written a book as well. Google also tells me that she studied at Oxford. What I wonder? And did she graduate? I couldn’t tell. I studied Geographical Sciences at Huddersfield Polytechnic and then for a PhD at the University of Newcastle before moving on to lecture at Leeds. Here I am also the Director of the Wildland Research Institute, so figure I know a thing or two about wilderness and rewilding.

Josie’s article seems an ill-informed attack on rewilding; describing it as a retrogressive approach. May be you agree, but in its defence I respond to a few of Josie’s criticisms here and add some much-needed balance.

A broad church

First and foremost, rewilding isn’t just about the reintroduction of missing predators, though that can form part of the mix. Rewilding is a much, much broader church and by choosing to only focus on the end of the rewilding spectrum that includes bears and wolves Josie appears to fallen into that classic journalistic trap of sensationalism which I would expect more from someone who writes for The Daily Mail rather than the Guardian. Rewilding can encompass a wide range of approaches. These focus on increasing the role of wild nature and natural processes in improving our landscapes for both humans and nature. In recent years it has become a bit of a catch-all for any conservation actions that involve a shift from the existing state to a wilder one, however slight. Examples might include river restoration where re-vegetating river banks, removing weirs and re-meandering stream channels can have tremendous benefits in terms of flood alleviation, water quality, erosion protection, habitats and recreation. Another example might be the planting of native trees species on former ancient woodland sites that were planted with non-native conifers between the wars to improve landscape, habitat and biodiversity.  And yes, it can mean the reintroduction of native species that have been lost from their previous range, usually because of the more rapacious activities of man. That might just mean butterflies and wild flowers, but it might also extend to more controversial species such as beaver and boar, white-tailed eagles and red kite.

Targeted rewilding

Another common misconception about rewilding is that we ‘rewilders’ want to rewild everywhere and everything. This is so far from the truth as to be absolute nonsense. We all like our food and recognise the need for landscapes that provide a range of ecosystem goods and services, and that includes farm produce. Rewilding is only appropriate in certain places and is not a universal treatment. Neither is it a top-down policy that is to be imposed on unwilling communities and land owners. Rather rewilding is an approach that, if successful, needs to be adopted from the bottom up with local buy-in and support that is enabled by enlightened policy from above. Where rewilding is happening already in the UK, it is happening with the agreement and blessing of land owners. How could it be otherwise? If Josie had cared to research some of the existing rewilding projects in the UK such as Trees for Life in the Central Highlands, Carrifran Wildwood near Moffatt and Scar Close in the Yorkshire Dales, she’d find no sensationalism there, only models of good practice.

What we all need to recognise is that modern land management has taken a tremendous toll on the country’s wildlife and wild places, and that we desperately need to work together – with land owners and managers, with government and local people – to reverse some of these trends. The RSPB’s State of Nature reports provide worrying detail on how our biodiversity has decline dramatically in recent years. We can use nature and natural processes to help achieve this. I’ve already given the example of the benefits river restoration can have on water quality, erosion control, flood protection, etc. and this could be boosted further through beaver reintroductions within selected catchments to initiate trophic cascades that create habitats for invertebrates, amphibians, fish, birds and small mammals as well improving water retention, groundwater recharge, sediment trapping, nutrient cycling etc. They would also add an extra layer of interest to the landscape from new wetlands and structure, to the activities of these charismatic rodents. Of course, there will be some conflict with local landowners, but these can be managed and compensation paid for loss of income should that occur. There are a number of ongoing research projects into the benefits (and possible costs) of beaver reintroductions, such as that at the University of Exeter, but early results are encouraging, and a number of pilot projects using rewilding principles such as “slowing the flow” are already yielding benefits, albeit without beavers. With or without beavers, there are net benefits to be realised from reinstating more natural, wilder rivers in the British countryside. All part of the continuum.

A broader perspective

Josie’s reading of the history of human dominion over nature and the land is rather one-sided and she needs to look at the issues involved from a much wider perspective; not just through the lens of farming interests. I don’t for a minute deny the knowledge or interests of those who work the land (therein lies my own family history… “a long line of slaves” as my dad used to say), but we do need to see beyond the immediate priorities of individual livelihoods and cultural histories toward the wider good. Here, I’d refer Josie back to the ideas of ecosystem services delivery and how this serves the interests of the wider global community. This includes people who may not live and work on the land but who benefit from those services it delivers; food, water, flood protection, landscape, recreation, wildlife. Where local dis-benefits occur in providing those services then appropriate payments can be drawn from the public purse. This is the ‘payments for ecosystem services’ model. We already do it to some extent; through production subsidies and environmental payments. Who pays the French and Lake District farmers Josie talks about to farm their sheep? The supermarkets don’t (or at least not enough to cover their costs and make a decent living), rather we do through our taxes which go to fund single farm payment schemes. An element of those payments could easily be diverted to pay compensation for any stock losses or, better still, for better husbandry and livestock protection so that farmers are better equipped to live alongside wildlife. I mean, what’s not to like… payments for traditional practices with full-time shepherds protecting the landscapes she purports to love? I’ve already seen this happen, for example around the Brandenburg region of Germany where wolves have moved in to abandoned Soviet military training areas.

What her example of French sheep farmers in the Pyrenees does show is that imposition from above without adequate consultation and mitigation measures doesn’t work. We have seen similar problems here with the current attempts to set up a trial lynx reintroduction in Kielder Forest. I can’t say any more than that, but clearly the process has not gone smoothly for various reasons. Better communication, better outreach and consultation over years rather than months, better policies and clear payment mechanisms backed up by education programmes are all needed for a mutually acceptable outcome.

Landscapes of change

Josie’s arguments about landscape appreciation and the English Lake District are also somewhat wide of the mark. It isn’t just the farmed landscape and sheep (however cute Herdwicks are) that brings in the tourists, it is the geology shaped by millions of years of erosion by wind, water and ice that has created the Lakes landscape. If it were flat no one would find it remarkable; and it’d be covered by intensive agriculture… no Wordsworth, no Beatrix Potter, no Herwicks, no Heaton-Cooper. The fact that it has interesting topography is what people find attractive; the challenge of the fells and the scenic grandeur of the rugged landscape. The current pattern of land use, the bare hillsides, drystone walls, in-bye land, Herdwick sheep and quaint stone villages is just a thin cultural veneer laid over the existing structure of rock, fells, lakes and valley. That’s not to denigrate its significance to those who live and work there, but it is temporary; a changing cloak that changes over time driven by land use trends that are a fickler mistress than the long-term cycle of orogeny and erosion. You can’t preserve everything in aspic like some kind of museum exhibit, it needs to develop and change with the times. If the hills were covered with a few more trees, people would still love it, and perhaps we could have England’s only natural tree line. Wouldn’t that be special? And remember, the fells haven’t always been so bare. Even Wordsworth wrote about the intensification of sheep farming and lamented the loss of wooded hillsides. The only constant is change itself.

The need for humility

Aldo Leopold said that “the first rule of intelligent tinkering is to keep all the parts”, whereas Josie seems to be saying that we’re better off without those wild animals that might compete with us for our food or are in some way detrimental to our livelihoods. I can see her point if looking solely from the shepherds’ point of view. But what of the wider moral argument? Her argument takes on a quasi-religious fervour in suggesting that humankind be given priority over nature and our duty is to make nature tame and, well, just a little bit dull. I wonder if she’d take the side of humans over the survival of the world’s last few tigers or elephants in those regions where human-wildlife conflicts are a constant fact of life? I suspect not. So why here in Europe? What gives us the right to deny existence to the European brown bear, the wolf, the lynx, the wolverine, the sea eagle? I’m not suggesting for a minute that the bear should be reintroduced to the UK (there’s neither the space nor the habitat for that and I don’t know of any serious rewilder who thinks there is) but we at least need to consider the lynx over the next few decades.

Josie and other nay-sayer’s like her need to realise that rewilding is already happening in the UK so her words are falling somewhat on deaf ears or are rather, as I suspect, playing to a particular audience. On the mainland, the (big)cat is out of the bag and will be difficult (if not impossible) to get it back in there. Whether or not it makes the leap across the Channel remains to be seen, but we to look more at the opportunities and work together instead of just throwing up ideological barriers to how we might coexist with our future nature.

Wild times with C19

Last week I was asked to write a short piece for the department newsletter on how C19 is affecting wildlife and how it affects us. Here are my musings…

The unfolding C19 crisis has impacted society in more ways than we might have initially thought possible. Of course, people are being hospitalised and many are dying. The almost universal response across the world has been a lock down to minimise movement and social contact. For many of us this has changed the way we live our daily lives… “Stay home > Protect the NHS > Save lives”. Reducing human activity to a bare minimum and just enough to maintain the essential services needed for survival: food, energy, health and the emergency services. Streets are quiet with little traffic and the countryside largely empty save for the farmers working the land.

An immediately noticeable effect has been the reduction in atmospheric pollution (C and NOx) from cars and planes, and it is noticeably quieter too. One more unusual side-effect has been the number of cases where wildlife has moved in to claim (some might say reclaim) human outdoor spaces. Reports on social media show some of strange animal activity around the country and across the world: wild goats in Llandudno gardens, red deer in Paisley play parks, coyotes in The Streets of San Francisco, wild boar in Bergamo bus shelters. I’ve certainly noticed bolder behaviour among normally shy bird species. Something is up with the humans and they’ve noticed. When this is over and we return to something resembling normality, they’ll no doubt retreat to their normal haunts and keep out of our way as much as possible. But for now, as we hunker down at home, they are exploring their new freedoms.

A darker side to this story relates to origins of the Coronavirus in the squalid and insanitary conditions of the Chinese “wet markets” where captured wild animals are kept alive in cramped cages until bought and slaughtered on the spot for food and traditional “medicine”. I’ve not witnessed one myself, but I’ve talked to people who have, and they are horrific places. Here humanity comes into close contact with wildlife allowing novel diseases to jump species and, as in this case, prove a deadly threat to wider human health and well-being.

The ramifications for the global economy, society and geopolitical systems have been enormous and it will take years for us to recover.  Many are starting to question if we need to and suggesting alternatives to just “getting back to business as usual”. The post-Corona world could be a very different place for all sorts of reasons and some trends might not be so easily reversed. I for one sincerely hope for a more respectful relationship with the wilder half of the planet. Keeping our distance and giving space to wild nature will benefit us all in the long run. As Henry David Thoreau said, “In wildness is the preservation of the world” (Thoreau, 1851). While he may have been referring to freedom of the human spirit, this quote resonates with contemporary environmental concerns over the degradation of wilderness areas and their role in protecting natural ecosystems and biodiversity, carbon sequestration, water supply, flood protection, human health and well-being and other important ecosystem services. In the Wildland Research Institute (WRi) we are working to map and model the world’s remaining wild spaces so that they can be better known and protected, and in doing so protect us. The current pandemic just lends impetus to this work.

Can shooting and rewilding coexist?

ShootingTimes Sept2018_1 crop

Back in September 2018 I wrote a piece for Shooting Times about how rewilding and shooting could, under certain conditions, have complementary conservation goals. The invitation came via Twitter after a forthright exchange of views about shooting and conservation that were initially prompted by a quite frankly ridiculous article in the magazine by Liam Stokes, then Head of Shooting for the Countryside Alliance. Game for anything (if you’ll pardon the pun) I picked up my pen and took up the challenge.

Now, many of you reading this probably don’t subscribe to Shooting Times and why would you? I admit to buying it myself now and then however as it provides a useful window in on the thinking within the UK’s shooting and hunting community. There are some jolly interesting articles too, including many by my Tweeps like @wildforestmatt and @troopersnooks among others. Matt has, as it happens, just written a piece for Scotland: The Big Picture along similar lines, so I thought it a useful opportunity to dust off and revisit what I said 18 months ago in Shooting Times.

Now I’m not going to reproduce the whole article as I’d only be repeating much of what I’ve already said in other blogs, but I will give you a flavour of my line of reasoning. Please bear in mind the audience I was writing for and hence the tone of how I wrote it. Direct quotes are given in italics.


There are two sides to every story.

You’ve probably heard of “rewilding” and may well already have an opinion about it, but as with many ideas that challenge the status quo, rumour and disinformation abound. Some see it as an opportunity to reverse current trends in declining biodiversity, so have made it their cause célèbre. Others see it as a threat to their influence or livelihoods and do their utmost to discredit it. Rewilding has been described as a “subversive land-grab”, ignorant and unjust, while rewilders themselves have been called fantasists, “disenchanted human beings” and the “boy-racers of the conservation world”. While this makes for some entertaining Twitter debates, it has made rewilding into something of a toxic subject among certain groups.

And so, I began to explore just where the mutual interests between shooting and rewilding might possibly lie. After all, few would argue with aiming for a diverse, vibrant and sustainable countryside with room for wildlife as well as people.


So, what is rewilding then?

At the time of writing, there seemed to be a great deal of confusion about what rewilding was and what it might mean for the countryside and country sports. Some of the voices from the country sports community were deliberately trying to confuse matters further with the obvious aim of discrediting rewilding and creating division (we’ll come back to this later). To counter this, I tried to give a sensible definition that shooters might recognise in their own activities…

Rewilding is a conservation approach aimed at restoring and protecting natural processes, providing connectivity between areas, and protecting or reintroducing species (which may or may not include large herbivores and/or predators).

The level of human intervention and management can be used to define two basic approaches:

Passive Rewilding is the spontaneous colonisation of abandoned land by wild or native species in the absence of direct human management or influence from domestic plants or animals and resulting in/from the return of natural processes. For example, wildlife and forest has returned to the exclusion zone around Chernobyl since the nuclear reactor meltdown in 1986.

Active Rewilding involves some level of human intervention and/or management to return wild or native species and restore natural habitats and processes. In the Carrifran Wildwood Project, local volunteers and community groups have planted over 600,000 native trees in a former sheep farm near Moffatt based on locally sourced seed and guiding ecological principles.


Rewilding myths and rewilding truths

Much of the backlash against rewilding can be attributed to the many Alt-facts and fake news in circulation. Some of this arises from hearsay and simple misunderstanding, but some seems to represent quite deliberate attempts at disinformation or selective interpretation of facts. Whatever their source, some commonly heard myths include the likes of: Britain is too small and crowded an island to allow landscape-scale rewilding, Our landscapes and habitats are too heavily modified. Rewilding will mean we will lose biodiversity, Nature can’t survive without our help and Rewilding will destroy rural communities and traditions.

To counter these misconceptions I argued that just as important to state very clearly what it is not as to say what it is: Nobody wants to rewild everywhere, Rewilding is not a universal approach, Rewilding is not being forced on anyone, Rewilding does not exclude people and Rewilding is not just about reintroducing top predators.

None of these are new arguments and I merely rehearse them from an earlier blog I wrote in 2017 on the #Rewilding debate.


What does this mean for shooting?

This was the nitty-gritty. How does one make a clear, rational and cogent argument to a shooting audience that says, contrary to all the shouty messages they’ve heard from the various mouthpieces at either end of the spectrum, that the goals of rewilding and shooting are not wholly incompatible bedfellows? It all comes down to the style of shooting and the different management approaches involved. In a nutshell, it’s walked-up rough shooting and wildfowling versus intensive, big-bag, big-money driven shoots. Here’s what I said…

Your views on rewilding might well be coloured by the style of shooting you prefer. Rewilding probably has little or no place in driven shoots where the priorities are bag sizes and the number of guns. The intensity of management required for large numbers of ‘breed and release’ pheasants/partridge or in creating the right conditions for high wild grouse populations isn’t well aligned with the broader aims of rewilding. It ought to be a very different matter for rough walked-up shooting or wildfowling, however, where the main goal is maintaining suitable habitat for wild game and the associated cover for challenging sport. So, what is the difference between rewilding and your own shoots? The answer might be very little, but much will depend on context and the degree of intervention, particularly relating to such thorny issues of predator control, prevention of ecological succession, controlled cover management (e.g. through grazing, planting of cover crops, cutting and burning), supplementary feeding and stocking rates.

And then it may also be about the desire of many landowners and shoot managers to maintain a level of control over the land that is at odds with the ideals of rewilding and, come to think of it, many a conservation project too.

Many of the concerns regarding rewilding, even if it takes place on land not used for game, revolve around the wider implications for shoots of letting nature decide its own ecological trajectory on adjacent land. There is a legitimate concern in both directions about the impacts of rewilding on shoots, and shoots on rewilding. Nothing in ecology is simple and some of the arguments about predator-prey populations being skewed by artificially high gamebird numbers and the effects that these may have on other species of conservation concern (e.g. curlew) may hold water whichever way you look at it.


No easy answers

I concluded that there is no simple answer but pointed to the fact that rewilding is already happening, with several high-profile projects scattered across the country. There also is a groundswell of public opinion in its favour that contrasts markedly with the backlash against the seedier side of country sports such as raptor persecution. In the past these have remained largely hidden from view but are now better known thanks to better access to the countryside and the sharing of information, photos and video on social media thus raising public awareness. So, how do we move on beyond the current stalemate?

…the best solution, as ever, is to talk openly and frankly, share our concerns and realise the opportunities that rewilding (of whatever flavour) might present. As entertaining as Liam’s piece on Malthus and rewilding was (Shooting Times, 13 June 2018), we must agree with his position that “intervention [in conservation] must be open to new ways… [and] when science tells us to change our management, we adapt”. Science is talking and telling us that all is not well with the countryside. Adaptation needs to include working with wildlife and natural processes. Rewilding will be part of that mix and must work alongside existing land management for both farming and game to achieve what must be a mutual and shared desire for more wildlife and a beautiful and varied countryside.


A response

Having encouraged me to write the article, the editor Patrick Galbraith, gave immediate right of reply in the same issue to Tim Bonner, CEO of the Countryside Alliance. Tim is not known for holding back in his attacks on rewilding and wrote a one-page rejoinder entitled “Snake Oil and a Scam”. Herein Tim demonstrates his limited grasp of rewilding facts. In one breath he praises his own wildfowling club’s work on managed coastal realignment and the country’s premier lowland rewilding project at Knepp Castle Estate, but then rails viciously against the Dutch “rewilding” experiment at Oostvaardersplassen before he finally blunders headlong into the mistaken assumption that all rewilding is about wolves and lynx. He clearly needs to do some more research. If he did, he’d find out that the man behind Oostvaardersplassen (Fran Vera) is also a great friend and adviser to the man behind the Knepp Castle Rewilding project (Charlie Burrell). The fact that Charlie is Sir Charles Burrell (10th Baronet) and a long-time supporter of the local Crawley and Horsham Hunt makes it no surprise that Tim describes Knepp as “wonderful”. All this despite its widely celebrated rewilding credentials and connections to both Rewilding Britain and Frans Vera’s Oostvaardersplassen; an experiment that Tim describes as “macabre”. Like his former colleague Liam, Tim is more than prepared to pick and mix when it comes to which facts he accepts and who he supports. Both rewilding and shooting could probably do with less people like Tim and more like Matt and those with similar central tendencies in the shooting community around him. Only then, can we expect some truly common ground to be found that, when working together, can be used to secure a future for both shooting and the nation’s wild and rewilded spaces.

Here are the two articles in full. I’ll leave it to you to decide which is the most sensible position.

ShootingTimes Sept2018_1


No Moor Myths?


The #NoMoorMyths hashtag was launched by the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) in 2016 and promoted on Twitter with a series of short YouTube videos under the banner “The truth about grouse shooting”. Here they attempt to explain how it conserves rare heather moorland, increases wildlife, boosts the economy, provides jobs and pulls communities together1.

One of the key claims made is that 75% of the world’s heather moorland is found in the UK. This has been repeated so often that it seems to have become the gospel truth. I have seen it so many times and in so many places now that I almost came to believe it myself. The list of organisations who quote this figure tends, perhaps unsurprisingly, to lean towards those with a vested interest in the management of heather moorland for gamebirds. Usually it is given without citation nor substantiation, so it is worth questioning its origin to determine the veracity of this particular #NoMoorMyth. Over the last few weeks I have been digging around on the internet and talking to a range of knowledgeable people to ascertain exactly where the number comes from and how it has been derived. This short blog summarises what I have found out.

A quick web search can easily return a list of shooting organisations that happily quote the magic 75% figure. The Moorland Association has it right there on its home page, boldly stating:

Rarer than rainforest, the UK has 75 per cent of what is left of the globally recognised expanses, treasured by millions of walkers and wildlife enthusiasts2.

…whilst the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) states:

The UK is home to 75 per cent of the world’s heather moorland, which as a habitat is rarer than rainforest3.

The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT) is the UK shooting lobby’s charitable research body, and they too quote this figure:

Moorland is one of the UK’s most distinctive landscapes and Britain and Ireland have been called “the world’s greatest moorland countries”. The UK is responsible for 75% of the world’s heather moorland4.

Hyperbole abounds and other organisations using the figure include the Countryside Alliance, the National Gamekeepers Association, You Forgot the Birds, DEFRA and even the RSPB.

Again and again, the 75% figure is trotted out, often alongside the idea that being “rarer than rainforest” somehow makes it a more valued habitat. I have written about this before and point out that while true, being rarer than rainforest is something of a nonsensical fact because by the same logic so are urban areas5. What’s more is that both grouse moors and urban areas are niche manmade habitats, whereas rainforest is a natural habitat, covering such a broad range of both tropical and temperate moist forest biomes, that it makes such a comparison rather pointless.

After asking around my Twitter friends for leads the GWCT said it was from ‘Blanket Mire Degradation’, in a paper by Tallis, Meade & Hulme (1998)6. This turned out to be a dead-end and so I asked Prof Robert Marrs, a heather expert from Liverpool University. He didn’t know, but suggested I contact Dr Isabel Alonso (Senior Specialist in Heathlands for Natural England) and Prof Nigel Webb (former Chair of the Dorset Wildlife Trust and leading heathland expert). Both proved extremely helpful and told me the figure originates from a conference paper by Diemont, Webb and Degn on ‘A Pan European View on Heathland Conservation’ (1996)7. In this paper, the authors use submissions by EU member states under Article 17 of the Habitats Directive on the area of heather-dominated lowland heathland within each state. These are reported as follows:

Country Area of heather-dominated heath (ha)
United Kingdom 58,000
The Netherlands 40,000
Belgium 13,000
SW France 65,000
Germany 4,000
Denmark 70,364
Sweden 93,000
Total lowland heath 343,364
Sub Total for UK plus upland heath 835,650 (from Article 17)
Overall Total 1,121,104

These figures show an overall total of 1,121,104ha which includes all UK heath habitat types submitted to the EU Habitats Directive under Article 17 to give a total UK heather-dominated heath/moorland figure of 835,650ha. This then gives a figure of 74.5% of heather-dominated heathland being accounted for in the UK, which rounded up then gives us the magic 75% figure. Mystery solved surely?

However, the sharp-eyed among you will have noticed that these figures relate to just seven countries in Europe. The list does not include other European countries with significant areas of heather-dominated heathland and moor, nor does it account for areas of heather found outside of Europe: in Asia, North America, Australia and New Zealand, and the islands of the Azores and Falklands. In Europe alone there are other significant areas of heather-dominated heath found in Ireland, Spain, Portugal and Norway, as well as further patches of heath and moor in Finland, Estonia, Iceland, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Greece and Romania among others which will contain heather along with other dwarf shrub species (see Map 1). The exact figures are hard to assess, however, as there is a natural transition from heather-dominated heath to mire communities in northern Europe (e.g. Sweden, Norway and Ireland) and to Mediterranean shrub communities in the south (e.g. Portugal and Spain) as and where edaphic conditions and management dictate. Nonetheless, if we were to include area estimates for heather-dominated moor and heath for these other countries, the proportion found within the UK, while still significant, would likely be much less than the 75% figure quoted.

EU heather
Map 1. Distribution of heath and moor habitats in Europe (based on CORINE 2018)

Without this blog turning too much into an episode of BBC Radio 4’s ‘More or less’ we still need to dig a little further behind these figures since it all depends on what we mean by “heather-dominated moorland”. In other words, where does heather-dominated moorland begin and end? Being able to answer this is essential if we are to create an accurate figure of just how much and what proportion of this is found in the UK.

A widely used definition for mapping is where heather communities cover more than 50% of the land. These communities are themselves made up of dwarf ericaceous shrub species such as common heather or ling (Calluna vulgaris), cross-leaved heath (Erica tetralix) and bell heather (Erica cinerea). Other non-heather dwarf shrub species may also be represented including bilberry or blaeberry (Vaccinium myrtillus), crowberry (Empetrum nigrum), juniper (Juniperus spp) and gorse (Ulex spp). In the EU Habitats Directive these communities are reported under Article 17 as different heath types including Northern Atlantic Wet Heaths (H4010), Temperate Atlantic Wet Heaths (H4020), European Dry Heaths (H4030), Dry Atlantic Coast Heaths (H4060), Alpine and Boreal Heaths (H4060) and Sub-Arctic Salix spp Scrub (H4080)8.

Satellite imagery backed up with ground-based surveys by trained ecologists can help us map their area and distribution. Map 1 shows the European distribution of heath and moor in the CORINE land cover 2018 (CLC2018) data9. This is based on image classification and mapping and a minimum mapping unit size of 25ha. Map 2 shows the distribution of dwarf shrub heath across the UK in the CEH Land Cover map 2015 (LCM2015) as vegetation that has >25% cover of plant species from the heath family (ericoids) or gorse (Ulex spp). This is also based on image classification and mapping but at a finer resolution of 25metres10.  This is further divided into two classes: heather and heather grassland depending on the density of heather relative to common heath grass species such as moor grass (Molinea spp) and fescue (Festuca spp). This map also includes areas classified as bog (peat soils >0.5m depth) as these also include areas of ericaceous heath but these only dominate where the peat has been drained or dissected by erosion gullies. What we can see from these maps is that distribution of heather moor and heath, even just within Europe, is quite widespread. It ought to be clear that not only is it a complicated picture, but it is also very data- and definition-dependent and therefore not an easy question to answer.

GB heather
Map 2. Distribution of heather habitats in Great Britain (based on CEH Land Cover Map 2015)

A further lead on an alternative source of the magic 75% figure came from a rare citation from a couple of reports by the BASC11 and Countryside Alliance12. They suggest that the figure comes from a conference paper by Nicholas Aebischer (Deputy Director of Research, GWCT) on ‘Driven grouse shooting in Britain’ (2010)13. Nicholas graciously forwarded the paper to me and told me that he had got the figure from a much earlier piece of work by Gimingham, Chapman and Webb on ‘European heathlands’ (1979)14. This is also cited by a later paper by Thompson et al on ‘Upland heather moorland in Great Britain’ (1995)15 and although they don’t quote the 75% figure themselves, they do reproduce a map from Gimingham, Chapman and Webb. This shows the approximate location and extent of the European distribution of heather (Calluna vulgaris) dominated upland moorland (see Map 3). This is very much a sketch map and if it is truly the source of the 75% figure is cannot be relied upon because it is very approximate and only refers to Europe. Furthermore, the apparent confusion between upland versus lowland heather and where the line is drawn only serves to muddy the waters and plunges us into some very confusing mists.

Map 3
Map 3. European distribution of heather-dominated upland moorland (after Gimingham et al. 1979)

The big difference between the UK and the rest of Europe (and presumably the world) is that here in the UK the large expanses of heather-dominated moorlands are largely managed for grouse shooting by cutting and burning. These appear as continuous swathes of upland heath across much of the hills of northern England and eastern Scotland. The boundaries of these moors map well onto the grouse estates as shown in the work of Guy Shrubsole at Friends of the Earth16 and the extent of muirburn associated with grouse moor management has been mapped by the RSPB17. Elsewhere heathlands are also managed, largely for and by grazing, without which natural trajectories of succession would tend towards mixed heath and native woodland communities. The uniqueness of the UK heather -dominated moors if one exists therefore is in their management for grouse shooting. The heather clad moors may have existed for many centuries but as the result of forest clearance and subsequent burning, grazing of livestock, cutting of peat and other traditional land management practices. Management for grouse came much later, aided by land ownership, the railways and the invention of the breech loading shotgun.

So, this particular #NoMoorMyth turns out to be a myth itself. The 75% figure is either based on data from just seven European countries or a very rough sketch map. Whichever way you look at it, it is certainly not a global figure since it misses out other countries with significant areas of heather-dominated heath and moor. While we cannot dispute that there are significant areas of heather-dominated moorland within the UK, those organisations using the figure need to do so with care and perhaps better explain its origins and provide more detailed caveats to their intended audience. The only conclusion we can draw at this point is that the claim that “75% of the world’s heather moorland is found in the UK” is both inaccurate and misleading and is in fact likely to be much lower. How much lower we can’t say exactly for the reasons stated, but it is probably less than 50%.

The fact that the large continuous stretches of heather-dominated moor seen in the UK are maintained by intensive land management for driven grouse shooting is not in doubt. Without it, the land currently identified as heather moorland in the UK would likely be very different. Where they weren’t under other land management regimes such as forestry or grazing, they’d be a more fragmented, richer and more varied mosaic of mixed dwarf shrub heath, grassland and native woodland. This would be closer to the potential natural vegetation pattern that you’d expect to see given the prevailing edaphic conditions of soil, topography and climate. However, its current restricted range has resulted in it being listed in Annex 1 of the EU Directive 92/43/EEC on the Conservation of Natural Habitats and of Wild Fauna and Flora, with an obligation on member states to protect it. As we prepare to leave the EU such obligations can be assumed to be redundant. How this then plays out in the greater scheme of conservation and land management interests remains to be seen, but I think we can bet on there being significant areas of heather-dominated moor for years to come, though perhaps not as high as the mythical 75% figure would suggest.

Addendum #1

Since publishing this blog a few days ago I’ve had some great feedback from a number of my followers and friends. I’ve clarified a few points in the existing text, but have also been prompted to do some follow up analysis with other datasets, so present these here as additional figures.

The Article 17 submissions are available online via the EU Habitats Directive web pages and provide some more up to date figures for the area of heathland and heather moor. If we just look at Habitat Type H4030 “European Dry Heaths”, which is by far the largest category reported by area, we see that the total reported area for the UK is 893,540ha while the total reported area over the rest of Europe is 1,660,094ha. This gives a percentage in the UK of 35%.

If we look at the EUNIS (European Nature Information System) Level 2 spatial data that maps 62 different land cover classes at 1ha resolution, then of the EUNIS classes that are likely to contain heather and other dwarf shrub species the percentage is much lower at just over 13%. There are of course, problems in using these data because they don’t tell you about the management regime and they don’t tell you whether heather species are dominant, and there are (of course) marked differences across Europe depending where you are. The following table provides the numbers, whilst Map 4 shows the spatial pattern in these four classes. I know the map is hard to read at this scale so I’ve included a zoomed in area for a section of northern areas of UK interest. Note that the numbers for EUNIS Class 33 are several orders of magnitude lower than those for the other three, so don’t be tempted to read too much in the 84% for this class!

EUNIS Class Description UK (ha) Rest of Europe (ha) UK %
17 Raised and blanket bog 1099122 2752019 28.540
31 Arctic, alpine and subalpine scrub 922314 10419258 8.132
32 Temperate and Mediterranean-montane scrub 1541924 10805458 12.488
33 Temperate shrub heath 57672 10948 84.045
Total 3621032 23987683 13.116
EUNIS heather
Map 4. Distribution of EUNIS classes likely to contain heather spp.
EUNIS heather UKzoom
Map 5. Zoom in to northern areas of interest for UK and Ireland

Addendum #2

In a further twist to this tale, the GWCT have published a clarification of the 75% claim. They now say the figure is limited to the uplands of Europe and have written a short blog “How much upland heather moorland is in the UK?” to clarify their logic19.

The bottom line is that they cite definitions of heather moorland and upland from the paper by Des Thompson and colleagues15 and their use of the rough sketch map from Gimingham et al (1979)14 as proof stating “we believe the true proportion of upland heather moorland found in the UK is likely to be in the region of 75%. The exact percentage is not known and would be helpful. However, it is unlikely to materially influence the overall debate about moorland management.”

So, there you have it. The sole argument supporting the 75% claim is because of a rough 40-year-old hand-drawn sketch map, and because we (the GWCT) say so. However, the GWCT’s blog suggests that an exact percentage would be helpful, though immaterial to the debate.

To add yet further to the GIS analysis, if we just use the EUNIS data on the distribution of land cover types containing heathers and other dwarf shrub species within the height bands quoted by Thompson et al as defining upland then we can perhaps see something of the true distribution of upland heather. The proportion of these heather-containing land cover types represented within the UK above the 300m contour defining upland from the Thompson et al paper are as follows:

Raised and blanket bogs – 42.8% or 4423km2

Arctic, alpine and subalpine scrub – 6.7% or 7250km2

Temperate and Mediterranean-montane scrub – 7.7% or 6861km2

Temperate shrub heathland 97.8% or 268km2

Total – 9.1% or 18805km2

These are calculated again from EUNIS data on habitat types https://eunis.eea.europa.eu/about which is itself derived from Natura2000, satellite imagery, IUCN and the CDDA under the auspices of European Biodiversity data centre (BDC) and the EU 25m resolution digital elevation model to identify land above the 300m contour. As Thompson et al acknowledge, the definition of upland vegetation is highly variable depending on latitude, topography and management, and their combined effect on soils, climatic envelopes, exposure/shelter, microclimates, etc. The 300m+ contour is therefore highly generalised to the UK and across the rest of Europe will tend to underestimate areas in northern latitudes, while overestimate in southern latitudes.

To conclude, I humbly suspect that the impetus for the GWCT blog was the very same blog you’re reading now, but with no direct reference to what I’ve written I can’t be sure. Nonetheless, the percentages that GWCT would find helpful are contained herein if they are minded to look. The fact that they haven’t or don’t acknowledge this analysis suggests to me that they are just concerned with maintaining this convenient soundbite. The map from Gimingham et al. is certainly not one to derive any kind of statistic from. It is simply a hand-drawn sketch map and not a source of scientific information.

Addendum #3

Eventually! The Game and Wildlife Trust’s “What the Science Says” fact-checker has looked into this and concluded that the claim that 75% of the world’s heather moorland is in the UK is unsubstantiated. They say…

“The figure that 75% of the world’s heather moorland, or upland heather moorland (quoted differently in different places), is found in the UK has been repeated by many organisations over recent decades. However, the two occurrences that we found in the scientific literature were not supported by the citations given. We are not aware of published scientific work that determines what percentage of the world’s upland heather moorland is held in the UK.”

See here for the full article.

Thanks to Andy Baird, Graeme Swindles, Joe Holden, Isabel Alonso, Nigel Webb, Rob Marrs, Nicholas Aebischer, Guy Shrubsole and others for providing information. And thanks to Miles King, David Eyles, Rachael Unsworth, Adrian Colston and others for helpful comments on the blog itself.

References and links:

  1. https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=%23NoMoorMyths
  2. http://www.moorlandassociation.org/ (The MA have as of April 2020 updated all their web pages with the new figure of “75% or Europe’s upland heather moorland is found in the UK” but you can still see the old web pages courtesy of The Way Back Machine web archive here: https://web.archive.org/web/20191230143837/https://www.moorlandassociation.org/
  3. https://basc.org.uk/grouse/grouse-the-landscape/
  4. https://www.gwct.org.uk/policy/consultation-responses/evidence-submission-to-the-2016-petitions-committee-inquiry-into-grouse-shooting/protecting-habitat-and-species/
  5. https://countrysquire.co.uk/2016/11/25/right-to-reply-to-those-who-shoot/
  6. Tallis, JH., Meade, R., & Hulme, PD. (1998) Introduction. in J.H. Tallis, R. Meade, P. D. Hulme (Eds.), Blanket Mire Degradation, Proceedings, British Ecological Society, Manchester; 1-2.
  7. Diemont, WH., Webb, N., & Degn, H J. (1996). A Pan European View on Heathland Conservation. In Proceedings National Heathland Conference, 18-20 September 1996, New Forest, Hampshire; 21-32.
  8. http://archive.jncc.gov.uk/default.aspx?page=4060
  9. https://land.copernicus.eu/pan-european/corine-land-cover
  10. https://www.ceh.ac.uk/services/land-cover-map-2015
  11. https://basc.org.uk/download/67954/
  12. https://www.countryside-alliance.org/CountrysideAlliance/Media/News/2016/05/BACKGROUND-NOTE-ON-GROUSE-SHOOTING-HEATHER-AND-PEATLAND-MANAGEMENT-Fe…-2.pdf
  13. Aebischer, N., Ewald, J. & Tapper, S., 2010. Driven grouse shooting in Britain: A form of upland management with wider conservation benefits. In: Proceedings of the World Symposium on Hunting Activities: Ecologic and Economic Benefits of Hunting. The World Forum on the Future of Sport Shooting Activities, pp. 186–201.
  14. Gimingham, C.H., Chapman, S.B. & Webb, N.R. (1979). European heathlands. In: Specht, R.L. (ed.) Ecosystems of the World, Vol. 9A. Heathlands and Related Dwarf Shrublands, pp. 365-413. Elsevier, Amsterdam.
  15. Thompson, D. B. A., MacDonald, A. J., Marsden, J. H., & Galbraith, C. A. (1995). Upland heather moorland in Great Britain: a review of international importance, vegetation change and some objectives for nature conservation. Biological Conservation, 71(2), 163-178.
  16. https://friendsoftheearth.uk/maps/grouse-moors.html
  17. Douglas, D. J., Buchanan, G. M., Thompson, P., Amar, A., Fielding, D. A., Redpath, S. M., & Wilson, J. D. (2015). Vegetation burning for game management in the UK uplands is increasing and overlaps spatially with soil carbon and protected areas. Biological Conservation, 191, 243-250.
  18. http://muirburncode.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Douglas-et-al-Burning-for-Game-Management-2015-1.pdf
  19. https://www.gwct.org.uk/blogs/uplands-blog/2020/april/how-much-upland-heather-moorland-is-in-the-uk/ 

Reviewing England’s National Parks: an opportunity for rewilding?

The Glover-Gove review of National Parks will trigger many agendas for these protected landscapes. Can rewilding get a look in? Here I look at this question with my good friend and colleague Mark Fisher. This article originally appeared  ECOS 39(3) 2018.


We’ve been here before…

Michael Gove chose to announce his review of England’s National Parks with the caveat that, unlike other countries’ National parks, “ours are working countryside”. Here he is acknowledging the generations of farmers that have, in the main, created a largely human-modified landscape layered over the physical geography of mountains, hills, rivers, and coasts. It is this landscape that our National Parks (and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty) help to care for, focusing on cultural landscapes wherein nature is a happy yet coincidental by-product of traditional land uses.

Gove’s announcement states that while the review will not weaken or undermine existing protections or geographic scope, it will instead “focus on how designated areas can boost wildlife, support the recovery of natural habitats and connect more people with nature.” This could – perhaps – provide an opportunity for broader thinking about how rewilding might figure in shaping the future of our wilder landscapes.

The announcement evokes memories of a previous review, that of the Edwards Report in 1991, and the recommendation therein that frustratingly never came to fruition. This was the setting up of experimental schemes where farming was withdrawn so that more of the landscape vegetation could be restored. The Council (now Campaign) for National Parks (CNP) subsequently examined the recommendation amongst options for enhancing the wild qualities of the Parks, culminating in its Wild By Design report published in 1997. Here CNP saw it as a real challenge to commit to minimal intervention areas on a large scale and over a long period. While some National Parks at the time gave it a faint nod by incorporating an aspiration in their Management Plan, it was soon dropped from the next Plan period, and so there is no evidence of the challenge of ‘Wild by Design’ having been taken up in all but a few notable examples.

The Parks’ baggage of history

It is easy to arrive at a conclusion that the National Park Authorities didn’t want to get into something that was outside of their purview, nor that they were in any position to incentivise the predominantly private ownership of the Park to do so. That this was the case is due to the pattern set by the three parliamentary reports on National Parks produced before legislation was enacted in 1949. In all three – Addison 1931, Dower 1944 and Hobhouse 1947 – information about the National Parks of other countries was compared with what each committee saw as the need for recreational open space in Britain.

The Addison Report rejected the large, publicly owned spaces of the National Parks of America and Canada because it was claimed our diminished wild fauna didn’t warrant it, especially since it was observed that we were a densely populated and highly developed country where there was little land that was not already put to some economic or productive use. Instead, the aim of taking adequate measures for preserving the countryside of the private land co-opted into a Park could be secured by controlling rural development through the planning system.

The Dower Report also repudiated the North American parks, asserting that even the remotest areas in Britain had been settled and modified, noting that while a Park would have its landscape beauty strictly protected, and with ample access for public open-air enjoyment, established farming use had to be effectively maintained.

Hobhouse went the same route of dismissing what it saw as the wildlife sanctuaries and game reserves of the National Parks in North America and Africa, declaiming that Parks in England and Wales were not to be small-scale copies of what they saw as the vast areas set aside in other countries. Moreover, Parks were not to be seen as museum specimens, but instead would be areas where farming and rural industries must flourish, unhindered by unnecessary controls or restrictions, nor from any inconvenience through public access to visitors. However, Hobhouse noted that preservation of the landscape called for maintenance of a good vegetation balance, as well as the rich flora and fauna in the wilder parts that were a key attraction. In spite of this, the report still stated that the policy for wildlife should not prejudice the best use of developed land.

The resulting legislation in the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act embraced the approach of co-opting private land and ensuring the preservation of its natural (scenic) beauty through the planning system. Parks were to provide opportunities for open-air recreation and the study of nature, these being delivered by open access agreements with individual landowners who would be compensated. There was no mention of wildlife in the original bill, and it would be 46 years before an amendment to the legislation would add conservation of wildlife alongside natural beauty as a purpose of the Parks. Somewhere along the way, the requirement of National Parks to provide opportunities for the study of nature got lost. It is perhaps to be replaced by one of the points in the 8-point Plan for England’s National Parks that was released in 2016, and where it states that National Parks will be part of a government campaign to connect young people with nature. Further to that, one of the objectives of this new National Park review is to make recommendations on how to build on the existing eight-point plan for National Parks and to connect more people with the natural environment from all sections of society and improve health and wellbeing.

National Parks – what’s in a label?

Under the internationally recognised IUCN classification of protected areas, our national parks are something of a misnomer. They fall, not into Category II National Parks where the primary objective is to protect natural biodiversity along with its underlying ecological structure and supporting environmental processes, but into Category V Protected Landscapes and Seascapes. Here the primary objective is to protect and sustain important landscapes and seascapes and the associated nature conservation and other values created by interactions with humans through traditional management practices (see Box 1).

Box 1  IUCN Protected Area Categories

Ia  Strict nature reserve:  Strictly protected for biodiversity and also possibly geological/geomorphological features, where human visitation, use and impacts are controlled and limited to ensure the protection of the conservation values.

Ib  Wilderness area:  Usually large unmodified or slightly modified areas, retaining their natural character and influence, without permanent or significant human habitation, protected and managed to preserve their natural condition.

II  National park:  Large natural or near-natural areas protecting large-scale ecological processes with characteristic species and ecosystems, which also have environmentally and culturally compatible spiritual, scientific, educational, recreational and visitor opportunities.

III  Natural monument or feature:  Areas set aside to protect a specific natural monument, which can be a landform, sea mount, marine cavern, geological feature such as a cave, or a living feature such as an ancient grove.

IV  Habitat/species management area:  Areas to protect particular species or habitats, where management reflects this priority. Many will need regular, active interventions to meet the needs of particular species or habitats, but this is not a requirement of the category.

V  Protected landscape or seascape:  Where the interaction of people and nature over time has produced a distinct character with significant ecological, biological, cultural and scenic value: and where safeguarding the integrity of this interaction is vital to protecting and sustaining the area and its associated nature conservation and other values.

VI  Protected areas with sustainable use of natural resources:  Areas which conserve ecosystems, together with associated cultural values and traditional natural resource management systems. Generally large, mainly in a natural condition, with a proportion under sustainable natural resource management and where low-level non-industrial natural resource use compatible with nature conservation is seen as one of the main aims.

From: Dudley, N. (Editor) (2008). Guidelines for Applying Protected Area Management Categories. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN. x + 86pp. https://portals.iucn.org/library/sites/library/files/documents/PAG-021.pdf

There are 512 protected areas in the EEA member and collaborating countries of Europe that are called a National Park and which are classified in Category II. By comparison, there are 27 protected areas in Europe that go by the name of “national park”, but which are classified in Category V. Our 15 “national parks” represent over half of that total. While this does not mean that the English Category V parks are in anyway seen as something ‘less’ than Category II National Parks, rather that the emphasis is different. What it does mean, however, is that we have set certain limits on acceptable levels of wildness in favour of farming practices and other forms of human land use. In effect, our wildlife, habitats and nature are constrained within a set of cultural norms determined by a baseline of the 1930s-40s from whence the Addison, Dower and Hobhouse Reports derived their targets and standards.  Such is the legacy of the limited aspiration for wild nature that was set by those parliamentary reports on National Parks, and by the subsequent legislation.

In more recent years we have updated the Act with various amendments and added further Parks to the original 10, but their Category V status remains unchanged. This is despite a somewhat half-hearted recent attempt to review the status of protected areas in the UK under the IUCN system in the Putting Nature on the Map report (Crofts et al. 2014).  This failed to grasp-the-nettle and, through a check-list of questions relating to site characteristics and management, was able to pigeonhole most of England’s protected areas (with only a few minor exceptions) into Category IV and V. The situation is similar in Wales, but in Scotland the authorities have re-designated 19 National Nature Reserves from Category IV to Category II and 340 Sites of Special Scientific Interest as Category III Natural Monuments.

Layered on top of our National Parks and AONBs, designations (including SACs and SPAs) from the EU Habitats Directive and Natura2000 have further served to restrict nature within the bounds for that which it was originally designated with policy conditions such as Favourable Conservation Status and Good Agricultural and Environmental Conditions effectively preventing the processes of natural succession from determining ecological pathways towards a wilder landscape where farming and other primary land uses are marginal and in decline. Of course, Brexit offers the opportunity of a radical rethink on how we design future agri-environment schemes and pay for the protection of landscape and nature.

Only this year the CNP produced a report on improving nature in the National Parks. Based on a public survey dating from 2016 the headline message revealed that people wanted ‘wilder’ National Parks. This lead the CNP to the conclusion that National Park Authorities should identify areas within which they can implement policies to make them feel relatively wilder through working with landowners and managers, so land is managed less intensively, and natural processes support more robust, functional ecosystems.

Brave new world or same old scene?

The stated focus of the review of England’s National Parks is in part on how they “can boost wildlife, support the recovery of natural habitats and connect more people with nature”. We see two objectives in the Government’s 25 year Environmental Plan for England that are consistent with this. You would think that the National Parks are an obvious search area for developing the Nature Recovery Network to protect and restore wildlife, and to provide opportunities to re-introduce species that we have lost from our countryside. This surely must include support for rewilding. Indeed, Michael Gove has himself talked positively about the benefits that rewilding might bring to selected areas of countryside. In an interview with Rob Yorke for Countryfilemagazine he stated:  “My view is that there may be parts of the uplands that are suitable for rewilding”. He doesn’t qualify exactly what he means by “suitable” or by “rewilding” but it is perhaps a good bet that he has been informed by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology briefing note on rewilding and ecosystem services (POSTNote No.537, 2016). Nonetheless, he goes on to temper his enthusiasm for rewilding by saying that “there are other parts where we need to support traditional farming [and that he thinks] it would be wrong for anyone who’s responsible for our countryside to allow that type of farming to be threatened” thus bringing us back to the assumed primacy of humans over nature set out in the foundations of the original National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act.

Prospects for pushing rewilding

There is, nevertheless, an opportunity here in the current review to revaluate the way we designate our National Parks and AONBs in England. While most of these areas are farmed or affected by other forms of human land use, there are locations within these protected landscapes where there is little significant human use beyond recreation. Here we could, given the will, and especially for areas that are in public ownership, designate these as Category II National Parks, to protect large-scale ecological processes and natural ecosystems. Brexit and likely changes in farm subsidies could play a role by shifting payments from funding marginal agricultural practices to supporting rewilding projects and the wider range of ecosystem service and landscape benefits that would entail. While we might not have the scale of landscapes present in North American National Parks we could foster the aspiration to be able – in the near future – to designate selected core areas as Category II National Parks within the wider Category V Park boundary.

 So where next?

Top-down state intervention through the imposition of new designations on private land is clearly not the way to go. Rather, a more bottom-up process enabled by some enlightened top-down policy could result in the identification of suitable public land holdings and willing private landowners. The problem is highly geographical and so a first step would be to run a simple map overlay exercise combining information on land ownership with existing protected area boundaries to see which areas meet these criteria. Combined with additional map layers showing land capability, land use and policy boundaries such as Less Favoured Areas, these maps could define an opportunity class for either extension to our existing National Park network, target areas for rewilding and re-designation from IUCN Cat V to Cat II National Parks.

Further work looking at ecosystem service potential and landscape values could add extra richness to this exercise, together with input from local communities. It might reasonably be expected, with appropriate funding mechanisms in place, that such an exercise would return significant areas of countryside that are appropriate and, more significantly willing, to sign up to some form of environmental and ecological improvement scheme that includes opportunities for rewilding and Cat II Park designation.

Brexit will force us to rethink both nature policy and farm subsidies. There will be less money in the pot for production subsidies and that will entail some hard choices about which farm systems and landscapes to support. Public funds may be better spent on environmental stewardship, including environmental and habitat improvements through rewilding.



Campaign for National Parks (2018) Raising the bar: improving nature in our national parks. https://www.cnp.org.uk/news/raising-the-bar

Council for National Parks (1997) Wild by Design, CNP, London

Crofts, R., Dudley, N., Mahon, C., Partington, R., Phillips, A., Pritchard, S. and  Stolton, S. (2014). Putting Nature on the Map: Summary of a Report and Recommendations on the Use of the IUCN System of Protected Area Categorisation in the United Kingdom: IUCN National Committee UK. http://www.iucn-uk.org/projects/protectedareas/tabid/65/default.aspx

Dudley, N. (Editor) (2008). Guidelines for Applying Protected Area Management Categories. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN. x + 86pp. https://portals.iucn.org/library/sites/library/files/documents/PAG-021.pdf

Edwards, R. (1991). Fit for the future. Report of the National Parks Review Panel. Countryside Commission.

Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (2016) Rewilding and ecosystem services (POSTNote No.537, 2016) http://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/POST-PN-0537

The ecological benefits of rewilding

Wild Ennerdale Advisory Group

I’ve been following the writings of David Eyles in his blog “Wulfstan’s Ghost” with some interest since he started to analyse and comment on the rise of rewilding; determined as he is to disassemble and discredit the concept. He often raises relevant issues and has (I believe) valid concerns, yet often does so from a rather biased perspective. As with any new idea in whatever field of scientific endeavour you care to choose, it is often good to probe, question and evaluate the facts. In his latest post David looks at the claims and counter-claims about the ecological benefits of rewilding. This follows on from numerous other articles on the subject and provides yet another entertaining romp through the metaphorical backwater of rewilding myth and misunderstanding. It’s often fascinating to see how one’s own area of interest is seen from a different perspective. David raises some interesting topics for discussion that are worth exploring a little further, so here I reply to some of his points in person.

  1. Evidence. The point you make in asking for hard ecological evidence is well made, but needs expanding on. Our knowledge about historic species distributions and numbers is based largely on personal observations and long-term accurate records are limited. We’ve only been collecting coordinated and accurate ecological data for the last 50 years or so and records that go back further are either geographically limited (e.g. Gilbert White’s observations at Selborne) or biased towards particular species (e.g. game bags). Much of this knowledge complicated by the “Shifting Baseline” syndrome. I’ve written about this here. We know a reasonable amount about contemporary species numbers and their distributions, but much less as we go back in time. Even the fossil record is notoriously discontinuous and open to interpretation. The notion that we can say anything definite about future changes to habitats and species under different land management regimes, be that the status quo or some form of rewilding, is somewhat optimistic. We can model the effects of land use and make predictions, but they remain just that… predictions. And as George Box once said; “All models are wrong, but some are useful” (Box, 1976).
  2. Process vs outcomes. Rewilding as a paradigm in conservation practice is more about process than about absolutes. Rewilding aims to give space (and time) to wild nature to allow natural processes to determine ecological outcomes. We cannot necessarily predict anything with the absolute certainty you seem to be hankering for. Ecology isn’t architecture. We cannot be wholy certain about what the outcomes will be in terms of habitats and species per se, but we have a pretty good idea. This is because even though the processes are well-known, exactly how they will play out over time with changing climate, human influences, competition, symbiosis (remember that word?), connectivity, spatial fragmentation, etc. is hard to say. The further you look into the future, the greater the uncertainties are. We all know that. However, the ecosystems we get from rewilding will be more natural and, more likely than not, more biodiverse. This is where Yellowstone comes in, since it teaches us about the importance of process, but to compare it directly to UK national parks is disingenuous and akin to comparing apples and oranges. Yes, they’re both fruits and both spherical, but that’s where the similarities end. We’ve discussed scaling effects before where I describe how all things in nature can scale, including predator-prey relationships. While I used Yellowstone as an example of a trophic cascade (i.e. a process), I didn’t equate it to UK national parks, rather simply use it to demonstrate how “The basic ecology of symbiosis, sympatry and predator-prey relationships, together with the human modification of the landscape for agriculture and game is central to the problem….” of predator-prey imbalances, and then go on to say how species numbers and ecological function are important and co-dependent.
  3. Time. Of course, rewilding being a process, doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time. If you want hard evidence in support of the claimed benefits of rewilding then you must look at existing rewilding sites where land has been abandoned and nature left to her own devices for a period of time. Studies of these sites across a range of different successional stages can be used to extrapolate likely patterns to new projects using an approach known as “time-area substitution”. This can give us a better idea of how a site or landscape may develop once active management has ceased. Fortunately, there are number of good examples around the country and across Europe that can be used to inform the likely outcomes of future rewilding projects. You mention Carrifran and Ennerdale but fail to mention others like the Cuningar Loop in central Glasgow and Scar Close in the Yorkshire Dales. We have limited data for Cuningar, but it has shown how closed canopy woodland can develop on brownfield sites if left alone for 150 years. Scar Close is a limestone pavement from which sheep/cattle grazing has been excluded for the last 40 years. It is better documented than Cuningar and has the benefit of being next to Southerscales; a Yorkshire Wildlife Nature Reserve which is managed under a conservation grazing regime; ostensibly to maintain the site in favourable condition under Favourable Conservation Status (FCS) rules and so attract an agri-environment payment under the Higher Level Scheme (HLS). Here a direct comparison is possible. Scar Close supports nearly 250 different plant species, while Southerscales only supports around 50. Natural England who own Scar Close have forgone the HLS payments in favour of increased biodiversity through rewilding. If you want more information on these and other examples I’ve recently written a book chapter on land abandonment and passive rewilding, but you’ll have to wait until it is published sometime in 2018.
  4. Complexity. Ecology is a complex science and our understanding is limited. I’d be the first to admit that our knowledge is incomplete and, as such, we cannot predict every possible outcome within a landscape, whether managed or not. It was John Muir who said; “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” How right he was. And so, the notion that the land can somehow be simplified into crisp plans and numbers (or is that money?) is puzzling to me. Ecology bears little similarity to architecture.
  5. Conflict. The emphasis on process over absolutes brings rewilding into conflict with traditional conservation practice on various levels. “Conservation” of game for the benefit of “sporting” interests has in itself little to do with conserving natural habitats and non-game species. Rather, these are often quoted as side-benefits from land management for hunting, shooting and fishing. Rewilding has a bad-rep among the game industry because it implies a loss of control. I have written about this recently here and it’s what I say in my pinned tweet. Nature conservation as practiced by government agencies and NGOs is presently beholden to a top-down system of biodiversity targets and action plans. A “bean counting” culture has grown up within the industry aimed at meeting FCS targets, much of which is dependent on traditional agricultural, forestry and game management practices such as hefted flocks, water meadows, muirburn and coppicing. As a result, our network of designated nature reserves are largely held in a state of arrested development, lest God forbid they have the temerity to evolve into something more natural. Rewilding allows successional processes to determine the habitats that develop (and thus, the species that occupy them) as determined by the prevailing edaphic conditions. This flies directly in the face of most modern conservation practice because natural succession invariably means a nature area can be deemed as “unfavourable” under FCS rules because it is moving away from the conditions for which it was originally designated. This results in a black mark against the responsible body. I have also written about this here. Finally, rewilding is generally an unpopular concept among many farmers because the emphasis is on non-productive land “use” and so limits the amount of direct revenue that can be generated from the land. While some farmers may be happy to accept money for agri-environment schemes such as High Nature Value (HNV) farming, the emphasis of rewilding on process over absolutes means uncertainty in the measurable outcomes. I suspect this, and correct me if I’m wrong here, is why you yourself are suspicious of the concept.
  6. The photo. I know exactly where this was taken. I sit on the Wild Ennerdale Advisory Board and have visited the valley many times. You should go take a look yourself. Inside the exclosure is an example of how the vegetation cover might develop in the absence of a domestic grazing pressure. Outside the exclosure, the land is grazed by semi-domesticated Galloway cattle managed by the local farmer, Richard Maxwell. As you point out, in the absence of a grazing pressure, the young trees will mature and start to crowd out light-dependant ground species which will over time be replaced by more shade tolerant species. This is natural succession. However, it worth noting that these exclosures (there’s another one lower down about 300m to the north west) are only 10x10m and the fence which keeps the cattle out also keeps out the local natural grazers (deer) and so inside the exclosure could be said to be as unnatural as outside. However, though the relative levels and style of grazing would be different, and the absence of cattle allows native trees to regenerate. This has been demonstrated further up the valley where cattle were only introduced at a much later successional stage when most trees have reached a size where they are less susceptible to browsing. The species mix is also influenced by “seed rain” from neighbouring non-native conifers that were planted in the valley between the wars. The other factor influencing tree regeneration in the valley is topography. Ennerdale has one of the best altitudinal succession sequences in England from roughly at the point where the photo was taken up to the summits of Scoat Fell, Steeple and Pillar. However, as far as grazing pressure goes it is more about local topography in the form of slope. The trees that you spot outside the exclosure are on a steeper rocky slope. Work by one of my students has shown that biodiversity of ground flora and tree numbers increases in proportion to steepness of slope as this limits cattle mobility. The cattle also browse preferentially on broadleaves meaning that those trees which do manage to get away outside the exclosures are more likely to be conifers which are less palatable, suggesting that the cattle are not helping with regenerating a natural woodland where they concentrate their grazing on the gentler slopes, but so long as numbers are limited, their effect on tree regeneration within the valley as a whole is likely to be slight and/or localised. It’s a different picture with sheep of course as they are more agile and are able to get to all but the most inaccessible rock ledges. Nonetheless, sheep are largely absent from the valley where there are no hefted flocks. What sheep do get in come through gaps in the boundary wall and are largely limited to the higher slopes. That’s probably more information than you need, but I thought it best to cover the detail that underpins what you can see in the photo.
  7. Birds. The concentration on single species groups is not helpful when assessing the overall impact on biodiversity within (and out with) rewilding project areas. Although birds are a useful indicator, focusing on these to the exclusion of other groups (e.g. vascular plants, insects, amphibians and mammals) will limit the scope of inquiry and understanding. Nonetheless, there are plenty of studies that have shown how changing from one land use or habitat type to another, results in changes to avian faunistic composition (e.g. Regos, et al., 2016). There will always be winners and losers associated with landscape change, especially in the face of climate change. See the JNCC report summarising the impacts of climate change on species distribution in the UK here.
  8. Alpha, Beta, Gamma. There are different types of biodiversity, and different ways to measure it. While there is diversity within species (genetic diversity) and between species (species diversity), we are mainly concerned here in the diversity between ecosystems (ecosystem diversity). This is essentially the variety of the species diversity (i.e. number of different species) found within a specified area (e.g. landscape, habitat or site). The total species diversity in a landscape (gamma diversity) is determined by both the mean species diversity within individual habitats at the local scale (alpha diversity) and the differences in biodiversity between the habitats making up an ecosystem (beta diversity). Your arguments about biodiversity seem to favour alpha diversity over beta and gamma diversity while focusing on some of the country’s most heavily managed (and therefore unnatural) ecosystems, such as grouse moors. I have written about this peculiarity of the UK landscape and the obsession with ground nesting birds here and here and here, describing the linked fortunes of moorland species and their dependence on intensive management for large game bags as an “inconvenient inconvenient truth”. Your previous writings on the impacts of upland farming, touch on beta and gamma diversity but in a seemingly negative light, blaming woodland on the moorland edge for all manner of ills. There’s scope for another discussion here on the implications of habitat fragmentation/homogeneity and the effect on edge to area ratio, distance from edge, predation and landscapes of fear, but perhaps this is for another time. It is sufficient to say here that habitat mosaics need to be expressed in terms of both beta and gamma diversity when considering biodiversity at the landscape scale. Alpha diversity may be important on a site by site basis, but thinking back to John Muir’s observation, they cannot be managed in isolation.
  9. Ecosystem dynamics. Ecosystems consist of dynamic mosaics of changing habitat patterns and associated species diversity. The idea of the “balance of nature” isn’t necessarily apposite because nature is dynamic, and ecosystems respond to both internal and external drivers. Here the only constant is change itself. We’ve largely swapped this dynamism in the UK for a highly managed landscape that responds mainly (at least in the short term) to economic and/or policy drivers and the whims land ownership. We are fortunate enough to live in a country that is tectonically stable and not subject to great extremes of weather and climate, thus the vast majority of us have no first-hand experience of natural disasters, poverty and hunger. Our country is, in the main, tame. We have made it so. Even conservation practice is focused on maintaining everything in stasis, underwritten as it is by FCS rules and the desire to garden and control. I’m reminded of a quote from Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac at this point; “We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness. The deer strives with his supple legs, the cowman with trap and poison, the statesman with pen, the most of us with machines, votes, and dollars, but it all comes to the same thing: peace in our time. A measure of success in this is all well enough, and perhaps is a requisite to objective thinking, but too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run. Perhaps this is behind Thoreau’s dictum: In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men.” While I’m grateful for the peace in our time, I am always embarrassed by our country’s lack of any real wild(er)ness.
  10. Linearity. The best idea you have in the whole post is about the “rewilding” of railway and motorway cuttings and embankments, though I don’t know why you think we’re somehow in denial about it. However, you are most certainly wrong about the lack of ecological differences between landscape scale rewilding like Carrifran and linear features such as railway embankments. Here we need to refer to our discussion of process and spatial scale, pattern and form. Railway and motorway embankments are linear in nature and so have extremely low area:perimeter ratios compared to most landscape scale rewilding projects (In the case of a railway embankment A << P where A = patch area and P = patch perimeter). Similarly, there are huge differences in patch depth or “thickness” with railway and motorway embankments being very shallow or narrow patch features whereas landscape scale rewilding projects having greater depth. Don’t get me wrong, these linear patches of unfarmed land that run alongside our railway and motorway network are ecologically valuable. They provide habitats for species associated with woodland and natural grasslands (e.g. kestrels and voles) but perhaps more critically they provide connectivity between larger patches of natural habitat so allowing for greater mobility of wildlife through another otherwise highly modified landscape.
  11. Biodiversity. While biodiversity is a useful concept, it is not the be all and end all of rewilding, nor even of conservation in the wider sense. Biodiversity is a numbers game that is complicated by spatial scale and pattern (see our discussion on alpha, beta and gamma diversity). The bigger the area, the more habitat types there are likely to be and so the greater the number of species present. This is the “species-area relationship”. We can map biodiversity hotspots by passing a spatial filter of a fixed size over a geographical area and adding up the total number species present within each group (see for example, Myers et al. 2000 and https://biodiversitymapping.org/). You correctly identify that rewilding may have both winners and losers in terms of biodiversity. Just as with your birds example, we might expect to see some species decline while others increase in rewilded landscapes. The critical thing from a rewilding point of view is what are the species and their relative numbers we might think of as natural within a rewilded landscape? Many of the species you appear to favour are perhaps only abundant in the landscapes you mention (i.e. uplands and grouse moors in particular) because of patterns of human land use and management. Again, I have already written about this here and here. You set up a false dichotomy when you agree with those of us that might ascribe greater importance to those species which are rare and/or beautiful. This is the “good nature, bad nature” dichotomy, and is a distinction that only humans make. Nature makes no such judgment. Whether we apportion special measures to protecting a particular species and/or habitat ought to depend on both careful consideration of its rarity and the threats it faces within the wider landscape setting. It is a moot point as to whether a species that is locally rare yet globally common deserves special protection when its habitat where locally rare, if left to rewild, might yield far more valuable and interesting habitats and species. After all, the UK has roughly one third the tree cover of our European neighbours, so the idea that we protect and promote treeless open landscapes over native woodland is again puzzling to me. However, at the end of the day, we need to be careful not to confuse biodiversity with wildness and naturalness. They are not the same things. I write about this in the Six Rules of Re(al)wilding here but to correct you, rewilding does not assume that more is always better, rather it assumes wilder equals better. These relationships between biodiversity and wildness do exist but they only kick in at certain (i.e. regional) scales. A multiscale analysis of biodiversity versus wilderness quality reveals that biodiversity is driven by potential evapotranspiration (PET) at the global scale (i.e. warm and wet climates promote high biodiversity, while cold/hot and dry climates tend to the opposite). At regional scales it is human landscape modification (i.e. agriculture, forestry, urbanisation, etc.) that limit biodiversity and so this is where a positive relationship with wilderness quality can best be seen. However, the relationship changes again when moving to local scales where microclimates and soil moisture seem to be the main drivers. You can read more about this here.
  12. Ecosystem service value. Much of the emphasis of your attack on rewilding seems, in the main, to focus on the lack of direct economic benefit… “Neither rewilded areas nor the motorway embankments are of any direct use to humans in terms of output of timber or food” (my emphasis). Here you assume that the function of land is to produce profit for owners and food and timber for the rest of us. Nothing wrong with that, but when we pursue such a world view to the exclusion of other benefits then we are missing out. There is a much greater value to land than that which can be sold solely for profit. Aldo Leopold recognised this in developing his “Land Ethic” and governments across the world are at last coming around to his way of thinking. The concept of ecosystem services classifies the “services” that the environment provides in four categories: provisioning, supporting, regulating and cultural (De Groot et al., 2002). Your view of land as a unit of production falls largely into the category of provisioning services, but tends to ignore the other three. Even in the UK, where much of our landscape is heavily modified by centuries of human management, the services a unit of land provides are not just about space and produce, but include providing drinking water, flood protection, erosion control, carbon storage and sequestration, nutrient cycling, recreational environments, wildlife habitats, etc. Even if you must think about land only in terms of human benefits, rewilding can still provide better value than agriculture in some circumstances or areas, especially where agriculture is marginal and highly dependent on economic subsidies. In these areas, the wider benefits to the wider population from other ecosystem services are perhaps better met from rewilding. This need not, as you seem to be suggesting, exclude all forms of productive and profit generating land use. While Knepp may not be rewilding-max, it is on the spectrum and provides a range of ecosystem services through rewilding-lite that are not solely based on producing food, though it is still a farmed landscape. I have written about this here. Similarly, in upland landscapes, some farmers are finding that less is more in terms of increasing profit margins through reducing fixed costs by reducing stocking densities. The benefits to the environment in terms of biodiversity, reduced runoff, landscape, etc. are obvious, yet there is still a farming presence in the landscape. See Nethergill Farm in Upper Wharfedale for example. I am very much of the opinion that we need to reverse the oft quoted 3 P’s mantra of “Profit, People, Planet” to be “Planet, People, Profit” since without a healthy functioning ecosystem (i.e. planet), there will be no people and certainly no profit! Yet the simple pursuit of profit tends to only benefit a few people and causes harm to many via environmental degradation. Rewilding offers the opportunity to reverse some of that decline in those places where the ecological balance sheet indicates that a return to nature is the most profitable and prudent policy.

I’m sorry if that was a rather long reply, but you raise a great many important issues and I felt that these needed a considered and detailed reply. I would never presume to think that this is a definitive and final answer however, nor is rewilding the answer to all of the country’s environmental problems (see previous post on #rewilding) but it does need the kind of careful and informed debate that we’re having here.

Happy New Year!

Meet you in No Man’s Land?

In my last post I revisit an article published in Country Squire Magazine back in November 2016 where I wrote a lengthy reply to a piece by Peter Glenser on why he thinks “those who shoot” are the true custodians of the countryside. In my reply I pulled him up on a few things where I thought he was either missing the point or glossing over “inconvenient truths” with his own particular bias towards field sports and its implied role in conserving the British countryside. So far, he hasn’t replied. To be fair, Peter is a lawyer, not an ecologist, and he is probably just regurgitating the received wisdom handed to him by those who wish to justify management of our wildlife for their own shooting interests and then dress it up as conservation. The following week, Liam Stokes, Head of Shooting for the Countryside Alliance, also took up the soapbox to tell us what to think in an article called “In the trenches of the grouse wars“. Again, I penned a quick though nuanced reply. This time the CSM team didn’t publish my reply as a separate article, but I’ve reproduced my comments in full here for the record…

In the trenches

Liam starts off his article by telling us that our landscape is complex, which is true (aren’t all landscapes?), and then tells us that “competing and contradictory interests are held in tension and resolved through dialogue” wherein conflict is seen as “supremely unhelpful”. Again, true enough though I wonder as to whom it is unhelpful and why. He then starts to lose me by implying that just because I don’t necessarily subscribe to his view of the situation, then I am somehow wrong. As an academic and techno-geek I might at this point direct him towards the Cynefin framework for he’s missed out the fourth domain state: that of chaos. This is where we’re headed if the two warring factions on either side of the conservation battlefield cannot move closer together in identifying some common ground (or at least allow one another to step over the wire into non-man’s land with getting shot at, to maintain the trench-warfare metaphor).

Solutions to conflict require goodwill and compromise by *both* sides. Chaos lies in blindly insisting one is right and your opponent is wrong; witness the ongoing crisis in the Middle East (and here we should acknowledge the role of British diplomats for creating the unholy mess in the first place, clearly not social geographers trained in the art of recognising social and cultural tensions). No amount of marshalling of scientific evidence, or hearsay as to what one can see from the kitchen window, is going to convince either side to lay down their guns (pardon the pun, though it is rather one-sided) and capitulate. This is particularly true in today’s social media fuelled post-truth climate and especially true if and when you fail to acknowledge when the other side has a point.

I remember when we first discussed the issue of unnatural game bird numbers and the role this has played in increasing predator numbers by symbiosis and the associated spill-over predation on species of conservation concern such as lapwing, plover and curlew (see my reply to Peter Glenser). At the time you agreed with my analysis but pointed out that “the UK is essentially a man-made landscape, with no area untouched by development [and in so doing we] have created a paradise for predominantly k-selected generalist species such as rats, pigeons, some species of corvid, foxes etc.” But you then retreat to the same old argument that the “conservation function of game management … is to incentivise conservation on land that might otherwise be intensively farmed or forested (the latter in the case of moorland) with catastrophic effect, which is why keeping it economically viable is so important.” All of which is, of course, dependent on external income from wealthy guns willing to pay through the nose for a day’s driven grouse shooting or “do a Macnab” and rich land owners who can afford to write off the outlay for the privilege of owning our hills. That this then supports a peculiar aspect of the upland economy and jobs in often remote rural communities I do not doubt for one second, but I do question your assertion that it somehow can take credit for eco-tourism.

Look at your history books. If it wasn’t for the great social movement of the mass trespasses, the post-war Labour government and the resulting National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act (1949), and more recently the Countryside Rights of Way Act (2000), then we might still not have freedom to roam on your beloved grouse moors and deer stalking estates. But change happens, and nothing in nature or society stays still for long. And so it might be with the great tradition of driven grouse shooting which only really came into its own with the invention and mass adoption of the breech-loading shotgun in the 1870s.
Please don’t kid yourself about the motivations of those who don’t shoot. These tourists don’t visit our upland landscapes because of driven grouse shooting, rather they do so in spite of it. The heather monoculture of grouse moors and any other cultural landscape is just a thin veneer laid over the stuff that real countryside is made of… geology shaped by millions of years of erosion by weather, water and ice, soil created by nature and the plants and animals that are able to inhabit that space. It may be pretty and people may love it for that, but equally they will continue to love our upland landscapes when covered in a few more trees and less heather. This kind of change happens slowly and people have short lives and even shorter memories. What is it that Abraham Lincoln said? “Laws change, people die, the land remains”.

And so I return to the great British landscape. As one who has been lucky enough to travel outside of these islands (often in the course of my work) I have been in real wilderness and have seen firsthand raw nature that is able to decide its own trajectory. I miss that here. Our natural history is constrained by the misguided thinking that everything should somehow be managed and manicured for human benefit. Compared to what could be, many of our landscapes are dead, dying or depauperated by years of misuse and so-called management. Now, you know I don’t maintain we should rewild everywhere (I’m too fond of my food for that), but rather only where possible and where appropriate. We have discussed this and you, if I may quote you directly again, have said that you think my “view of rewilding is certainly one that could be brought to the table and discussed in an interesting and hopefully productive manner”. What brought this on? My views and ideas on rewilding can hardly be described as extreme or uninformed it would seem. What I said is this (and here I quote myself)…

“I don’t want to see all game management for sport shoots banned as some extremists do, rather I would like to see driven shoots replaced (gradually as necessary to make the change easier to manage and more palatable) with walked-up shoots with the associated de-intensification of management (less burning/cutting, less predator control, fewer treatments) and reduction in game species numbers to more natural levels (acknowledging that pheasants are a non-native introduction from Asia). This would result in a more diverse and ecologically interesting uplands (think mosaic of heather/moor grass heath, shrubs – juniper, dwarf willow/birch, etc.) and trees creating what must be more challenging sport for walked up shooting (something I would consider doing myself… a few birds for the pot… rather than target practice stood in a butt or at a peg). I’d call this rewilding, with a whole raft of associated ecosystem services producing knock-on benefits downstream such as better water quality, flood water retention, higher biodiversity, better and more varied wildlife habitats, more carbon storage and sequestration, better erosion control, nutrient balances, better recreational environments, better aesthetics, etc etc.” What’s not to like? An ecological truce.

Yet the model of the British countryside you describe here is- like Peter’s – that shooting interests act as some kind of benevolent custodian; all seeing, all knowing, all powerful. You manage the landscape for the benefit of those species you like to shoot, accept those of no discernible economic value if they are otherwise benign, and control those that compete with you for your sport. If you want to find compromise, as I believe you are suggesting, then you perhaps need to realise that this cannot persist in perpetuity and that you have look towards crossing the fence and meeting in no-man’s land to shake hands and, while agreeing to disagree, give ground (in both the literal and physical sense) to the other side of nature conservation.

First “published” as comments on an article by Liam Stokes in Country Squire Magazine, 30 November 2016.

To “Those Who Shoot”

Back in November 2016 Peter Glenser, Chairman of BASC, wrote this article for Country Squire Magazine. I rapidly penned a reply pointing out various errors and misrepresentations of fact. CSM graciously published it as a “Right to Reply” article despite (as they put it) the risk that it may “annoy some readers”. I’ve kept on re-posting the article on Twitter hoping for a reply from Peter but, alas, nothing doing. A recent research paper by Baines et al. (2017) on disease burden on heavily stocked grouse moors prompts me here to republish the article in my own blog as this is something I mention, thinking it likely but not having any facts to prove it (see highlighted in red below).

A Right to Reply…

I read this article on the conservation ethic of “those who shoot” with interest and a growing frustration over what comes across as a somewhat blinkered and arrogant attitude toward those of us who don’t. I don’t doubt the veracity of some of the claims made therein, but would like to respond to some of the more misleading and ill-thought through arguments Peter makes. Firstly, let us consider this statement:

“How can shooting be so closely linked to conservation? The answer is simple, if we only take from the natural world without giving back then everything loses out, from the animals and birds to the habitats that sustain them. If we preserve and create more of those habitats and protect the flora and fauna then the natural world often produces the sustainable surplus that we can harvest when we shoot.”

While at first glance this seems logical enough, the conservation of game in such an intensively managed landscape as Britain is fraught with difficulties and the situation is not as simple or as black and white as it may first seem. These complexities are legion, but perhaps the main problem in what Peter says here is that in encouraging unnaturally high numbers of single species game birds in order to create the shootable-surplus of which he is so fond, whether that is through intensive breeding of non-natives (e.g. pheasants) or intensive land management for wild birds (e.g. grouse), is that it just creates the right conditions for higher predator populations by symbiosis. This is a well-known ecological process whereby predator populations follow in close synchronisation, sometimes a year or two behind their prey species, depending on birth rates and populations. Thereby land management for shootable surpluses of game species also increases populations of predators such as mustelids, corvids, raptors, foxes, etc. which in turn creates the need for predator control (by trapping, snaring, shooting, etc.) and in all probability also increases the disease/parasite burden.

Further research is needed here, though anecdotal evidence from conversations with individuals in the shooting industry would suggest this is at least in part correct. If it is, then those who shoot (or rather those in their employ) are just making the predation problem worse. Heavy-handed predator control (and I’ve seen some pretty extreme examples) just creates a predator vacuum into which other predators flow to occupy once a territory is seen as vacant. This further perpetuates the need for yet more predator control.

To make matters worse, not only do these predators prey on the game species you are trying to protect in order to create the shootable surplus, but there will also be a “spill over” predation on other species of conservation importance such as ground nesting birds (curlew, plover, lapwing) that your predator control also purports to protect, since predator species don’t distinguish between game and non-game birds. The “inconvenient truth” that predator control for game bird management also protects IUCN Red List species, may in fact turn out to be inconvenient in itself!

I would expect at this point many people in the shooting industry including the GWCT, Moorland Association and CA, will be now reaching for their statistics on comparative bird numbers on keepered versus unkeepered moors, but these again tell only half the story. The “Shifting Baseline” syndrome comes into play here in regard to how we think about just what are natural or healthy numbers of these species. Undoubtedly, conservation in the name of field sports has had a positive effect in increasing and maintaining some species while suppressing others, but we need to ask ourselves whether these numbers are natural or dare I say wild? Biodiversity is a numbers game and we shouldn’t confuse it with wild nature. We may ask a simple question here: “How did wildlife manage before we came along to help?” Intensive habitat and species management for game over the years has skewed our understanding of what is wild and natural both in terms of numbers and distributions. For example, where were the favoured habitats of ground nesting waders such as curlew and lapwing before intensive management for grouse? It was most likely on lowland heath, fen, marsh and grasslands; much of which has been drained and ploughed up for intensive arable farming, thereby displacing these birds to the uplands, much of which is owned and shot over by the large lowland land owning interests where intensive arable agriculture is profitable business. You might view this a kind of displacement of one “prairie” – the large highly mechanised arable farms Peter eludes to – for another in the form of heather mono-culture seen across vast swathes of grouse moor.

The next points I wish to examine are these:

“So why is our beautiful countryside the way it is? … Generally speaking, it’s because it’s managed for shooting… Much of this is land with a high conservation designation. 90% of English grouse moors are within National Parks or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. 75% of all the heather moorland in the world is found in the UK because it is managed for grouse…”

This collection of statements is both interesting and worrying. The notion that vast swathes of the British countryside are preserved solely for and by shooting interests belies the truth behind the top-heavy system of land ownership, its checks and balances, licensing, legislation and above all, the natural landscape and drivers of edaphic conditions (i.e. the things which determine where plants can grow and the species that feed off them). While I can see where Peter is coming from in terms of his argument that conservation is driven by shooting interests, this cannot be so easily separated from the natural environment. I think he is also flying “fast and loose” with the geographical data. For example, the fact that 90% of English grouse moors are within National Parks (or AONBs) is an accident of geography and the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act and not anything to do with game management. In other words it was and is the uplands that provide open space and challenging landscapes for outdoor recreation for the urban masses. And let’s not forget that we had to fight for that right, culminating in the 1932 Kinder Trespass, because shooting interests wanted to maintain exclusive rights to moorland for grouse shooting. The 75% figure is also a “non-fact factoid” as the monoculture heather moorland we see in the British uplands is an entirely man-made landscape created solely for the benefit of grouse. Although Peter does not go on to say “rarer than rainforest” many people in the shooting industry do, and they could easily apply the same warped logic to urban areas, which are also rarer than rainforest. Yes, purple heather moor looks pretty when in full bloom, but it is a pretty biodiversity poor landscape in comparison to the mixed heath/woodland it could be, and it looks dreadful when criss-crossed by a patchwork of burnt and mown strips.

Another interesting claim Peter makes that is worthy of further deconstruction is this:

“Wildlife must be managed. British deer populations are approaching two million, the highest for 1,000 years. Left unmanaged, deer damage forests and can cause massive damage to crops.”

Why is that? Could it be because we have extirpated the deer’s main predators? If you care that deeply for the welfare of the deer then we need to do something more than just stalking. Humans are actually pretty lousy at replacing the role of top predators. For one, we’re not present on the hill or in the woods 24/7 creating a landscape of fear. Once deer lose that fear, their behaviour changes and their population patterns and geographical distribution changes; hence we see a denuded Highland landscape and geriatric forests where tree regeneration can only take place within enclosures or where deer numbers are constantly held in check by heavy culling (e.g. in Glenfeshie and Creag Meagaidh). And then we have farmers in the lowlands complaining of crop damage.

I would recommend you read Aldo Leopold’s “A Sand County Almanac”. It’s an old book now, first published in 1949, but it was way ahead of its time and still relevant today. Leopold was a keen hunter too, but he realised that you cannot fully manage nature to suit our own ends hoping only for large numbers of game to shoot without taking over the role of predator yourself. You would be especially interested in the essay “Thinking Like a Mountain” (see here) wherein he describes how his own views on deer and their predators changed as he witnessed a wolf die. “I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades”.

You may argue that stalking and culling takes over the role of the top predator but a deer brought down by the hunter’s bullet doesn’t learn to fear the gun and pass that knowledge on to the rest of the herd, thereby leading to over-grazing, unnatural behaviour and bare hills. I know that wolf reintroduction is controversial to say the least, and unlikely in my lifetime, but we could employ other less extreme methods to keep herds within carrying capacities including coordinated culls. This is itself unlikely while the value of a stalking estate is based largely on its head of deer and with more than half of Scotland being owned by fewer than 500 people. By this metric, those who shoot are the problem, not the solution.

“Where land is managed for the benefit of game, other species naturally flourish. Songbirds are more common on land managed for shooting. They benefit from the hedges, game cover crops, predator control and the food put out for game birds.”

Again, I return to unnaturally high game species and the resultant need for predator control. While I follow the reasoning that game management, woodland cover and food crops in lowland shoots is beneficial to certain other wildlife there are also potential negative effects. Again, this is related to the symbiosis in predator/prey relationships. More prey = more predators = more predation losses = need for more predator control.

There is a deeper issue here in regard to the whole notion of which nature we seek and prefer to protect; a “good nature, bad nature” dichotomy if you like. Nature doesn’t make any such distinction, so why should we? It all boils down in the end to a desire to remain in control of the land and only accepting that nature which isn’t an inconvenience to our own vested interests. Witness the licensed shooting of “problem” buzzards raiding pheasant pens, in essence the application for the legal killing one or two wild birds, just so those who shoot can kill thousands of other domesticated birds. And it isn’t just limited to lowland shoots as the debate over raptor persecution and culling of mountain hares on grouse moors can testify.

“Those who shoot are the true custodians of the countryside. Over time, without shooting – in any of its forms – the countryside would simply develop into an over productive prairie.”

I found the sheer arrogance of this statement hard to swallow, so I thought a little deeper about it. I guess what Peter is trying to say is that all the non-arable or non-grazing land remaining in the countryside is only there still because shooting interests have maintained it for cover/habitat for game birds. Without shooting interests maintaining these landscape elements then they would have all disappeared under the plough or hoof years ago. I can only partly buy that argument, as there are many areas of the countryside that are not suitable for this kind of agriculture, steep wooded hillsides for one. There’s also a land ownership issue here. The 35.5million hectares of land managed for shooting interests is clearly in private ownership, so its owners can pretty much decide how the land is managed and for those with deep pockets (and acres of good quality arable land) can afford to pursue game pretty much as they wish, and by dressing it up as nature conservation, pocket the agri-environment payments that we, the tax payer, contribute to.

I could go on but find myself running out of steam for I know it will not make a blind bit of difference since those that shoot hold most of the cards when it comes to land, money, power and influence. But in the interests of truth and freedom to look beyond the cultural hegemony that holds the British countryside in stasis I give you these thoughts and hope you might think outside of the constrained and often perverse conservation logic of “those who shoot”.

Addendum: I wrote this immediately after reading Peter’s article as a response to what I saw as some of the conflicts of interest within the conservation sector. Although the magazine editors have graciously given me the option of editing the text, I think I’d rather let it stand as is. What I would like to point out here by way of clarification, before anyone jumps to conclusions, is that I am not against all hunting, nor am I a vegetarian or a member of any animal rights group, and I have (admittedly in the past) voted Conservative! As an academic/practitioner in the conservation field I am very much interested in the conflicts that inevitably arise within the sector and often like to question the “received wisdom”. I am also a great fan of continua and how one activity, such as shooting, can be carried out and viewed along a spectrum from no shooting at one extreme, through indoor target ranges, shooting clays outdoors and on to subsistence rough shooting, walked up and ultimately driven shooting at the other. Your personal opinion on what is and isn’t acceptable will vary, with my own personal choice being rough or walked up shooting to put a bird or two on the table. As you can probably tell from my reply, I am no fan of driven shooting as a sport and all the negative environmental impacts and conflicts it entails. I understand the strong arguments Peter puts across about the local economic benefits of shooting in terms of jobs and business in what are often remote rural communities where there is precious little else to support local livelihoods except farming, forestry and all the other tourists, bird-watchers, walkers, cyclists, climbers and so on. But, despite the long traditions, the sport cannot continue to exist in an environmental vacuum and needs to take a fuller account of the bigger picture and adapt to fit into the wider and ever evolving human-environment spectrum.

First published in Country Squire Magazine 25 November 2016.


by @LandEthics

Reproduced from ECOS 38(5)

Over the last couple of years I’ve been active on Twitter, mainly tweeting about wilderness and wild land, but more and more these days about rewilding. It gives me an opportunity to share thoughts as well as current events and news items with my students and a wider group of followers. It also gets me into some quite lively debates about what rewilding is and, more critically, what it isn’t. I’ve written in ECOS before about rewilding, most recently about some of the conflict and scepticism that inevitably comes about during a paradigm shift[1]. Twitter provides a useful window into the views and opinions of others. To give me a better understanding of the various reactions to rewilding I follow a diverse group of people and organisations and I try to engage with these as constructively as possible.


Poles apart

If you search under the #rewilding hashtag you’ll quickly find out there are two opposing camps: the ‘pros’ and the ‘antis’, with very little in between. The apathetic and the undecideds don’t seem to tweet much. What ought to be evident to anyone who follows what might loosely be termed the ‘countryside’ lobby[2], either in traditional or social media, is that rewilding has had a bit of a bad press of late. Figure 1 gives examples of a small selection of recent headlines attacking rewilding. There are assorted reasons for this backlash. These include the fact that it is new, that there is an implied loss of control (real or otherwise), the fact that rewilding is something of a game changer in conservation circles, and (for some) there is a very real fear associated with bringing back top predators.


Figure 1

Figure 1. Anti-rewilding headlines


Underlying much of the ill-feeling and mistrust amongst the land-owning and game-shooting country set is that rewilding implies relinquishing some of their long-held control over much of the British countryside. This is what I say in my pinned tweet (see Figure 2) and comes from an analysis of the many interactions I’ve had over the last couple of years. Rewilding is widely seen as the latest social movement loved by the great unwashed of right-on leftie urbanites and vegan eco-zealots (their words, not mine) aimed at undermining the cultural status quo. There is another view, widely held among rural folk, that rewilding is anti-farming and threatens livelihoods by replacing fields and livestock with the dark wolf-filled forests of lore. Neither is it a one-sided argument, as extreme views from both sides trade blows in ever-increasing circles of name-calling and mud-slinging. The animal rights lobby and anti-driven grouse shooting (#dgs) groups[3] seem particularly vociferous and active in pursuing those who they see as the bad guys. It may sound like I’m exaggerating here for dramatic effect, but I kid you not. Twitter can be a microcosm of all that is bad in social media. Throw in class war, politics, money, long-held beliefs about ‘tradition’ and mix liberally with stark warnings about the anthropocene including climate change, mass extinctions, plastics in the oceans, etc. and #rewilding adds up to a perfect storm that is never very far from proving Godwin’s Rule[4].


Figure 2

Figure 2. @LandEthics’ pinned tweet


When 140 characters is just not enough

Time and time again, I’ve been asked to say exactly what rewilding is. For such a complex and rapidly developing subject this is not an easy task in the maximum 140 characters that Twitter allows[5], so I often just refer my Twitter friends to articles that I and others have written for ECOS[6]. Nevertheless, just for @GethinJones123 who keeps asking me for a definition I’ll give it a go…


Giving wildlife & natural processes space & time to determine their own patterns & trajectory without human interference or intervention.


I think that about nails it in just 137 characters! However, the best “Rewilding-in-a Tweet” I’ve seen is by @AliDriver (see Figure 3).


Figure 3

Figure 3. @AliDriver Rewilding in a tweet


Of course, multiple definitions abound depending on context and exactly what flavour of rewilding is being espoused. With such a new and complex subject, this is only to be expected, but it nevertheless seems to be something the anti-rewilding lobby can’t (or don’t want to) get their heads around. Rewilding is a continuum[7] of both scales and approaches, that itself sits along the range of human modification of the natural environment, covering urban at one extreme to wilderness on the other (see Figure 4).


Figure 4

Figure 4. Rewilding and the Wilderness Continuum


A longer, more comprehensive definition that takes the continuum concept fully on board is given in Box 1 and illustrated via the graph in Figure 5. This graph attempts to visualise the idea that: (a) there are diverse types of rewilding that may initially require different levels of human intervention; (b) these may change over time; and (c) the intended outcome of rewilding is nominally the same, namely an ecosystem that can effectively take care of itself and determine its own successional trajectory without constant interference or modification from human management.


Box 1. Definitions of rewilding

Rewild (verb) to restore an area of land or whole landscape to its natural uncultivated state often with reference to the reintroduction of species of wild plants or animal that have been lost or exterminated due to human action.


Rewilding (gerund) is a conservation approach aimed at restoring and protecting natural processes in core wild areas, providing connectivity between such areas, and protecting or reintroducing keystone species (which may or may not include large herbivores and/or predators). Rewilding projects may require active intervention through ecological restoration, particularly to restore connectivity between fragmented protected areas, and the reintroduction of species of plants or animals where these are no longer present.


Passive Rewilding is the spontaneous colonisation of abandoned land by wild or native species in the absence of direct human management or influence from domestic plants or animals, and resulting in/from the return of natural processes.


Active Rewilding is the return of wild or native species and restoration of natural habitats and processes that involves some level of human intervention and/or management.



Figure 5

Figure 5. Level of intervention vs time


Busting the #rewilding myths

Much of this backlash can be attributed to the many Alt-facts and fake news circulating around about #rewilding. Here I explode some of the more common myths and, critically, go on to explain what rewilding is not.

  1. “Britain is too small and crowded an island” This is a commonly heard myth that maintains our islands are too heavily populated to allow landscape scale rewilding. Some basic statistics are helpful here. The population of Britain is 67 million people of which 81% can be classified as urban occupying just 6% of the total land area. That leaves 94% non-urban areas with an average population density of <1 persons per square kilometre[8] that can be described as rural. Nevertheless, rural lobby groups see rewilding as an urban idea forced on rural people, even though urban rewilding is just as much part of the picture as rural rewilding.
  2. “Our land use and habitats are too heavily modified” While it is true that most of the country’s ecosystems are human dominated and are comprised largely of some form of urban, agriculture, managed forest or moorland, there are many semi-natural habitats that with a little careful rewilding could quite easily develop into valued natural habitats. There is a deeper issue here in that many of the existing wildlife habitats and the species that occupy them are based on some form of traditional land use regime. In this instance, rewilding implies change to and subsequent loss of these. This neatly brings us on to the next myth.
  3. “Rewilding will mean we will lose biodiversity” The question I always ask in return is “What biodiversity and who for?” This implies that the current biodiversity of human modified ecosystems has only come about through association with human created niches and as such isn’t representative of the landscape’s true ecological potential. I also make the point that we need to be careful not to confuse biodiversity (number of species) with naturalness or wildness[9]. They are not the same thing.
  4. “Nature can’t survive without our help” Nature abhors a vacuum and given time and space, nature and natural processes will occupy any land left to its own devices. It is only human nature that we want to meddle and interfere and unfortunately this applies to many conservationists as well as land managers. This myth may well be true if we concern ourselves only with specific species and habitats that rely on human management and intervention to keep them in place, but if we are concerned with creating rewilded ecosystems that are led by natural processes and ecology, then this shouldn’t necessarily concern us too greatly.
  5. “Rewilding will destroy rural communities and traditions” This final myth is perhaps the trickiest one to answer. If a community is based, as some are, on peculiar and specialised economies, such as driven grouse shooting, then rewilding the moors on which they depend will result in irrevocable change. However, the picture need not be so black and white. Much depends on the scale, focus and approaches to rewilding. Diversification with rewilding as part of the mix may, if carefully managed and marketed, add to the wider resilience of many local economies and culture. Much depends on a change of mindset that embraces change while maintaining core traditions under which the “cultural severance” arguments presented by some against rewilding may be myths themselves[10]. There are many examples worldwide where local communities have developed and benefited from their proximity to wild landscapes and the opportunities that presents, and there is no reason why we cannot recognise that here also[11].


To counter the misconceptions about rewilding it is perhaps just as important to state very clearly what it is not as to say what it is.

  1. Nobody wants to rewild everywhere. Food, people, and farming are important aspects of a holistic land use policy. We all need to eat, and so responsible and sustainable farming is central to putting food on the table. Rewilding should therefore only take place where the combined benefits outweigh the costs in terms of food production potential foregone. For this reason, rewilding will necessarily be limited to those landscapes where there is public or beneficial ownership and a will to forgo the burden of exploitation; and where agriculture and commercial forestry is marginal and/or dependent on subsidies so that rewilding as an alternative land ‘use’ can provide better value in terms of the public goods of wider ecosystem service delivery.
  2. Rewilding is not a universal approach. One size doesn’t fit all and there are plenty of examples where rewilding as a conservation approach wouldn’t be appropriate. There is confusion here as rewilding has become a bit of a conservation bandwagon with Everyman and his Dog referring what they do for nature conservation as some kind of “rewilding”. While rewilding fits along a spectrum of approaches (see Figure 4) in the end if a term, either restoration or rewilding, applies to everything, it also means nothing[12]. This has not been helpful in promoting the cause of true rewilding to its doubters because they can claim that rewilding is either nothing new or an ill-defined and imprecise term.
  3. Rewilding is not being forced on anyone. It should be a bottom-up process led by the communities involved and enabled by enlightened top-down policies. There is much concern (real or otherwise) among its detractors that rewilding is some kind of “subversive and planned land grab”[13]. Rewilding depends very much on the availability of suitable land, willing land owners and, where necessary, an engaged community. Many existing rewilding projects are based on these principles and without each of these three pillars in place, any rewilding project, however well-meant it is (like the proverbial three-legged stool missing a leg) likely to fail before getting off the start line.
  4. Rewilding does not exclude people. People are very much a part of any rewilding process because it is people who hold the power of decision over both public and private lands. These might be government officers, planners, NGO representatives, land owners, land managers or local people. While many local people might not be directly involved via land ownership they should always be involved through extensive consultation, participation and involvement before rewilding goes ahead. Part of this deal ought to be free rights of access to rewilded landscapes for recreation especially when paid for by public money[14].
  5. Rewilding is not just about reintroducing top predators. Many of rewilding’s detractors jump immediately on the notion that rewilding is just about reintroducing large predators. While this might be the ultimate goal of “re(al)wilding”[15] it is not necessarily the initial starting point or, indeed, end-point for all bona fide rewilding projects. Reintroducing large mammalian predators is a difficult and long-term project that requires much careful thought, preparation and full consultation and involvement of local communities. Nonetheless, there are strong ecological arguments that landscape rewilding without natural predators isn’t ecologically sound as full trophic processes cannot otherwise be established and so be limited by the need for constant human intervention.


A final word?

Much of the impetus for this article has come from the many and sometimes heated debates I’ve had with people on Twitter. Rewilding has variously been called a fad, a “subversive land-grab”, ignorant and unjust. Rewilders have been called fantasists, “disenchanted human beings”[16]  and the “boy-racers of the conservation world”[17]. All the while, many of rewilding’s detractors seem unable to grasp even some of the basic ecological facts on naturalness, predator-prey relationships, trophic cascades, disturbance and succession. Much of the anti-rewilding rhetoric hinges on the generalisations, half-truths and myths that I debunk in this article. Confirmation bias, however, is rife on both sides of the debate, with protagonists often ignoring contrary evidence or the simple voice of reason because it doesn’t suit their agenda or beliefs. Compromise and understanding seem to be rare commodities. I’m guilty of it myself: often seeing red when people peddle  Alt-facts and fake news, especially when intentionally targeted to discredit or derail genuine discourse on and around rewilding.


Here Twitter and other forms of social media are failing, though I doubt they were ever intended as a platform for compromise and consensus in the first place. Rather they serve only as news platforms, providing instant access to data feeds and current events. There’s nothing wrong with that, but what is needed is more face-to-face dialogue across all sides of the debate. In a recent Twitter-thread, the argument ran for several days with up to 11 individuals involved before it fizzled out after over 1100 tweets. I suspect we’d have achieved a whole lot more in one evening of lively discussion around the dinner table sharing some good food and drink than we did in a whole week of back-and-forth Tweeting. We might have discovered some common ground which could then form the basis for some progress in which positions based on complex bundles of different life experiences and aspirations could start to be modified. Perhaps participants might even be persuaded to do some follow-up research by reading more detailed evidence in which the arguments run to considerably more than 140 characters.


Nevertheless, social media does have its place, making open participation easier and more accessible, unlike those debates carried out solely within the pages of academic journals and specialist reports. Twitter and its ilk will continue to draw attention to the #rewilding debate across a far wider audience with its outreach of millions rather than a few hundred. It is far easier to join the debate here than it is to attend meetings, speak in public and get your thoughts and opinions published in print. For this reason alone, the “establishment” doesn’t like it. Michael Gove has attacked social media because it “corrupts and distorts reporting and decision-making”[18]. Or maybe it just draws attention to facts that politicians and influential land-owning interests would rather remain hidden? Blogs are a kind of middle ground and there are several good and prolific bloggers out there who are worth reading. Here I include Miles King, Mark Fisher, Rob Yorke and David Eyles[19] which might be enough to give you a broad spectrum of views on the subject. I have seen more promising signs of developing understanding and compromise in these writings than I have in many a Twitter rant. I think the key is word space – space to develop and explore an argument across its many facets and angles than the 140 characters in Twitter allows. Yet, the corollary of this is that we increasingly like to receive our information in short, easily digestible sound-bites. This fits easily into our busy lives and the palm of our hand as we dash about head-down in a smartphone or other portable device. Interest piqued, we might then dig deeper and read more around a topic, learn and so mould our opinion in a more enlightened and informed manner. Hopefully, this will then come out in our subsequent Tweets and posts, so moving the debate forward.


What does all this have to do with the real world of rewilding? How do the often-abstract debates that go on in Twitter (and many a blog also) affect the real-world situation that faces practitioners and rewilding projects “on the ground”? Does it change the way bodies like Rewilding Britain, Carrifran Wildwood and Trees for Life pursue their day-to-day work or, indeed, influence their long-term vision? I suspect the answer to each of these questions is “not much” at least directly, but perhaps it will influence the hearts and minds of the wider audience? Here then it must have an indirect and more subtle influence, after all, these projects and organisations depend on ‘membership’ and/or affiliation[20] to survive. Whatever the answer, the ongoing debate in Twitter-space provides us with a useful barometer of public opinion and a window into the thinking of some key individuals and the views of the organisations they represent. For that reason alone, it is worth following and engaging in the #rewilding story.



[1] Carver, S. (2016) Rewilding… conservation and conflict. ECOS37(2), 2-10.

[2] See for example The Countryside Alliance http://www.countryside-alliance.org/ @CA_TimB and @CAUpdates

[3] See for example Raptor Persecution UK https://raptorpersecutionscotland.wordpress.com/ @RaptorPersScot

[4] Godwin’s Rule is an Internet adage that states that as an online discussion grows longer the probability that someone will mention or compare someone or something to Adolf Hilter increases https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godwin%27s_law

[5] Recently Twitter has started allowing 280 characters in some people’s tweets as an experiment. There are mixed feelings about the usefulness of such a feature as longer tweets are harder to digest though they can more accurately express content and sentiment. This latter point is important as anyone who uses SMS will doubtless know. Short pithy messages, such as those in twitter, can often appear terse and combative giving the wrong message despite good intentions. I’ve called “bumptious” by some (thank you @NaomiLWood) when all I was doing was tweeting factual corrections from a point of knowledge and experience.

[6] Carver, S. J. (2016). Flood management and nature–can rewilding help? ECOS: A Review of Conservation, 37. Fisher, M. (2006). Future Natural–. ECOS27(3/4), 1.

[7] Or ‘spectrum’ @denny_robert

[8] How much of your area is built on? http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-41901294

[9] Carver, S. (2014). Making real space for nature: a continuum approach to UK conservation. ECOS, 35(3-4), 4-14.

[10] Rotherham, I. D. (2015). Eco-history: an introduction to biodiversity and conservation. ECOS, 36, 1.

[11] Many communities do. For example, those in the Cairngorm National Park based around recreation service industries and those on Mull based around wildlife watching economies.

[13] @NaomiLWood https://twitter.com/NaomiLWood/status/926193130772320256 and David Eyles’ blog https://wulfstansghost.com/2017/11/02/what-is-rewilding-and-who-is-it-for/

[14] Charging the public for access to Knepp Estate and Alladale seems to go against this principle.

[15] Carver, S. (2014). Making real space for nature: a continuum approach to UK conservation. ECOS, 35(3-4), 4-14.

[16] Catherine Bennett https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/oct/01/id-prefer-if-wolf-kept-from-my-door-rewilding-countryside

[17] See David Eyles’ blog https://wulfstansghost.com/2017/11/02/what-is-rewilding-and-who-is-it-for/

[18] Michael Gove (2017) Radio 4 Today Programme, 24 November 2017.

[19] Miles King “A New Nature Blog” https://anewnatureblog.wordpress.com/about/; Mark Fisher “Self Willed Land – advocacy for wild land and nature” http://www.self-willed-land.org.uk/; Rob Yorke “Rural Commentator” http://robyorke.co.uk/; David Eyles “Wulftsan’s Ghost” https://wulfstansghost.com/

[20] There is a very mixed picture here as there are different models of ‘membership’ ranging from Twitter followers to paid membership of organisations registered with the Charities Commission.

How we should live with predators and prey?

Red Grouse, Arden Moor

When Peter Glenser, Chairman of the BASC, wrote an article for Country Squire Magazine entitled “Custodians of the Countryside” back in November of last year I felt compelled to reply. The magazine’s editors were gracious enough to give me a “Right to Reply” for which I am grateful. A few weeks later, Liam Stokes, Head of Shooting Campaigns at the Countryside Alliance, wrote a follow-up article “In the Trenches of the Grouse Wars” for which I also penned a lengthy reply in the comments section. I haven’t yet received a response nor even an acknowledgement from either Peter or Liam. Perhaps they are too busy? It was therefore with interest and more than a wee tinge of satisfaction that I read David Eyles’ recent article on “Managing Predators and Prey” in which he takes time to reply to some of my ideas. For that David, I owe you a debt of gratitude. Thank you. But since he mentions me by name rather a lot in his article I feel duty bound, Gentleman that I am, to give him the courtesy of a reply.


1.0 Symbiosis

The sharp eyed among you will have noticed that I’ve subtly changed the title of David’s article. I’ve done this because I feel we have a moral duty to share this world with all wildlife and not just that which we feel comfortable with or is beneficial to us in some way. Ethics aside, we perhaps need to clarify a few of the points that David makes.

The implication that symbiosis involves a close physical association and a net benefit to both species is a misreading of the ecological principles that even the reference David quotes makes clear. If you dig deeper into the ecology text books, you will find that symbiosis is used to cover a range of relationships between organisms. We can break the word down into its component parts to better understand its etymological origins in the Greek. “Sym” is used to indicate togetherness as in the words ‘symmetry’ and ‘symphony’.  “Bio” obviously refers to life as in ‘biota’ or ‘biology’ and, of course, the “sis” at the end is used in converting nouns into verbs. In ecology, we distinguish several forms of symbiosis. I won’t go into them all here but they include parasitism, mutualism, commensalism, competition and, yes, predation. So, not all the relationships in symbiosis need to be beneficial to both parties.

The example David gives of a peregrine falcon killing and eating a pigeon is “predatory symbiosis” because only the predator benefits. However, ecology is never simple and here we not only have to consider the individuals but also the population and the various and complex interactions between all members of the biotic pyramid and the edaphic conditions (climate, soil, geology, topography, etc.) in which they live. Nevertheless, let us continue with the example of the peregrine and the pigeon since that is the one David provides us with.

When conditions are right, pigeon populations can expand and so the peregrines have a ready supply of food. As such, they too may expand their population in line with pigeon numbers; though this normally occurs a year or two behind the pigeons as it takes time for successful peregrine kills to be turned into eggs, chicks and fully-fledged mature peregrines. However, if the pigeon population collapses for whatever reason (it could be severe weather or lack of food supply) then the peregrine population will also decline as their prey becomes harder to find, with fewer kills making them less able to feed their hungry chicks. Thus, we see the pattern of peaks and troughs in predator and prey populations that David shows in his Figure 1, wherein predator populations closely follow the fortunes of their prey, with the predators lagging perhaps a year or two behind.

If there are more prey species than a predator population can respond to, say for example, when predators are persecuted or their habitat is destroyed, the prey population may be able to grow to such a level that it exceeds the carrying-capacity of the landscape to sustain it. At this point we may see associated environmental degradation such as crop-losses when pigeons reach ‘pest’ proportions (they seem to be particularly fond of my peas). A better example here is the deforestation and soil erosion often associated with over-grazing by deer in the absence of wolf predation. This is the example I gave Peter from Aldo Leopold’s classic essay “Thinking Like a Mountain”. Under such conditions we might also then see a commensurate collapse in prey species, since without a predator to control their numbers they effectively eat themselves out of house and home, leading to starvation and a sudden drop in population. Thus, the need for an effective control on prey populations via predation (or some other limiting factor) is often seen as the prerequisite for healthy ecosystems, benefiting both predator and prey populations alike as well as their habitat. As such, even the seemingly one-sided predator-prey relationships like that between peregrine and pigeon can regarded as beneficial to prey populations, even if a few individuals – the old, the weak, the young and the unlucky – get eaten in the process. This is the net benefit David quotes from Begon et al. (2006) and so perhaps the only dis-benefit seen in the predator-prey relationships governing game species populations is for the human predators, and not their natural ones. I refer back to Leopold’s essay at this point as I can almost hear a lot of you saying: “but humans are the top predator and we can control prey populations”. Here’s what he says…

“I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades. So also with cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realise that he is taking over the wolf’s job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.” (Aldo Leopold, 1949, “Thinking Like a Mountain” from A Sand County Almanac, OUP)

From Aldo Leopold (1949) A Sand County Alamanc. OUP


2.0 Predator-Prey Relationships

At this point I’ll throw in another ecological term if I may, that of “sympatry” which is used to describe two or more species or populations that occupy the same geographical area. The word comes again from the Greek with “sym” for ‘togetherness’ and “patr” meaning ‘fatherland’. I bring this up because at the end of David’s analysis of symbiosis he seems to be saying that space, function, species distributions and their relative densities are unimportant. Au contraire mon ami! They are all important when considering predator-prey relationships and the impacts they have on species and their populations. You see predators and their presence within an ecosystem are not only vital for maintaining healthy populations of their prey species through making kills, but they are also instrumental in maintaining behavioural traits and spatial variations in feeding patterns, movement and population density. The mere presence of a predatory pressure can create a “landscape of fear” that modifies prey species’ behaviour and their distribution, and has far-reaching and often beneficial effects that can ripple across an ecosystem through another ecological process known as a “trophic cascade”. Again, the classic example is deer and their main predator the wolf. As I’m sure most of you will be aware, this has been remarkably well demonstrated in Yellowstone, about which much has been said and written. The National Geographic sums it up nicely with this Figure.


Yellowstone before and after wolves (National Geographic Magazine, 2010)

How is this relevant to lil’ old England? Well, Peter and Liam both point out that the British landscape is heavily modified and managed by man with our keystone predators long exterminated. Yet they still bemoan the impact of too many deer (on forestry and crops) and the effect meso-predators (mustelids, corvids, etc.) have on game populations, which is why they maintain that they must be controlled if they are to have enough birds to shoot, and why management is essential to protect breeding wader populations. As with ecological models, this is an overly simplistic model that is biased towards a particular human goal; the shootable surplus. I, on the other hand, maintain that artificially high game bird populations, whether through moorland management for grouse or captive breed-and-release pheasants, is itself a significant part of the problem because it creates an imbalance in the biotic pyramid. If you constantly supress the predators in one area, you create the conditions for the over-population of their prey species which in turn simply attracts more predators from other areas and creates the spill-over predation on the non-game species that you purport to protect in managing for game. The basic ecology of symbiosis, sympatry and predator-prey relationships, together with the human modification of the landscape for agriculture and game is central to the problem. Density and function, both of which are spatially variant, are important and we ignore these at our peril.

So, no David, I have not confused my own argument, although I do concede that things are way more complex than simple models suggest, and is why I conclude that more research is needed. Since writing my reply to Peter I have been talking to as many people as I can, both on and off the moor, to see if anecdotal evidence and experience confirms my suspicions. So far it has, and that includes conversations with keepers and shoot owners as well as conservation ecologists and representatives of the game industry. It is then interesting how that after questioning my reasoning on why these basic ecological truths are relevant in the context of driven shoots, David then proceed (in the main at least) to support my ideas. Yes, things are almost always more complex than they first appear, with lag times and the effects of human land management being good examples of complicating factors, but I must thank him for being yet another land-expert who agrees with my reading of the fundamentals of the situation.


3.0 Wolves, Moose and Caribou

Isn’t it amazing how much inference one can draw from a Tweet? All I said in response to @Wayfaringhind’s posting of the Serrouya et al. (2017) study was “Lessons for driven shoots? Less intensive management, fewer game birds, fewer predators and more Red List species?” The question marks are significant. These were questions asking people ‘in the know’ whether they might confirm my hypotheses about management for game and spill-over predation. Did I mention rewilding? No, but now that David raises this in his article we can return to that later.

I think David and I have both read different things into this paper; as @Wayfaringhind jests “It’s possible for two logical individuals to reach different conclusions based on the same set of facts”. I can see where she is coming from!

In my reading of the research, and my extrapolation of the lessons learnt to landscapes with driven shoots here in the UK, I see the introduction of vast numbers of non-native game birds (i.e. pheasants) and the intensive moorland management required to encourage shootable surpluses of wild birds (i.e. red grouse) as the equivalent of the moose and white-tailed deer seen migrating into southern British Columbia. The attraction of large numbers of meso-predators to this smörgåsbord of game birds is the equivalent of the wolf. The non-game ground nesting wader species are the mountain caribou, and thus, the spill-over predation of Red List species (curlew, plover and lapwing) is the equivalent of the secondary predation of the caribou by the wolves attracted initially by the moose.


4.0 Are Wolves, Moose and Caribou relevant to British Grouse Moors?

While David seems to follow my reasoning almost to the letter here we differ in one crucial aspect; he slips up and assumes that I equate predator control on UK sporting estates with culling the moose in the Canadian example. I do not. This would be the equivalent of treating the symptom rather than the cause or as Serrouya puts it…

“The band-aid solution is killing wolves, but that’s been treating the symptom. We’re trying to deal with the cause.”

In the mountains of southern BC, the cause of caribou declines has been the influx of wolves following the moose and deer. In the UK, the cause of declines in Red List ground nesting waders is (at least partly) the influx of meso-predators following the artificially high numbers of game birds on and, crucially, around sporting estates including both grouse moors and pheasant shoots. In both instances, the displacements are conflated and confused by land use change resulting in habitat loss, agri-management and climate change, but like I say, nothing in ecology is ever as simple as the models might suggest and human influences just make things harder to interpret (as well as generally making things worse).

David then goes on to mention the differences between Canada and UK game shoots, and this is where things get even more interesting.

  • Scale. Yes, size really does matter! But as a Geographer and a landscape ecologist I know that many processes scale. This is true from the physical (e.g. drainage patterns) to the ecological (e.g. predator-prey relationships). What really matters is function and the species in question. In comparing the Canadian study to UK game shoots we need to bear in mind that the species are different. Wolves hunt in packs, can roam huge areas and correspondingly their territories are large. The territorial ranges of our individual meso-predators are by comparison much smaller and, critically, in proportion to the smaller sizes of the sporting estates in which they inhabit. It is nice to see David using Wales as a size comparator (why do people always do this?)  but the thing about area to edge ratio is geometrically interesting since a circle of 18,000 km2 has the same uniform relationship between edge as a circle of only 18 km2 and even one as small as 1.8 m2 (italics are an edit following a discussion with David to clarify my previously poorly worded sentence, see here). This is important because when we consider the scale of the UK and its sporting estates in comparison to the species and the predator-prey relationships operating therein, they too scale accordingly, along with the barriers to movement such as urban areas, plantation forests, motorways, agri-deserts and keepered moors. So, in terms of basic spatial ecology, we are perhaps not that much different to the mountains of southern British Columbia after all.
  • Time. The larger the animal, the longer its reproductive cycle tends to be. The critical thing here for UK sporting estates is that the game bird breeding season coincides with that of their natural predators. When Mr and Mrs Weasel have kits to feed, there are eggs and young birds to be had on the moor. When the kits are grown and have left the nest there is other prey available on the moor edge with which to fill the gap, such as rabbits, rats and mice (the effect of which must be beneficial to land management interests, yes?). The glut of ground nesting game birds and their eggs seen in the nesting season just makes sure that the predators are successful in their own critical breeding period when there are young mouths to feed, so David’s arguments about turn-over, breeding seasons and limited availability of game bird prey fall short here and are not very convincing.
  • Direct-versus-indirect control. In Canada they treat the cause, here we treat the symptom. In Canada the cause is the incoming moose population encouraging a higher wolf population and spill-over predation on the caribou, here the cause is land management for a shootable surplus, the knock-on effect of which encourages higher meso-predator populations and spill-over predation on Red List species. The more enlightened direct control would be to treat the cause and manage for reduced game bird numbers and then be satisfied with walked-up shoots and a smaller bag. The indirect control is just to treat the symptom and practice heavy-handed predator control. This exactly what Serrouya says isn’t it? Reduce the thing which is attracting the predator (the moose) rather than try to cull them (the wolves). So, better to treat the cause, rather than the symptom?
  • The differences. Ah yes, this is it. The nitty-gritty. It is all about control really. Control over nature, and some would say, control of the landed minority over the landless majority (but that’s a debate for another time). Spill-over predation is the inconvenient inconvenient truth. I say “inconvenient inconvenient” because the game lobby (CA, GWCT, BASC, etc.) often fall back on the peculiar fortunes of ground nesting birds and other species of high conservation value that have found a niche in our human-modified landscapes and micro-managed game shoots as a kind of conservation raison d’être for their primary activity of maintaining shootable surpluses of game birds. While I don’t doubt for a second that many keepers and shoot owners are deeply concerned about conserving these other non-game species, it is like I said to Liam… “shooting interests act as some kind of benevolent custodian; all seeing, all knowing, all powerful. You manage the landscape for the benefit of those species you like to shoot, accept those of no discernible economic value if they are otherwise benign, and control those that compete with you for your sport.” Curlew, plover and lapwing fall into the middle category and as such are merely a convenient side-benefit of the main concern which is the game species and generating a profit. The fact that these Red List species have become scarce in their traditional habitats due to the activities of intensive agriculture on land often owned by the very same people who tell us that their sporting activities in our uplands is essential for conserving the very species they have displaced is again another matter, but a point of some moral debate.
  • Profit. I don’t doubt David’s arguments comparing the economics of hunting in Canada with the UK game industry for a second, but I do question their relevance. His arguments about money and support for local economies are too insular for my liking. If you consider the whole equation of cost-benefits to the wider UK economy and our social well-being then we must question the sustainability of the driven shooting industry. Here I would point a questioning finger at all the downstream effects in both an economic and literal sense. I have written about this in ECOS[1] but in a nutshell, the potential ecosystem services from the UK uplands (and many a lowland one too) are perhaps far-better realised by alternative land uses to driven game shooting and all the negative externalities that it entails regardless of the limited (albeit locally important) financial benefits and the ‘sport’ of a punishingly small proportion of the UK population.


5.0 Conclusions

I make no secret of the fact that I am pro-wild; be that wilderness in the true sense of the word, be it wild land or be it rewilding. I’ve said so in many an article, journal paper or online blog/tweet and I’m open about the fact that I’d like to see a wilder landscape in selected areas of the UK. You could in many ways say that it has been my life’s work. I’ve been behind the mapping that enabled wild land to be included in Scottish Planning Policy[2], I’ve been involved in developing and writing policy on wilderness protection in Europe[3] and globally having co-authored the EU’s Wilderness Register and the IUCN Category 1b (wilderness) guidelines[4]. I’m proud of these achievements. Not bad for a lad from Yorkshire with only two A levels eh? But David makes another mistake in assuming that we want to rewild everywhere. We don’t. As I said to Liam “I’m far too fond of my food for that”. I also made it clear in my response to Peter’s article that I’m not against all hunting or predator control, rather it is the style and way it is undertaken that I question.

My good friend Mark Fisher has responded to David on some of these points via his blog; about the issues of ownership that lie at the hub of our relationship with the British countryside. For one, I see it as being all about control. It is what I say in my pinned Tweet: “Recent conversations underpinning my belief that land management interests don’t like rewilding ‘cos they feel threatened by lack of control.” And so, David let the cat out of the bag early on in his article when he said: “predators that interfere with numbers of the game species” …his words, not mine. Interfere. The implication being that the symbiosis between game birds and their natural predators is a natural process that he’d rather avoid and perhaps, like Liam and Peter, one that he’d rather not let on about?

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I am prepared to ask the awkward questions that challenge the status quo. Here I am questioning a pattern of ownership and land management that is steeped in a cultural hegemony that keeps the common folk in their place and keeps our wildlife from being, well, wild. I hear what folk say about the responsibility of land ownership, but that responsibility must extend way beyond production for personal gain, the livelihoods of tenants and ‘sport’. It must extend outwards and realise its wider social, environmental and cultural responsibilities; what Leopold called “The Land Ethic”. Food production is undeniably a top priority (we’ve got to eat) but at the same time this shouldn’t be at the expense of the wider environment and long-term sustainability. If you haven’t done so already, I would strongly recommend Leopold’s essay on the Land Ethic[5]. There is much food for thought in there on how we should live with and manage not only our predators and prey, but our land and people also.

I promised that I’d return to the topic of rewilding. Here I am very much a fan of continua. The landscape of Britain that David describes “a highly diverse patchwork quilt of woodlands, fields and open spaces on a scale which is much smaller than in many other parts of the world” is part of that continuum but one that could be so much more if we have the will and guts to make some real space for nature in amongst the bucolic ideal and not just the little bits here and there that are convenient to a certain way of thinking. This is what I call re(al)wilding[6]. It won’t be appropriate everywhere, and perhaps then only in a few selected locations when the land ownership is favourable, but we must give it a try and on a landscape scale. Less strict rewilding principles can then be applied elsewhere and on a wider basis to realise the benefits that come from greater biodiversity and natural processes such as better water quality, flood suppression, erosion control, nutrient cycling, etc. In other words, treat the cause, not the symptoms. If you want a reason for rewilding, well there it is; a Land Ethic. We just need to learn to think outside the box that is ‘direct land management for direct profit’ and adopt a more ethical and egalitarian stance that extents not just to our fellow man but to the rest of the natural world as well.

[1]Carver, S. (2016). Flood management and nature–can rewilding help? ECOS, 37(1), 32-42. http://www.wildlandresearch.org/media/uploads/Flood-management-and-nature-ECOS-37-1.pdf


[2] http://www.snh.gov.uk/protecting-scotlands-nature/looking-after-landscapes/landscape-policy-and-guidance/wild-land/

[3] http://ec.europa.eu/environment/nature/natura2000/wilderness/pdf/Wilderness_register_indicator.pdf

[4] https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/201612/wilderness-protected-areas-management-guidelines

[5] http://rintintin.colorado.edu/~vancecd/phil3140/Leopold.pdf

[6] Carver, S. (2014). Making real space for nature: a continuum approach to UK conservation. ECOS, 35(3-4), 4-14. http://www.wildlandresearch.org/media/uploads/Making-real-space-for-nature-REVISED-VERSION-3.pdf

The Lynx Effect

Lynx tracks in Jalisco, Mexico

The last few days have a seen flurry of articles and blog posts railing against proposals for the reintroduction of the native Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) and other large predators to the British Countryside. I can understand why, but equally as a rewilding advocate I can see the other side of the argument.

On his blog, Wulfstan’s Ghost, David Eyles provides us with a long, two-part article on whether wolves and lynx should be reintroduced to the British countryside. As usual with David, it is well-written and carefully researched even though he cherry-picks his data and examples to prove his point; not surprising really given his farming background. Meanwhile, Josie Appleton provides a dreary polemic, focused mainly on the return of bears to the Pyrenees and the implications for local sheep farmers, but with the general message that rewilding and reintroductions are somehow an attack on civilisation. I have responded to this here to provide a little by way of balance with Mark Fisher providing links to the evidence. And then in Sunday’s Guardian, Catherine Bennett jumps on the bandwagon with her characteristic spin on things in a rather poorly written commentary that skips excitedly from wolves to Putin and back to wolves again. This very much appears as if it were written in a rush after two large espressos. Catherine has form here as her spectacularly misinformed piece on rewilding from January 2009 demonstrates with its ecologically-illiterate spectre of fish-gobbling beaver. However, the main object of her invective in yesterday’s piece seems to be reserved for George Monbiot’s popularity and so could be put down to professional jealousy. Finally, Liam Stokes (Head of Shooting at the Countryside Alliance) provides what is quite a thoughtful and well-informed piece[1] on how the return of the lynx, should it ever happen, needs to go hand-in-hand with game interests. Critically, Liam recognises that there is an opportunity for something else for him and his chums to shoot should numbers become large enough to provide a sustainable population to hunt, justified of course as predator control. Nonetheless, he is careful to urge caution (so as not to upset the sheep farmers?) and then pushes his own brand of conservation that centres on management for shooting and hunting interests.

None of this is especially new but does seem to speak to a rise in the background noise heard in the press and online media that questions the feasibility of reintroducing lost species to the British Isles. It came to a bit of head for me last night with a Twitter “spat” between myself and a lady from Germany[2] after I tweeted a negative comment on Bennett’s article. She challenged me over a number of issues, but the one that stood out was the primacy of humans over nature and the right for animals to have a painless death. To be fair, I suspect from her posts and correspondence with David Eyles (including a number of extremely graphic images of suspected wolf kills – see Part 2 of David’s blog) that she has suffered terribly from losses to her own flock, so I cannot blame her and she has my sympathy. Nonetheless, I’d like to draw a few points out of the discussion and these recent articles.


What rights of humans over nature?

One of the common themes seems to be about the primacy of human interests over nature. Many people who voice opposition to reintroductions, and especially those of predators, often cite how we humans have modified the British countryside to such an extent that any wildlife that exists therein does so solely at our behest and goodwill. The argument goes that we are the prime species and so every other species must fall in line with our grand plan. If it doesn’t and is perceived as somehow being a threat to, or in competition with, our use of the land, then it must be managed. If we cannot control such a species then it has no place alongside us and so must be exterminated or imprisoned. So, it is with the wolf, the lynx and the bear. They are large predators that could possibly kill livestock or attack a human. Yes, all human life is sacred and we should do all in our power to preserve it, but does this extend to biocide? I was asked the utterly nonsensical question whether I would prioritise the life of my own child over the life of a predator. Who wouldn’t? But, first I would take appropriate steps to avoiding the possibility in the first instance or at least weigh up the risk and priorities involved[3]. The ethical and moral questions here is to what extent do we control all that is wild in order to remove threats to ourselves and our activities? It would appear to some people, that large predators belong only in zoos and safari parks where they can be safely controlled and gawped at through 3m high chain link fencing.


Reintroductions, dislocation and conflict

While there is something worryingly wrong and arrogant in people who promote human primacy over nature, I can associate with some of the fears and concerns over reintroductions of large predators into areas where they have long been made extinct. I live in a predominantly rural area and there’s a farming background in the family, albeit a couple of generations back. It is a wholly understandable argument that states we have in the past rid the land of these animals for a reason and so why would we want to bring them back after all these years. There is an undeniable risk that they might kill livestock and the remoter possibility that they may attack people[4]. Such livestock losses could adversely affect people’s livelihoods in a sector that is already in a parlous state and any human casualties would be tragic. There are also some ecological reasons why we might not want to do so, foremost of which is that the habitat is perhaps no longer suitable or that there might not be enough natural prey to eat. There is also the ethical argument that states it might not be in an animal’s own best interests to be reintroduced into a hostile landscape and culture that has forgotten how to coexist with them. We shouldn’t be surprised when they end up being illegal shot or hunted as has happened recently when a bison wandered over the border from Poland into Germany[5]. We cannot therefore overlook these arguments.

However, the Habitats Directive (of which we are still signatories) states that we should at least consider the feasibility of reintroducing extinct species where these extinctions have come about through human action. There are some strong ecological arguments for wanting to do so. This includes re-establishing trophic cascades, controlling ungulates and meso-predators and improving successional habitats. Some of these will have beneficial effects on natural processes, tourism and ecosystem service delivery with net benefits to the wider economy. There is also a strong ethical argument that says if we have made a species extinct in part of its natural home range then we damn well ought to consider putting it back. Just as with the opposing arguments above, then we cannot also ignore these that are in favour.

Unfortunately, in many cases the arguments just seem to generate conflict across the yes/no divide of species reintroductions and these are made all the more difficult by the fact that we are an island nation. As I’ve said before this means that wolves or lynx will not end up on these shores unless we choose to bring them here[6]. On the continent it is a very different matter where relatively densely populated countries such as Germany, France, Denmark and The Netherlands have seen wolves making more of an appearance, often migrating into new territories from eastern Europe. These countries have developed their own wolf management plans to deal with the challenges posed by a growing predator population but this doesn’t mean there haven’t been conflicts as Josie’s article and @A_Girl_Insane’s photos amply demonstrate.


Key differences

The difference here is between natural reintroductions (i.e. by natural in migration) and deliberate reintroductions (i.e. those facilitated by human action) with perhaps stronger ethical reasons to support the former. I say this as it is us humans who, after all, have ultimately invaded their territory rather than the other way around. This is inevitably where most human-wildlife conflicts arise as attempts by humans to settle increasingly marginal lands brings us into direct conflict with large predators and other wildlife. Where we dislocate wildlife into other areas it may then bring them into direct conflict with humans and our livestock. We see this most in developing countries where burgeoning populations looking for new land from which to gain a living, run into direct conflict with large animals. Potentially dangerous encounters inevitably ensue, often leading to the death of the animal(s) in question after people are hurt or crops damaged. If we extend the argument of Josie and @A_Girl_Insane then these animals are also a threat to humans and so should be exterminated or confined behind wire where they can do no harm.

Many people take a different view stating that we should learn to live with these animals and put lots of money into international conservation projects and charities protecting tigers, elephants and other animals. If we could do the same here in the UK and Europe then we would at least have something of a leg to stand on, but if we don’t why should other countries? We perhaps need to lead more by example rather than dictat and “conscience” payments.


The good nature:bad nature dichotomy

The final point @A_Girl_Insane made that piqued my interest was that she somehow thought of wolves as “bad” animals because they are carnivores and therefore need to kill to survive. Admittedly, being hunted by a pack of wolves and being torn apart, often while still alive, cannot be a nice way to go, but that’s nature… red in tooth and claw. Have you ever watched a blackbird with a worm? Poor worm! The difference is we can more easily associate with the deer or the sheep that is being killed and eaten by the wolves. In the case @A_Girl_Insane she has anthropomorphised her flock and by calling them “my girls” presumably feels more than the usual empathy between shepherd and flock when viewed purely as a unit of production? Thus, we risk demonising large predators because of what they stand for and what they do to survive. For them, a deer or a sheep is just food, while a dog is competition and so must be dispatched. It is hardly surprising that they’ve therefore ended up on the wrong side of “civilised” thinking.


What price safety?

For me, a world without an element of risk is a dull world. I’ve chosen to seek out the thrill of walking and camping in wolf and bear country. This was a risk, albeit a calculated one, that I was willing to take and one that I will take again and again given the opportunity. It is the same reason I climb mountains, ski down them, ride motorcycles. To feel alive! If that kills me, so be it. “When you dead, you dead”[7].  I simply couldn’t imagine life without being able to do these things. The fact that I have to travel abroad just to be in wolf and bear country is, to me, a great shame. I am however, pretty much resigned to that being the case during the remainder of my life (excluding perhaps the lynx, though I suspect I’ll be old and grey before even that happens). These are, however, personal choices and herein lies the crux of the matter as far as people are concerned. What right do I have to impose my will on others? It is for this reason that it is necessary to ensure that the majority of people want reintroductions to take place. At what scale we apply such a majority rule (national, regional or local) is another matter entirely!

[1] Liam Stokes (2017) “The Lynx Effect” Shooting Times, September 2017. 38-40.

[2] @A_Girl_Insane …a David Bowie fan perhaps?

[3] I have taken my family deep into wolf, bear and lynx territory on numerous wilderness trips in the past and they have benefited enormously from it, learning backcountry skills, humility and self-awareness (as well as some good campfire tales and one-line put downs of Twitter trolls).

[4] There is virtually zero chance of lynx attacking people though the chance that it may happen with wolves and bears is real enough, though still slight.

[5] Local police shot the poor beast since they didn’t know what to do with it and feared it might present a risk to public safety. Germany has form here with the infamous case of Bruno the bear who was also shot by hunters after it too wandered over the border into Bavaria from neighbouring Austria.

[6] Carver (2014) Making real space for nature. ECOS, December 2014. 4-14. http://www.wildlandresearch.org/media/uploads/Making-real-space-for-nature-REVISED-VERSION-3.pdf

[7] Guy Martin (2015) When you dead, you dead. Random House Publishing. The phrase is apparently a saying from Guy’s Latvian grandfather!