Self-willed Wildlife

21 August 2018 | Posted in Re-wilding , Fran Southgate
Self-willed Wildlife
The Mens Nature Reserve © Nigel Symington

By Fran Southgate

Senior Living Landscape Advisor

Buried deep in the back of our subconscious, most of us are aware that most wildlife was here for millennia before modern humans arrived. Dragonflies have been around for over 300 million years, and there are trees like the Bristlecone pine in America which are estimated to have been alive for over 5,000 years. And yet somewhere along the line, this modern species of humans, which evolved around 200,000 years ago has adopted a position of ‘sole guardians and managers of wildlife’.

Call me a heretic, but much as I would like to believe that I know what is best for wildlife, there is a nagging part of me which knows that when push comes to shove, nature itself probably has quite a head start on instinctively knowing what is best for it. There is an element of common sense that appears to have been lost when approaching the subject of managing land for nature, and that is that humans necessarily need to get involved in managing wildlife at all. 

The notion of self-willed wildlife is emerging at the moment. It is, in effect, a trusting that nature knows what is best for itself, and a handing back of the reigns to nature, so that it can evolve and adapt to changing local and global circumstances, as it has over millennia. Self-willed wildlife asks us not to assume automatically that human intervention and management is best for wildlife, and where possible, that we allow a nature-led recovery of our countryside and green spaces.

Add to this the fact that we’ve had a collective forgetting of what 'natural' really is, and that after centuries of managing our countryside there is very little left which can be seen as essentially wild or natural. Over the centuries, as we lost our connection with nature, we have also lost much of the knowledge that we need to be able to understand what nature really needs. We have all sorts of resources and research which tells us that ‘this animal needs this habitat to be managed at this time’ but what did the Barn owl do before the barn was invented?  And where did arable plants live before we started arable farming at a large scale? 

There is a sense of a shifting baseline of knowledge, a progressive lowering of our expectations of just how diverse our countryside could be – if only we knew what ‘fantastic’ wildlife really looked like. In a way we are like toddlers standing in a big, constantly changing natural world, trying to work out what our place is in it, and how it works. Our knowledge is limited, and we shouldn’t be scared to admit that, or to admit that perhaps nature knows more. Self-willed wildlife allows us to admit that in some circumstances, we may be able to remove much of the human intervention, and see what the emergent properties of nature led recovery might be. For me this what wilding the land might look like.

As with everything, there are caveats. We still need to provide space for nature, and to protect what little wildlife is still holding on to the corners and niches that we have forced it into. Where there are potentially destructive populations of non-native invasive species, or human intervention has been so severe that there aren’t the natural processes in place to help create a diverse landscape with lots of micro-niches for different species and habitats, then we may still need to intervene – at least initially. There are a range of natural processes such as natural flooding, or the natural health of our soils that we have damaged and that we might need to put back into place if we want to see nature recover more quickly than it otherwise might. 

In some cases, our landscapes are so constrained that we can only continue to manage, in the hope that in the future they become less constrained. We may also need to put into place adaptable management systems – grant and management schemes which allow landscapes to change over time, rather than insisting that they always stay the same. Nor can wildlife be self-willed if we continue to build on it, drain it, pollute it and drive it to extinction.

What we are beginning to see however, is that under the right circumstances, stakeholders and landowners are coming together to let go of the reigns a bit more, and to help the emergent properties of wildlife evolve, rather than insisting that we know exactly what the outcomes of land management for wildlife should be. I don’t think that we are there yet, but there are innovators and pioneers, and still a few wild places left in the world which can help us to understand what wildlife needs in order to be truly ‘wild and natural’. I for one am looking forward to seeing what the emergent properties of Sussex wildlife might be.

If you are interested in ‘Wilding’ your land or in learning more about nature-led recovery and self-willed wildlife, then you can contact our landowner advisor here. 


  • Dave Shaw:

    22 Aug 2018 19:44:00

    love it! You are right. Anything that we can do to create more Knepps, employ beavers to get processes moving, re-introduce lynx and then wolves I’m all for. Unfortunately I’m not a landowner. If only..

  • Tom Fitton:

    26 Aug 2018 09:08:00

    Yes, this has been my philosophy for a while now. Nature manages itself, it doesn’t need us, but it does need us to rev icy our wrongs (reintroduce the apex predators that we removed).

  • Ian Malone:

    31 Aug 2018 21:19:00

    So ponds can silt up? Well we leave some land, but we have removed most of the dry aqua ducts as gravel for the building of airports and cities, What is natural ,a Rempton garden or a city garden flowering in November due to non native plants keeping bees awake when they should be prepared for a long nap. Who gets to pick and why are grants and tax relief given to the self appointed with no audit or public scrutiny

  • 30 Dec 2018 21:56:00

    I fully subscribe to the notion that ‘nature knows best’ and firmly believe this should be a guiding principle underlying all conservation efforts. This is particularly relevant regarding the (re-)creation of woodland – no tree planting required – just let the natural process of succession run its course. Apart from saving money, such a policy would also allow a large variety of wildlife to take advantage of the extended intermediate stage of scrub – most of which has been lost in the last 40 years. If we were serious about climate change and addressing the population crashes of birds and other wildlife, we would try to ensure that much of the South Downs was allowed to revert back to woodland in this way. Why the South Downs? – Because it should be obvious that the soil is not suitable for growing crops over the longer term.

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