By Fran Southgate
Wetlands Landscape Officer
The days of cowering in the woods, semi naked, clutching a spear and trying to survive the ravages of winter weather and the marauding wolves are well and truly over – in Britain at least. The instinct to survive and to protect ourselves and our families from ‘those dangerous wild things out there’ however is not. If we think about what fundamentally drives us to continue working the 9 – 5 and paying the mortgage, it comes down to making sure that weather, the germs, and the wild animals can’t touch our lives, that we don’t starve and that we are entertained. We have come to expect that a house, a car, insurance and a pay cheque is the answer to our need to feel safe and protected from a chaotic and unpredictable world, and yet somehow many of us still yearn for the experience of wildness.
So when some greeny environmentalist starts going on about re-wilding and taking us back to those dark and savage days, what are we supposed to think? Surely the whole concept of trying to make our landscape as wild as possible, in this safe and ordered landscape of human creation is just a misguided fallacy? Well, I for one am not sure it is. Re-wilding for me is the concept of trying to find a few areas of land which are big enough to create spaces that are ‘as wild as possible’ within the confines of the modern day landscapes that we live in. It doesn’t suggest that we should be introducing wolves to down town Worthing, but it might help us to work out that we can have a lot more green rooves, green walls, and wilder spaces for people within those urban confines.
The more extreme side to Sussex re-wilding includes projects such as the Knepp estate where nearly 3,000 acres are being ‘re-wilded’. The project isn’t without its flaws and contradictions, but it has proved on more than one occasion that what we think nature needs, and the way we think we need to manage our habitats is fundamentally flawed. In less than 10 years, Knepp estate has helped to change our ideas on the way we manage for a number of key species, including the purple emperor butterfly. There has been a huge increase in purple emperor numbers at Knepp where fields have reverted to willow scrub, highlighting the importance of this type of willow for the female life cycle. Another species, the turtle dove has been shown to need wetlands as part of its life cycle. We could still be carrying on managing what we thought these two species needed, rather than what they actually need, if we hadn’t been watching with interest what the Knepp re-wilding was doing.
Nature, by its own intrinsic character is ordered, and yet chaotic. Each species, usually through a random genetic mutation has developed its own intricately balanced niche in the web of life. Humans are the only species who appear to also have the capacity to consciously destroy their own niche. What Knepp has done has been to relinquish control over knowing what the outcome of our management (or non management) might be, and let nature take the reins. It might not be appropriate everywhere, but I am sure that there are many more places where we could find space to watch nature evolve, rather than to make it submit to our control. In the process we will start to see ‘safe’ wild spaces evolve where we as humans can go to have more connected and genuine experiences of wildness and nature.
Considering the devastating impacts that humans have had on their environment, particularly over the last century, it seems appropriate that our conservation ambition should at least match our appetite for destruction through something as ‘extreme’ as re-wilding. It also seems fair that, in our current state of ignorance in Britain as to what ‘wild’ even really means, we should be allowed to go through a process of learning to find out. Re-wilding is not the only solution to our wildlife crisis, but it is one of a suite of tools we can use to help us restore healthy landscapes.
Find out more about the Knepp Estate Wildland Project here: www.knepp.co.uk