Saum, Clarkson, re-wilding and whither British Conservation?

Pentridge scrub clearance 1

the challenge of maintaining Saum

I just read an excellent review of Feral on the blog of Green Alliance Director Matthew Spencer. It arrived, in timely fashion on the same day as George published his challenge to British Conservation in the Guardian.

I wrote this response to Matthew Spencer’s blog, and thought I would share it with you too.

Thanks for this excellent review Matthew.

I was a bit tougher on George than you are when I reviewed Feral (which you can find here but then again I have been arguing with him about it for the past two years. I have to say that, as someone who has worked in nature conservation for the past 25 years (and I now am much less sure about it than I was to begin with!), my views have changed as a result of this ongoing debate, but I am also pleased that George’s have too. He does now recognise the value of semi-natural habitats like the chalk downland you cherish, as does his re-wilding guru Mark Fisher. Mark up until very recently argued for re-wilding to best be pursued on semi-natural sites, because they might act as innoculation points for species to spread into currently sterile landscapes. Mark also recognises now that this is “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”.

George picked you up yesterday on your comment about sterile scrub, though he mistakenly claimed that scrub was more biodiverse than the downland. You’re both wrong! “Southern Mixed Scrub” is a very rich, though transient habitat. Conservation managers often attempt to maintain a mosaic of chalk downland of differing types, and southern mixed scrub at various stages of development. This is an extraordinarily rich habitat for wildlife and it is the dynamic boundary between the grassland and the scrub which makes it so rich. Many of the rarest species of this habitat occur on this boundary. It is so important ecologists have a special name for it – “Saum”. It is also extremely difficult to manage, because it’s effectively balancing on an ecological tightrope – the system is always tending towards one state (grassland) or the other (scrub to woodland). I think that in prehistory (especially in previous interglacials) this was a significant habitat in its own right, created as a result of wild herbivore grazing, fire, drought and storm. It’s the British equivalent of mediterranean garrigue or phrygana. Elephants would undoubtedly have helped maintain it.

And it’s for this reason that I don’t agree with George about re-wilding the uplands. First there is the knotty problem of Carbon – much of the uplands is now covered in carbon-rich soils (peat) – reforestation, if even possible on deep peat soils, would cause a large amount of C to be released. Secondly as you say the entrenched elite will not be pleased to lose their playgrounds.

But re-wilding would be so much more exciting and effective if it occurred in the lowlands, especially if it included a large coastal area. I don’t have a problem with the Clarksons of this worled paying handsomely to off road through it, or even shoot the odd bear. The key thing is scale. Mark Fisher estimates that an area of at least 250,000ha is needed to support 9 wolf packs. Back of the envelope sums suggested that would cost around £5bn. Which actually isn’t an unachievable figure.

Ultimately this isn’t about either conservation of semi-natural habitats OR re-wilding. I think we need both approaches, one for one set of reasons

– these cultural habitats are the lifeboats (most of them are badly leaking though) in which our existing biodiversity currently sits; these are also the places that hold so much of our history, culture and sense of place.

The other for the future

– re-wilded areas will be new sanctuaries for nature, and probably new nature (or a return of nature from previous interglacials) that will thrive under much warmer conditions.

I’m having a debate with George on re-wilding at the Linnean Society on 13th November. The event is already full but I am hoping that LinnSoc will film it and put it on the web.


About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in biodiversity, carbon storage, climate change, Downland, forest elephant, George Monbiot, management, Mesolithic, rewilding, Saum, scrub, straight tusked elephant, uplands and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Saum, Clarkson, re-wilding and whither British Conservation?

  1. nirgunapa says:

    In 1980, some 33 years ago, at a conference I had organised on behalf of the Hertfordshire Countryside Management Service, we had a very similar debate about scrub and chalk grassland with Richard Mabey. At that time we were trying to rescue the grassland from scrub invasion but Richard sowed the seed that a more balanced approach was needed. And he was right, of course.
    I suspect that re-wilding in the uplands is seen as easier in terms of practicalities but wonder in an increasingly market led and profit orientated land use environment whether anyone would attempt re-wilding at the scale suggested?

    • milesking10 says:

      Thanks Colin. I think there is probably greater scope for re-wilding in the lowlands, for the very reason that these places would be more accessible to a large population. An upland re-wild would risk becoming just another uber-rich elite’s playground.

  2. Steve Hallam says:

    Miles, a very interesting and thought provoking post. I’m coming to these issues late in life and grappling with their complexities. It is great to come across an article that is a) clearly written and b) analytical rather than overly emotive and tub thumping.

  3. Mark Fisher says:

    I let it go, Miles, when you put words in my mouth back in September – that “re-wilding should be complementary to protecting existing biodiversity, not as a “better” approach”. That is not what I wrote, nor could it be implied from what I did actually write (
    “If SSSI cover 6% of the UK, whats wrong with a proportion of that being wilder? Say 0.5% out of the 6%? That still leaves 5.5% or 10 times the area. To be honest, I’d rather not go for areas of SSSI for a number of reasons, and so ecological restoration doesn’t have to be a threat to any of the managed diversity”

    I don’t see that you can construe from that anything about babies, bath water and the relative merits of semi-natural versus wild areas! Firstly, I don’t use the word “rewilding” nowadays. Secondly, the main reason why I would rather not go for for areas of SSSI is because of the compositional approach to nature conservation that the SSSI system embodies, and which holds land in stasis, as evaluated by reference to the ridiculous criteria in Common Standards Monitoring. Thus ecological restoration is inimical to the SSSI system, as its very intent is to inhibit natural processes. Its a nonsense that natural processes and wild nature are thus “illegal” in Britain, because they are effectively in breach of the requirement to maintain stasis. It is very worrying to me that the small number of protected areas in England where there is a locally originated policy of non-intervention have no status in nature conservation in Britain, and that the gains in wild nature in these areas could be lost if the local policy is over turned. Since the SSSI system is unlikely to be reformed any time soon, then it makes sense not to jeopardize any approach to ecological restoration – or reinstatement of trophic diversity as George may put it – by being constrained by SSSI designation.

    Please – not a guru! Too heavy a load. I would have to say, anyway, that George doesn’t need a guru to come up with similar conclusions when faced with the same evidence. Do ypou know if Linn Soc will be recording the debate? It would be very useful for our students on the wilderness environments course at Leeds.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.