What are we waiting for?

Reading George Monbiot’s book on re-wilding has made me think a great deal about what would need to change in Britain in order for us to restore nature to something like a sustainable level, and to give it the resilience it will need for the coming changes wrought by climate change.

I think we do need some areas that are re-natured – I prefer this to re-wilding, as wild and wilderness mean so many different things to different people. These will need to be big, really big. Mark Fisher of the Wildland Institute at the University of Leeds reckons that 250,000ha would be enough for a sustainable population of 9 wolf packs. An area this large would also sustain more of the really large-scale natural process on which our nature depends, including things like windthrow, tree diseases and possibly fires (in the warm future) and the interaction between these events and large scale wild herbivore grazing. And while we can reintroduce predators like the Wolf and Lynx, and the smaller ecosystem engineers like the Beaver, Boar, Wisent and Elk, what about the lost big boys – the Aurochsen, Straight tusked elephant, Rhino, Hippo and Giant Deer?

I think it’s hard for us to imagine what the Pleistocene British landscape would have looked like, with these giant herbivores roaming around making a real mess, when they weren’t being trophically cascaded by their predators. It does seem, in comparison, that the Holocene Forest would have been a rather quiet, closed place, without these giants. Should we introduce some large beasties into the re-nature areas, as Monbiot suggests. Could we GM a forest elephant into a Straight-tusker? Or are feral cows and ponies the best we can do. With climate change coming, should we deliberately encourage the flora of warmer climes – Holm Oak, Sycamore, European Plane, Downy Oak, Walnut and so on?

These re-natured areas could be seen as the land equivalent of marine “no take zones”, where nature could both find sanctuary and provide a source for colonisation into the rest of the country.

250,000ha is a very large area though. In fact, it’s the size of Dorset. What would happen to all the towns and villages? Would people carry on living within this mosaic of re-naturingland. And how much would it cost to acquire all this land, even if the owners agreed to sell. At a conservative £10,000/ha, that’s a tidy £2.5Bn. Still that is not beyond all possibility. I have a feeling many owners would simply refuse to sell up – but others would undoubtedly want to come and live there. Could there be a mosaic of continuing land use interspersed with “re-natured land”. That seems slightly more plausible, but with current legislation restricting “dangerous wild animals” to living only within high security fences, the logistics seem implausible, to say the least.

OK so 250,000ha is probably totally unfeasible. What about 50,000ha? That may be too small to support a viable population of wolves, unless they roamed beyond the confines of the re-natured zone, which, without a very large fence constantly repaired, they would do.

The Semi-Natural
It is less ambitious to argue that 20% of the UK should be managed semi-natural habitat – that means that farming, forestry and other land-uses continue but at a sufficiently extensive level to enable sustainable populations of native species to thrive. 15% of England supports priority habitat at the moment, so this is not an unrealistic target. There will be a small amount of semi-natural habitat lost within the “re-naturing” areas, but overall the gains will outweigh the losses. “re-naturing” areas and semi-natural areas should form a coherent network, as Making Space for Nature has recommended.Further, many of our semi-natural habitats are in tiny patches which are unsustainable (the lifeboats are sinking). We need much larger patches of semi-natural habitat.

High Nature Value Farming
Outside these areas, we should support the maintenance of High Nature Value farming areas (HNV). These areas do support some priority habitat, but within a matrix of extensively managed farmland. Roughly a third of agricultural land in the UK is HNV farmland: this needs supporting – ideally through reflecting the natural value of the products it produces, rather  than through subsidy support.

Letting Go
If we reduce (to zero) land-use intensity to benefit nature in some places, does that mean that we have to increase land-use intensity elsewhere to make up the difference? The unpalatable answer is yes. I think there are strong arguments now to say that for large areas of lowland farmland, there is practically no nature left, apart from the extremely adaptive species. Would it not be better to concentrate on producing food from these areas, and focus effort on those other areas where nature still survives? That may mean letting some species go extinct and that is definitely controversial. Figures in State of Nature show that specialist species continue to decline despite all our efforts and that decline will eventually lead to extinction. That process may well accelerate with climate change.

Who owns what, where?
It’s worth remembering that the Forestry Commission own of manage over a Million Hectares, Defence Estates owns or manages 240,000ha. What’s left of the country conservation agencies own probably over 100,000ha of land as National Nature Reserves.The National Trust owns 267000ha in England and Wales, and NTS owns another 76000ha. The Wildlife Trusts collectively manage nearly 100,000ha and RSPB itself owns c150000ha. Prince Charles’ Duchy of Cornwall owns 54000ha and the Church of England another 50,000ha. These two landowners profess to place nature at the core of their value systems.

Over 1.3 Mha of land is in public hands, and nearly 600,000ha in wildlife charities or similar. The problem is that too much of the resource is scattered, surviving as islands in a sea of hostile land-use. Could there be some process of land-swapping to agglomerate the land-holdings into large clusters within a network? There would need to be some complicated land transfers but there is no reason why this area of land could not be used as the basis for new re-naturing areas, a coherent network of large semi-natural areas, and a sustainable area of HNV farmland.

What are we waiting for?

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 agriculture, biodiversity, conservation, environmental policy, farming, Floodplains, George Monbiot, grazing, management, public land, rewilding, semi-natural, uplands, wolves and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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