Wildness is in short supply in the British lowlands. Increasing development and intensive agriculture dominate the landscapes, and the consequences for wildlife have been overwhelmingly negative. Long-term monitoring by the BTO has confirmed that many farmland- and woodland-breeding birds have undergone large declines since data gathering began in the late 1960s. Going even further back, to the decades before the Second World War and prior to the removal of huge quantities of hedgerows, trees, woodland, heathland and unimproved grassland, our current bird populations would appear even more diminished.
New ways of creating extended and diversified habitat for wildlife are desperately needed to offset the effects of escalating human demand for food, wood-based products, housing and recreational space. At the time of writing, there is uncertainty about the strength of the post-Brexit measures that will be introduced by the UK Government for rebuilding biodiversity as the country transitions away from EU environmental laws. The Government’s ‘25 Year Environment Plan’ commits to establishing a Nature Recovery Network of wildlife-rich areas in England, but there has so far been no clarification of proposed locations or scale. A commitment to protect 30% of the UK’s land for biodiversity by 2030 has been much publicised – but existing National Parks and AONBs account for 26% of this 30%, and these areas are not necessarily delivering the best they can for biodiversity.
The Lawton Review, published in 2010, established a framework for an upgrade to England’s network of protected wildlife areas. It concluded that ‘putting more heterogeneity, in all its forms, back into the landscape as part of better management and habitat recreation and restoration is essential, and often simple to do.’ In practical terms, this is often expressed as more habitat with bigger and more well-connected patches, all managed better to improve habitat quality. These goals are relevant now more than ever for the future of our birds and other wildlife.
Integrating conservation into other land uses such as forestry and agriculture will continue to be important, but integration is essentially a compromise that is vulnerable to market and social changes. If, as a society, we want a vibrant and secure future for nature, it is vitally important to allocate more land to areas where conservation has primacy.
A mixture of approaches is required. On existing areas of protected land, traditional conservation interventions will be needed to maintain their special interests and value. Elsewhere, working with landowners to create more habitat patches to help species move more easily through the landscapes is critical. Every opportunity should be seized to design and establish large new reserves: Carlton Marshes and Lakenheath in Suffolk, Steart Marshes in Somerset and Wallasea Island in Essex are splendid examples of what can be achieved with such an approach. Finally, rewilding has the potential to supplement the existing network of protected areas by creating large areas of new wildlife habitat, often on low-productivity farmland.
Rewilding has burst onto the conservation scene with enormous vigour in recent years. It has energised debates about the direction of conservation, attracting passionate advocacy and entrenched criticism. Rewilding allows nature to take the lead without targets, differing fundamentally from many aspects of conventional conservation, which typically focus on defined outcomes such as maximising the numbers of a particular bird species. True terrestrial rewilding aims to establish naturally functioning ecosystems, with few constraints on the movements of the animals within them. Big spaces, long timescales and introductions of key ‘missing’ species are required to reach this state, with the Scottish Highlands offering the best prospects for true rewilding in Britain. In reality, many of Britain’s ongoing rewilding projects involve low-intensity grazing within fenced areas of natural regeneration – ‘wilding’ seems a better term in these cases. The best-known example of such a project is the 1,400-ha Knepp Wildland Project in Sussex, which is home to impressive numbers of breeding Turtle Doves Streptopelia turtur and Common Nightingales Luscinia megarhynchos alongside high densities of commoner species.
Wilding can produce a wide spectrum of habitat types that differ in their tree- and shrub-cover composition, each with distinctive assemblages of birds and other wildlife. Increasing the intensity of grazing will tend to reduce woody regeneration, while relaxing grazing pressure will encourage such regeneration. Where fencing is used, allowing regeneration to become well established before introducing grazing animals is often essential if the aim is to create intricate mosaics of scrub and scattered trees. This type of habitat is scarce in many parts of Britain yet is enormously important for migrant, wintering and breeding birds. Gradual colonisation by shrubs and trees will happen on unfenced land, provided the grazing pressure is not too severe. In Uplands and Birds (Collins, 2020), Ian Newton describes how a reduction in deer numbers has stimulated natural tree growth on several Highland estates and reserves, which will eventually lead to an increase in habitat for Black Grouse Lyrurus tetrix, Capercaillie Tetrao urogallus, crossbills Loxia and other forest species.
The Government has pledged to plant 30,000 ha of trees annually across the UK by 2025, ostensibly to increase carbon capture, though it is frequently assumed that wildlife will also benefit. The value to wildlife of future forests depends strongly on the diversity of the habitat types contained within them and how they are managed. The quantity of trees planted, or the total area of forest created, is of no relevance as a metric of habitat quality. Wilding can make a contribution to the value of these forests for wildlife in two ways. First, allowing trees to naturally colonise a proportion of the land would guarantee that complex open vegetation – so important to a range of birds and other species – would be better represented. Not only are the young-growth habitat structures in planted woodlands typically more spatially uniform, but the canopy also closes much faster than is the case with natural regeneration. Secondly, by setting aside some substantial non-intervention areas, tracts of truly wild forest could be allowed to gradually develop, replete with massive trees, accumulations of dead wood and natural disturbance gaps. Wild Boar Sus scrofa, Eurasian Beavers Castor fiber and Eurasian Lynx Lynx lynx could all be an integral part of these wild forests. In the end, it will be surprising if the bulk of these new Government-initiated forests are not harvested for timber but, surely, we must think strategically and imaginatively about the wider opportunities.
In an entirely different context, wilding has much to offer as an alternative to conventional agri-environment prescriptions in lowland-farming landscapes. The experience of Suffolk Wildlife Trust, who took two areas of arable land out of production and combined natural regeneration with pond creation and restoration, is extremely encouraging (Casey et al. 2020). At less than 1 km2 each, these sites are much smaller than the Knepp estate, but the results indicate that small-scale wilding can produce environments that are highly attractive to species that are otherwise scarce on surrounding farmland. Skylarks Alauda arvensis rapidly colonised the areas during the early years of regeneration and remained at high density for up to ten years in areas where scrub was slow to develop. Common Whitethroats Curruca communis, Yellowhammers Emberiza citrinella and Linnets Linaria cannabina then colonised the areas of young, open scrub. As the scrub matured, species diversity increased. On the same land, high densities of grasshoppers and bush-crickets (Orthoptera) quickly became established, and Grass Snakes Natrix helvetica, Slow Worms Anguis fragilis and Common Lizards Zootoca vivipara rapidly colonised the area. The ponds have developed complex communities of amphibians, plants and invertebrates.
One of the most striking features is the speed with which such a large range of species can become established on these sites that, less than 20 years earlier, were intensively cultivated. The rate of natural regeneration varies greatly from field to field, but this merely adds to the complexity and longevity of suitable habitat conditions for early successional species, many of which have very limited available habitat on modern farmland. Their longer-term management is somewhat challenging because much of their value to wildlife will deteriorate as they move towards closed-canopy small woods. The best options would be either to fence and graze, once regeneration is well established, or, more drastically, return the land to its bare state and restart the whole process. Nonetheless, wider networks or clusters of such wild patches would be enormously valuable. Encouragingly, there is considerable appetite for adopting wilding approaches. Landowners are often inspired by visiting the Suffolk ‘arable wilding sites’ and become highly receptive to the idea of taking some of their own land out of production.
Wilding is not a substitute for conservation management such as that needed to maintain the special interest of coppiced woodland, species-rich fens, heathland and downland (Fuller & Gilroy 2021). However, by allowing a more nature-led approach in some areas, we may find that wildlife can adapt better to the changes that lie ahead. As a final thought, I suggest that wilding may eventually alter widely held perceptions of the habitats that some species need. Inevitably, birds have adapted to, or exploited, the opportunities available to them in landscapes that derive from thousands of years of human activity. If we can create more natural landscapes at a reasonably large scale, we may find that some of our ‘farmland’ birds can manage quite well without farming.
Casey, D., Fuller, R., Baker, J., Hawkins, J., & Roughton, J. 2020. Opportunities for wildlife through small-scale wilding in lowland farmed landscapes. Br. Wildl. 31: 179–187.
Fuller, R., & Gilroy, J. 2021. Rewilding and intervention: complementary philosophies for nature conservation in Britain. Br. Wildl. 32: 258–267.
Rob Fuller; e-mail [email protected]
Rob Fuller was a Director of Science at the British Trust for Ornithology. He is now retired.