The “Wild” Places of the British Isles

“There is a love of wild nature in everybody, an ancient mother-love showing itself whether recognized or no, and however covered by cares and duties”

– John Muir

What is Wild?

When I was a student I would have said I had a passion for re-wilding, back then a little known discussion, it now has much more traction and is in the forefront of public discussion. Having sort-of kept up with articles about re-introducing wolves, I decided (triggered largely as a result of this post by Under Western Skies) to research more and re-evaluate my passive, sort-of interest and it has reignited my passion (big time!).

One of the biggest questions for me is what does wild even mean anyway? When you type it into the Oxford Dictionary there are five definitions. The first two of these are:

  1. (of an animal or plant) living or growing in the natural environment; not domesticated or cultivated.
  2. (of a place or region) uninhabited, uncultivated, or inhospitable.

When I was a student I remember distinctly writing about how living on a hillside and walking to school in winter felt “wild” to me. Winter in the north east of England can be harsh and unforgiving (ironically had the landscape been a natural one where I grew up there probably would have been a forest to keep the winter winds at bay).

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Woodland, County Durham

The term wild can mean a lot of things to a lot of different people, but if we look at wild in terms of the naturalness of a place, yes the British landscape maybe windswept, bleak, breathtakingly beautiful, but wild it is not.

There is barely a scrap of dirt on our little rock untouched by the hand of man, centuries of farming, hunting and deforestation have left our environment battered and scarred. Beautiful scars yes, but not natural places.

Green and Pleasant… Garden?

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Much of the UKs lowland landscape is farmland interspersed by stands of woodland and hedgerows.

Consider it like this… there are 65.6 million people in the UK, that’s a lot for our small islands to handle and we have been here in some form or another for about twelve thousand years. For a long time a small population existed, then came permanent settlements, cultivation, mass deforestation and population increase. And not too long ago, we had a thirst for fur and a distaste for predators and a blatant disregard for ecological balance.

William Blake’s famous Hymn Jerusalem describes England as a “green and pleasant land” and it is. Despite most of our population living in urban areas, only 6.8% of the UKs land mass is classified as urban, and that includes gardens and greenspace, so in reality the built environment is even less than that. However, that does not mean that the land is not used.

The root of our manicured and heavily managed out-doors is in our ecology, a key concept is that of Trophic Cascades, basically “trophic” means levels of organisation in an ecosystem, remember learning about food chains and webs? A trophic cascade is the idea that if you remove predators from an ecosystem then all of the levels underneath (prey animals, plants, insects, microorganisms etc.) are affected. Generally when a predator is removed, their prey species population explodes, thus negatively affecting the species at lower levels, examples of this include wolves in Yellowstone (see below) and in Sea Otters in the pacific north west of North America when they were almost hunted to extinction in the early 1900s, causing the Sea Urchin population to explode and decimate Kelp forests.

Basically the UK has very few top predators left, and no large carnivores, therefore an abundance of grazers (and of course livestock farming and invasive species) and relatively tree-less landscape.

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Grazers are largely responsible for the appearance of the uplands.

To use an outdated term the natural “climax community” or steady-state ecosystem (i.e. if all human interference disappeared what our lands would revert back to over time) of much of the UK is forest yet only 13% of the land remains so, making it one of the least wooded areas in Europe. And much of this woodland is managed. Added to this a staggering 71% (17.2 million hectares) of our land area is farmed.

Take the Lake District as an example, many consider it to be the jewel in the crown of England, but it’s a landscape carved out almost entirely by human activity. To the untrained (and perhaps more urban-familiar) eye it may look almost as wild as you can get on our little islands (that honour is probably best bestowed on the highlands of Scotland) in actual fact it’s a hive of human-landscape interaction, from sheep grazing, to slate mining, to managed forestry.

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Borrowdale, Lake District

“Re-wilding” or “Not Interfering”?

Re-wilding is a subject a long debated subject in the UK. To re-wild an area of land is to restore it to its natural uncultivated state and in many ways it is a concept that is completely unrealistic for the UK if you take that definition in its simplest form.

We simply cannot do that if we still expect 65.6 million (and counting!) people to still live here, but we can (and this is where the term is utilised more widely) return some areas of land to a (relatively) natural state, and in fact conservation programmes have been doing this for years. The term is also used widely when debating the reintroduction of wild animals that were made locally extinct by persecution or competition from humans. None of these capture the imagination quite like the reintroduction of large carnivores like wolves, lynx and bears.

In the UK there are many charities and projects campaigning and implementing just that. Like the charity Rewilding Britain set up in the wake of the publication of Journalist George Monbiot’s 2013 book Feral (which I must admit I haven’t read yet, it’s on the agenda though, watch this space).

I first became aware of the campaigns for re-introduction of large carnivores as part of a study trip to Ennerdale, one of the remotest valleys in the Lake District back when I was doing my degree several years ago now. Wild Ennerdale is a wild-land partnership with the aim of re-naturalising the valley, allowing the re-establishment of natural woodland with 11 key principles to ensure this is looked at in a holistic manner and that interventions are kept to a minimum. It is such a small area though and in isolation it’s hard to see how much further it can go, connectivity and larger areas must surely have to be involved for success?

When we talk about re-wilding, Scotland is often billed as the top candidate. It is undoubtedly the “wildest” of our countries, the highlands being the least densely populated with mountains, glens and lochs a plenty. Yet much of these lands are still grazed, managed for game, largely tree-less and full of deer.

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Red Deer (Cervus elaphus), Perthshire.

We have to face the fact that we are small and only have so much land that would be suitable for reintroductions (of large species anyway). We are also a nation of islands, so unlike the Netherlands and Belgium, where Grey Wolves are naturally making their own comeback, these species (unless they have wings!) are going to have a damn hard time getting here without a little help. So in order to “re-wild” we have to intervene and repair some of the damage we have done.

Successes and Potential

There are a number of existing success stories already, (some deliberate, some accidental) but these are animals perceived not to be especially dangerous, like Beavers, Sea Eagles and Wild Boar (the latter I assure you can be extremely dangerous!). There is also a movement towards re-forestation with charities like The Woodland Trust leading the way. The government has recently announced a “Northern Forest” which would spread across much of the more urbanised areas of the north of England.

Sea Eagles are a globally endangered species, and were persecuted to the point of extinction in the UK in the early 20th century. In the 1970s a reintroduction scheme was started in the west of Scotland following on from additional concerns about the effects of chemical pesticides. Several waves of chicks were introduced in the years that followed and the west now has an established population. An east Scotland project also followed.

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Autumn colours in mixed woodland, Falls of Acharn

Beavers were hunted to extinction in the UK in the 16th century due to demand for fur, meat and scent glands. There are reintroduction schemes in Scotland (and some rogues) and Devon and consultations about reintroductions in Wales. Beavers are considered to be a “Keystone Species” or “ecosystem engineers” in that they have a profound impact on the environment around them, including providing us with ecosystem services such as flood defences.

Wolves are perhaps the most widely talked about species on the topic of reintroduction (and certainty the ones I’d heard most about, even in my relative apathy). A potential solution to the issue of deer in Scotland, is it possible that these magnificent carnivores could return to our shores? I remember studying the effect of the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park, where there was a problem with Elk numbers. Following the reintroduction, improvements across the whole ecosystem could be seen, transforming both the ecosystem and its physical geography.  One man especially keen on re-introduction of Wolves is Paul Lister on his estate, the Alladale Wilderness Reserve in the highlands.

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Grey Wolf (Canis lupus) Photo credit: Pexels

Wolves however are problematic, they come with a complex mythology, designed to scare, look at the fairy-tale Little Red Riding hood  or films like The Day After Tomorrow for example. Much of the uplands are used to farm sheep, and farmers understandably have concerns. This 2015 article by Adam Weymouth for the BBC explains the complicated feelings of people in the area.  Farmers across Europe are learning to live with Wolves, where in many areas they are returning all by themselves. Although they are not accepted in all countries with open arms, as this recent articleHarmless or vicious hunter? The uneasy return of Europe’s wolves by Patrick Barkham for the Guardian, highlights.

There is an excellent quote at the end of the article from Professor Chapron of Sweden’s University of Agricultural Sciences, “It’s insulting to the world that one of the richest countries, Norway, cannot have more than 50 wolves, considering Botswana, Mozambique and other extremely poor countries in Africa, are working really very hard to keep their lions. Imagine the outcry if those nations sought to kill half of their lions?”. It’s insulting to the world… such an interesting idea, we push for conservation in less developed nations, who haven’t destroyed their ecosystems yet, but are not prepared to take one for the team and preserve what we have in our own back yards.

When I visited Canada in 2016 I asked one of the staff at Knight Inlet Lodge in the Great Bear Rainforest about wolves (naively hoping to see one) and she said that “seeing a wolf was like winning the lottery” and that she had only seen them twice in 12 years. Unlike the bears that the lodge’s business is dependant upon the wolves are much warier of humans and actively avoid them.

Another carnivore, the Eurasian Lynx went extinct in the UK earlier than most of the other species, in or around the year 700. They are smaller, cuter and less scary than wolves, so perhaps a more suitable candidate, perhaps a gateway to getting used to living with larger, wild carnivores again? I was beyond ecstatic to find that Lynx UK Trust have recently submitted a licence application for a reintroduction scheme in Kielder Forest, not only is this positive progress but in my neck of the woods too! I for one would be a more regular visitor to the forest if I thought there was any chance of catching a glimpse. I have absolutely everything crossed in the hope that it will be successful!

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Eurasian Lynx (Lynx lynx) Photo credit: Pexels

To a lesser extent there is some debate about bears too, they went extinct in the UK probably after the lynx about 1000 years ago or so, but surely they even more controversial than wolves and in a country with such little land mass. Our native species is the Brown Bear, a big, powerful carnivore capable of roaming for hundreds of miles, so we have to be realistic.  Areas with healthy bear populations tend to be large, like the Great Bear Rainforest which is some 250 miles in length and 21 million acres, Scotland is only 19.5 million acres, and the highlands (our most sparsely populated area) only about half of that, less if you discount the islands. Nothing would make my conservationist heart skip more than seeing Bears return to our shores, but I just don’t think we have the space?

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Young Brown Bear (Ursus arctos), Glendale Cove, Canada.

Disconnect Fosters Apathy

Coming at it from a different angle, we can examine the way we consider ourselves with respect to nature, are we not in fact animals after all? Are we not part of the environment? Do we not have a duty to preserve and enhance it?

When I was studying for my teaching qualification I had a colourful debate with a fellow student who questioned why he should have to teach shark awareness to divers because “there are no sharks here”. There are in fact twenty one species of shark in UK waters all year round plus seasonal visitors, yes there is an extremely low risk of shark attack (if you saw a Porbeagle you’d probably need a change of dry suit…) but this just highlights the level of disconnect.

I am currently pouring over The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, a beautiful homage to the language of the natural world that we are losing at an alarming rate, highlighting our ever increasing isolation from it. And if we are disconnected from something how can we care about it? And we have been disconnected from fully functioning natural ecosystems on land in the UK for hundreds of years.

One of the dangers for me with regards to re-wilding is the need to potentially fence in the areas, effectively creating zoos albeit with large enclosures, that’s not learning to live with nature, that’s sanitising it for our own amusement. For something to be truly wild or natural, it needs connectivity.  Paul Lister and the Alladale Wilderness Reserve have received criticism regarding this. Legally the public have the right to roam thus fencing in large swathes to keep the animals in (and humans out) would be contravening that.

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Bleak (but beautiful) and treeless, a common landscape in our uplands.

The natural world is not something that can be behind a fence for us to go and take photos of on holiday, then head back to our little boxes and swift forget about, we are part of it… whether we like it or not. Re-wilding cannot be looked at in isolation, ecosystems are complex and dynamic, qualities we need to adopt. We need to learn to live alongside these species and recognise that we share our land and resources with them and that ultimately this benefits us.

Recognising The Value of Wild

Understandably, when it comes to reintroducing large carnivores, some areas of the society are going to raise concerns. Sheep farmers in particular have been a group resistant to proposals for re-introductions, and indeed any plans for this kind of project need to include views of the wider society, but in particular those most affected and ensure robust, inclusive proposals that ensure adequate compensation for farmers for any losses that may be sustained as a result of re-introduction. It is evident what side of the fence I come down on in this debate, but I accept we need to remember that farming is woven very tightly in to the fabric of our land, and that is not something to be disregarded.

Enhancing and protecting natural areas enhance our biodiversity and landscape, which go hand in hand with resilience to things like climate change and flooding. Protecting and enhancing the natural world can only increase the value of what have been named ecosystem services. i.e. the financial and societal benefit of the natural world.

Equally the value of re-wilding to the economy should not be overlooked, and this is one of the strongest counter arguments to resistance from farmers. Many (like myself) are prepared to pay vast sums of money for a wildlife experience and ecotourism is estimated to be worth a staggering 600 billion US dollars globally. The re-introduction of Sea Eagles on Mull alone is worth £5 million per year and supports 110 jobs. Ospreys bring in about £3.5 million in Scotland (just imagine what wolves could do for the economy). There must be opportunity to be had in reintroducing species for locals, farmers and landowners, and perhaps this might be of greater value than (or can at least be run in conjunction with) farming and shooting?

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Red Grouse (Lagopus lagopus scotica). Many uplands are managed for shooting of game birds.

I do adore my little corner of the planet, and if you are not from here (or if you are and don’t get out much) I encourage you to get out of the urban sprawl. The UK is so much more than our capital, which (while a great place in its own right) is not reflective of our identity and the rich tapestry of history, culture and landscape that exists across our islands.

 

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My dogs swimming in a favourite spot, Grange-in-Borrowdale

I am fortunate enough to live in a semi-rural area, be within an hour (or so) drive of 4 of England’s National Parks, right next to an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and live closer to the Highlands of Scotland to than London and hectic South East…

…I just wish we had a little bit more that we could call truly wild.

 

 

Resources:

In researching for this post I feel positive for the future, there seems to be a great deal more discussion and support for re-wilding than I had previously been aware of. This for sure is not the last blog post on this subject from me! I’d love to hear what you all think.

I have collated a series of resources below if anyone would like to get involved (please comment if there’s anything you think should be added to the list):

 

8 thoughts on “The “Wild” Places of the British Isles

  1. I’m gratified to have my post mentioned in such a well-written, thoughtful article. I could comment on nearly every paragraph you’ve written, but I’d merely be gilding the lily.
    There are some significant distinctions between the “wildness” of Britain and that of the U.S. and Canada, but more similarities than divergence. I was struck, from my first visit to Britain in 1971, by how thoroughly “lived-on” the land was. Deforestation and grazing had been in progress in your country for 1,000 years before my own ancestors got on boats and came HERE (variously, from Scotland, Hull and Grasmere). There’s significant reading to be done, as you describe, about the myths and attitudes toward wolves. Here, we have a nation of well-armed hunters with trigger fingers itching to shoot a wolf, (multiple varieties of) bear, lynx, mountain lion, wild boar, pronghorn, elk, (multiple species of) deer, etc. I personally know a man who’s shot at least one of each!
    I appreciate your suggestions for reading. I’ll track ’em down. I’ll write more on this topic and look forward to pointing readers to this excellent piece. It’s obviously a complex topic: one that merits serious consideration by all of us who value whatever it is we mean by “nature,” “wild,” or “environment.”
    I saw wolves. A pack of wolves. In Denali National Park. A rare event, even for the people who work there. One of the high points of my life. My photos won’t qualify for National Geographic, but it was a moment I’ll remember as long as memory persists: https://wp.me/pH6ZJ-50I.
    Thank you. I look forward to more.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Brad! Your post really got me thinking about our relationship with nature so thank you! It’s really interesting looking at different countries and their attitudes to wildlife!
      Sounds like you had an amazing time in Denali, thanks for sharing – that post has made me want to go. How wonderful that you saw wolves I can bet it was an amazing experience! Thank you for your kind words.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for a very thoughtful, well-written and interesting article. Regarding wolves, you may enjoy A Wolf Called Romeo, the true story of a black wolf’s 7-year interaction with the people and dogs of Juneau, Alaska, beautifully written by Nick Jans (2015).

    Liked by 1 person

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