Wilding rewilding

On the 7th March I set off this morning to walk my usual circuit of the local forest for I find that a long lone walk is the very best for me to wrestle with thoughts and assemble my ideas about nature; to tussle at them and think of where we should be going with the restoration of nature in a big way.  I enjoyed hearing the newly returned robins and chaffinches singing in the thickets when I passed through the gate at the Gruffalo tree. Further on, in the more mature Scots pines I heard siskins and crossbills. But it was a dreich morning with clouds so low that they wet me without raining. 

I was thinking about where we need to go as more and more rewilded land is given to nature recovery. We will have to think of what else is required not just rewilding but thinking about the next stages of ecological restoration.  What we accepted as normal in the past may become one of our big obstacles to taking the vision further. I know this forest well and nowadays there are no apex predators, because wolf, lynx and brown bear are all long gone. So the middle guild predators, badger, fox, pine marten and otter are now top of the pile and are often in high numbers because they have no pressure from above. This cascades down as extra predation on the remaining species; for example hole nesting birds like tits find it increasingly difficult to successfully fledge their young in dead trees when plentiful martens examine every potential nest cavity. Badgers replicate that with ground nesting birds and otters with nesting waterfowl. 

We have to try to replicate the impact of the trophic chains of old. Until the apex predators are restored we have to be the apex predator, not in the ways of the past when the human aim was often extermination but in a holistic wildlife management way that mimics and replicates natural processes. That will require reductions in the middle guild predators to try to balance ecological restoration. This will be a difficult concept for many to accept. Easier to accept may be a reappraisal of controlling deer populations, where in future on nature reserves, scientific sites and rewilding areas we should not be removing the carcasses of animals shot always with copper, not lead, ammunition. We should also replicate apex predators killing deer – we can take away the saddle and the haunches to eat but all the remainder should be left for scavenging meat-eating birds, mammals and invertebrates. Additionally, shooting should be random throughout the whole range and the annual cycle, again mirroring natural predation. 

We also need in the long term to think about redundancy of some present wildlife management activities. I’ve always thought of nest boxes for birds, bats and insects being a bit like sticking plaster; we have to have them because we’ve drastically reduced woodland for centuries, cut down all the dead trees for firewood and tidied up the woods so that natural holes are really scarce. But when 50% of the land has been rewilded for decades there will be enough natural nesting holes and nest boxes become a thing of the past. The same thinking should be applied to feeding birds with non-native food such as peanuts and fat balls. I think that such feeding skews the avian fauna, selecting certain species that are capable of making that switch from natural foods in the forest to relying on bird feeders. Once we rewild the habitats in a big way we need to rewild the species.

This worry often comes to the surface of my mind when I see whooper swans – that beautiful large waterfowl which comes south from Iceland to winter with us. They also bring those beautiful trumpeting calls as they sail by. During winters in the 1960s and 1970s I’d see families and small groups scattered on lochs and marshes throughout the Scottish Highlands with a larger wintering flock on the Insh Marshes. They were all eating natural plant material and seeds. Then large scale feeding with maize and cereals started at nature reserves – it was spectacular for people to see large herds close up. Those that scraped a reasonable living in natural places were at a disadvantage compared to the ‘fed ones’ and soon joined the queues. Now I no longer see families at my favourite lochs, of yesteryear, where I could watch them upending to eat water plants on the sandy bottom. To me that’s a loss of naturalness but also in an era of a human pandemic, it is pertinent to remind ourselves that artificially feeding large numbers of wild birds in concentrated areas is risky when the next avian disease comes along. They also need rewilding.

So as we win the argument about having much larger areas of the Earth’s surface for nature and ecological functions, we also have to learn how we encourage nature to go back into nature and not rely on us putting out food on bird tables or building nest boxes.  I think that will be a difficult concept for many but necessary and not impossible. Along my track this morning I saw recent work by the Forestry Commission; a big stand of lodgepole pine and larch had been harvested and all the dead trees left standing. What a gain for nature. This would never have happened in state forests thirty years ago when tidiness was sacrosanct. Now when trees are replanted or regenerated there, raptors can perch on the tall stumps by day and owls by night to hunt rodents that may damage young trees. Even the mechanically flailed edges of the forest track need assessing in a rewilding way, it may look a mess but no different from the actions of long lost large herbivores.  Ecological restoration or rewilding requires a recognition of multiple processes over time, many of which require changes within our minds and prejudices.