Tag Archives: Biodiversity

Rewilding: a utopian vision?

Up til now, I haven’t done much thinking about the idea of rewilding. The idea of returning large swathes of land to a state of wilderness, and reintroducing apex predators to help manage that biodiversity, instinctively appeals to me. I love the thought that lynx may, one day, roam free in Britain. That we may, one day, have wild spaces which nature manages, rather than man. That the balance between humans and wildlife is shifted to a more equitable arrangement. But is it too impractical to ever take place?

Last week I heard a fascinating talk from Peter Smith, one of the founders of the Wildwood Trust, and a keen proponent of the idea of rewilding. The talk is available to view on YouTube. It’s long, but I urge you to watch it.

I won’t try to repeat all his points here – you can listen to them for yourself. Instead, I’ll just share some of the things that struck me from his talk.

  1. Focus on the economic argument: conservationists are unlikely to convince politicians, businesses or even the general population about such a radical idea as rewilding by focusing on the ecological benefits. Peter Smith’s talk had a large focus on the economic case for rewilding. For example, he argues that rewilding would more than pay for itself through the flood prevention benefits it would provide.
  2. Reintroducing some species will lead to benefits for many others. For example, beavers create the right sort of habitats for a whole range of species, including water voles, otters, molluscs and bats. Reintroducing pine martens could help red squirrels. And Surrey would be a good place to reintroduce pine martens, as it has the right sort of habitat – lots of well connected woodlands.
  3. There is enough space: rewilding will require large areas of land. On a crowded island like ours, that can seem completely unfeasible. But looking into our land use reveals potential. In England, more land area is used for golf courses than for homes. And, throughout the UK, much of the land that is being farmed is unproductive land that would never be farmed if it weren’t for the perverse incentives of subsidies. Peter Smith argues that we don’t need to farm that land – we can feed ourselves without it.

He also presents some interesting ideas on how the taxation system needs to move away from taxing income to taxing land, to bring an end to a system that incentivises purchase of machinery rather than hiring of labour.

Rewilding is a wonderful, visionary idea. But will it ever come to pass? The trouble, as Peter Smith admits, is that the people who benefit from the current system, and have most to lose from the changes needed to bring about rewilding at a large scale, are the people with the most power. A massive proportion of our land is in the hands of a small number of people who make a large amount of money from the status quo.

Chalk grassland: Europe’s rainforest?

Sometimes places that look barren or dull can be full of diverse wildlife, on closer inspection. I am a bit of a tree fan, so it’s always been the woods of Box Hill, with their rare box trees, that have excited me. While the grassy slopes of the hill have appealed to me aesthetically, I assumed that the real wildlife was elsewhere.

The grassy slope to the summit of Box Hill
The grassy slope to the summit of Box Hill

A recent walk up the hill on a sunny day made me suspect I might be wrong.  What, from afar, looks like boring old grass, is actually a huge variety of plant species, including many different flowers. And these plants were buzzing with insect life.

An orchid and moth
Chalk grasslands are home to a huge range of plant and insect species

A bit of reading up on the subject has confirmed that my earlier assumptions were well wide of the mark. Chalk grassland, grazed by sheep and unfertilised, is one of the UK’s richest for plant and insect diversity. The poor, thin soil, and regular grazing, means no single species can dominate.  A square metre of chalk grassland may have up to 40 different plant species, leading to some calling it Europe’s answer to the rainforest.

The chalk grassland slopes of Box Hill
The chalk grassland slopes of Box Hill, looking towards the woods

This diversity of plants gives food and shelter to a wide range of insects.  41 different types of butterfly have been found on Box Hill, including some of the rarest in the UK. I didn’t even know there were that many butterfly species in Britain.

Chalk grassland is in itself quite rare. It is an internationally important habitat and is a priority in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.Besides the North and South Downs there aren’t many other large areas of chalk grassland left. Much has been lost in the last 50 years due to changes in farming, (intensification including use of fertiliser and over grazing), encroachment of scrub where grassland isn’t grazed, and development of land for other purposes. Only 1% of the Surrey Hills has remnant chalk grassland cover.

Looking south from Box Hill
Looking south from Box Hill

There’s been quite a lot of controversy locally about a recent Court of Appeal judgement allowing some chalk grassland to be turned into an exclusive golf club. Neatly manicured, fertilised and herbicided greens and fairways are deserts compared to natural chalk grassland.

While it may not have the immediate feel of the wild that you get in woods or at the coast, chalk grasslands are rich habitats, and need protection. Losing chalk grassland means losing a unique and fragile ecosystem, which we will be poorer without.

Looking from Box Hill towards Dorking
Looking from Box Hill towards Dorking

Alien invaders 1: Canada Geese

Canada GeeseEach day I walk through the park, past the mill pond, and nod good morning to one particular goose. He’s quite distinctive, with the white marks on his face. He’s the patriarch of the community of Canada Geese on the mill pond. While his many goslings are growing up, he tirelessly watches over them, protecting them. (Unlike the ducks, which take a rather more laissez faire approach to parenting, letting their tiny ducklings zoom off or get left behind.)

Over the years I’ve grown affectionate towards him – you’ve got to admire that kind of devotion. A couple of years ago a tree fell right on top of the nest his mate was sitting on, yet miraculously she and the eggs survived, and together they brought up the large brood. I was rooting them on, each morning anxiously counting the number of goslings to make sure they were still surviving.


So it came as more of a surprise to me than it should have, when I learned that they count as an invasive non-native species. I mean, the clue’s in their name: Canada Geese. But I still find it hard to think of them in the same category as Japanese knotweed. According to the GB Non-native species secretariat, an invasive non-native species is any non-native animal or plant that has the ability to spread causing damage to the environment, the economy, our health and the way we live.

So, are Canada Geese a problem? They’ve lived in the UK since they were first brought from North America to St James Park back in the 17th century. But their numbers have increased hugely over the last 60 years, going from 4000 in 1953 to around 89,000 in 2000. They are viewed by many as pests – they make a lot of mess on footpaths in parks, and there are concerns they may spread salmonella to cattle. Canada Geese who are nesting or looking after young can be aggressive towards people (which can be a problem as they seem to like living in public parks, bringing them into close contact with people, particularly children). Their droppings may increase the nutrient content of water, which reduces oxygen content for fish. And around airports there have been problems with damage to planes and people when they collide with Canada Geese. The main issue is they are so numerous…

In fact, in some places the eggs of Canada Geese are treated so they will not hatch, to try and prevent them from expanding even more. So while I was rooting on each of the goslings, should have been hoping the reverse? I try and be fairly unsentimental about my love for wildlife. But I can’t yet find it in my heart to feel anything other than affection for at least this one particular Canada Goose, alien invader though he may be.