Saturday, 13 August 2016

I'm starting my own little rewilding project, and I'm really excited.

I've bought a field. Yup that's right, a whole field, with four sides. I'm officially a land owner. And I'm going to try and turn it into a little nature reserve through a gentle process of rewilding. It's very exciting.

I don't want to draw too much attention to myself, so I won't say exactly where the field is, but it's less than 20 acres in size and in a really lovely wetland part of England. For people in less densely populated parts of the world that might seem ridiculously small (it is), but it's a start, and it is what I can do right now.

The area as a whole is quite rich in wildlife, but heavily farmed. Not far from my field are a number of well established nature reserves separated by a mix of agriculture - grazing, hay meadows and arable farming. Criss-crossing the landscape is a maze of ditches and rivers, which provide some much needed refuge for aquatic species and important corridors for dispersal. A few small roads cut through the countryside.

The field itself and its immediate surroundings are free from environmental designations. While on the whole these are probably a good thing, it became clear during my planning for the project that it would be almost impossible to create a nature reserve if the field was in a SSSI or a Special Area of Conservation. Similarly if it was farmed under a Higher Level Stewardship Scheme (a deal for farm subsidies designed to encourage nature) then it would be very difficult. This is somewhat paradoxical, but the point of these schemes is to maintain things as they are, to maintain the habitat they are classified as. That makes sense if we assume that 99% of development will be negative, but it is frustrating to have someone explain why you would be required to maintain a bare green field bare and green (classed neutral grassland) in order to maintain it's condition as a SSSI, while allowing it to convert to wet forest over time (another designation under the SSSI scheme) would not be acceptable.

Anyway, more on that another time.

Currently the field is rough grazing, unimproved grassland, surrounded by lots of other fields which are much the same. Every few years the area floods, and even in summer the water table is just a half a metre from the top of the ditches that surround it. Frogs, dragonflies, damselflies, reed warblers, goldfinches, buzzards and herons  and a host of other species all frequent the area. There is evidence too of badgers and deer, eating the grass and digging in the banks. Wild boar have been spotted not too far away.

Why here? Well, I have always been interested in wetland wildlife and ecology, and deltas and marshes have a special place in my heart. There is something so wonderfully wild and inaccessible about them. At the same time, being flat, they are always deeply threatened with draining for farmland and house building so have become very rare. In the rewilding debate too they have become a little ignored, as most of the attention has been focused, understandably, on the issues of afforestation in the uplands and the damage caused by sheep and grouse moors.

So what is the plan?

Well, I've been doing preliminary surveys on the land, scoping out what is already there and discussing some gentle changes with the experts.

First, I would like to create a bit more open water in the area. So I'm hoping to put in a couple of shallow scrapes. Like these ones nearby, but with a more ragged edge!

This one is not actually in my field but is a (very straight) scrape nearby...

Second, I'm going to plant some trees, or perhaps get some local children to plant them for me. Not thousands, but an initial scattering. In an ideal world I wouldn't need to, but there are no immediate sources of seed to recolonise the land, and I'm only human. I'd like to see some changes in my lifetime. Hazel, alder, birch, willow, blackthorn and perhaps an oak or too. The ground is boggy, but many of these species will thrive in those conditions, and if they don't that's okay too. I'll try and do them as unevenly as possible, so if anyone knows a location generator for this type of thing let me know!

And that's about it. After that the hope is to sit back and see what comes along, to leave most of the field alone to develop as it will  (or not - I have been assured that left alone most of it will stay the same for decades). If it seems like a good thing, maybe I'll try and raise some money for more land.

Is it rewilding? Well I would argue yes, of a sort. Obviously the piece of land is too small to allow proper landscape scale rewilding, but the philosophy of allowing a more hands off approach, not relying on merely maintaining existing land management techniques to maintain a nice, but desperately incomplete status quo. I hope to minimise human interference on the site as much as possible - there will be no parking areas, or picnic facilities or commercial apparatus of any kind. Nor are there any target species or fixed ideas about what it should look like. It will simply be one more tiny island in the mix of the landscape.

I'm sure there will be a lot more unexpected problems, so I may set up another blog to discuss the details, in case anyone wants to do anything similar or join in on a future piece of land. Wish me luck.

Until then, here are some pictures in which I carefully avoid giving away the location....