A clear view of the landscape


I have a feeling that progress on wilding in Britain is floundering for lack of a plan and a vision to back it up. That wilding, albeit as “managed rewilding”, hit the consciousness of politicians this year should have been encouraging. However, of the 84 responses to the parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) call for written evidence on the future risks and opportunities of “managed rewilding” to new land practices, and on the role that “rewilding” can play in conservation and restoration of habitats, a quarter noted the confusion arising from the many meanings ((1) and see (2)). Thus Dorset Local Nature Partnership questioned whether it meant “Monbiot rewilding” or “Knepp rewilding”, and the Countryside Alliance said that there was no single definition of rewilding. The latter organisation was one of 12 that were against “rewilding”, the Heather Trust saying that it is a misnomer, and that it will have very little role in conservation and restoration of habitats and wildlife; farmer Richard Bruce said it is not conservation; botanist Dr Margaret Bradshaw was concerned at a loss of biodiversity, but didn’t explain what biodiversity was, nor did any other respondent that used the term; and the Welsh Wildlife Trusts believed that in Wales in particular, they didn’t see any value in promoting a policy which involved removing people from a landscape.

Of the 72 that were in favour, nine of those were only tentative in their support, such as the Society for the Environment saying that it is not a fix-all solution and should only be used where appropriate, echoed by Natural England who said “rewilding” alone is not a golden bullet, RSPB a silver bullet. There were 18 submissions in favour that noted a concern for a loss of biodiversity from “rewilding”, Plant LINK cautioning with a common theme that existing species, communities, habitats and wider areas should not be lost or damaged. As could be expected, loss of cultural heritage was also a concern of 10 of those in favour: the Foundation for Common Land noted that traditional grazing practices are an integral part of the cultural heritage of common land, so that “rewilding” would be at odds with creating a landscape that is the “combined works of nature and man”; and the Malvern Hills Conservators saying that the special qualities of the cultural landscape of the Malvern Hills, with character, habitats and heritage dependent upon extensive management, would be lost through an inappropriate “rewilding” scheme.

I had sought clarification from the EAC of the unfamiliar term “managed rewilding” in the inquiry question. None was forthcoming before the submission deadline, but I had my own suspicions about how it would be interpreted by respondents. It was no surprise therefore that 24 submissions wanted a managed approach to “rewilding” to constrain it within prescribed limits of transformation. Thus the Kent Nature Partnership thought that “rewilding” can lead to a lower cost option for conservation and regeneration if well managed; Fauna and Flora International talked of properly managed “rewilding”; and the British Ecological Society saying that “managed rewilding” will require human intervention, especially in the early phases. You might have expected that the 16 that advocated some form of funding, mostly agri-environment funding, to incentivise “rewilding” would all have been in that 24 who advocated a managed approach, but this was not the case. Perhaps a managed approach is implicit for those advocating agri-environment funding, because that is often the nature of the purpose of that funding (3).

Maintaining a biocultural landscape

The level of knowledge of examples of what I would consider as good wilding were scarce in the submissions. Instead, the most commonly identified were Knepp and Ennerdale, the two with highest media profile and which are typical of a managed approach to “rewilding” in having extensive cattle grazing that is heavily subsided with agri-environment funding (4,5,6). Neither Knepp nor Ennedale are evidence of a total commitment to wilding with all its challenges, as their aim is still in maintaining a biocultural landscape (7). However, there were some positive responses to the benefits of “rewilding”: the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Nature Partnership and the Cornwall Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty Partnership saying that it had proved to be successful in the quick establishment of functioning ecosystems capable of supporting healthy wildlife populations, particularly where keystone species can be introduced; the North East Local Nature Partnership noting that it can initially be a difficult sell but bring fantastic results where the idea has been fully bought into; and the Durham Bird Club believing that “rewilding” can significantly help wildlife and should be encouraged wherever it is possible.

It is the case that the benefits of wilding have a slim evidence base when you consider that little effort has been made in documenting the uncoordinated and small scale efforts so far, other than for the impact of beavers in Scotland ((8) and see later). Thus ClientEarth noted that given the long time-scale of “rewilding”, there is currently limited scientific research into its long-term implications, but that there is evidence that it can have positive effects for biodiversity. I have written before about the long time-scales for wilding, and which is so much longer than the funding period of the agri-environment schemes of mainstream conservation (4, 6). It is thus easy for commentators to raise unease in the public mind when the initial outcomes of wilding may not seem beneficial. However there were also some submissions that saw “rewilding” on a strategic level: the Partnership for Cranborne Chase Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty says that there was a need for national and regional policy development about wild lands, their restoration, creation and preservation; the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management echoed this by believing that “rewilding” must form part of a long-term ambitious vision for each devolved nation; Professor Richard Brazier of the University of Exeter saying there was a need for a wildlands policy that freed natural processes by developing supportive regulations relating to, for instance, species reintroductions; and the Council for the Protection of Rural England recommended that “rewilding” should be considered further by government as part of a suite of responses to the urgent challenge of the restoration of nature and healthy ecological functioning of landscapes in England.

A view of what wild assets we have

It is that strategic level that is missing, and which must be put in place so that we will have in the future those most wild areas at a really meaningful scale where we are able to have a full relationship with wild nature, and where we can be our most wild (9). Building that strategic level needs a spatial view of what wild assets we have and where we can build on. I’ve been along this road before, back in 2003, when I took on a short term job in the Policy Development Service of a metropolitan district council in which I had the task of rural proofing the Local Strategic Partnership (10). The work was part of a National Demonstration Project funded by the now defunct Countryside Agency, the district council being chosen because it provided an example of a local authority area with a dominant urban centre that overshadowed the outlying rural areas. Most of my work was about getting recognition of the reality that two thirds of the area of the district was rural, and which had issues of service delivery to its dispersed settlements, and a lack of engagement from those settlements with the urban-centred council. I took an action learning approach to raising rural awareness, a process of discovery on real issues. Progress was made in understanding the challenge set by the spatial dimensions of dispersed settlements, but there seemed little overall knowledge on land use in the open countryside of the district, such as its farming, woodlands, open space parks and open access areas. I made a proposal early in 2004 on how to aggregate knowledge on this through taking a mapping approach to produce a clear view of the rural landscape of the district, but also capture the less tangible rewards of the rural area such as its ecological goods and services in water catchment and purification, maintenance of air quality, carbon sequestration, wildlife refuge, and the aesthetic pleasure of landscapes and our enjoyment of them (11).

It was around that time that I began an advocacy for self-willed land, but I did not overtly pursue a wilding agenda in that work. However, you will recognise in the proposal I drew up to map the districts ecological goods and services that it was possible to introduce concepts consistent with wilding. I noted that the uplands in the district were where it captured its water supply, and its major and minor rivers as having associated flood plains that can regulate water flow, but went further in tying the two together through a woodland strategy where the value of re-wooding riparian habitats and extending forestry in the upper catchment areas of rivers and other water courses are aids in slowing storm water run-off and in mitigating flooding. Fresh in my mind when writing the proposal was that an independent inquiry about flooding in the district was underway, its findings back then prefiguring the clamour there is today for the uplands to contribute to mitigation of flooding (12). As well as mapping the location of the ecological goods and services, I proposed to extend the mapping exercise to determine what the current issues were in its rural areas, and what could become the issues in the medium to long term. Amongst other things, I wanted there to be a discussion about whether the district should be looking at a landscape scale approach to nature conservation, instead of isolated refuges, again prefiguring what has now become a conservation industry mantra (13) and whether a shared vision could be developed for the future, based on this clear view of the landscape. Yorkshire Water, the Environment Agency, Countryside Service, community forest and other local land use interests turned up at the eventual meeting and produced early data and a commitment to proceed, but I don’t think it went any further after I left at the end of my contract.

A momentous decision on mammal reinstatement

As will become clear, an urgency is given to the need for this strategic level after a news release from the Scottish Government at the end of November said that it was “minded to allow beavers to remain in Scotland” (14). This was an odd way to announce the official reinstatement of a former native species to at least a few small parts of its natural range. Nevertheless, the decision has to be welcomed, noted as it was by the Scottish Government, that it represents the “first time a mammal has been officially reintroduced to the UK”. I looked for more, but there is only that news release from the Scottish Government to go on in providing any official information on this momentous decision. While it does confirm that the existing free-living beaver in Scotland are to be given protection under the EU Habitats Directive, and will be allowed to expand their range naturally, the overall tenor of the news release was about control, beavers being “actively managed” by lethal means or otherwise, as an appeasement to the landed interests of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, who only foresee adverse impacts from the spread of beaver.

As I have noted before, there will be a presumption amongst land users that lethal control can routinely be applied (15) and they will have overlooked or ignored a critical caveat in the news release that lethal control will only be “permitted under the Habitats Regulations for specified purposes and subject to there being no other satisfactory solution, and no adverse effect on the conservation status of the species” (14). It is hard to see how the Scottish Government can row back from the situation where they did not discourage lethal control of beaver in the period running up to this decision (16) nor how it can effectively impose and police a ban on casual killing now, such is the apparent ingrained intolerance and resentment that land users have towards any inconvenience to their activities (16,17). Moreover, while it is correct of the Scottish Government to proceed in legalising the presence of beaver and their protection on the basis of the Habitats Regulations, I would have expected to have seen some evidence of future-proofing that legitimacy of presence and protection past Britain’s exit from the EU. I looked at this when I considered how the Bern Convention, and which we were a party to before the EU Directives, stacks up in continuing to cover the impetus for reinstatement and protection of former native species, and for influencing the potential of wild land here (18). Hopeful as I was that it could be a sufficient substitute as an external influence on our nature protection, I am increasingly of the view that our national nature legislation needs wholesale revision by scrapping the highly amended Wildlife and Countryside Act from 1981 and starting again (19).

What about more beaver?

Just two geographically separated populations of beavers, even though the Tayside population has far surpassed the Knapdale beavers in breeding and redistribution (8) is not enough to ensure a future that is not just viable on population numbers, but which also has sufficient genetic variability. It was always going to be the case that the official decision on reinstatement would need to be followed by additional releases of beaver. As soon as the decision was announced, there were calls for beaver to be introduced at new sites in Scotland, an article in the Evening Times implicating the two national parks of Loch Lomond and the Cairngorms, as well as sites in Caithness and Sutherland (20). Other than for the Cairngorms National Park, whose Chief Executive looked favourably on the exploration of the potential of beaver reintroduction in river catchments in the Park, no attribution was given for who suggested these other locations. This is an unhelpful situation, not least because there was also an assertion, linked in the article to Jonny Hughes, chief executive of the Scottish Wildlife Trust, that the reason new locations would be needed was for the relocation of beavers that are “proving particularly problematic for farmers in parts of Tayside”. This is entirely presumptive of Hughes, as it also reinforces a dangerous assumption amongst land owners that they will get to choose if beavers are problematic and can be dumped elsewhere. Thus it was easy for Andrew Bauer, deputy director of policy for the National Farmers Union of Scotland, to start to dictate terms, even if his pronouncements had no internal logic - “We can see advantages in moving beavers from areas of Tayside where they are in conflict with land use….But I see no need to accelerate re-colonisation by beavers – they are doing it themselves very rapidly” (20)

I asked the ever-helpful Louise Ramsay of the Scottish Wild Beaver Group (SWBG (21)) whether it had any proposals for where additional releases of beaver may take place away from Knapdale and Tayside. I have to say that I agree with Jim Crumley’s assessment in an article in The Courier (22) that we should see past the widespread publication of self-congratulatory press releases from the Scottish Wildlife Trust and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, the partners in the official trial at Knapdale in Argyll. Instead, we should recognise Louise as one of the real heroes for her steadfast defence of the Tay beavers, and her compelling arguments justifying the presence of beaver in the Scottish landscape (15, 23). Louise told me that the Group last year accompanied its meeting with Aileen McLeod, the then Minister for Environment (24) with giving her the SWBG 2015 Vision Statement. This emphasized the need for genetically sustainable populations to be established - a first priority will be a cross-breeding between Tayside and Knapdale beavers - and then look to establish perhaps two to three new core areas, such as in Inverness-shire, Speyside, and Galloway. After that, SWBG believed that further distribution should be beaver led:
“They should then be left to disperse and find each other in their own time, and this will also give time for mitigation to be developed and perfected and mean that the arrival of beavers in a new area will always be a source of interest"

Trees for Life was another organisation that looked past the eventual decision when it commissioned initial research last year into the suitability of places like Glen Affric for beaver, a key location in their work in regeneration of Caledonian pine forest (25). As they note, their planting of aspen trees – a vital winter food for beavers –in areas beside Loch Beinn a’ Mheadhoin and Loch Affric in Glen Affric, and as well as beside the River Moriston at their Dundreggan Estate in Glenmoriston, has improved the prospect of these areas being suitable for beaver reintroduction in the future. They now have plans to move ahead with investigating the possibilities for bringing beavers to areas north of the Great Glen, working with local communities to identify where they might live without perceived adverse impacts.

A coalition for beaver

There is a danger, given the range of other organisations that can be seen as poised to cash-in on the kudos of beaver in Scotland, that further releases may fall into the pattern that was identified during a review of dormice reintroduction in England. The review observed that there was a strong sense of a small group of organisations working in parallel on the same project, but which was not a team effort, nor was there any co-ordination (26). Moreover, there was no opportunity for these organisations to take part in ongoing discussions about the project where possible changes could be discussed and agreement sought on ways forward. A recommendation of the review was appointment of a Coordinator and an Advisory Group. Whether the Scottish Government or Scottish Natural Heritage would want to take any responsibility for this remains to be seen, but it would be in the interests of all those who take a favourable view of beaver reinstatement to coalesce together now, rather than end up with the lead being taken by the less than sympathetic, or even genuinely representative, National Species Reintroduction Forum, chaired by Scottish Natural Heritage (27).

As there was for England in 2009 (28) the identification and assessment of possible beaver sites was carried out a decade or so earlier in Scotland (29). The report used spatial data on the distribution of broadleaf or mixed woodland overlaid on the distribution of water and wetlands to determine the location of riparian broadleaf woodland as potentially suitable beaver habitat. Close to urban, tidal and areas over 400m were excluded, as were river sections that had a slope of more than 2% measured over 1km or greater. The mapping analysis (see Map 1a and Table 2 in (29)) showed concentrations of suitable habitat in the Ness, Spey, Tay, Dee/Don and Lomond river systems. Next came Angus and Fife, but the Argyll, Solway, North and West Highland, Buchan and Tweed river systems had little suitable habitat. The prophetic quality of this assessment is not lost on those who recognise the disparity in success between the beaver released into the sub-optimal habitat of Knapdale in Argyll compared to those on the River Tay (8,16) but that is now the past. This mapping needs to be revisited, updated, and put side by side with the mass of real data on natural habitat selection accumulated from those two beaver populations. It should be a process of action learning by that interested coalition, and not some consultant report, because it has to develop that clear view, a shared vision of a natural, interconnected presence of beaver in Scotland, and which has a plan and a spatial strategy to make it so.

Mark Fisher 13 December 2016

(1) Written Evidence, The Future of the Natural Environment after the EU Referendum inquiry publications, Environmental Audit Committee


(2) Trophic occupancy and the rehabilitation of the meaning of rewilding, Self-willed land April 2016


(3) The moral corruptness of Higher Level Stewardship, August 2013


(4) Watching the naturalness return to the Carrifran Valley, Self-willed land April 2015


(5) Unfinished business on rewilding - a comparison between Rewilding Britain and Rewilding Europe, Self-willed land May 2016


(6) Patterns and disconnections in nature, Self-willed land August 2016


(7) Written evidence submitted by Dr Mark Fisher, BRX0049. The Future of the Natural Environment after the EU Referendum inquiry, Environmental Audit Committee


(8) Coastal temperate rainforest - in Britain?!, Self-willed land June 2015


(9) Wilderness uncovered - the past and future of drowned lands, Self-willed land November 2016


(10) Fisher, M. (2004) RURAL PROOFING BRADFORD VISION, The Local Strategic Partnership of the Bradford District. A report for the National Demonstration Project of the Countryside Agency. Written for the Policy Development Service, City of Bradford M.D.C, July 2004 http://www.self-willed-land.org.uk/rep_res/RURAL_PROOF_LSP.pdf

(11) Fisher, M. (2004) A CLEAR VIEW OF THE LANDSCAPE: A proposal to map the goods and services of the open countryside of Bradford District. Policy Development Service, CBMDC 24 March 2004


(12) Flooding and cherry picking, Self-willed land February 2014


13) The neoliberalisation of nature conservation, Self-willed land March 2013


(14) Beavers to remain in Scotland, Scottish Government News Release 24 November 2016


(15) Tay beavers to stay free and living wild, Self-willed land May 2012


(16) Big areas for ecological restoration, Self-willed land December 2015


(17) The living planet? — We ARE the ones to blame, Jim Crumley, The Courier 1 November 2016


(18) Implications for wild land on leaving the European Union, Self-willed land July 2016


(19) Misperceptions of the Infrastructure Bill - willful ignorance of the conservation industry? Self-willed land August 2014


(20) Calls for beavers to be introduced at new sites, Rob Edwards, Evening Times 27 November 2016


(21) Scottish Wild Beaver Group


(22) Hail heroes of beaver battle, Jim Crumley, The Courier 29 November 2016


(23) The Tayside beavers - living wild and free in Scotland, Self-willed land January 2011


(24) Meeting with the minister, SWBG Newsletter November 2015


(25) Beavers – unique opportunity for the Scottish Highlands, Trees for Life News Release 24 November 2016


(26) The Dormouse Reintroduction Programme: A review. Natural England Commissioned Report NECR144. March 2014


(27) Lynx UK Trust lets the cat out of the bag, Self-willed land April 2015


(28) The feasibility and acceptability of reintroducing the European beaver to England – NECR002, Commissioned by Natural England and the People’s Trust for Endangered Species 17 March 2009


(29) Webb, A, French, D.D. and Flitsch, A.C.C. (1997) Identification and assessment of possible beaver sites in Scotland. Scottish Natural Heritage Survey and Monitoring Report No 94



www.self-willed-land.org.uk  mark.fisher@self-willed-land.org.uk