Looking for wildland - developing a value system for wild nature

The first bloom of wood anemone surprised and greeted us on a walk through local woodland this weekend. A few weeks before, the same walk had seen the wood covered with March snowfall, plunging it back to a mid-winter scene and cheerfully decorating the holly. The thaw and some spirited rainfall since then have got more than the gill beck and its rivulets flowing.

We walk the woods most weeks, enjoying the micro-climate that is softer than the open moor above. Signs of life start early in the woodland year, and offer a rich distinction to the uplands of the moor. Little seasonal change is seen on the moor, other than the emerald of the bracken after the last frost, and the purple haze of August when the heather is ablaze with flower and buzzing with bees. By contrast, the woodland offers a successional flowering that keeps us going back. And we can track the rich fauna too, feather and fur, as they busy themselves for the coming year.

This ancient woodland is the nearest I have to wildland on my doorstep. For decades, I walked the open moors and mountains with what I recognise now as a low expectation of just having a long distance view, and scaring myself silly on narrowing paths in high places. Now, I revel in the opening and closing vista of woodlands and their rich contents. While ascent through these woodlands can be just as perilous sometimes, there are at least trees to hang on to and break your fall.

A zealous convert, I willingly acknowledge the blind spot I had over woodland. I played in woodland as a small child, camped in it as a youth, but somehow lost a connection after that. Maybe what later put me off were the walks along muddy plantation tracks, peering in to a gloomy undergrowth, and where I never felt I was inside a woodland, just passing through. Now, having got my enthusiasm back, I cannot believe the luck that allows me to circumnavigate around my moor, passing from one fragment of ancient woodland to the next, as it populates the banks, cloughs, depressions and gills below the moorland summit.

I have to thank the Great Smokey Mountain National Park in North Carolina for turning me on to woodland again. We drove up there from Florida a few years back as guide books praised its wildflowers, and that is our thing having spent 20 years enjoying the coastal flowers of Britain (we were in Florida for its Atlantic coastal flora). We were not disappointed. It seemed like we could not go more than 50 paces on its trails without coming across another new woodland flower. We fell in love with the brightly coloured trilliums and other flowering bulbs, and brought back many ideas on how we could cheer up the difficult, wet and shady areas of our garden. A year on and I was giving evening talks on wet-shade gardening based on what we had achieved. And all the while, we were planning the long journey that would take us back to North America to walk more of its wilderness and wild nature, and which would completely change the way we would look at landscapes.

Keith Kirby, an elder in English conservation, reflecting on recent wildland enthusiasm felt that a balance will have to be struck between what is feasible for the majority of the population in experiencing contact with wildlife – and providing opportunities for “a deeper experience for a few”. I had a moment of self-doubt when I read this because I do now seek an increasingly authentic experience of wild nature, hence the preference for walking in ancient woodland. However, I quickly got over any guilt for this self-interest because there is much more ancient woodland to explore, a good deal of it dedicated to open access if in ownership of the Forestry Commission, and I can always hop on a plane to walk the wildland of other countries if a good walk was my only motivation.

What is as important to me is that a value system for wild nature is missing in Britain, and that’s because we have little feel for what wild nature truly is. It is also why I think words that describe wild nature are important and, by extension, so are the definitions and designations that we work within. The British use of the word “wilderness” is – as Keith wrote – often in the context of apparent/relative wildness. Hence media-types have described places like the Wash or the Cairngorms as the “last wilderness in Britain”! An English Nature interpretation board at an entry to Ingleborough National Nature Reserve in the Yorkshire Dales describes a rather empty plateau as an “upland wilderness” in spite of the fact that it looks over to Moughton Fell where there is a beautiful remnant juniper-wood sorrel-twayblade woodland. Paradoxically, I am led to believe that Highland crofters dislike their land being described as wilderness, as to them it connotes land that is barren and unproductive. And it is that vision of savage, bleak, empty landscapes that is often the perception of a wilderness landscape in Britain, and puts us at odds in the use of that word compared to most of the protected area systems of the world.

Common usage meanings for words or phrases can be misleading, and act as a bar to understanding. Take an example that is often used to counter an expansion of wildland in Britain - because we live in a "crowded island". That phrase is understandable in terms of overall population density in relation to other countries, but it denies the reality of a population distribution markedly skewed towards urban areas, so that the population density of our rural areas is comparable to and can be less than that of other countries. If wildland enthusiasm can be falsely accused of attempting to exclude people, I wonder how much blame should attach to the rise of deer parks after the Norman Conquest, and the historical loss of 800 or so hamlets in the English countryside?

An example of this lack of a value system for wild nature came to me recently when I gave a lecture on a course in Wilderness Management at Leeds University. Going the week before to get a feel for the students, I was entertained by their holiday snaps of the wildest place they had been. The photo of Rannoch Moor near Glen Coe, reminded me of how wet, cold and miserable I always seem to be there amongst the bogs, with their petrified tree stumps but with no living tree to shelter under.

Thus the following week, I addressed landscape values by showing a series of matching pictures of varying richly-endowed habitats – one picture being from a named protected area in North America or continental Europe, the other an unidentified, visually comparable scene somewhere in Britain. Since most of the foreign protected areas were consistent with at least IUCN Category 2, then the imagery was descriptive of a wild nature that is not routinely perceived to exist in Britain, and is certainly not given the protected status of a Category 2 area (see the presentation Self-willed land - an expression of a future natural state for British landscapes).

Consider that our national parks are IUCN Category V and even our National Nature Reserves are only Category IV (the different categories imply a gradation of human influence). And by the nature of the definition of a Category II protected area, there is a handle into the functional reasons why these landscapes exhibit the characteristics that they do – the examples in Britain were from outside the margins of our farmed or productive land, and farming/extractive activities are excluded from IUCN Category II protected areas (see Guidelines for Protected Areas Management Categories – International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, 1994).

Given the difficulties presented by the overwhelming historical and cultural influence on our landscapes, it is not as easy in Britain to see and experience a clear range of distinction between farmland and wildland that would enable us to build a value system – or a system of categorisation of protected areas such as that devised by the IUCN and used universally around the globe.

We can look for wildland in Britain, as does Steve Carver who runs the Wilderness Management course at Leeds University, using the power of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and mapping such datasets as remoteness from access (roads, rail) and settlement, and an apparent naturalness given by distance from any human feature. You can overlay these with datasets on bio-physical naturalness such as vegetation cover and land use, giving various weightings to each of the data to produce a wilderness continuum that impressively picks out most of the uplands of Britain (see Where are the wildest places in Britain?, 2002). However, it misses out all the lowland ancient woodland, wetland or coastal habitat. Why does it do this when we know that ancient woodland in particular is probably our best link to the wild nature that once covered our landscapes?

The answer lies in the datasets themselves – they are all a function of human influence. The mapping is thus an expression of “less-human” rather than an expression of wild nature. In other countries, where human influence on the landscape is considerably less pervasive, then the mapping would have a better chance of throwing up areas of wild nature, but in Britain human influence has been so great that the mapping just picks out the remote, empty, bleak areas (the uplands) where sheep are the tools of human influence.

This doesn’t invalidate the use of GIS; it just means we have to be more discriminate in the use of data. We need datasets that address ecological function and integrity – a positive discrimination for indices of wild nature rather than the negative discrimination of an index of less-human. As Steve has agreed, we have to think more laterally and come up with new approaches. The wilderness continuum mapping that he has done for the Cairngorms area would really benefit from an overlay of the distribution of the wild cat in the Scottish Highlands. What would be the indicators that would pick out wild nature in lowland areas?

When I started out on this exploration of wild nature a few years ago, I knew that wilderness would be a difficult word to use in the British context - hence the preference instead for the term self-willed land. It has other benefits than just avoiding a confusion over a meaning for wilderness because self-willed land says something about the ecologically functional integrity of land. The more we look into our landscapes for evidence of this self-willed character, the better appreciation we will have of wild nature. It will be difficult to develop that value system for wild nature, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

Mark Fisher, 6th April 2006


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