Rewilding - the moral obligation for ecological restoration


A television documentary on the rewilding project at Alladale in the Highlands of Scotland was shown in mid-April (1). The reaction to the program was strangely muted, probably since there was little visible evidence of change so far in the classic chocolate box scene of the Highland Glen. Thus the first stage of extensive replanting of native tree species has only recently been carried out. Paul Lister, the owner and driven enthusiast came across as well informed, and with an intriguing vision of ecological restoration for the Glen. He was being frustrated in its achievement by the problems of Dangerous Wild Animal licensing; delays in importing moose from Sweden, one of the key species for reintroduction, the delays due to a restriction on livestock movements; and the issues of open access.

Lister is trying to act in advance of any national agreements that comply with the EU directives on reintroducing species extinct in Britain - such as moose, wild boar, lynx, and wolves - and so his project has to be fenced in its entirety so that these species, when he reintroduces them, are not released freely into the landscape. By enclosing Alladale, he breaches the rights of open access of ramblers, but he must do so to prevent release of reintroduced animals. By enclosing wild animals, he in effect turns his estate into a zoo, and regulations for zoos forbid placing prey and predator in the same space.

I’ve always admired the Alladale project for the freedom, that comes from private ownership and resources, in being able to get on with rewilding. It seems my admiration is premature since even his maverick activities are being blighted by the fact that there is no precedent available to him under our laws to allow this achievement of restoration ecology to take place. That is a sad indictment on our commitment to honour our lost species by their reintroduction. It should be generating a national debate (2) but instead it throws up the ignorance of the small minded, who haven’t even begun to understand the dynamics of predator-prey relations and their effect on landscape vegetation (see for instance (3) and for an explanation of the effect on landscape, see in Are humans a natural disturbance? 15 December 2007).

Pleistocene rewilding

Sergei Zimov, a Russian biologist, is having greater luck. His concept of a Pleistocene Park, a re-creation of a fully fledged Ice Age eco-system in a remote corner of Siberia, is already taking shape on 160 sq km of mossy tundra, forest and scrubland, punctuated by oxbow lakes, meanders and waterways (4). Zimov’s theory is that the once vibrant grasslands there were lost to the mossy tundra as the herbivore pressure of Pleistocene grazers like the wooly mammoth were lost to extinction. By bringing in reindeer, horses and moose to the Park, he believes grasses are set to return and he envisages that the 100 or so grazers at the moment will be 10 times that number in five years. In the next two years, bison and musk ox will be brought in from Canada, and the aim is to have a density of 20 herbivores per square kilometre. When this is reached, the plan then is to reintroduce predators that could be wolves, bears and Siberian tigers.

Pleistocene rewilding, involving possibly the introduction of exotic species such as elephants and camels to compensate for extinct species lost at the end of the last ice age, has been muted for North America as well. Its moment came in 2005 when a paper entitled Rewilding North America came out in the journal Nature (5). The paper was partly meant to jostle a conservation community suspected of becoming moribund. It was met with a blizzard of comment, some was congratulatory, much was disparaging - the naysayers seemingly "unwilling to venture near the soul of the proposal" (6). But to me, what is fascinating is the way the paper came about.

In September 2004, a group of experts gathered for a long weekend at Ted Turner’s Ladder Ranch in the Chihuahuan Desert of New Mexico (6, 7). Amongst the group were experts in paleoecology, large mammals, community ecology, predator-prey dynamics, invasive species, grassland ecology, and the politics of conservation. It included Paul Martin, who propounded over 40 years ago an “overkill” hypothesis, which puts the brunt of the blame for the late Pleistocene extinction—the abrupt disappearance of some 40 species of horses and camels, glyptodonts and ground sloths, lions and bears, mammoths and mastodons—on the first spear-wielding big-game hunters of North America, the Clovis culture that made the trip over the Bering land bridge (8). There was also conservation biologist Michael Soulé; marine ecologist James Estes; and Dave Foreman, former congressional lobbyist and founder of the Rewilding Institute, a think tank for restoring large carnivores to the vacant niches of North America.

Using wipe boards and PowerPoint, they dissected the rewilding idea, breaking it down into its details, its practical challenges and criticisms, its societal costs and benefits. The Ladder Group (as they became known) agreed on several premises: That human influence had utterly pervaded the planet. That what qualifies for wildness today is a paltry façade of the breath-taking Pleistocene bestiary that was stumbled upon on crossing the Bering land bridge only 13,000 years ago. That the difference between then and now is at least partly, if not principally, our own doing and therefore our duty to repair.

I’m not necessarily wedded to the use of exotic species in a Pleistocene rewilding, but I would have given anything to have been at that long weekend in New Mexico. These were people who came together with an uninhibited enthusiasm for their task and a deep appreciation of natural systems.

The duck test

I have another example of this embracing discussion, this time at the sixth meeting of the Society of Ecological Restoration in Michigan in 1994 (9). At issue in the meeting was a definition of what ecological restoration meant. Endless divergence during the discussion led to a proposal to use the Duck Test on the basis that if something looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, walks like a duck, then it must be a duck!

They discussed various land restoration projects ranging from the Curtis Prairie in 1930’s Wisconsin, a project that requires regular and varied management to maintain the range of required characteristics. The second involved the introduction of prescribed fires to a formerly wild, forested landscape in order to recreate what may have been a natural range of variation. The third involved the same wild forest patterns, but this time the forests were historically converted to farmland that was subsequently retired after a few dozen years of use and where prairie restoration could take place even though the evidence was that the land once supported wild forest. The fourth involved some sort of vegetation mosaic altered through grazing, cutting and agriculture, and in which the restoration was about recreating an earlier configuration of the mosaic but with a new economic system that concentrated on small scale harvesting of a more diverse range of products such as nuts, fungi, flowers and honey.

The fifth and last example they discussed was a consideration of a theoretical plan for Oregon and the adjoining Washington State. This once was wild forest on a large scale, but with only 15-30 percent of original forest remaining, fragmented over the centuries by clear-cutting and road building. The choices they faced were to take on large blocks of 20-30,000 acres for restoration; put logs back in to streams to improve salmon habitat; take out 50% of the roads; thin plantations to increase diversity etc.

The individual discussion for each of these potential “ducks” is highly illuminating about the distinction between natural processes and interventionist management, and was thrown into further contrast when a delegate from England asked how the group would react to a deliberate management intervention in a grassland that had been managed pastorally for perhaps a 1000 years, but was now threatened with the successional process of regenerating scrub.

You may not be surprised to hear that presented with these “ducks”, the group came to no firm conclusion because the need to address specific examples opened up the complicated value judgements that came from each location. What they had done though was to become much clearer about what the issues were, how marked the conceptual drift could be, and how it would always be a problem to contain the variety of restoration projects within one definition.

On the question of the deliberate management of grassland thrown in by the delegate from England, the group concluded that there would have been a greater likelihood in N. America that restorationists would adopt a hands-off approach – they would not graze it with livestock since that rarely forms part of their considered restoration approach. Conversely, they recognised that succession-arresting activities were the norm in England because human activity had been more pronounced for a longer time than in N America.

I ask myself whether that is a sufficient justification? Most conservation grazing in Britain is fatally misconceived, and I can find no greater exemplar of this than the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park's Conserving the Coastal Slopes – “A niche scheme tackling the decline of traditional management on Pembrokeshire’s cliff-tops and coastal slopes” (10, 11).

The premise of the scheme is that Mother Nature, in the absence of agricultural pressure, has been wrong to reclaim some lengths of the coastal slopes to a maritime scrub of gorse, blackthorn and bramble, the edaphically stable landscape cover in such climatic conditions. Agricultural practice would have kept some of these areas of slope clear of scrub, revealing more grassland and where the thinking goes that the wildflowers of the climatically stable coastal grassland will flourish. As I have explained before, this is arrogant nonsense, an imposition in pursuit of a rarely achievable end, but often with undesirable consequence (see the section Where is the natural grassland in the UK in Harting Down - obsession with conserving man-made landscapes 4 November 2007).

It was reconfirmed for me on recent walks of this coastal landscape that grazed areas show a reversion of the landscape to just grassland, with no real gain in diversity but instead some structural damage to the wildflower rich and edaphically stable coastal grassland out on the edge. And you could always tell where gorse had been mechanically cleared as bracken had flourished, again showing the futility of expecting this cleared land to take on the characteristics of the maritime grassland. It just doesn’t have the same edaphic forces acting on it. Would you not be suspicious of conservation professionals who are never content to allow natural forces to shape the landscape?

Natural forces shaping the landscape

There is a compelling account of the effects of natural forces shaping a landscape in the story of the rewilding of the 85 acres of Blagdon Cross, the Plants for A Future (PFAF) site in Devon, and which comes from a botanical survey of the site commissioned by site owner Richard Morris in September 2007 as a prelude to the sale of the land. I will let the report speak for itself:
"In many ways, Blagdon has the feeling of a piece of abandoned farmland, that has had the gate shut, and been left to its’ own devices for 10 years. This site has undergone considerable change in the period since the first survey in 1991. Semi-natural and improved grasslands were ploughed in the mid-1990s for flax cultivation. When PFAF bought the land in 1997, only the Culm area and the three woodlands had not been ploughed. Much of the ground was bare, compacted and deeply rutted”

The report goes on:
”The regeneration of scrub on these fields has happened incredibly quickly. Scrub species have spread out significantly from the old hedgebanks and also from the woodland, gorse dominating the drier areas and willow species dominating the wetter parts of the site. Dense blocks of bramble are also constant throughout most parts of the site. The wood has extended beyond is former boundary through natural regeneration of birch and willow and further by recent planting since 1997”

The report then identifies an important element in the landscape, as evidenced by the many deer tracks:
”The population of Red Deer at Blagdon are, in the lack of traditional stock grazing, playing a pivotal role in the conservation of both the culm and wet rush pasture habitats. Their activity has played a major role in shaping the diverse, natural mosaics right across the site”

The conclusion of the report is that Blagdon is now a richly bio-diverse reserve, in the context of the surrounding farmland, and recommends that any new owner should be encouraged to conserve and enhance the features of interest. I know that Richard set out deliberately to watch this rewilding taking place, and resisted any significant management other than some tree planting. As he says of his own observations (13):
“The pattern of regenerating is intriguing. Rather than seeing the whole site develop in the same way with the same dominant vegetation we have seen a mosaic of different habitats and plant communities emerge. Some parts have gorse as the dominant vegetation, others are predominantly goat willow, others are bramble, and other wetter parts are heavy with reeds. Remarkably much of the site has remained as grassland with little colonization by goat willow, gorse or bramble”

Fortunately, the land has now been sold as a nature reserve focussing on the rewilding. I cannot emphasise enough that this is an example that confounds the conservation professionals addicted to conservation grazing. No enclosed livestock grazing was involved and an enlightened, mostly low impact, non-intervention approach from Richard took advantage of the wild elements and potential in the landscape, which included the free ranging, unconstrained red deer, in bringing about a rich, ecological restoration of land that was once abused as farmland.

There will be those that dismiss the Blagdon rewilding as a one-off, a fortunate set of circumstances that would not be generally repeatable, and which does not contain a full complement of prey and predator. I guess we’ll never know unless we try. But we can be more considered about what ecological restoration means in Britain if we are prepared to throw off the restraining orthodoxy, allow ourselves the rich and uninhibited discussion of the Ladder Group in New Mexico, or the meeting of the Society of Ecological Restoration in Michigan.

We have a starting point for our discussions. There is a paper from 30 years ago that made startling proposals for rewilding the Isle of Rhum National Nature Reserve, as an example in the uplands, and Thetford Chase for the lowlands. The idea was to develop a new type of reserve to satisfy a public demand for an experience of nature that transcended just a walk in open country, by there being “the presence of at least one large spectacular species which would almost force itself on human awareness”. The two contrasting landscape examples were to show the different policies for choice of species, habitat enhancement, and the zoning of public access that may be necessary (14).

The paper is rich in information and approach, including comprehensive tables on the classification of the habitat requirements of large European mammals in relation to the need for wild conditions, or whether they would cope in landscapes under forestry and low intensity agricultural use. There is also a listing of potential of candidates for mammalian introductions to Rhum. Lynx are amongst them, described in the paper as an important aesthetic attraction”, the potential carrying capacity of 4-11 lynx sustained by “small ungulates, large rodents and lagomorphs” and fluctuating with available food supply. The authors explain that lynx prefers woodland and broken country and note that the main habitat manipulation on Rhum had been the prior afforestation in 1968 of a substantial part (30%) of the island, using native species. They presumed that this woodland would eventually cover 3800ha (35%) of the island in a broken pattern in its northern half, but that there would be areas of woodland of smaller size in the southern half of the island.

This paper and its concepts need to be updated, and with other potential locations thrown into the mix. It is our moral obligation to discuss seriously the rewilding of our landscapes, and to ensure that the barriers to its achievement are removed. A small step towards that rewilding came only days ago with the announcement that Michael Russell, the Environment Minister of the Scottish Executive, has given the go ahead for up to four beaver families to be released in Knapdale, Argyll, on a trial basis in spring 2009.

Mark Fisher 28 May 2008

(1) Moose in the Glen, Mike Birkhead Associates 2008

(2) The Big Question: Should animals that have died out in Britain be reintroduced into the wild? Sophie Morris, Nature, The Independent 1 February 2008

(3) Man in a hurry could be real threat, County Commentary, The Northern Times 24 April 2008

(4) Siberian window on the Ice Age, Adam Fowler, BBC Radio 4's Pleistocene Park, 4 July 2007

(5) Re-wilding North America, Donlan, J. et al. (2005) Nature 436(7053):913-914.

(6) Where the Wild Things Were, William Stolzenburg, Conservation in Practice January-March 2006 (Vol. 7, No. 1)

(7) Restoring America’s Big, Wild Animals , Josh Donlan, Scientific American June 2007

(8) Twilight of the Mammoths: Ice Age Extinctions and the Rewilding of America. Paul S. Martin. University of California Press, 2005

(9) Nature by Design : People, Natural Process, and Ecological Restoration, Eric Higgs (2003) The MIT Press ISBN 0262582260

(10) Conserving the Coastal Slopes 1992-2002, Pembrokeshire Coast National Park 2003

(11) Managing Coastal Slopes, Pembrokeshire Coast National Park

(12) Botanical Survey, Blagdon Manor Cross, Clawton, North Devon – September 2007. Report by Steve Payne, Caradon Ecology (big ZIP file)

(13) Blagdon Cross: Wilderness

(14) Wildlife Conservation in Britain: The Unsatisfied Demand, T. D. Nevard & J. B. Penfold (1978) Biological Conservation 14, 25-44

(15) Reintroduction of beavers, News release, Scottish Executive 25 May 2008