Untamed nature


There is an astonishing sonnet by American poet Robert Frost that talks to the fallibility of our attempts to manage nature. Tellingly, it’s called “Unharvested” although an earlier version in the Saturday Review of Literature had it as “Ungathered Apples”, thus pointing to the object of his exposition. Frost describes being drawn to a “scent of ripeness” that, on looking over a wall, he sees is coming from fallen apples, the tree having “eased itself of its summer load”. He is thankful that the apples have not been picked, because then he would not have had that moment of sweet scent that drew him off his route. Thus it seems for Frost that some riches are better appreciated freely, naturally, unconstrained, rather than predetermined or managed in a "stated plan" (1):

May something go always unharvested!
May much stay out of our stated plan,
Apples or something forgotten and left,
So smelling their sweetness would be no theft.

It’s hard to find much evidence in Britain that we have ever spared our wild nature, the better to enjoy the freedoms it presents, compared to the confinement we lash it to, through our extraction and management mania. I thought I had come across some reverence for untouched nature when Miles King alerted me to an article in the Agricultural History Review entitled “The Untilled Field” (2). It describes the setting aside of pieces of ground in farms during the 16 and 17th centuries in many parts of Britain, but mostly in the north-eastern counties of Scotland. These were kept ungrazed and uncultivated, but it seems that people could be persecuted for this voluntary set-aside, tenants in the mid-1600s being severely reprimanded by the church, and ordered to labour the land. While the involvement of the church would be understandable on the basis of land ownership, it was actually about the disgust the church had for what they considered a pagan practice, an offering to the devil, and levied heavy fines on farmers who observed it. These lands, variously known as Goodman’s Fauld or Croft, or Halyman's Croft, were given over to the spirit of the Goodman or Halyman to avert misfortune, especially diseases among cattle. If it wasn’t a deference to Goodman, it was patches of ground formerly regarded either as the dwelling-place of the fairies or of the dead, and were considered sacred to these spirits. The vengeance of these spirits would surely ensue if this ground was cultivated or livestock were permitted to damage or pollute it in any way. Surprisingly, the last fields dedicated under this pagan practice were finally ploughed during the 19th century when economic pressure got the better of superstition.

Inadvertant land sparing

I suspect land sparing over the last century is more about inadvertence, inaccessibility, lack of viability, or some small recognition of harm or opportunity. Blacka Moor was one of the earliest locations I wrote about, an area of what used to be grouse moor given as a gift in 1933 to the people of Sheffield for recreational enjoyment, and surviving unscathed into the 21st century until a wildlife trust got hold of it (3). Kingwood Common, part of the Nettlebed Estate in Oxfordshire, where local people had enjoyed access since 1906 through an Act to keep it as public open space for recreation and enjoyment, saw an ecological restoration to woodland as grazing by commoners tailed off from the 1950s (4). Again, unsafe from the conservation industry, the Conservators, backed by a wildlife trust, sought to fence this woodland, and run cattle in it. I should have reported back on this, but local people successfully challenged that fencing application at a public inquiry, a rare defeat for the grazierphiles (5,6) and which so far seems to have kept them at bay (7).

In preparing evidence for the objectors at that public inquiry, I had researched the outcome of applications to fence lowland commons to make conservation grazing possible, and found 38 applications. Only one of those had been rejected, but what was more depressing was that at least 24 of those commons were ungrazed, either because there were no registered commoners rights or none that were being exercised (4). Who knows how many lowland commons released from grazing in the 20th century through poor economic viability have now had the wildness destroyed in the name of conservation grazing. What also of the destructive nonsense of conservation grazing on the coastal slopes of Pembrokeshire, North Devon, and the Sciilly Isles (8,9,10). It doesn’t always go smoothly - thus grazing on Holt Heath, owned by the National Trust, but managed by Natural England as an NNR, hadn’t taken place for 50 years, but an application to enfence so that grazing could be re-imposed was successful in 2007 (11). Subsequently, 35 Angus cross cattle and six New Forest ponies were introduced in August 2010 after erection of 11km fencing, and installation of cattle grids on two roads (12). However, within a year, local people were aghast that two cows had to be killed after car crashes, and a 13-year-old horse got stuck in one of the cattle grids and spent three hours being cut free (13). The local parish council had to call a special open meeting to address the concerns of local residents at which 98 members of the public unanimously called for the fencing to altered, the cattle grids removed, and that the cattle be removed from the heath during the winter months (14). Now, the parish council has a website page of contact details in the case of livestock incidents and emergencies on Holt Heath (15).

The uplands should be fertile ground for land sparing when its farming is marginal at best, kept afloat solely on the back of subsidy (16). However, that has not been the case, according to a report commissioned by English Nature in 1998 that systematically identified areas of unmanaged semi-natural vegetation in the English uplands (17). I haven’t seen the report, but data from it was used at the Wild by Design seminar of the Council for National Parks in support of the aspiration of seeing wilder areas in our National Parks (18). English Nature during the 1990s had driven a process of developing Natural Area Profiles and which in the Upland Natural Areas often identified the need for less-managed areas. Thus the Dark Peak Natural Area Profile had an objective to restore natural woodland sequences from valley floor to the limit of tree cover in some locations (19) and the South Pennines Natural Area had an objective of exploring the possibilities of non-intervention or wilderness areas within the Natural Area (20). However, the report on unmanaged areas showed that over 99.5% of the semi-natural habitats of the uplands were managed, since less than 11,000ha were identified out of the 2.2m hectares of the Natural Areas of the uplands (21). Many of the unmanaged areas were small scale, less than 5ha, some being exclosures for scientific study, others part of the Livestock Exclusion Area Payment (LEAP) scheme, and only three examples over 1,000ha were recorded - I wonder where those were? Of the habitats recorded as un-managed, 70% was woodland, but as the authors noted, scrub, semi-natural woodlands and mires are extremely poorly represented as habitats in the uplands, while montane and tree-line communities are hardly represented at all, constrained from creation or enhancement because of the absolute dominance of land use and management.

Inaccessibility spares land

I have written before about some non-intervention areas, the inaccessible ash woodlands of the limestone Dales in Yorkshire; the limestone pavement and moorland also in the Dales where the decision was made to remove grazing; and of the woodland that developed on an inaccessible landslip on the Dorset coast (22). To these, I would add the fascinating account of the visit by Alan Watson Featherstone of Trees for Life to a small island (0.74ha) in Loch nan Eun, a few miles north of Dundreggan. There isn’t any evidence of grazing on this island by Red deer, thus allowing a glimpse of what a more natural vegetation community may look like (23). Heather covers most of the island, in contrast to the surrounding landscape, where its growth is suppressed by the deer, and where the grasses are more abundant. Some trees have become well established on the island, even though the nearest seed source is some distance away. Rowan seed arrives in bird droppings, while the seeds of birch and eared willow travel on the wind. There is also a large area of juniper, low-growing because of the elevation (505m) and exposure to the wind and cold. Abundant lichens clothe the low branches of the trees, and there are extensive beds of reindeer lichen and a profusion of cloudberry. Alan thought the island lush and abundant in comparison to the surrounding land, considering it a refuge where plant life could still flourish as it must have done throughout more of the Highlands in the past.

The importance of refugia also arises through a fascinating Habitat Action Plan that I came across for ungrazed areas on Shetland (24). The Plan notes that the Shetland sheep is so agile that there are few areas of the island that are not grazed. However, there are areas that are inaccessible to sheep under normal circumstances, such as ravines, cliff ledges, smaller offshore stacks and skerries (small rocky island or reef, or low sea stack) and holms (small islands) in lochs. It is suggested that these areas, ungrazed because of their inaccessibility, are where Shetland’s only truly natural vegetation can be found. They are important refuges for plants that were once more widespread in the Isles, including most of Shetland’s hawkweeds and trees, but also species such as goldenrod and royal fern.

The vegetation in these areas is variable, reflecting soil conditions, exposure, nutrient enrichment etc. It includes sea cliffs with roseroot, Scot’s lovage (Ligusticum scoticum) red campion and sea campion; moorland holms with abundant juniper and occasional trees; holms with more fertile soils supporting tall herb vegetation with angelica and ferns; and ravine sides with honeysuckle, woodrush and goldenrod. The vegetation provides cover for a wide range of birds and invertebrates and is particularly important for providing nesting sites for ducks on holms in lochs. Dense growths of woodrush on holms may also provide above-ground shelter for otters. The abundance of these flowers in the absence of grazing makes these areas important for insect life, particularly bumblebees, whilst small birds including twite eat their seeds.

These refuges on Shetland have similar species to the tall herb communities that can be found on the inaccessible and ungrazed ledges, gullies and screes of the rocky slopes of Upper Teesdale, and in similar inaccessible locations in the Helvelyn range and the Pillar and Ennerdale Fell of the upper Ennerdale Valley in the Lake District, as well as the coastal cliff woodland of North Yorkshire (25). It is this quality of untamed nature, and the implied naturalness of it, that reminds me of a profoundly thought-provoking article I read 10 years ago, and which I think has guided me all these years.

The level of naturalness

Peter Rhind, a coastal ecologist with the Countryside Council for Wales, wrote about the lack of focus on naturalness in nature conservation, and the lack of non- or minimum intervention reserves (26). He recognized the need for three types of reserve: Traditional Agriculture Reserves, Species Preservation Reserves, and Untamed Nature Reserves. The first is self-explanatory, relying on the less intense agricultural practices of the late nineteenth century. Peter had an interesting take on the second, which he said had arisen directly as a result of the conservation industry, their primary aim being to achieve optimal conditions for selected species, but that few limits had been set on the types of techniques that could be used to create these conditions. He noted that a whole industry had built up around the application of what was an almost industrial scale management of conservation sites in its use of heavy machinery, the resulting habitats often bearing little resemblance to any known natural habitat. Peter cautioned about the incorrigible tendency to over manage:
“Once you start tinkering with management to maximise species diversity you end up effectively intensively farming the land to create a good 'crop' of species. The result is neither natural nor based on any traditional farming logic. When this obsession with biodiversity is adopted, the only difference between farming and conservation is that the first aims to maximise biomass and the latter to maximise biodiversity”

In proposing the first two types of reserve, Peter was overcoming the objections of those who leap to the assumption that creating non-intervention reserves would be a ditching of the managed nature that existed at present. He was sure there would be areas away from these that could be selected for non-intervention or minimum intervention. The emphasis for these untamed reserves would be on allowing unhindered natural processes to operate freely, with as little artificial intervention as possible. As he explained, the beauty of natural ecosystems was not just in their component species, but also in their highly developed level of organisation amongst all the species. He covered another objection, that we cannot re-create the forests of pre-history because we've lost most of the large herbivores that helped to create this ecosystem, by noting that to argue that today's non-or minimum intervention communities are unnatural because of this was a bit like saying the world became less natural when the dinosaurs were wiped out:
“Ecosystems don't die simply because we've eliminated a few of the component species - they accommodate the new circumstances. Our actions may disrupt some of the internal relationships and cause a degree of disequilibria, but ecosystems have faced disruptive influences through the history of life on Earth”

Peter also met head on another criticism that untamed reserves would result in creating lots of similar-looking woodland. He said that underestimated the variety of natural peak woodland communities expected to develop in Britain, noting few realised that at least 19 had been identified in what’s left of our woodland, and pointing to the diversity that would develop under the differing conditions that could be found in coastal and upland situations, or on poor soils in the lowlands. He ventured that in a more natural Britain we would have good representation of all of these woodland types, and in a later journal article on dune management, Peter identified the specific need to encourage the development of Atlantic dune woodland (27) a woodland type that Britain lacks (28).

Peter feared that we seem almost to have abandoned the notion of naturalness when selecting and judging the conservation value of sites: what seems to matter most is the level of biodiversity, and whether there are rare species present. The level of naturalness, on the other hand, was rarely given any consideration. Thus to go with his untamed nature reserves, Peter proposed a new parameter for nature conservation, the level of naturalness. He argued that the more natural a site was, either in terms of being free of all deliberate human intervention, or in terms of the length of time it had been free of intervention, the more importance should be placed on it. Thus another category for judging locations would be on the basis of time free from human influence. Where sites had been abandoned for long periods, there should be a presumption against re-introducing any form of management. Peter acknowledged that the subject of naturalness had never been an easy one, but he felt that when facing a universal loss of naturalness, there needed to be "a radical shift in emphasis towards stemming the seemingly ineluctable decline into increasing levels of unnaturalness. Even in a time of unparalleled loss of biodiversity we should still avoid promoting biodiversity at the expense of naturalness”

A Wildlands Project in the UK

I corresponded with Peter quite a lot after that article, and we hatched a plan to set up an organisation to promote the ideas behind that third category of reserve. One of my first questions was whether public ownership was ultimately the only way we would get significant areas of Untamed Nature Reserve? Peter thought it was one possibility, but that we were still left with the problem of designation. Under the SSSI system, we would be hampered by the legislation that would not allow the loss of a feature for which the site was notified, in favour of allowing the development of another potential feature of interest (i.e. allowing natural succession). A much more intractable problem was how we could select and protect entire sites for their potential to develop into natural communities when the current legislation was an anathema to naturalness. Peter felt the time had come to start questioning deeply embedded concepts of interventionist management, and to also look for complementary mechanisms for allowing more scope for natural succession to take place.

Peter asked whether I had gauged how much support I had gathered through launching my website, and whether I had any politicians or other influential people on board? He wondered if there was any possibility of drumming up support for a type of Wildlands Project in the UK? While the responses I had had were less august than Peter hoped, it did prove to me that there was a large, untapped and voiceless interest in wildland to whom the conservation industry where an irrelevant turn-off. However, to give critical mass to the principle of untamed reserves, I thought it would be interesting to see if individuals from conservation agencies would sign up to a Wildlands Project as an expression of their views, and as an opportunity to give support to it, and get support back? I suggested a call through an article in ECOS or some other journal that conservation professionals may read, and with a website with some basic information as its public face. Peter committed to writing an article, hoping to show how the current conservation legislation was letting us down, and that we needed a more flexible conservation charter with legislation that not only protects sites of conservation interest, but also incorporates the legal mechanisms for allowing unhindered natural succession to take place. I looked at website domain names: wildland.info was taken, but all the domains for wildlands-project were available.

Shortly after Peter’s article was published in British Wildlife in December 2004 (29) we caught wind of some people linked with the British Association of Nature Conservationists who were planning to set up a wildland network, and it seemed sensible to join with them. As it turned out, that was a mistake, because at least Peter and I had a clear vision of untamed nature, whereas the Wildland Network was too scared to even have any aspiration for the changes that were needed. It also failed like many others in Britain to recognise the significant events that were happening in the rest of Europe. The latter was one of the motivations for setting up the Wildland Research Institute in 2009, and which quickly made an impact in reviewing the conservation of wildland in Europe (30).

The Institute can't have the same potential campaigning role, but it can develop policy initiatives, including a wilderness convention for Europe (31, 32) and, closer to home, a proposal for giving status to non-intervention in nature conservation in England (33). The latter keeps alive Peter’s Untamed Nature Reserves, but it still needs a type of Wildlands Project in the UK, and which taps into that voiceless interest in wildland that I know is out there. Ten years on, and there is another group of people on the horizon that want to give it a go. If you want to help shape that Wilder Britain initiative, then read their overview and contribute your thoughts (34). The ineluctable decline into increasing levels of unnaturalness that Peter identified must be resisted.

Mark Fisher 20 March 2014

(1) Frost, R. (1936) Unharvested. In A Further Range. Henry Holt & Co


(2) Davidson, T.D. (1955) The untilled field. Agricultural History Review 3: 20-25


The grazing war comes to Kingwood Common, Self-willed land April 2010


(3) Blacka Moor in peril from the conservation professionals. Self-willed land December 2005


(4) The grazing war comes to Kingwood Common, Self-willed land April 2010


(5) Application Decision. Application Ref: COM165 Kingwood Common, Oxfordshire, Planning Inspectorate 27 May 2011

(6) Opponents celebrate as common grazing proposal is rejected, Henley Standard 6 June 2011


(7) Discussion Document for the Draft Kingwood Common Management Plan January 2013 – December 2022, August 2012


(8) Rewilding - the moral obligation for ecological restoration, Self-willed land May 2008


(9) Wild Pear Beach - how wild is it?, Self-willed land April 2011


(10) The craze for conservation grazing, Self-willed land May 2009


(11) National Trust Act 1971: Section 23. Proposed Works On Holt Heath, Wimborne, Dorset. Deputy Prime Minister’s Office 22 June 2007


(12) Cattle and ponies graze on Holt Heath, BBC News Dorset 2 August 2010


(13) Cattle grid is health and safety risk, Harriet Marsh, Daily Echo 28 February 2011


(14) Special Open Meeting: HOLT HEATH GRAZING. Holt Parish Council Minutes 5th April 2011


(15) Holt Heath Animal Emergency Contacts, Holt Parish Council


(16) Farming in the Uplands, Third Report of Session 2010–11, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, House of Commons 9 February 2011  http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201011/cmselect/cmenvfru/556/556.pdf

(17) Buse, A., and others (1998) "Production of a database of unmanaged semi-natural vegetation in the English uplands." Bangor. Project TO8096A5. English Nature Contract.

(18) Nature improvement and restoration areas - are they a step towards rewilding? Self-willed land June 2011


(19) The Dark Peak Natural Area Profile, NA 25 English Nature


(20) The Southern Pennines Natural Area, NA 14 English Nature March 1997


(21) Thompson, D. and Barret, J. (1998) Improving our existing semi-natural habitats. In Proceedings of the Council for National Parks’ Wild by Design in the National Parks of England and Wales, Seminar 4 April 1998

(22) Walking the wild places, Self-willed land September 2010


(23) Ecology of an ungrazed island, Ecology of the Forest, Alan Watson Featherstone, Trees for Life


(24) ‘Ungrazed areas’ Habitat Action Plan, Jonathan Swale, Living Shetland Biodiversity Action Plan May 2004


(25) Rare and precious – words devalued by the conservation industry, Self-willed land May 2011


(26) Rhind, P (2004) Give Nature a Chance. ECOS 25(2) 85-91


(27) Rhind, P & Jones, R (2009) A framework for the management of sand dune systems in Wales. Journal of Coastal Conservation 13:15–23


(28) Wooded dunes of the Atlantic, Continental and Boreal region. Annex I habitat type (code 2180). European Environment Agency


(29) Spread of the Noosphere, Peter Rhind, British Wildlife December 2004, pg. 107


(30) Fisher, M., Carver, S. Kun, Z., McMorran, R., Arrell, K. and Mitchell, G. (2010). Review of Status and Conservation of Wild Land in Europe. Project commissioned by the Scottish Government. http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Resource/Doc/1051/0109251.pdf

(31) Resolution 17: A Wilderness Convention for Europe. WILD 10, October 2013


(32) The European Wilderness Convention - building on the strict protection in nature conservation legislation, Mark Fisher Wildland Research Institute http://www.wildlandresearch.org/media/uploads/strict_prot_wild_conv.pdf

(33) Resolution 21: Seeking status for non-intervention in nature conservation in England. WILD 10, October 2013


(34) Seeking a Wilder Britain: Overview of a new initiative to promote rewilding and species reintroductions in Britain, Initiative for a Wilder Britain 20 February 2014



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