What nature wants

Food web

We are moving ever further towards wild nature being for sale, and in an absolute vacuum of ecological thought. It’s a coincidence that my last article about the commodification of nature shortly preceded the Dasgupta report on monetarising biodiversity. I refuse to think of wild nature as an asset stock that can be monetarised and traded, nor its restoration and protection as income generating. Dasgupta also has the usual nonsense on rewilding, that it is without predetermined targets. My conviction is that restoring wild nature is a recognition of the self-assembly of species into natural, self-perpetuating communities. It is what wild nature will do with itself given the species and space, and it is observable, predictable, and gives rise to expectations

The commodification of nature by the UK government continues apace, consistent with its laissez-faire characteristic that believes that the market rather than government will come up with solutions to the outcomes of the 25 year Environment plan (1). Symptomatic of this is the announcement of yet another market priming fund whereby public money will be given out to organisations that can develop projects in England that produce revenue from ecosystem services through private investment - “It aims to stimulate private investment and market based mechanisms that improve and safeguard our domestic natural environment by helping projects get ready for investment” (2). So this competitive grant scheme – the Natural Environment Investment Readiness Fund – is about setting up a market system for ecosystem services – “investment or trading platforms, codes for verifying benefits, aggregator vehicles” - through flogging things like carbon credits from woodland creation or peatland restoration, biodiversity units from a habitat bank, and catchment services like improved water quality and natural flood management. Administered by the Environment Agency, the aim is that the projects will “produce an investment model that can be scaled up and reproduced” and which will help in the development of “policy and regulation, including alignment with future government funding schemes”

This is taking us ever further towards wild nature being for sale, and in an absolute vacuum of ecological thought. It is consistent though with the lack of any real ambitions for wild nature, betrayed as well by any meaningful progress on what little commitment there has been. It’s been nearly a decade since the Natural Environment White paper wafted a commitment to be the “first generation to leave the natural environment of England in a better state than it inherited” (3). A further seven years elapsed before the 25 year Environment plan came along in support of that commitment, the origination of which blanked any public participation, as well as having a paucity of content (4). That there has been a lack of meaningful progress, even on such a low bar set by the plan, was recognised in a report from the National Audit Office from last November that concluded that the plan “does not provide a clear and coherent set of objectives” or a “full set of costed delivery plans” (5).

On the back of that report, the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons recently took evidence from government departments and agencies on achieving the government’s long-term environmental goals (6). The Committees report notes that nine years on from the Natural Environment White paper, the government “still does not have the right framework for success” has “still not developed a full set of clear objectives to spell out what achieving these goals [in the plan] would mean” “does not have a coherent set of long-term objectives and interim milestones, nor the full range of indicators needed to track performance” that progress in tackling critical environmental issues like air quality, water quality and wildlife loss has been “painfully slow” describing this as "serious delays". It says that without a good understanding of the costs of delivering the Plan as a whole, that there are risks that “decisions about funding allocations are made in a piecemeal way, rather than on the basis of a strategic view of long-term priorities”. It notes that DEFRA and HM Treasury “do not yet understand the total costs required to meet long-term environmental goals” so that Government “still does not have a good grip of the total costs required” to deliver them.

The monetarisation of biodiversity

A Government response is due to this report by the beginning of April (7). What I expect will feature in this response is a review commissioned by HM Treasury, and which was briefly mentioned in the evidence from a Treasury official to the Public Accounts Committee in response to a question about the new proposals for valuation of natural capital - “We also have Professor Dasgupta working for us on a report for the Chancellor on biodiversity” (8). I have to say that the announcement and commissioning of this review completely passed me by, but then I have a natural antipathy towards linking nature to economic benefits (9,10). The interim report from Dasgupta also passed me by (11) and the full report would also have done so if colleagues hadn’t alerted me that it contained a section on rewilding (12).

It’s just a coincidence that my last article about the commodification of nature shortly preceded the Dasgupta report. It didn’t need that report to show which way the wind is blowing. Dasgupta gets 606 pages to set out the ways in which nature can be accounted for in economics and decision-making. I haven’t read the whole report, but I was quickly able to find passages that presage what I suspect amount to just a monetarisation of biodiversity. Thus in the chapter on conservation, nature is seen as an ecosystem asset, the attributes of ecosystems influencing the flow of ecosystem services and their contribution to inclusive wealth: their quantity, quality and distribution – “The quantity or extent of natural assets within an asset portfolio strongly influences the flow of services to people. Similarly, the quality of assets makes a significant difference to the benefits provided to people, and the ability of the assets to regenerate and persist. Biodiversity is a useful indicator of ecosystem quality. The location and distribution of the stock also matter both in relation to other natural assets and the people who benefit from the flows of services”. The chapter proceeds by considering how much ecosystem stock we need, and what kind of stock that should be – “The global portfolio of ecosystems is currently a mix of intact biodiverse places and multifunctional areas managed to support biodiversity and provide multiple benefits for people. Ongoing conservation and restoration of Nature will need to continue to provide a mix of assets across the spectrum to provide a portfolio that supports the biosphere and our present and future well-being. Conservation and restoration of natural assets also support jobs and livelihoods”

I refuse to think of wild nature as an asset stock that can be monetarised and traded, nor of its restoration and protection as income generating. Moreover, I am seriously perturbed that Dasgupta, when discussing risk and the point at which a change of direction should be required to avert a catastrophe, uses the analogy of the current viral pandemic. He asserts that “Governments were forced to choose between allowing their population to acquire herd immunity (option (a)) and imposing economic lockdown (option (b))” but then noting that “delaying a move to (b), however, ran the risk of an unacceptable number of additional deaths” (see pg. 155 in (12)). Oddly perverse that he perceives the lockdown solely in economic terms, rather than in public health terms in reducing the viral transmission that leads to deaths.

An ecologically illiterate cop-out

In amongst the usual nonsense on rewilding in the review, there were two things that really grated. It says “Rewilding has the potential to create novel ecosystems” and then gives the example of the crackpot proposal of dumping African elephants into the Australian outback to chew up invasive and inflammable, non-native grasses by exploiting a functional trait from the same continent as the invasive species (13). This will greenlight all the trophic rewilding nonsense (14). I loathe the use of non-native mammal species, even domesticated animals, as functional tools, so-called proxy or surrogate species, in what are deemed novel ecosystems but which are essentially human orchestrated zoos. Shouldn’t we be asking wild nature what it thinks of this biotic homogenisation? Rhetorical question, but in the absence of being able to do that, the next best thing is to recognise and honour the distinctiveness, endemism and biogeographical distribution due to the intrinsic boundaries to movement ecology that characterises the species of wild nature, rather than put pressure on its life histories.

The other bugbear about rewilding in the review was that it is "without predetermined targets". This is just an ecologically illiterate cop-out, typical of the disingenuousness of places like Knepp in Sussex and its clones (14-18). It is entrenched now in the meaningless free-for-all interpretation of rewilding -some calling it an evolution, I call it a degrading drift in definition - both in the literature (i.e. 19) and in many personal expositions online. In a very recent example of the latter, Alasdair Cameron - although strangely he doesn’t identify himself - asserts that “rewilding should be open ended, and open-minded about outcomes. It accepts that things may not turn out as we expect…. The open-ended nature of rewilding is to me one of its great strengths… letting nature ‘do its thing’ allows space for all the stuff we would not predict” (20). This is just so wishy-washy. How do you assess progress in the restoration of natural systems if you don't have any expectation - not on what you want, but what wild nature will do with itself given the species and space?

Just taking Knepp as the arch example, it’s a rather juvenile aggrandising approach in feigning ignorance of any potential outcome just so that each spontaneous manoeuvre of wild nature can be claimed to be miraculous, surprising, as though there was no way of expecting or predicting it (21,22). It’s been easy to debunk this at Knepp, given the taller ground vegetation, litter layer and the development of scrub, all of which have obvious attractions for incoming wild nature over and above the bare soil and grassland of farming (16,17). For instance, as the report from 2000 on the nature conservation value of scrub in Britain notes, scrub development is accompanied by massive changes in the associated biological communities largely driven by the substantial alteration of physical structure and other environmental conditions that accompany its colonisation and growth, not least in the physical appearance of the scrub, defined as its canopy openness, its height and its foliage density (23). The report lists bird species for which scrub can form an important habitat (see Table 3.5 in (23)). This includes the turtle dove, a summer migrant from Africa that Knepp disingenuously asserts no one could have predicted its influx there (21). Willow tit is also listed, noting that it is a year-long resident of scrub. I mention this endangered wet-woodland bird (24,25) because a hotspot of population in Lancashire on the local authority owned Wigan Flashes and Amberswood has recently been studied, and its presence and breeding success there is attributed to the natural scrub colonisation that has occurred alongside wetlands resulting from subsidence on former coal mining sites (26,27).

An anticipation of an ecologically feasible trajectory of change

I have over the years firmed up my conviction that restoring wild nature is a recognition of the self-assembly of species into natural, self-perpetuating communities that is observable, predictable, and gives rise to expectations. Given the characteristics of a location, its abiotic conditions, climate, extant species, the potential for in–migration of species, and the removal of barriers to that self-assembly, then there can be an anticipation of an ecologically feasible trajectory of change coupled with an expectation of its time scale. It is a confidence in the properties of wild nature in being able to reproduce natural patterns of development and association. There will be changes in species presence as this progresses, for some species as a series of population expansions followed by contractions and then absence, for others there will be a longer-term persistence. The timescale is generational, which in species terms ranges from annual cycles through to multiple decades.

I keep coming back to my experience of South House Moor as a reference point for this conviction. It’s an area of publicly owned land that is part of the Ingleborough National Nature Reserve (NNR) in the Yorkshire Dales. I knew about South House Moor from reading in 2004 about a conservation conference at Lancaster University where a field trip was to see an experimental area on the eastern flanks of Ingleborough where all grazing had been removed and some trees planted. The area was not named. It took me until 2008 before I had worked out where it could be and went for a first look at the tree planting (28). There were four large patches of native tree species, containing such as birch, ash, oak, alder, hawthorn and willow, and including groups of juniper, the patches spaced out in the 174ha of the moor (29). I then wrote about the changes that had taken place as a result of sheep grazing being excluded in 1999 (30). A few years later, I walked around South House Moor with a staff group from Yorkshire Wildlife Trust during a training weekend on rewilding and watched their enthusiasm for the transformed moorland vegetation (31). It was South House Moor that was the guiding inspiration when I analysed what was achievable in the restoration of Bwlch Corog, a moorland site in the Cambrian Mountains due S of Machynlleth in Wales (17,32,pg. 21-27 in (33)) as it was when I carried out a more comprehensive analysis for Birchfields, an area of the Fechlin River valley in the Highlands of Scotland to the SW of Loch Ness (34,35).

The power of South House Moor as an example comes not just from the observations of change there, but from the expectations that were laid out in the project brief for rewilding the moor (36). I believe Peter Corkhill of English Nature wrote this brief in 1998, a former manager of Ingleborough NNR, but the paper copy I was given about 10 years ago did not have those details. Corkhill would have been involved in drawing up the NNR Management Plan in 1995 wherein there was a desire to “seek opportunities to demonstrate the conservation value of alternative land-use strategies in the uplands and to restore examples of more natural communities across the eco-altitudinal range”. The project brief also said there was the aim in the Natural Area Profile for the Yorkshire Dales that was “restoration of a proportion of the area, and particularly the moorland, to ungrazed communities as the major objective that is not (or scarcely) being pursued at present”. Unfortunately, you won’t find any evidence now of that Yorkshire Dales Natural Area Profile, nor of any of the other Natural Area Profiles compiled by English Nature in combination with local people (37). The rewilding project was seen therefore as a chance to demonstrate the ecological impact of completely removing farming pressures, so allowing and encouraging the upland vegetation communities to re-establish and develop to a more natural state – “We will demonstrate that an un-farmed landscape is not the “untidy, derelict” landscape of popular myth but one rich in wildlife, with an attractive wilderness landscape. A place of spiritual significance” (36). That it was couched as rewilding is remarkable, as I have not seen evidence that this term had permeated out of America and into Britain much until after 2000 (see for instance Alan Watson Featherstone writing about restoring the Caledonian forest in Wild Earth in 2001 – (38)).

Expectations from the stages in a trajectory of change

The overall objective given in the project brief for rewilding of South House Moor was – “To recreate the natural mixture of upland plant communities on South House Moor including scattered native woodland grading into Juniper scrub communities and good quality dwarf shrub moorland, valley mire, deep peat communities, acid grasslands and a small area of limestone pavement” (36). There are stages in a trajectory of change on South House Moor that were predicted in the brief and which have occurred, and others that are yet to occur. The rewilding brief doesn’t put a timescale on these stages, but does list expectations, some based on extant species on or near the moor, and others based on the tree and shrub species introduced by planting:

- good moorland bird populations and species are still present in the area to recolonise

- increases in available ecological niches from an increase in structural diversity in the vegetation and changes in microclimate

- re-establishment of the altitudinal zonation of natural plant communities

- juniper and willow scrub will be established on the scree slopes in places again

- trees and shelter bring an abundance of insects and more bird and animal life

In addition, there is a table in the project brief showing the major vegetation communities that existed in various areas of the moor before cessation of grazing, identified by their National Vegetation Classification (NVC) type. This included for the major part blanket bog (M19a, M20) as well as acid flushes (M6) marshy grassland (M23b) acid grasslands (U2b, U4b, U5b) heath (H18c) and calcareous grassland (CG10a). A second column shows the NVC Types expected in those areas over a much longer term in the absence of grazing, and as a result of the natural colonisation by trees once those planted on the moor reach seed-bearing age. This included the woodland NVC types of willow (W1) ash (W9a) juniper (W19) oak-birch (W17) alder-birch (W7) oak (W11) and birch (W4) but it was expected that much of the blanket bog would remain (see (39) for the composition of all these NVC types).

Cessation of grazing has led to a chain of events over the last 20 years in massively increasing the complexity of the food web  now on South House Moor, as recently observed by Rob Pheasant and Dave Melling of the Ingleborough Soundscape Project (40): the expected flourishing of moorland vegetation, such as grasses, dwarf shrubs (heather, bilberry) mosses, flowering plants (bog asphodel, sneezewort) that are both food and shelter (changes in microclimate) to soil organisms (worms) insects (caterpillars, spiders and other bugs) gastropods (snails, slugs) which in turn are food for small mammals (short tailed field vole, bank vole, shrews, common lizard and frog) these preyed on by mustelids (weasel, stoat, badger) fox, raptors (short-eared owl, kestrel, buzzard) and corvids (carrion crow). Nearly 40 bird species are new to the moor, like willow warbler, redpoll, and black cap, which will feed on seeds (grasses, trees) bilberries, insects, worms, and gastropods. The roe deer often now seen on the moor fit in there somewhere as herbivores, using the same critter trails as foxes but at different times of day, and use the expanse of the moor for rutting and breeding as well as structural cover to hide their young.

The impact of the planted shrubs and trees has yet to become a significant draw for species, especially in terms of providing food from seeds and berries, but a part of the influx of bird species is likely due to insects and larvae on the young trees, the leaves of the trees being their food. The exceptional recovery of the moorland vegetation and structure, and influx of birds, small mammals and invertebrates for this variety of feeding opportunities, fits with the first two expectations in the list. Getting to this point over 20 years is a significant change on South House Moor, but the rate of change has tailed off. The last three expectations depend on the success of establishment of the planted shrubs and trees and their maturity to the point of producing seed so that natural colonisation can occur where possible over a larger area of the moor –the two phases of planting so far have covered only 6-7% of the moor. This would begin to fulfil the larger change in vegetation communities expected over a much longer term in the absence of grazing. Using the table of expected changes in the rewilding brief, I estimate that open landscape of bog, moorland shrubs and grass will shrink to a third of the moor, with woodland, scattered trees and scrub covering the rest. It is likely that only a third of the latter would be woodland that would exert sufficient shade to suppress moorland species, which would still have a presence in the areas of scattered trees and scrub. These changes have a localised element to them – it won’t begin to happen everywhere at the same time. It will be on a different timescale, but the change will be wholesale. It is when the tree colonisation has shaken out towards a state of potential natural vegetation that you could consider that South House Moor has reached its mature wild state within the parameters of the project.

Trees and shrubs mature to seed bearing anywhere between 10-40 years in ideal conditions. You could expect a wide scale trajectory of expanding tree colonisation based on mode of seed distribution and a number of generations cycling through seeding to maturity. It would be slower than the initial rate of change during the recovery in moorland vegetation and structure, and will encompass multiple decades – at least many more than the 20 years so far. However, even this timescale is optimistic for although the trees in all four of the areas of the first phase of planting are visible in aerial imagery, especially those planted alongside Whit-a-Green Spring (Lat,Long 54.178, -2.353) some up close elsewhere appear to be struggling from exposure and suboptimal soil conditions – the likely centuries of mineral leaching arising from the moor being very wet, with established surface and underground streams, gullies and streamlets increasing after heavy rain. Thus early leaf drop and stunted growth is common in the more exposed planting location on the moor (Lat,Long 54.180, -2.367) so that seed production there may be delayed by many years, and seed germination may be adversely affected. In the case of the junipers planted, their development has been thwarted by Phytophthora, a lethal fungus-like organism that has spread within the native juniper of the NNR and on to South House Moor (see Table 3 in (41)). But as more and more trees struggle through and develop on the moor, they will provide some measure of protection from exposure to new tree seedlings as well as their root structure and fall of leaves making the hostility of the soil conditions more benign. This is indicative of the changes in microclimate that the trees will bring about, and which will also have a knock-on effect in creating niches for more species return. I would like to come back to South House Moor in 60-80 years when the various expected woodland communities have developed and the rate of change from tree colonisation will have slowed (i.e. 80-100 years since the project started).

Are we an ecologically literate nation?

The evidence is poor that we are an ecologically literate nation when we can’t see clearly that wildness is the outcome of the intrinsic properties of ecology, of that self-assembly and self-perpetuation of natural communities, rather than the straightjacket of human politics, such as the ideological monetarisation of biodiversity, or of sociology where people get to make decisions that wild nature should be making. Ecological principles come alive when realistic examples can be explored through discovery and deduction. Will there ever come a day when we too will be able to observe the dispersal of wolves in Britain, like the recent camera trap evidence of several wolves recently crossing state lines from established packs in Oregon into California, and make the same observation as Amaroq Weiss, West Coast wolf advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity that “The wolves that are wandering across Oregon and coming down to California are basically ground-truthing what scientists have told us and literature that [has] examined where is a good habitat for wolves” (42)

Mark Fisher 24 February 2021

(1) Commodification of nature, Self-willed land January 2021


(2) How to apply for a natural environment investment readiness fund grant, Environment Agency 10 February 2021


(3) The Natural Choice: securing the value of nature, HM Government CM 8082 June 2011


(4) The continuing destruction of our native trophic pyramid, Self-willed land 21 February 2018


(5) Achieving government’s long-term environmental goals, Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, National Audit Office, HM Government 3 November 2020


(6) Fortieth Report - Achieving government’s long-term environmental goals, Session 2019–21, House of Commons Public Accounts Committee 3 February 2021


(7) Achieving government’s long-term environmental goals, Public Accounts Committee, UK Parliament


(8) Q59, Oral evidence: Achieving government’s long-term environmental goals, Public Accounts Committee HC 927 3 December 2020


(9) Spring Statement 2019: Philip Hammond's speech, Chancellor of the Exchequer 13 March 2019


(10) The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review, HM Treasury 14 August 2019


(11) Interim Report – The Dasgupta Review: Independent Review on the Economics of Biodiversity, HM Treasury 30 April 2020


(12) The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review. HM Treasury 2 February 2021


(13) Bowman, D. (2012). Bring elephants to Australia? Nature, 482(7383): 30-30.


(14) The free for all of trophic rewilding, Self-willed land January 2016


(15) Moving past process to outcome – the manifestation of wild land, Self-willed land September 2017


(16) More zombie ideas in ecology, Self-willed land  March 2018


(17) Conservation biology and the repair of our damaged and degraded ecosystems, Self-willed land April 2018


(18) Faking the wild – safari park rewilding, Self-willed land May 2020


(19) Wynne-Jones, S., Strouts, G., O’Neil, C., & Sandom, C. (2020). Rewilding–Departures in Conservation Policy and Practice? An Evaluation of Developments in Britain. Conservation & Society, 18(2): 89-102


(20) Only rewilding makes another future for wildlife seem possible. Posted on February 14, 2021 by godneymarshes


(21) Reintroductions, Knepp Wildland


(22) Wildlife Successes, Knepp Wildland


(23) Mortimer, S. R., Turner, A. J., Brown, V. K., Fuller, R. J., Good, J. E. G., Bell, S. A., Stevens, P. A., Norris, D., Bayfield, N. G., Ward, L. K. (2000) The nature conservation value of scrub in Britain. JNCC Report 308


(24) Willow tit (Poecile montanus) Wildlfe Trusts


(25) Just what is causing the decline of UK Willow Tits?  James Common, Articles & Blogs, Conservation Jobs 26 January 2016


(26) Willow tits find refuge in former mining areas, CEH Simon Williams 11/02/2021


(27) Broughton, R. K., Parry, W., & Maziarz, M. (2021). Wilding of a post-industrial site provides a habitat refuge for an endangered woodland songbird, the British Willow Tit Poecile montanus kleinschmidti. Bird Study, 1-10


(28) Wild foraging - reconnecting to our ethno-botanical heritage, Self-willed land October 2008


(29) Woodland creation - in need of strategic direction and larger scale, Self-willed land November 2008


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


(31) The malady of conservation reliance, Self-willed land October 2015


(32) Rewiring an emptied food web, Self-willed land January 2018


(33) Rewilding – definition, continuum, ecological concepts and application, Mark Fisher & Steve Carver, WRi 23 March 2018


(34) Digital Natural Capital Account, Natural Capital Laboratory


(35) Restoring ecological richness at Birchfields – the Natural Capital Laboratory, Self-willed land June 2019


(36) Corkhill, P. (1998) The rewilding of South House Moor Project Brief, Ingleborough NNR, English Nature, Ingleborough NNR, Colt Park Barn


(37) Idle, E. T. (1995). Conflicting priorities in site management in England. Biodiversity & Conservation, 4(8): 929-937


(38) Featherstone, A.W. (2001) Restoring Scotland's Caledonian Forest. Wild Earth 11(3/4)(Fall/Winter 2001/2002) 66-71


(39) Averis, A., Averis, B., Birks, J., Horsfield, D., Thompson, D. & Yeo, M. (2004) An Illustrated Guide to British Upland Vegetation, JNCC, Peterborough


(40) Ingleborough Soundscape Project, MammalWeb

(41) Whitaker, T. & Newbould, J. (2014) Yorkshire Juniper scrub Juniperus communis ssp. communis - a re-appraisal in the face of a new threat. The Naturalist 139 (1085): 46-56


(42) Oregon wolves could be expanding their range into California, Erik Neumann, Oregon Public Broadcasting 16 February 2021



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