Britain is not what it used to be. Much of this pleasant green land was paved or cultivated within an inch of his life. Rivers and seashores have been polluted.

But people are trying to change that through “rewilding” – the return of land and sea to a more natural state – with pastures, golf courses and harbors among the areas being revitalized.

Supporters say this is vital if UK ecosystems are to weather the climate crisis.

And the process can help prevent carbon from being released into the atmosphere in the first place, by increasing the cover of trees and long grasses.

Here we take a look at some of the rewilding projects that started in 2021.

Think big

Following the recruitment in 2021 of a pair of new rangers for the Kent Wildlife Trust (KWT), the stage is officially set for the arrival of four huge bison near Canterbury in 2022.

As part of the trust’s Blean Woods restoration program, one-ton herbivores will cut down trees and free up space for new plant growth – a “tangled mess” that will encourage the return of species like fritillary butterflies and great woodpeckers.

Pigs will also be brought in to turn the soil and pull up seeds, which will hopefully increase the number of turtle doves.

Stan Smith of KWT tells The independent: “We haven’t had a species like this here for thousands of years. These animals fulfill a disruptive role in the landscape, and in the way they shape their environment, they are a key species.

“There is nothing else that can do the job that they can do. They can selectively cut down trees, mature trees in the woods, and create that diversity of structure that we once would have had. The alternative is to keep using chainsaws, machines, big chunks of carbon intensive infrastructure. “

Tom Gibbs (left) and Donovan Wright, the UK’s first bison rangers, meet a bison (Gareth Fuller / PA)

(PA wire)

The bison project has generated unprecedented public interest, Smith says. “People see bison as the title and it’s a fantastic opening to be able to talk to people about what’s quite difficult and nuanced [subject].

“We’re talking about cutting down trees at a time when the headline is, ‘We need more trees’ – and I totally agree with that – but it’s a nuance we need to be able to. to deepen. “

Progress will be scientifically monitored at the plant and species level, in particular through the use of a “control” land area which will be managed using current tools.

Dive deeper

Think “rewilding” and you can imagine a meadow of wildflowers or a hill newly planted with trees. But Britain’s seabed needs help just as much as its countryside.

The Wild Oyster project aims to revive coastal renewal by increasing the number of native shellfish and producing a cleaner environment.

Three coastal areas in north-east England, north Wales and Scotland have been stocked with oyster larvae this year, and project managers urged the British to “stop viewing them as of food and start to think of them as engineers of the ecosystem. “

Alison Debney, from the Zoological Society of London, tells The independent: “The focus is often on the terrestrial environment and marine, river and estuarine environments are often neglected.

“We always think of the native oysters on the plate … but when we see them underwater fulfilling their function, they actually form a really important habitat, form complex seabeds by connecting together a bit like the Coral reefs.”

Céline Gamble, head of the Wild Oysters Project, in Conwy Bay, Wales

(Zoological Society of London)

Oysters, as filter feeders, remove particles from the water as well as pollution from fertilizers like nitrates, Debney explains, allowing light to penetrate and stimulate plants like sea grasses, in turn providing food and habitat for other species.

Oyster beds are also nurseries for fish. However, the UK has lost some 20,000 km2 to pollution and overfishing. “Protecting what we have” is no longer enough, Debney said, adding that environmentalists must now take an active role.

She adds, “The slippery baselines mean we’ve forgotten what the marine habitat looked like. We have forgotten how complex and rich the diversity is. You can see it at the size of the fish in some old photographs – how much smaller they got over time. “

Civic duty and overcoming the fear of change

Rewilding can be a tough sell. Residents and nearby landowners may “perceive it as a change imposed on them and that somehow control of their own destiny… is being taken away from them,” says Peter Cairns.

Despite this, the movement has gathered pace in recent years and is likely to only pick up speed, said the executive director of Scotland The Big Picture, a children’s rights group. The independent.

He says this is in part because the British now recognize they have a “civic duty, if you want to call it that, to climate change and nature reclamation” and these crises are intertwined.

Additionally, landowners and farmers noted the direction of travel – economic and political – and engaged in rewilding projects for altrustic or commercial reasons, or both.

Overcoming “lazy associations” like the idea of ​​rewilding means “wolves in and farmers out” is key, Cairns says.

His organization has seen tremendous success this year with the launch of its Northwoods Rewilding Network. Cairns says, “We started this in April with six land partners, we are now up to 34 land partners with a total area of ​​over 10,000 acres.

“These are farms, crofts, community forests, small estates that come out and say, ‘I want to put nature recovery at the center of my operations.’ The appetite for it shows no signs of waning.

Ardura oak forest on the Isle of Mull

(Scotland The Big Picture)

The program is open to people who have between 50 and 1,000 acres. It is “specially designed to show that rewilding is not the exclusive prerogative of large ecophilanthropists or conservation groups” and aims to create a “series of stepping stones, knots … to improve landscape connectivity”.

Another boost to rewilding north of the border in 2021 has been the Scottish government’s decision to support the wider reintroduction of beavers, another species lauded, like oysters and bison, for its “engineering” role. . Rodents also returned to Nottinghamshire this autumn for the first time in 400 years.

Cairns further highlights the recent community takeover of a 5,000-acre estate in Langhthingsolm, now on its way to becoming a nature reserve, as “symbolic” of the movement’s progress.

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Nature nearby

For some rewilding groups, the battle of hearts and minds can be won by dispelling the idea of ​​nature as “elsewhere”. Having wilderness areas close to their homes will help people care about habitat restoration, according to Matt Buckler of the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust (DWT).

He says The independent: “The climate and nature crisis is happening everywhere and one of the things wildlife trusts is making sure that people have a connection with nature.

“I think that’s one of the things that comes out of the lockdown. It’s great to have big areas that people can go to – it would be great if we could have a Yellowstone in UK, but we wouldn’t be able to have a lot.

“With the movement restrictions, it’s really important that we have high quality, nature-filled spaces as close to people as possible. “

That’s the idea behind the rewilding of Derby’s Allestree, which was approved by local councilors in November. Residents are to be consulted between January and March on what they would like to see done with the area, which includes a former golf course.

Starlings are now on the RSBP Red List when they were previously common

(EPA)

Buckler has his own ideas, which read like a Redwall novel. He would be delighted to see the nearly extinct flaying shrike introduced; the presence of the bird is an indicator of the quality of the habitats, he says.

He hopes for a revival of once common birds like house sparrows, bullfinches and starlings, and perhaps less spotted woodpeckers. Large colonies of brown moths could find a home in new “neglected spaces”, while harvest mice and water voles could also be introduced.

Allestree Park currently has “a lot of right angles,” Buckler says, and DWT wants to “blend the edges” to help nature. Golf courses in particular – which, as George Carlin pointed out, take up a lot of space – can be “green deserts” if they are intensively managed and maintained, he adds.

Bushy shrubs

Despite the gains made by rewilders in recent years, the UK “is still falling behind in terms of conservation and biodiversity,” warns Alastair Driver, director of Rewilding Britain. Nonetheless, he believes it can be reversed in favor of species recovery and climate change mitigation.

“If you do a lot of these things, cumulatively they really make a difference,” he says. The independent.

The value of supporting private landowners, as Scotland The Big Picture has done, is demonstrated by the achievements of the Broughton Hall Estate in Yorkshire, where Driver is a specialist advisor apart from his charitable role. Less than three years after his first meeting with owner Roger Tempest, a “transformation” plan was agreed upon and implemented for 1,100 acres, which Driver says is far less time than would be required for a business. large-scale public project.

He says, “We have stopped grazing sheep and cattle… while planting 200,000 native trees and shrubs. This makes it the largest program of its kind in the country last winter. “

Along with trees planted in early 2021, the grass was allowed to grow wild and long, providing additional carbon sequestration in addition to its ecological benefits. These are the bushy spaces where wildlife thrives and is closer to the wilderness of the land, instead of the manicured green fields referred to by the term ‘countryside’.

The streams were also “dumped” this year, meaning they were dug from their pipes underground and allowed to follow a more natural course. Some 140 “leakage dams” have been installed on the hillside to slow the flow of rainwater, thus reducing the risk of flooding.

Echoing Alison Debney, Driver says affirmative action is needed because waiting for an agricultural landscape to regenerate naturally could take a century or more.

Ultimately, however, the goal is “to move forward to the point where nature takes care of itself.”

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