When we think of this “green and pleasant land” we tend to visualise rolling hills and a spring chorus filling the countryside with beautiful birdsong. Unfortunately, the past few hundred years has seen a dramatic change in how we use the land meaning that this image might not be as idyllic as we would hope.
The country has moved away from the ancient forests that once covered its landscape and towards intensely managed and often very sterile farmland. It is of course not just farming but also industry that has cleared land. Whilst this has meant that we have advanced economically, we have done so at great expense to our environment which has been terrible for biodiversity.
Devastatingly, this has resulted in Britain being one of the most nature depleted countries in the world. According to the WWF, more than one in seven native species face extinction and more than half are in decline.
Agricultural land makes up an immense 70% of land use, but cities also create a negative impact due to high density populations, increased levels of pollution and poor urban planning all of which can result in reduced habits and a loss in human-nature interactions. As such, many people have become used to a life with very few natural habitats.
However, there is hope as although 2020 has been a terrible year for many of us, it has been wonderful for several species that were either extinct or in serious decline.
In late Spring, we saw the return to the UK of breeding white storks. This mythical bringer of babies was seen nesting at the Knepp Estate in West Sussex, a cause for much celebration given this is the first time they have been recorded in the UK in 606 years.
Earlier this month, a wonderful video was released of a Beaver building a dam in Exmoor for the first time in 400 years following their extinction from the UK. These enigmatic, orange toothed rodents have been reintroduced into a number of locations across the UK since early 2000. It is heartwarming that these Exmoor beavers were introduced by the National Trust in January. Only 11 months on and they are doing what they do best.
Whilst it is easy to be happy seeing a few cute animals return to our island, what is really wonderful about these reintroductions is the wider impact they have. Species do not survive within a vacuum but rather interact as part of a wider ecosystem.
Beavers have a positive effect on their environment due to their behaviour. The wetlands that are required to support them live are valuable for many other species too. As such, they help otters, water voles, common frogs and toads, water shrews and insects. This in turn provides food for fish and insect-eating birds and bats, given the UK significant species decline, all of them need our help.
The creation of dams result in a change to the habitats across the landscape the beavers reside in, creating streams and pools which hold water in droughts and lessen flooding during high rainfall.
Rewilding is a word which has been used a great deal in recent month. It has been defined as
"a way of inspiring and restoring natural processes in order to repair damaged ecosystems and reintroduce lost species."
This is a complex process because reintroduced species, big or small, must firstly have a suitable habitat to sustain them and have other species within the ecosystem that they can interact with. As such, these projects can take years to reach the successful outcome hoped for, in addition to receiving all the necessary support and funding.
The complexities should not be underestimated. Most species need vast and connected territories in order to feed and reproduce. Knepp was a relatively unique example as the owners of the 3,500 acre estate decided to move away from intensive farming to a much more natural area. Thus whilst there were people in the community who had their doubts, having the permission of the landowner was a given.
The other obvious impediment is resistance from humans. The concerns can be diverse including nervousness that the reintroduction might not be carried out properly, the introduction of risks to established wildlife, damage to lands and property and loss in business. In addition, we get very used to areas looking a certain way so any change can be perceived as bad. As such, communication with stakeholders is critical and should be a key part of any reintroduction programme.
It's not just for the countryside
When thinking of rewilding and reintroduction, I for sure don’t think of this as something that takes place in cities, however, in the same week that the Exmoor beavers built their dam, Nottingham Wildlife Trust put in a proposal to bring nature back to the city centre.
The Broadmarsh shopping centre was being redeveloped when it went into administration this Summer and ownership was passed to the council. The Wildlife Trust saw this as an opportunity to combine the mutual benefits to humans and wildlife by creating connections from the city to Sherwood Forest. The Trust believes that:
“a statement natural greenspace in the heart of the city would build climate change resilience, improve connectivity for people and provide an attractive backdrop for existing businesses as well as drawing in new investors.”
Who knows if this is simply wishful thinking however, they are hoping to gauge public support through an online petition.
So what about London, our National Park City?
A green light for the water vole in South West London
The wonderful rewilding group Citizen Zoo has been working to reintroduce waters vole to the Hogsmill River in Kingston. The voles thrived in the1800s and could be regularly found there only 30 years ago. Unfortunately however, they were last sighted back in 2017.
This is the first time that a community has worked on an urban river reintroduction programme and while they won't be released until 2022 the group have just raised sufficient public funding to go ahead.
What is so important about this project is that it has huge support and backing from the community showing that the interest and understanding of a project like this is very present.
From Europe's biggest rodent to its smallest
Another reintroduction project currently in its infancy is the Ealing Wildlife Group's vision to reintroduce the iconic harvest mouse into areas of West London.
During the first public presentation of the idea, on being asked why reintroduce this species into Ealing? EWG's founder, Dr Sean McCormack reminded us that...
if we got rid of something, it’s our duty to put it back.
The overall ethos of the group is:
all of which are necessary ingredients for any successful reintroduction programme.
The EWG has been working with the council over the past 2 years to create and maintain habits that are suitable for Barn Owls as well as Little Owls including tall grasses and linear habitats such as woodland, hedgerow and bramble. The result is that both species of owl are now nesting in the borough.
These habitats are also suitable for field voles and harvest mice, both of which are perfect prey for Barn Owls. The prey and predator cycles go hand in hand with one another as when the prey are doing well, it in turn has positive results on the predators.
Whilst humans tend to hate the idea of anything, especially when cute, being killed and eaten by another animal, it is very important to remember that the harvest mice are in the base layer of the food chain so reintroducing them will benefit the ecosystem as a whole.
When looking for areas for the successful reintroduction of the mice, the area needs to be:
· Connected habitats
· Not at risk of development
So far, several locations have been identified. The group has been working closely with organisations such as Citizen Zoo, Lucy Groves from the Knepp Estate and the council, increasing the chance that this young project will grow into a big success, but what is also critical to a positive outcome is community involvement.
These stories rightly need to get noticed by the wider community as the more support and participation the better. Volunteers are required to monitor suitable sites and carry out surveys in order to actively look for nests to ascertain if harvest mice are currently present in the area.
As Sean highlights, projects such as this one can capture the public interest and to indirectly and importantly help people to become aware of what is around them.
"Everything is connected in nature and what we do here can have knock on benefits to wider biodiversity."
Helping nature flourish is a long-term process and is essential if we want to help species adapt to climate change. So, perhaps 2020 has had some positive news after all, providing us with some hope for the future.
A few Twitter accounts that you might find of use:
@Nottswildlife @BeaverTrust @CitizenZoo @WildlifeEaling @ProjectStork @nationaltrust