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Unwild

The rewilding movement seems to have an unstoppable momentum. Given the Press coverage, sometimes I think in general understanding it has almost become nature conservation in the UK.

I'm not sure what rewilding means any more, to be honest - I've seen it applied to terrapin introductions and bizarre seeding schemes involving lots of weedkiller and American flowers on road verges. Like Extinction Rebellion, it's a movement I admire for its energy and its core beliefs, but which seems to have become pretty divisive and sometimes removed from the real world. In lots of ways it's very exciting. It's opened a lot of people's eyes, promoted some great ideas, and there are some great rewilding projects. And yet...

I recently read an interview in the excellent Inkcap Journal with Lee Schofield, a RSPB conservation officer in the Lakes:

The re-wiggling of Swindale Beck could indeed be described as rewilding, says Schofield, but he is reluctant to use the word, despite personally finding it an exciting concept. It has become “a toxic term, and it’s tainted other conservation work,” he says.

“I think that, unfortunately, the divisiveness of it, certainly in a local context here, has done more harm than good. So I think we need to try to move away from that and find something that people find a bit more acceptable and less inflammatory.”

There are some very knowledgeable people - far more knowledgeable than me - driving aspects of rewilding forward, with a good deal of enthusiasm. I'm a big fan of some, but what I hear from many others I like... not so much. Take some areas where human intervention actually helps biodiversity, for example.

Manmade Good

I got involved in a silly argument on Twitter (is there any other sort of argument on Twitter?) with a high profile nature writer about what constitutes a hedge. He'd posted a photo of a linear scrub feature as an example of a fantastic hedge. Now hedges are something I know a bit about. There are lots of different types of hedge, and they've changed over the years. They have a few common features, though, the most obvious being they're manmade. This isn't as obvious to some as you might think, as hedges are such a familiar feature in the British landscape. 

In order to make lines of plants stockproof they have always needed managing - in times past, by laying. Without this kind of intervention you end up with a spreading corridor of dense scrub at best, with suckering species encroaching surrounding lad. At worst, you'll have a line of small trees - as above. Is this such a bad thing? It's not terrible, but you do lose some diversity and value as a habitat and corridor for movement, as well as the practical features of a hedge - as a visual and physical barrier. Repeated flailing is worse than neglect, for sure, but there's a middle way between this and benign neglect. 

Wildflower meadows are no less a manmade feature - perhaps counter-intuitively. Particularly with higher nitrogen deposition - i.e. encouraging the growth of aggresive grasses and pernicious weeds - they need managing through cutting and/or grazing. A well meaning local friend had a meadow coming along nicely, but "rewilded" it and, a few years later, it's a field full of blackthorn.*

Scrub itself is a valuable habitat, but the key to maximising the landscape's ecological value is diversity. And wildflower meadows - much more obviously than hedges - offer fantastic diversity. Not only that, but they look lovely too, and really engage people.

The key point, though, is that they need managing. I'm really concerned that "rewilding" claims some of our last remaining unimproved grassland, and stalls everyone's current efforts to create more.

It's Complicated

Tree planting is a more nuanced area. I went to an interesting talk by Isabella Tree a couple of years ago, and she gave tree planting a very bad rap, which I don't think is entirely fair (as a purveyor of trees you might not expect me to be entirely neutral on this though!). Natural regeneration has been much overlooked over the last few years for exactly this reason - commercial self-interest. In most ways it's to be preferred to planting. Sometimes, though, it's not.

Most of our existing woodlands have lost diversity of species. Replacing  lost trees and shrubs by planting is the only way to do it. Planting can also be the only option if there are no existing trees to regenerate. I know the arguments about scrub protecting broadleaf saplings as they develop, but in many areas now this is inadequate protection against the massive numbers of deer roaming the countryside. New plants don't stand a chance without protection. I suppose you could protect natural regen, but guards are generally used with planted whips. And before you ask, yes, they're wretched, but at least there are guards now available which are compostable or recyclable.

These are practical, rather than theoretical issues.

Warfare

As you can imagine, this sort of thing plays really badly on social media, where there tend to be three warring camps:

Enthusiastic rewilders.

Informed sceptics.

Traditionalist country types. 

The rewilders tell the sceptics they're sneering, ageist and superior, and have failed to move the dial at a time when action is desparately needed. This is a massive wind up to peeps who have spent years labouring at the biodiversity coal face for not much reward - in terms of results as well as financial. The sceptics - consequently - tell the rewilders they're poorly informed callow enthusiasts and that there will be unintended consequences to what they wish for. The sceptics are further irked by what they see as the disproportionate amount of media attention focused on irrelevant rewilding projects. Rewilding has some hugely energetic, well connected and high profile advocates (am I envious? Sure!). 

It's all rather sad. I have to say I have a foot in all three camps (if that's physically possible!). I admire the enthusiasm and profile of the rewilders, the knowledge of the sceptics and the love for the countryside of many who work in it.

I do have a fundamental mistrust of populist anything though - and I think that's what rewilding is in danger of becoming - a populist form of nature conservation. As James Rebanks gets so right, mending the mess requires a holistic and practical approach. There's no quick and easy fix. That's sort of the point. Nature, once broken, is incredibly difficult to put back together, and it's misleading and ultimately damaging to suggest to people that it isn't. We all need to pull together to do it - but - in a currently discredited phrase - following the science.

*People's attempts to "rewild" their back gardens tend to be no less disastrous!