Science Matters – To rewild or not to rewild, that is the question

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Viewed from a plane, rural Britain consists predominantly of bare hills in the north and a southern patchwork of fields.

The northern landscape is mainly determined by excessive grazing by sheep and deer, while dairy, meat and arable farming have shaped the south. So how did Britain look before human interventions? Dense forest? or open woodland?

Research now favours the latter.

Plants and animals evolved in equilibrium for thousands of years before humans impacted the landscape. Essential to this balance were ‘keynote species’ including aurochs (cattle), bison and tarpan (ancient horses). By grazing, these animals trampled and eroded soils, dispersed seeds and redistributed nutrients, thereby keeping the forest open. This in turn encouraged growth of large trees while also creating numerous habitats and microenvironments for a wonderful diversity of plants and smaller animals.

Now this biodiversity is severely threatened by modern monocultures (grass, cereals, spruce), and massive quantities of pesticides, fungicides, fertilisers and ‘weed’ killers. It is no wonder that insect numbers have plummeted, many bird species are endangered and wild-flower meadows have virtually vanished. So could we recreate this natural order on unproductive land and save our wildlife?

For Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. In her book ‘Wilding’, Tree describes ‘wilding’ their 3,500 acre farm at Knepp, West Sussex, that had been unproductive for years.

They introduced longhorn cattle, Exmore ponies, deer and pigs but otherwise left well alone. Within months they saw a difference – most scrub was cleared, producing an explosion of plant and animal species. And where grazers were deterred by spiny or unpalatable plants, oaks emerged that will eventually form an open woodland.

But Knepp is isolated. More rewilding sites are needed with wildlife corridors between them to support the populations and genetic diversity essential for long-term survival.

Surely parts of Argyll are ideal for rewilding. We already have beavers creating new waterways to support aquatic species – now how about some large grazers to open up the landscape and perhaps one day recreate the ancient Celtic rainforest?