A Good Source of Latest Conservation News; 05/07/2018

There are lots of really good, relevant news stories and up to date research to be found on the RSPB’s Martin Harper’s Blog.  Here are some of the latest articles from this source which is to be found at:    https://ww2.rspb.org.uk/community/ourwork/b/martinharper/default.aspx

Recent fires on the Pennines. https://ww2.rspb.org.uk/community/ourwork/b/martinharper/archive/2018/06/29/wildfire-at-dove-stone.aspx

Severn estuary tidal barrage review.  https://ww2.rspb.org.uk/community/ourwork/b/martinharper/archive/2018/07/04/severn-tidal-power-can-we-learn-the-lessons-this-time.aspx

Nature-friendly farming.  https://ww2.rspb.org.uk/community/ourwork/b/martinharper/archive/2018/06/29/good-news-for-a-friday-growing-solidarity-and-ambition-for-nature-friendly-farming.aspx

Controlling predators of wild birds.  https://ww2.rspb.org.uk/community/ourwork/b/martinharper/archive/2018/06/28/the-conservationist-39-s-dilemma-an-update-on-the-science-policy-and-practice-of-the-impact-of-predators-on-wild-birds-5.aspx

Licencing the shooting of ravens?https://ww2.rspb.org.uk/community/ourwork/b/martinharper/archive/2018/06/18/a-response-to-news-that-licenses-have-been-granted-to-shoot-ravens-in-england.aspx

Swifts – house building, reporting nesting sites, wintering grounds. https://ww2.rspb.org.uk/community/ourwork/b/martinharper/archive/2018/06/17/swift-awareness-week.aspx

Cull of Ashdown Forest Deer.


Controversy has just hit the tv screens of Sussex after the the BBC SEToday article concerning the culling of deer on the Ashdown Forest…

After having hunted lynx and the wolf to extinction, the fact is, that Man is now the top predator.  I have some knowledge of this subject…  On a large area of land neighbouring Ashdown Forest, in which I was involved in the course of my work, culling commenced some five years ago.  The removal of selected deer including old and injured animals by experienced stalkers, has led to the remaining deer population now being in a healthier condition with them having more to eat.  A second bonus has been that the woodland and flora are now starting to recover from decades of over-grazing – I have witnessed that with my own eyes.

Thirdly, this has locally reduced the numbers of deer involved in road traffic accidents.  This came close to me several years ago when my wife narrowly escaped serious injury from involvement with a deer – within an urban 30mph speed limit area.  This collision wrote-off her car.

Lynx Debate: Claims That Sheep Increase Biodiversity Are Wrong?

Found this interesting article on the Rewilding Britain site.  I would suggest that the truth lay somewhere between the two proponents of the debate.  To use chalk grassland and lowland heath here in Sussex as examples, I have related my view as a ‘Page’ – To Graze Or Not To Graze, on the home page of my blog.


 The lynx debate: why claims that sheep increase biodiversity are wrong

The National Sheep Association believes that grazing enhances biodiversity. The independent environmental consultancy Ecosulis isn’t so sure. Here’s why, including its views on reintroducing lynx

Lynx: a keystone species with an important role to play in the environment

Lynx: a keystone species with an important role to play in the environment.


25 Apr 2016

The National Sheep Association (NSA) recently published a report entitled The Wider Consequences of the Introduction of Eurasian Lynx to the UK. In the report, the NSA raises a host of concerns about proposals to reintroduce lynx to the UK. This article is a response from independent environmental consultancy Ecosulis, with particular focus on biodiversity associated with many sheep farms.

The Eurasian lynx is a keystone species, similar to beavers and pine marten, both subject to separate reintroduction projects. A keystone species is one that has a large impact on its community by controlling the dominance of other species or by changing habitat structure (beaver dams, for instance). It can therefore have a big impact on biodiversity and wildlife.

In its report, the NSA states that traditionally grazed woodlands should be introduced to enhance biodiversity. It is accepted by many ecologists and habitat managers that woodlands are reduced in biodiversity and structural quality as a result of intensive grazing, both from deer and sheep, and that efforts to minimise deer populations in woodlands are a priority. The reintroduction of lynx could reduce deer numbers by introducing an ‘ecology of fear’ and therefore restore the health and biodiversity of our woodlands by allowing ground flora and associated species to regenerate. Indeed, ambush predators such as the Eurasian lynx may have a stronger affect than wolves. Sheep can also damage woodland edge habitats where intensive grazing can reduce floristic diversity of grassland (and therefore have impacts on other wildlife, including bats) and expose woodland to disturbance.

Grasslands – undergrazing is good too

The NSA advises that undergrazing of semi-natural habitats by removing sheep from the upland would result in a loss of biodiversity. Undergrazing, however, would lead to increased grassland sward and, consequently, greater floristic diversity and opportunities for invertebrates. This, in turn, would enhance opportunities for other wildlife, including bats and byrophytes. Ecologists and wildlife trusts encourage areas of ungrazed habitats within management plans and mitigation strategies. This is because they allow grassland swards, wildflower meadows and woodland edge habitats to mature and flourish.

The measure of biodiversity

Bats can be used as an indicator of biodiversity change because they show trends in invertebrate prey and the quality of habitat structure

Ecosulis, driven by its shared vision of Rewilding Britain, uses the Biodiversity Quality Calculator (BQC) developed by Dr Alan Feest. This tool measures biodiversity quality and was recently used to quantify the changes that resulted from beaver reintroduction at the Okehampton reserve in Devon. We have used it to illustrate the biodiversity value associated with a site in Sussex where sheep graze half the site and the other half is left ungrazed (each section is 1.5ha).

Bats can be used as an indicator of biodiversity change because they show trends in invertebrate prey and the quality of habitat structure. So, in September 2014, we undertook bat activity surveys on the site, with bat counts taken for each sample area. This is by no means a comprehensive study but it can be used to illustrate the differences for the site.

Our BQC findings show several changes in biodiversity when comparing the sheep-grazed half of the site against the ungrazed area. Species richness and density increase within the ungrazed area. In addition, biomass is higher, indicating more invertebrate prey for bats. Species rarity across the site appears to be the same, although the evenness score indicates that there is a better spread of species (or less dominance of any one species) in the ungrazed area of the site. These all indicate that, in this example, biodiversity is higher in the ungrazed area than the sheep-grazed half of the site. We would hypothesise that this trend would be consistent in similar comparisons and across other species groups. We suggest, therefore, that the NSA claims regarding the benefits of grazing to biodiversity are flawed.

Rewilding – with informed decisions

The NSA concludes that “sheep play an important part of maintaining the biodiversity of the current, perfectly functioning ecosystem, which would be disrupted by the introduction of an unnecessary predator. Reintroduction of lynx would be a costly, complex process, with little benefit to the woodlands or ecosystems as a whole”.

This article questions the basis for that statement and we would welcome any details from the NSA concerning the valuation methods that show this correlation between sheep grazing and biodiversity. Our initial studies, and our work with wildlife trusts on biodiversity change associated with the reintroduction of keystone species, reveal a significant increase in biodiversity following the reintroduction of beavers, for example. Lynx are a keystone species and could assist with controlling deer numbers, which would increase biodiversity and habitat structure in our woodlands.

We agree that more information is needed on the impact of lynx on biodiversity and ecosystem services and this is currently in development. We also strongly believe in partnerships between stakeholders, including sheep farmers, for all proposed reintroductions and consideration must be given to the potential impact on sheep farming as well as other related factors. Furthermore, reintroduction and rewilding projects should adopt robust biodiversity valuation methodology to clearly demonstrate the direction of change. This can then be used to inform decisions on reintroduction suitability, scale and locations.

About the authors

Cain Blythe is Managing Director of Ecosulis.

Sara King is a Senior Ecological Consultant at the company.




The Taming Of Nature? How Should Conservationists Proceed?


Guest blog – The taming of nature by Steven Robinson

IMG_0861-e1450846405692-225x300This appeared on Mark Avery’s Twitter blog over Christmas and raised some very interesting question and drew some very interesting responses.  I have included the more pertinent of those at the end of Steven’s blog for those who have had their brain cells fired up on reading this important topic!  I have highlighted in bold, sections which I can empathise with.

Mark Avery (@MarkAvery)
The taming of nature ow.ly/Wpln8

I occasionally post on Mark’s blog as Apus Apus. I live in London and do not work in the conservation sector. I like swifts, birds of prey, trees, wolves, trophic cascades, LACS and Richard Mabey. I have written a guest blog, as I would like to see more naturalness in UK conservation. I have used the writing of Mark Fisher, Peter Rhind, and Clive Hambler and Martin Speight as a framework for this.

The taming of nature – why is naturalness undervalued in UK conservation?

Guest blog by Steven Robinson, December 29, 2015.

Steven Robinson: I occasionally post on Mark [Avery’s] blog as Apus Apus. I live in London and do not work in the conservation sector. I like swifts, birds of prey, trees, wolves, trophic cascades, LACS and Richard Mabey. I have written a guest blog, as I would like to see more naturalness in UK conservation. I have used the writing of Mark Fisher, Peter Rhind, and Clive Hambler and Martin Speight as a framework for this:


As a regular visitor to nature reserves in the UK, I often feel saddened by the way nature is controlled and what has been lost in terms of naturalness. I’ve come to the conclusion that nature conservation in the UK has badly lost its way.

Following the last ice age and before agriculture, Britain was largely a landscape of trees. The only open habitats would have been river valleys, fens, lake shores, areas above the tree-line and exposed coastal sites or appearing from natural disturbance, such as wind, fire and seasonal flooding. Gaps could then be maintained, but not created by herbivores (apart from beaver).

This wildwood was full of unimaginable life – an estimated 8 million wood warblers, 66,000 wildcats and 6,600 wolves lived there. Today, we have not only lost many of the mammals, birds and insects, but also the trees. In 2015, woodland covers only 11.8% of the UK, although it is increasing, with conifers making up nearly 50% of it. As woodland is the natural state of much of Britain and with such low coverage compared to historical times, why do conservation organisations cut down trees and use domestic livestock to maintain open landscapes?

Probably the most striking example of this is the creation or restoration of heathland (a more appropriate term would be deforestation), but it also occurs with the coppicing of trees, the clearing of scrub and the grazing of grasslands. For me this raises a number of questions. As these landscapes or practices resulted from agriculture or the extractive management of woodland, why are they being replicated on nature reserves? Why should one habitat or species be favoured over another? How can natural processes occur when an environment is controlled so intensively? Why should the needs of butterflies and sun-loving plants dominate the insects, birds, mammals, plants and fungi that require shade, moisture or a more complex, three-dimensional structure? How can habitats mature if they are constantly disturbed and degraded?

A recent example of heathland “restoration” has occurred on the National Trust’s Bickerton Hill site. This involved removing birch trees by felling or spraying saplings with herbicide to open up the area, but with the unwanted result that the spraying also affected the target species, heather, at the same time. This is what the manager responsible for the project had to say, “Our big issue here is regenerating birch, birch trees are things that threaten, they proliferate more readily than any other species and we have to control them. If we can control them, heathland vegetation has an opportunity to flourish. If in the process of eliminating birch trees there is a minor element of collateral, that’s unfortunate, but fine in that once the threat from the birch has gone, it will recover.”

From reading his words, you would think he was talking about a pernicious, alien invader, rather than a native tree that is one of the best for wildlife. To make matters worse the inevitable grazing animals were then brought in to eat the saplings with mixed success. First cattle, then ponies were tried and now sheep plus fencing should be in place. The response from the local community has unsurprisingly been one of opposition, with one member of the friends group saying “the trees have an aesthetic beauty, are good for the ecosystem but also provide shelter for walkers and stop the hill feeling bleak and barren”.

Woodland management involves creating or maintaining glades and rides or coppicing trees. The rational for coppicing is usually because it is traditional, it encourages butterflies, it benefits some species of birds (although nightingales have largely moved to scrub) and it varies the woodland structure, which increases habitat diversity.

Of course, coppicing may benefit butterflies, but it is often too rapid and drastic for many woodland species and creates more edges, which could be detrimental to woodland specialists. Also, coppicing hasn’t been around long enough or been consistently practised for species to have evolved dependency. And though it may give the impression of structural variety it may not have this effect for smaller organisms, as architectural diversity is scale dependent.

The current status quo encourages excessive management to benefit favoured species or habitats. For example, SSSI designation provides little room for natural succession. I believe conservation organisations have vested interests in this, since SSSI status can encourage intensive management and provides the opportunity to tap into significant income streams, such as agri-environmental schemes or funding from the likes of the SITA Trust.

Here’s two examples of funding provided for the type of conservation projects I’m referring to – £325,000 over 10 years through HLS for the National Trust at Bickerton Hill and nearly £1million for Surrey Wildlife Trust’s heathland restoration (tree felling, scrub clearance, turf stripping, controlled burning, grazing) of Chobham Common over 10 years also via HLS.

It’s also telling that an alternative to these highly managed landscapes – rewilding has not been promoted or embraced with any real enthusiasm by the main conservation organisations, but has been brought to the table by the likes of George Monbiot and smaller conservation organisations like Trees for Life.

Perhaps the tide is changing with the growing interest in rewilding, but even projects championed for their naturalness, have been diminished by the use of livestock grazing, as in the case of “Wild” Ennerdale where cattle are favoured over roe deer (around twenty roe are culled each year) or the Forestry Commission/Suffolk Wildlife Trust/RSPB’s version of “rewilding” at Dunwich Forest where secondary landscapes are restored with the use of Dartmoor ponies.

One solution to remedy the lack of naturalness in the UK is the idea of untamed nature reserves to complement species preservation reserves and traditional agricultural reserves; with the latter two accommodating managed nature. Untamed nature reserves, would ideally receive no management and the longer they were free from human intervention, then the more importance would be placed on them. For me this would create a wilder Britain and help nature conservation in the UK get back on track. The wildwood may be long gone, but some of its naturalness could live on.

Footnote: Steven Robinson/Apus Apus says: January 6, 2016 at 6:07 pm

I want to point out that the figure I used for woodland coverage in 2015 (11.8%) is inaccurate, as I mistakenly used information from 2010 (Sorry – not sure how that happened!). The most update figure I can see is from 2014. This says that woodland coverage in the UK is actually 13%. (http://www.forestry.gov.uk/pdf/WAPR2014.pdf/$FILE/WAPR2014.pdf)

A 1.2 % increase in 4 years is pretty impressive, but does not diminish my point that there is a considerable lack of woodland compared to historical times, especially when half of it is made up of conifers. It also compares unfavourably to most other European countries (for example, Spain has 36%, Germany 32%, and France 29%). In addition, ancient woodland only covers 2% of the UK in 2014 with 400 sites under threat from development (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-26340039).

Despite this increase, the Woodland Trust reports in 2014 that the number of trees being planted in the UK is falling far short of targets for creating new woodland.


The following are just some of the Comments that flowed out of Steven’s Blog:

Ian Carter says: December 29, 2015 at 8:26 am

I agree with much of what you say. It’s a difficult issue though because we have so few semi natural areas left that we have to make choices about the sorts of wildlife that we want to look after. If we don’t intervene to prevent natural succession then we will lose a lot of wildlife. Not just butterflies and plants but bitterns, bearded tits, marsh harriers, woodlark etc etc. Having said that I do think that naturalness should be valued more highly. Nature reserves can feel more like theme parks these days with their fences, walkways and information boards. When a new site is bought as a nature reserve the first thing that often happens is some of the wildlife habitat is destroyed in order to provide space for people. Boardwalks, hides and visitor centres all take up space and all detract from the ‘natural’ feel of the site. Even the wildlife is not expected to fend or itself. Often the birds are provided with limitless food and little man-made boxes for them to nest in. One of my favourite habitats to spend time in is woodland that is often described by wildlife bodies as ‘neglected’ which says a lot about our attitudes.


Andrew Lucas says: December 29, 2015 at 9:10 am

I very much enjoyed this blog, as a thoughtful and provocative contribution to the debate about the direction of nature conservation in Britain.

All conservation is about choices and, to quote Rush, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice”. So what do we want? I’ve spent much of my career trying to conserve flower-rich marshy grasslands in south Wales. They are places of immense wildlife and cultural value; look at the number of Welsh place names with the element ‘Rhos’ in them. One threat, if you want to call it that, is the cessation of cattle grazing and succession to birch woodland. That woodland would be of value for wildlife, but then we don’t have a massive shortage of that in Wales. But we are down to our last marshy grasslands. Do we really want to lose them, in the name of some vague idea of naturalness?

I’d dispute that conservation organisations have not been open to allowing succession to take place. Look at the Cwm Idwal NNR project, where grazing was excluded in the late 90s, a visionary project by CCW staff long before ‘rewilding’ was heard of. But that was also a choice, in that case to try to extend the habitat for cliff plants and create woodland in exchange for upland acid grassland.

Untamed nature reserves are an idea I’d love to see tried. But we need to think about where we do it and what we want. Babies and bathwater and all that.


Jonathan Wallace says:  December 29, 2015 at 10:00 am

A well written and thought provoking piece. I think your last paragraph provides a sensible objective i.e. the creation of untamed nature reserves to complement more traditionally managed reserves. I think the latter will remain important because of just how unnatural our entire countryside has become – we are thousands of years away from the wildwood and the processes that then intervened to create habitat patches for non climax species have been largely tamed. I think it is important to intervene to ensure that such species continue to find a space to survive in our country and I would suggest that it is not just butterflies and a few wildflowers that need such help.

We do certainly need areas of wild high forest but even there it would be wise to accept that management may sometimes be necessary. I am thinking, for example, of the Caledonian Forest where control of deer is a management necessity if natural regeneration of the trees is to be possible (and I don’t believe there is any realistic likelihood of wolves being reintroduced any time soon to do the job more naturally). That said, it would be wonderful to have extensive areas of mature woodland with minimal intervention…


Roderick Leslie says: December 29, 2015 at 2:54 pm

Steven has done a good job of bringing out some the underlying fault lines in current conservation thinking. Yes, the worship of grazing (and one-size-fits all thinking of all sorts) has to be a concern. Of equal concern – and especially frustrating for anyone involved in woodland – is the perception of doing nothing as ‘naturalness’, especially as it tends to be attached to the widely held feeling that woods don’t change much. I’m afraid we really do have to take responsibility for our actions which have been spectacularly more dramatic than most conservationists realise: most spectacularly, in 1947 49% of our broadleaved woodland was coppice, scrub or bare. By 2002 97% was high forest. But if you ask most conservationists if there’d been much change they’d be rather vague. Then there is the issue of scale: were we looking at 90% of woodland in coppicing that would be one thing, but the opposite is the case with 500,000 hectares of unmanaged woodland in England (and that does not include woodland like the New Forest Ancient and Ornamental where a positive decision to minimise tree management has been taken). There is room for – and a need for – both re-wildling and more intensive management, including more restoration to heathland. And there most categorically is not some mythical return to a lost Eden that simply requires doing nothing: read George Peterken’s ‘Natural Woodland’.


jbc says: December 30, 2015 at 3:47 pm

… Also about 20 years ago I went to see Oostvaardesplassen in the Netherlands, an example of rewilding long before the term was invented. When I saw it in the early 90s it was fabulous, stuffed full of birds like marsh harriers with a superb emerging vegetation structure from all the unmanaged grazing from Heck Cattle and Konik ponies and red deer. Back then it was the 6000ha holy grail of non intervention nature reserve management. I saw it again in 2010 and was horrified. Without carnivores it was grazed to oblivion, an ugly barren mess of dead trees and starving or dead animals. The incipient floristic diversity seen 20 years before has gone. It is an object lesson in in the limits of rewilding even over such a large and completely undisturbed site (zero public access) without either carnivores or culling.

For rewilding to work we need both an understanding of the ecological processes that drive diversity (which is what I think is lacking in Steven’s piece) and a huge scale – that’s where Monbiot’s romantic vision fails for me. It’s certainly why I would disagree profoundly with Steven’s blanket criticism of UK nature conservation. I also think he’s being very unfair in ignoring the huge amount of work, both physical and intellectual, being done to explore rewildling as a practical proposition (see eg Sussex WT’s The Mens and Ebernoe/Butcherlands reserves). But you do need scale, and you do need a pragmatic approach. There won’t be wolves back in the SE of England this side of Armageddon.

There is another unmentioned aspect though; coppice and meadows and the like are highly valued and endangered cultural landscapes, in addition to their role for biodiversity. Replacing them with yet more commonplace low biodiversity secondary woodland would be a huge cultural loss as well as a loss for wildlife, a break with 6000 years of human involvement in the landscape. At what point between the invention of fire and the invention of the A bomb does Steven believe that humans ceased to be part of nature?

I’ve long had in interest in prehistoric landscapes, both from a romantic/scientific viewpoint and as a practical reserves manager. If I’ve learned one thing it’s that we have greatly underestimated the impact of our ancestors on prehistoric landscapes, right back into deep time. Completely ceasing to have any input now is probably the most unnatural thing we could do.


jbc says: December 31, 2015 at 8:05 pm

Steven, … OVP is an example of the “future natural” you want to see more of, ie starting from a very unnatural situation and then leaving it entirely alone to see what happens. Just like leaving an 8000 year old heathland to turn into birch forest, except that the heathland was an awful lot less unnatural to start with.

BTW, the discussion about what the mesolithic was like isn’t as nearly as closed as you seem to think, even if you have made your own mind up. Vera being challenged isn’t the same thing as there being 100% canopy cover, the debate is still about where reality might have sat between those two extremes. That’s partly what I meant about understanding how important our ancestors were, because I for one think that without them the modern biodiversity of the UK and Europe in general is inexplicable. Advocating a less biodiverse world in the name of naturalness is not, I think, what you intended.

I think we’ll have to differ about the importance of the ecological drivers of diversity(“processes”) in any future natural site if the aim is to conserve biodiversity. But in focusing on the very last fragments of biodiverse grasslands, managed coppice, and heathlands for your proposed abandonment, you’ve picked exactly the wrong target.

The vast majority of these ancient habitats have already gone; if 100% of flower rich grassland was lost, rather than 98%, would those last few scattered hectares of new low value secondary woodland to add to the 00,000s that already exist really make a big difference to Martin Speight’s beloved spiders? I don’t think he’d think so (he was one of my tutors at college – we argued about coppicing then!).

The uplands are a different story. Many are biologically degraded, not the species rich crown jewels of our ancient landscape like the meadows or downlands. They have the necessary scale, and have not on the whole been deforested for anything like as long. Maximum gain for lowest potential losses. Advocating for a radical change in how our uplands are managed, I think you’d be pushing at an open door with most conservation professionals. It’s winning the public round that is the hard part.

Woodlands are more mixed, but given how many unmanaged woods there are your ideas are being put into practice by default, even if the results are not labelled “nature reserve”. But you can also find excellent examples that are reserves, like The Mens which Sussex WT has left to non intervention since they acquired it in the 60s. There’s a lot more dead wood there than in most woodlands, and it’s all the better for it.

I don’t think that there is really any argument about principle here; it’s an argument about practicalities and priorities. I say start by conserving what’s left of the best of what we have, and then get ambitious about rewilding the rest wherever we can. But bringing back nature is a journey, not a fixed destination, and we have to bring enough of the public along on that journey if we’re even going to get to the next skyline. I think we have a lot of work to do on the way.


Mick Lacey says: December 29, 2015 at 9:58 pm

A provocative post and well put, but after consideration I cant really agree with too much of it. I speak only as an enthusiastic amateur Bird/Bugs and Botany man, although I am a member of the South Peak Raptor Study Group.There is certainly too little woodland in the UK, but heathland is far more threatened. What chance for the Silver studded Blue, Woodlark or Nightjar if we allow Birch encroachment on all of our lowland heaths? Unfortunately many of our reserves are tiny pockets of a once more widespread habitat, it wouldn’t make sense for an NGO to purchase a remnant heathland for instance and then allow it to revert to woodland. Replicating ancient management techniques as best possible seems reasonable to me,(at least if we want to protect some of our most loved flora and fauna).

I suppose there is the argument that if it cant survive in the modern world then it should be allowed to die out, perhaps you mean this? but what a dull world that would be.

No SSSI should have to pay lip service to dog walkers and day trippers (Bickerton Hill). Conservation techniques are often unpopular but it doesn’t mean that they are wrong.

The beauty and interest of a great Forrest is in its mosaic of habitats, would it really be improved if it was allowed to become a huge wood? I’m afraid the age of a genuine wildwood has gone for ever in the UK sadly.

With the exception of the Woodland Trust, which don’t seem to conduct reserve management I think the UK wildlife organisations do a decent enough job within their means.

To finish on the one point that I do agree with you on, some reserves do feel a little like theme parks with their boardwalks, interactive signposts etc.


jbc says: December 31, 2015 at 9:49 pm

The Sussex heaths were certainly (at least) open woodland back in the mesolithic, and I’d be amazed if there were not similarly old dates recorded for other heathland sites too.

But even more generally, and even if we accept your hypothesis that it’s all man made (which I don’t, but since neither of us was there at the time maybe you’re right and I’m wrong about this!) 1000BC is a very very late date to propose for the creation of extensive open woodland/open ground. All those stone circles weren’t built in dense woodland – 1000BC is quite late in the Bronze age – did you mean 3000 BC ie 5000 years ago?

6500 years ago, 4500BC, (UK) minimum (ie the start of the Neolithic) is more like it, and even older on the continent, getting older still as you head east. The time depth of these ancient biodiverse landscapes is one of the reasons that I disagree so profoundly with you about their value to nature conservation as habitats and as cultural connections in and of themselves. I love the romantic notion of returning wild nature too, but let’s get the facts right about where we’re starting from in this debate.

Oh dear that sounds more aggressive than I intended! But you see what I mean about baselines. Thanks for stimulating this debate, Steven. it’s a topic we need talk about more if we’re going to find ways to really make it happen.


David McGrath says: December 30, 2015 at 11:39 am

“Crucially, if we do it well, we might also begin to see a greater connection between local people and their environment and their food.

Here’s my dream, I walk into my local butchers, and there I see ‘surrey wildlife trust free range beef’ or ‘Hampshire wildlife trust wild venison’ – and I buy it because I know that it had a good life, and I know it was grazed sensitively to the local environment, and because I know that the money would be going back into doing more of the same -and we both know that it would absolutely sell.” – Absolutely, with the lack of large predators there needs to be population control of the grazers/browsers, provided copper rather than lead bullets/shot were used and the produce marketed at a reasonable price not a fancy ‘premium’ so as to be accessible to more people. Deer are such a problem in many ecosystems now that venison should be almost free! Locally sourced free range Wisent burgers one day?


Matt Shardlow says: December 30, 2015 at 4:43 pm

… One other point – nitrate deposition. However attractive the concept of naturalness, we are deluding ourselves if we believe that we can withdraw our influence. Not only are we slowly warming up all the habitats – well alarmingly so if today’s reports that the temperature at the North Pole is currently 1 degree centigrade – 30 degrees higher than it normally is – we are also changing habitat fertility.

Nitrates from burning fossil fuels and fertilizers are exceeding the critical limits of most habitats. This means that they are subtly but profoundly less ‘natural’ than they would once have been. This effects plant growth, competition, ground temperatures, bare ground and many other ecological processes. At one extreme we are losing the bare open ground that are entirely necessary for the continued existence of a wide range of endangered species – for instance sand lizards and heath tiger beetles on heathland – but this is just the tip of the iceberg.


Steven Robinson/Apus apus says: December 30, 2015 at 8:56 pm

Matt – In my last paragraph I suggested a solution that should please everybody – untamed, species and agriculture reserves. I’m realistic to know that the cultural interventions used in UK conservation is not going to stop, so on the flipside why can’t areas be left as wildland?


– I believe that these areas can still be natural even though they will be very different to woodland 7000 years ago. It will be natural, as long as it is free from human influence. Ecosystems will simply accommodate the new conditions that they face.

– Why will species go extinct – when I am proposing three different categories of reserves? Rather than thinking what lives here, why not think what could live here? If the uplands experienced ecological restoration for example – if they went from degraded to an environment that contained more trees and scrub – how can that not be a good thing? You mentioned the fear within conservation of losing their pot of money to rewilding, but apart from initial land purchase, removing fencing etc it should not be a significant cost in the long-term, unless you wanted to reintroduce species as there will be little or no management.


Matt Shardlow says: December 31, 2015 at 12:11 am

Not a thing wrong with your vision of a spectrum of intervention levels across a series of wildlife sites. Indeed, if it delivers a much larger area of connected habitats and reduces the fragmentation of the most endangered habitats then it is not only sensible, it is also an essential progress towards a sustainably healthy natural environment in Western Europe.

The problem is the assumption that what we have achieved in terms of halting the declines in certain species, is firstly adequate to halt all extinctions and is secondly in a steady state.

When you look at the vast majority of species the declines are still widespread and rampant. Not only are invertebrate extinctions continuing, the amount of funding and level of activity by Government has dropped since the zenith of the UK Biodiversity Action Plan in the late 1990s. Funding for work conserving the less glamorous species has been slashed – Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund – gone, BBC Wildlife Fund – discontinued, Environment Agency species work – discontinued, Landfill Sustainability Fund – slashed by a third in the latest budget, etc. For more on the impacts of these cuts on the conservation of a globally endangered species see more here – https://www.buglife.org.uk/blog/matt-shardlow-ceo/britain-too-poor-wildlife

The work of the RSPB and others on a small number of our closest relatives may give the impression that UK extinction is yesterday’s problem, but for the 75% of declining butterflies and moths, the bevy of endangered bee species and the cornucopia of beetles on the brink this is not the case. Not only is their condition getting worse, the efforts to address this are in decline.

While you are right that in the long term rewilding should be cheaper per hectare than the retention of the more sensitive habitats and species, in the short term it will not be politically acceptable to simply turf people off the land, (can you imagine a modern day Enclosures Act in reverse?). Either attractive land purchase offers will have to be made, or more likely landowners will have to be supported financially to repurpose their land. This is expensive and probably not easily achieved through CAP, so that’s much more expensive than it is now. It would be good to think that rewilding would simply be taking the fences down, I am not sure it will be that simple, a lot of farmers will want more fences – ‘wild in there, but not amongst my lambs please’. In any case there will be really substantial set up costs, so you do come back to the question – where will this money come from?

You say that “It will be natural, as long as it is free from human influence.” we might want to look more closely at this statement. If we are heating it up with CO2, fertilising it with NOX, defining its boundaries, deciding when to intervene or not intervene, allowing a whole bunch of plant species we have gathered from every corner of the planet to run riot, introducing and managing big mammals, visiting, managing access and disturbing, then the idea that it is ‘free from human influence’ seems a little fanciful. Of course the alternative is to conclude that we evolved from other apes, we are part of nature, and the above activities are all perfectly natural things for us to do!


Matt Shardlow says: December 31, 2015 at 6:03 pm

My apologies if I leapt a couple of squares ahead re. turfing people off the land. It would be possible to do rewilding without significant land ownership reform, but we would have to find a way of maintaining the livelihoods that depend on the current management of the landscape, and as the areas would no longer be agricultural they would not qualify for agri-env payments – hence would need a new long term funding mechanism. The alternative is of course land purchase, which could be compulsory or voluntary, the first is cheaper, more effective, but not politically acceptable, the second is expensive and unreliable – the rewilded areas would be those where the land owner was willing to sell.

I caution against implying that conserving species in the UK may not be important because other countries have more endemic or globally threatened species, other countries also have more wilderness than we do; it’s just not an argument for leaving it to others to do what is right for a healthy planet.

You acknowledge rewilded areas will still require a considerable management effort to negate latent human impacts such as the invasion of non-native plant species and the effects of having removed the top predator (not quite sure what your justification for unblocking drains would be?).

Do you also think we need to take action in the same areas to strip soil nutrients and/or remove vegetation to mitigate the impacts of nitrate pollution? If not why not?

Do you think that we need to create bare ground to mitigate the loss of coastal and river bank erosion? If not why not?

Do you think we need to maintain open areas to mitigate the loss of circumlocutory herds of large grazing mammals? If not why not?

Why would we be free from responsibility to manage our impacts on succession?

Following the last ice age very large areas of the UK were bare ground, the uplands rubbed raw and rocks and parent material smeared over the landscape by glaciers. The colonisation of this desolation by trees would have taken centuries or millennia. We are now in control of the global thermostat, and hence the future of glaciation, so what does this mean for rewilding and vice versa.

In my view we have to take responsibility for our species and its impacts. We have to take positive action to help the other species that we are putting in danger, it is our duty to the wonder of life that we must acknowledge the huge harm that some of our actions cause and do our utmost to mitigate and remediate those impacts. Most nature conservation efforts have been back foot defensive measures – because this is all that can be afforded – they tend to be small scale and intensive, although there are of course great examples of large scale conservation with lower intensity management – the Abernethy reserve, the Great Fen Project, Knepp, etc. We will have to have more such projects in the future, but I think it would be a tragedy if we did not also do much more across the board to prevent the current declines and extinctions…


Matt Shardlow says: January 1, 2016 at 11:51 pm

I do like your blog Steven! And do think there is plenty of common ground on rewilding being a concept that could help us to achieve a range of objectives. I do think it is worth fully exploring our motivations, objectives and expectations.

The funding question may be difficult but it is important, currently as set out huge decline in investment in saving most species, how will rewilding be funded, and where will the money come from?

Nitrates come out of the air, not just via water, plants including trees can absorb them, but they are derived from fossil fuels and deposits and recirculating thousands of tons of them into ecosystems every year is having a profound effect. There has been a 6-fold increase in N deposition rates since 1860, and it is predicted to double again by 2050. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10021-014-9765-5#/page-1

We are literally fertilising the planet. There is more about what can be done at site level to mitigate global fertilisation here – http://nora.nerc.ac.uk/510481/1/Stevens%202013%20Site%20management%20to%20reduce%20N%20impacts%20CCW1037-1.pdf

But how what this means for rewilding is less clear.

It is also important that we are clear that nature can of course cope with everything, including being swallowed by a black hole, but life on Earth would not cope with this, and fertilisation of habitats at current rates is more than many species can cope with. Unless we take responsibility for this impact, then nature will of course adapt, but that may mean more nettle-beds and fewer species…



Week Ending October 25th

Sunday, 19th.  Incredibly mild over the weekend.  While driving south down the M23 at about 5-15pm ‘near’ Redhill, two flocks of perhaps 15 – 20 ring-necked parakeets flew west over the motorway.

Monday, 20th.  We managed today to erect most of the electric fencing at the National Trust’s Birling Gap in readiness for the arrival of 15 Exmoor ponies.  Whilst working – blustery but still mild, I notice that some centaury was still in flower as was a plant of burnet rose.

Tuesday, 21st.  This must be the silly week – had a second report today of a pony ill or dead, on different sites.  During the afternoon, I managed to drive the 9 ponies still on the RSPB’s Broadwater Warren into a restricted area in readiness for moving off on Friday.  Contractors commence work there on Thursday, felling another large swathe of conifers (and probably not shutting gates after themselves!).

Thursday, 23rd.  Whilst erecting fencing at Pippingford, we saw an all white stag with a fine set of antlers.  Some huge flocks of pigeons about at the moment.

Friday, 24th.  We gathered and moved out the 9 ponies at Broadwater.  8 ponies have gone down to Lullington Heath NNR for the winter.  The morning started off dry with even a glimpse of the sun.  By the time we were arriving at Lullington, high up on the South Downs, the weather had closed in – low cloud, a steady rain and, not a human sound to be heard.

Driving Home.

Driving home last night over Ashdown Forest just after dusk, having earlier presented a talk, two nightjars flew across the road near Four Counties car park. This was then followed a few minutes later by a muntjac deer crossing the road in front of me, it hesitating in the road, something they are apparently known for. It was actually my first ever sighting of a muntjac though one apparently once dashed close-by me in Suffolk, but I myself was facing the wrong way!