MOUNTAIN LIONS AND EAGLES – THE PLACE OF HUMANS IN NATURE
MOUNTAIN LIONS AND EAGLES – THE PLACE OF HUMANS IN NATURE
BIOCULTURAL HERITAGE VERSUS
THE PLACE OF HUMANS IN NATURE
VERA AND FUTURE NATURAL
RE: VERA AND FUTURE NATURAL
RE: VERA AND FUTURE NATURAL
RE: VERA AND FUTURE NATURAL
CULTURAL HERITAGE AND NEW
MOUNTAIN LIONS AND EAGLES – THE PLACE OF HUMANS IN NATURE
The backlash against wildland enthusiasm has begun in Britain, with faceless accusers amongst conservation professionals condemning what they maintain is a "zealotry" that seeks exclusion of people from our countryside. Such a simplistic view of wildland is but a powerful lever in nurturing anxiety and a protectionism against change. I can’t hope to easily influence those who are content in their limited understanding and have taken against. But I will reach out to those who have humility in the presence of wild nature and who wish to live gently alongside it.
"Mountain lions found me there,
and set me on an eagle’s wing"
Perhaps Hendrix had read one of the stories of the Chinookan, a NW coastal nation. Five "brothers" – Eagle, Jay, Hawk, Kite and Beaver – decide to take a journey downriver, encountering many challenges and tests with other animals along the way. At one point, Eagle wrestles with Mountain Lion, carrying "her" high in the sky, “going higher and higher until they were out of sight” (Curtis, 1930).
Native American culture has a strong emotional pull for me. I picture it flourishing in amongst landscapes where these wild animals also flourished, not yet subject to the habitat destruction and local extinctions that followed the introduction of European farming. I walk the modern day wilderness of North America, imagining the native people being sustained by it and in some measure in awe of it. I want to time travel and see these wilderness landscapes graced by their presence again. Thus I once shared the Ute Trail across the Rocky Mountains in Colorado with elk and marmot, but it could easily have been with the nomadic Ute tribe who crossed the mountain range on this trail. I am the sentimentalist there, leaving behind the carping and contradictions of the naysayer who would deny me these moments of flight and pleasure.
There is evidence that the "discovery" of future park areas in North America and the setting up of the early national parks was at the expense of the removal of their native American populations, such as the Awahneechee from Yosemite, Blackfeet from Glacier, and the Shosone, Bannock, and Mountain Crow from Yellowstone. But the story is not clear cut as the Awahneechee returned to the Yosemite Valley and had a long if troubled relationship with park officials; the Blackfeet were a paid tourist attraction in Glacier but also fought through the courts to continue to use its natural resources; and the Shosone, Bannock, and Mountain Crow were considered to have become more dependent on the natural resources of Yellowstone because the increased Euro-American settlement on land outside the park had brought with it an unsustainable predation of bison and other natural resources (Fisher, 2000).
I am aware that sentiment for Native Americans is seen as romanticism for an "Indian wilderness". The painter George Catlin made a call in 1833 for a "nation's park" where tourists could come and see Native American people "in his classic attire, galloping his horse ... amid the fleeting herds of elks and buffaloes." Catlin’s idea is regarded as the epitome of this romanticism but the emergence of the ideology of Manifest Destiny (the divine rightness of Euro-American territorial expansion) and the subsequent Indian wars on the Plains, took much of that sentiment away. Conflict and tourism do not sit well - widespread publicity resulted from an encounter in 1877 between tourists in Yellowstone and bands of Nez Perce fleeing the U.S. Army.
Today, while we may question the exact motives of Catlin, we should grieve at that lost opportunity to have preserved in some good measure the Native American way of life as it was then – humans in nature - that ultimately withered in the face of Euro-American aggression and expansion.
Modern day wilderness in America continues to attract controversy because the wording of the Wilderness Act appears to give no basis for accommodating an autochthonous or first nation way of life, but then it is also criticized by the out and out resourcists who rail at the bar on exploiting its natural wealth. (There are exceptions in the National Wilderness Preservation System - designation of the Kootznoowoo Wilderness in Alaska has included a Native American village, inhabited by some 800 Tlingits, allowing a continuation of a humans-in-nature use and lifestyle).
To attack this modern construct of wilderness is I think to plunge a dagger into the heart of a wild nature that world-wide has been under siege for so long from European farming (Crosby & Worster, 2004). It denies the right of wild nature to flourish without the significant interference of what is now a "freak" apex species (humans). Even in the selfish terms of that freak species, wilderness is an insurance against mismanagement or the unexpected consequences of our resourcist approach. With wilderness we can thus ‘‘keep all the parts’’ as Aldo Leopold says in Round River, and it leaves open options for future generations to make their own choices on resource conservation and use.
The modern wilderness is also not irreconcilable with a humans-in-nature land use. A study of dominant-use zoning in coastal British Columbia – the Great Bear Rainforest - suggests that conservation territories need not place social justice and biocentric ethics at odds. A concerted remapping/zoning of protected areas, proposed protected areas and first-nation lead areas in amongst logging and other industrial use areas provides clarity of purpose and use. Working through regional government, the remapping of the territory has been by negotiated compromise in which many interests are balanced. This is large-scale zoning that maintains equilibrium between economic, ecological and social priorities by dividing the landscape into zones with primary, proscribed, and secondary but compatible human uses (Clapp, 2004).
"If you go down in the woods
today, you’re sure of a big surprise"
The surprise is that current orthodoxy requires us to venerate the "taming" of our land and admire the practitioners who over the millennia have refined this to the absurd point where examples of its various outcomes receive a statutory protection that is denied most of our ancient woodland. Farmland is not wildland. We must move on from this adulation of the cultural history of our landscapes.
The case for protected core areas of wildland, where human productive use is removed, and where successful re-introductions of lost species can take place, has reached a level of understanding where it should now be part of mainstream public debate (Taylor, 2005). Land interests should not feel threatened by this since proportionately, the core areas and associated corridors may only represent 4-6% of our land area (Fisher, M, 2003). The interesting but possibly harder task is to begin to work out a new and modified humans-in-nature approach to land use that complements and buffers these core areas of wildland.
There are proposals that set us on the way, such as a report to the Land Use Policy Group on new wildwoods in Britain. The report evaluates the potential of new native woodlands and forests to contribute to both integrated rural development and wildlife. The new wooded landscapes include open areas, and would accommodate a range of possible management styles; with low intervention management in "core" areas, grading to relatively more intensive management and extractive use in more "peripheral" areas (Worrell et al, 2002). Likewise the concept of Forest Habitat Networks recently incorporated into forestry strategies in Scotland, Wales and England. Large Core Forest Areas are to be connected by well-wooded belts concentrated mainly along rivers and streams (see for instance Humphrey et al, 2005). The aim of at least 30% tree cover in these belts means that the landscape begins to function as if it were a single forest unit, but allowing these networks to be developed alongside other land uses. Continuing with woodland, David Blair in Argyll "walks the talk" when he advocates Forest Village settlements, which will provide a way forward for people who want access to the land, to live in a forest community and derive a living based on agro-forestry (Blair, 2005). In all this, mapping of dominant land use will provide clarity of purpose and zoning for different types of land use, a land design method familiar to Permaculture, would be the catalyst for its development.
This future-natural state for British landscapes will always have land that is dominated by humans. We know see that there should also be land that will be shared with wild nature through a spectrum or continuum of human activity, in a new approach to humans-in-nature land use. The purpose of wilding for core areas is to achieve a third category, by returning some land to wild nature for its own use, with human presence and use being restricted to our observation and learning. These will be the bio-geographical reserves of wild nature that will “keep all the parts” and give us back some of the moral authority that we currently lack as a freak apex species.
RE: MOUNTAIN LIONS AND EAGLES – THE PLACE OF HUMANS IN NATURE
However I also remember driving back home from Glasgow airport along Loch Lomondside the day we returned, and far from being disappointed with the Scottish scenery in comparison, I felt quietly pleased with it. I have been the last 15 years or so, (or perhaps all my life), on a voyage of discovering the historic and cultural landscape, and actually take a great pleasure in being in a British landscape which is so historic, and full of evidence of man's past. As you say, even the nature is modified and tailored to the culturally formed and managed habitats, but I find this rather delightful, and like to point out to people who imagine some habitats are completely 'natural' that they are indeed semi-natural, and full of bio-cultural features, such as pollarded trees, old coppices, woodbanks and other woodland archaeology, flower rich meadows and all the rest. Identifying and understanding biocultural features is a main interest of mine, but I will admit to a problem with these features and that is managing for their future.
I have come to realise that the habitats and their biodiversity we cherish are unique in time and place and are actually unrepeatable. Land uses have changed drastically and are not going to go back to the 18thC methods ever again. No-one can seriously advocate museum style countryside management to help preserve those features, at least not on more than a very local scale on selected reserves. In that case conservation efforts to preserve the biodiversity which has come about through centuries of certain traditional land uses is perhaps not possible, i.e. it is doomed maybe? However it is only understandable that we try, but that is where I think a new approach is also needed. I am therefore most interested in the new wildwoods proposals, though I do think there is not so much room in GB for such land. Maybe a network of core areas and connecting links a la forest habitat networks, a concept I helped develop, is the way forward. However I have a feeling that in these same zones I will still be noticing and studying the footprints of our ancestors!
THE PLACE OF HUMANS IN NATURE
I don’t see any sharks orbiting the moon, or grizzly bears splitting atoms. I haven’t noticed any eagles driving an AEBI scrub clearer, and I know of no trees that are plotting the culling of thousands of badgers. Are we the only species that routinely harvests the lactation of others?
With that level of “abnormal development” by comparison, can anyone deny that we are freaks of nature? There should perhaps be a period of “truth and reconciliation” with wild nature, where we admit the extent of our freakishness! I hope that is rational enough for you, Tim.
There was a subtext. Eric Higgs, who writes about ecological restoration, recounts a study that repeated a series of survey photographs of Jasper National Park taken in 1915 (Higgs, 2003). Obvious differences between then and now can be seen in the expansion of the town of Jasper and the support service areas for the park and tourism. (Parks Canada apply a zoning system to land use in National Parks. It allows for park service areas (Zone v) and car-accessed outdoor recreation (vi), but the major zones in terms of area are special preservation (i), wilderness (ii) and natural environment (iii)).
There are also striking changes in the vegetation of montane valleys. Contemporary photographs show denser forest cover compared to the more open landscape of the earlier photographs. The few fields of farmsteads are still clearly visible although attenuated, but traces of the more open landscape mosaic of subsistence agriculture and trapping from the pre-park era are obscured by the new growth.
Higgs tells us of the Métis that dwelled in the valley (descendants from fur trapping and trading between Europeans and the Cree and Iroquois) and whose activities where a combination of the old of first nation practice and the new of the Euro-American economy. With the displacement of the Métis, the rate of change in the landscape was accelerated, giving rise to what Higgs terms as “freak landscapes” because they had lost an influencing force that existed before the park was set up.
As he says, it begs the question as to whether human influence can ever be
regarded as normal – or at what point in past history did it become
Higgs recognises that setting out to resolve the issue of freak landscapes in park settings generates many dilemmas, not least their restoration creating a continuing management responsibility to keep those ecosystems within a narrow range of variability. Do you simulate the ecological effects of that immediate pre-park subsistence agriculture and fur trading by re-introducing it, or go further back to a first nation culture? Would periodic burning suffice instead (fire was both a natural and human landscape influence)?
Higgs has set up a powerful polemic that suits his purpose of exploring the philosophy and modus operandi of modern day ecological restoration. It is in synchrony with the mood in North America to move past hackneyed arguments about the pristine nature of wilderness. He believes that “wildness” can be restored, and that humans can be “participants in modest, regenerative, respectful activities over long intervals in precious areas”.
I am not above polemicism, hence freak apex species. If you are troubled by it, then think of it as a pre-emptive spoiler to forestall those who will erroneously recruit Higgs descriptive term of freak landscapes in Jasper to belittle the outcomes of wilding in future core areas in Britain, and who will seek to put a block on their creation, or more likely insist on some grazing regime as a surrogate for supposed past influencing factors. (Removal of livestock grazing was not a factor in the changes in vegetation in Jasper – they could trap or shoot all the meat they needed for subsistence, and the contemporary park teams with wild herbivores.)
This is a serious point to do with the addiction we have in Britain to our cultural landscapes, and experience suggests that we are lacking the serious critical self-analysis that Higgs complements his polemic with, nor do we have the luxury that Higgs had of making observations on landscapes ecologically much closer to a pre-agricultural, “first nature” state.
Just witness how quickly the theories of Frans Vera were embraced to lend an air of justification to those who regard the state of our uplands as within the normal range of wild nature, which in practice condemns them to a continuing plagioclimactic future. Thus an English Nature interpretation board at an entry to Ingleborough NNR describes a pretty empty plateau as an “upland wilderness” in spite of the fact that it looks over to Moughton Fell where there is a beautiful remnant juniper-wood sorrel-twayblade woodland. (That would be W19, Keith?).
The preliminary agreement between VINE and the Wildland Network to hold a conference on future natural early next year comes at an important point in our need to have that serious analysis of how “wildness” can be restored. Even if you are tempted to disavow core areas, there is a duty to consider conscientiously how we humans can be “participants in modest, regenerative, respectful activities over long intervals in precious areas”.
VERA AND FUTURE NATURAL
I talked to Frans about Future Natural, albeit rather briefly. To be honest, he was somewhat dismissive of Future Natural, saying that what matters is that large herbivores are adequately present and that we allow / develop moving analogues of natural systems involving large herbivores. Interestingly, he is not strongly convinced of the need for carnivores, though he feels that they can reduce suffering by taking out weak herbivores. He used data from the Serengeti that suggests that the wildebeest population there is starvation rather than carnivore driven: 75% of wildebeest die of starvation; only 25% get crunched, of which only 6% are in poor condition. It may even be that carnivores favour prey in good condition. I hope I have represented his views accurately.
Maybe we ought to invite him over the Future Natural discussion?
RE: VERA AND FUTURE NATURAL
Peterken though would seem to be more mannered than Vera since, despite his reservations, he welcomes Vera's theories in a broadening discussion, and the focus they give to a large scale approach. I think I would go along with Peterken that "we need fresh ideas as growth points" but that we would be foolish to believe that any one particular new idea was a panacea.
Within the "compass" of future natural, we will undoubtedly move on from the very good start that Peterken has provided us with. I have used the term to include both core areas of wildland and the new, modified approach to humans-in-nature. I suppose it may also stretch to the improvements in wildlife accommodation that are sought in mainstream farmland under the new subsidy regime, since that is also a process of change and transition. What I am firmly convinced of though is that future natural has to embody a transition of some part of our landscapes away from the lowest common denominator of a plagioclimax. The first hundred years will be fascinating, the second hundred will be enthralling.
AND FUTURE NATURAL
AND FUTURE NATURAL
George and Frans are in much less of a disagreement about the nature of the wildwood and the future landscapes respectively than their respective zealots and champions are. Some of Frans's apostles still believe that horses were present in the wildwood in Britain (despite no evidence), and that both the horse and cattle got to Ireland (no evidence). Frans has moved on. Some of his zealots, forced to accept the weight of evidence that horses and cattle were not where they wanted them to be in the Atlantic chromozone, now argue that it does not matter anyway.
Frans's recent views about the lack of importance of large carnivores in shaping systems is something that East African researchers (George Schaller, Hans Kruuk) and David Mech (wolves in the USA) determined 30 years ago. Frans knows this. Herbert Prins, an authority on mammalian predator prey systems in East Africa, is one of his mentors. It is embedded in ecological theory and literature, and out of it comes the general rule that large herbivores regulate the populations of their predators, and large herbivores are regulated by their food supply. The term regulation is used very specifically by ecologists. This is occasionally successful challenged but only in exceptional circumstances (I can only think of two good cases).
The important point is that large predators influence the distribution of their mammalian prey and this in turn influences the nature of the impact of the herbivores on vegetation. In the no go zones between wolf pack territories there are no trees because that is where all the deer are. Frans agrees that this influence of predators on their prey was not picked by him in his PhD/Book and that it could have a big impact on what drives his dynamic model.
George's Future Natural really does not acknowledge the extent to which large herbivores (or their predators) influence the nature of vegetation. His proposed Minimum Intervention Areas as proposed by Keith Kirby in an EN Condoc a few years ago would have minimal large herbivore presence - indeed the woods were to be fenced!. Nature does not move towards average effects, and Future Natural for George does not seem to allow for zero grazing /browsing impact (because of wolves, disease, inaccessibility or very heavy impact because of no wolves, for example).
Wolves are red deer specialists. I have argued that wolves would have had little influence on aurochs whose dispersion was more influenced by the food availability and Because they were so big, wolves would only have tried to attack aurochs if there was nothing else (such as small mammals). In northern temperate zones, wolves (or their analogue the dog) are crucial to the dynamics of wildlands because of their influence on the dispersion of their favoured prey, red deer (or wapiti).
CULTURAL HERITAGE AND NEW
This is not just an academic point - I am currently engaged in a contract to help a local authority conserve an important aspect of biocultural heritage - namely wood pastures with veteran trees on farmlands in south Scotland. The problem is that any intervention will only make these semi natural habitats more contrived/artificial, but without either tree planting or drastic changes in grazing regime which the farmers would probably not tolerate anyway, the habitats will surely but slowly decline. I am inclined to say this bluntly in my report, but on the other hand don't of course want to be too negative.
I might add that a few years ago I attended an EU Life project symposium in Sweden (the only Brit there) on Biocultural Heritage in EU Forests, a joint project between the forest services of Sweden and France. We saw a range of features from traces of early iron working, to abandoned medieval settlements, even prehistoric elk traps, and I was able to tell them about similar features in Scottish forests and landscapes.
The nagging issue for me at the end of the project was 'so what?' - i.e. having identified this interesting heritage, part natural and part cultural, which was clearly declining in some examples after loss of traditional transhumance cattle and horse grazing, then what can be done to preserve the heritage? -apart from noting its current value - and monitor its decline! Either way a bit depressing! I put this point to the 'thoughtful archaeologists and ecologists' taking part in the project, but of course they don't really have an answer. Their practices on the ground in trying to preserve the biocultural aspects were a bit experimental, local and low key, considering the scale of the Swedish forests. They do preserve even fairly recent ancient monuments in forests across the board rather strictly - much more than we have done in the past; but again - what for really?
So I need the discussion group to help me find a way through this maze! A lot of time and resources will be wasted otherwise by well meaning preservation effort which is flawed. As I said before I do really think a new approach is needed along the lines of 'Tomorrow's Wild Places' where wildlife would be pre-eminent, rather than always saving the best bits of biocultural heritage.
However the antiquity and the continuity of ancient sites must not be underestimated, and I believe it is right to protect all the ancient woodland and wood pasture that it is feasible to do, partly as reservoirs of species including unseen ones like fungi, partly as irreplaceable heritage.
Mark called this dilemma the 'wicked issues' - too true!
The vegetation we see today - temperate forest mostly in our zone, if left to itself, with a bit of upland bog, lowland heath, alder carr, saltmarsh and coastal heath - is composed of species of trees, shrubs, tall herbs, grasses etc. all of which, pretty much, have evolved over several glacial cycles as a community. This last glacial cycle is untypical in that in the middle, humans experienced an evolutionary leap that almost certainly transformed them from a generally omnivorous prey animal, to a highly efficient predator as well as modifier of habitats through the use of fire. This appears to have occurred between 60,000 and 40,000 years ago and waves of these new style humans expanded through Europe - replacing the Neanderthals, into Asia, and Australia, and eventually the Americas (15,000). With regard to genera, these are quite short timescales in terms of mammalian evolution and very short in terms of plant communities.
As they went, they appear to extinguished 80% of the large mammal genera (most communities consist of couple of species in a genera, often ecotypes or subspecies which change a little from glaciation to glaciation) - they wiped out elephants, rhinos, camels, ground sloths, all manner of wombats and with them a whole bunch of predators that were adapted to large prey - giant wolves, bears and cats.
At this crucial time of colonisation by ultra-efficient predatory humans, most of 'our' temperate forest plant genera were concentrated in two vulnerable refuge areas in SE and SW Europe - and with them, the forest fauna. In our case, that fauna included the following elements which were either annihilated or much reduced:
and by the time Britain was separated from the continent (8-9000BP) by rising sea levels, the bison and horse either did not make it or did not feature in the fossil record - but doubtless were affected by being the main prey item for humans - moose, roe and red deer and aurochs did make it - and it may well be that as with paleo-Indian cultures in North America, these species were selectively encouraged after the tribal peoples learned to conserve hunting resources. These peoples also co-existed with wolf, bear and lynx, but not lion, leopard or hyena.
By Roman times much of the by then impoverished large mammal fauna had been drastically restricted to forest wilderness areas such as Scotland, North Wales and Eastern Europe - wild cattle, forest tarpan, wood bison, and moose - with deer, boar and beaver still common, as well as wolf - though bear and lynx were already much reduced. As we know Britain lost its moose and aurochs before Roman times, lynx by 900, beaver by 1200, boar about 1600, wolf 1750. There is an argument that wild white cattle may have been original (not very convincing) and that Exmoor ponies are descendents of tarpan (I like that). Yalden tells of some subfossil bones of potential forest horses in ca 8000BP.
So.....what of our natural or future natural forests? All those plant genera evolved to withstand a formidable amount and variety of grazing and browsing pressure, and the natural grazers also were in dynamic with their predators, as well as with their fellow grazers and the periodically shifting eco-zones of steppe and forest (almost all the species had variants adapted to the two zones - steppe horse/forest horse, steppe bison/wood bison - same for elephants and rhino, but cattle and roe deer are forest animals. Also - the open country lion was replaced by big leopards in the forests (in Britain we had an 'Amur' type leopard throughout and until the last years of the glaciation).
There was also a northern hippo! I always forget that - and it creates riparian meadows shared by other grazers and a favourite place for lions.
The point of all this is that 'natural' is going to be hard to create in the future! In order to do that we would need to replace the elephant, rhino and hippo as well as the cattle, bison and horses of which we have analogues - and not just the wolf and lynx, but a bigger cat too! So 'future natural' is essentially whatever we want to make it. I can't see the point in trying to delineate a time and place - say the assemblage of 8000BP in Britain which we then try to recreate. It is entirely arbitrary and already un-natural, if we take human depredations as un-natural.
The bottom line appears to me to be that we are free to choose according to our will. We could leave any patch of land to itself (self-willed) - but it would be a pale reflection of what 'nature' might have willed without our intervention of just a short time ago!
Thus, for me, all the discussion of forest dynamics of Franz and George kind of misses the point - as does the EN research into grass pollen and how much space there ever was in the 'wildwood' of 8000BP. Franz has highlighted an interesting dynamic relating to herbivores, resilient thorny species and forest succession that is of some relevance in whatever we create in the future (incidentally, many ecologists have seen this dynamic in tropical forest zones following shifting cultivators - you can often see a 'ring' of flat topped acacia among the tall pointed canopy trees indicating where the abandoned goat zone was). How well it represents the past is not that relevant - any more than whatever was here in Britain at any particular time since the last glaciation. We couldn't recreate that on the scale required to sustain major populations of herbivores and predators anyway! The only chance of doing that would be in Eastern Europe and that option is fast diminishing with new motorway plans.
I don't mean this to be negative - quite the reverse - to me it means a freedom to create what we like - whatever we can afford, get agreements on, and can justify in terms of a functional ecology. If we have black jaguars slinking around Britain eating up alien muntjac and rabbit, I am for keeping them! Even though they are a bit risky. Californians now have mountain lions within 20 minutes of San Francisco and breeding in an area the equivalent of our Gower Peninsula and with just as many habitations, hotels and farms - but a bit more of the wild dune heathland.
I would like to see us arguing as much for the charisma and frisson of these creatures, as for any Neolithic correctness. Release the Woburn Four! Let's bring the Amur Leopard to Scotland, thus saving its gene pool. Iberian lynx for Dartmoor! Siberian tigers anyone? Maybe not. But we need to think out of the old box.
REWILDING THE FELLS?
As a young lad in the Scouts, I quickly learned the skills needed to navigate and live in the hills, and with map and compass in hand, bobble hat on head and tuppence in my pocket (for the pay phone if things got bad!) I began to explore first the North York Moors and then further a field: the Pennines, the Lakes, North Wales and Scotland. With several long distance footpaths under my belt by the age of 16 I graduated onto rock climbing, whence the Lakes and North Wales became “the place to be”; ticking off routes in Ken Wilson’s Classic Rock. By the end of my college days, first in Huddersfield and then Newcastle, I’d ticked as much as I dare with odd forays into the pages of Ken’s Hard Rock and some rather scary moments in Extreme Rock and Cold Climbs. It was then I first heard the call of the wild (though I suspect it had already been calling me for some time) and set off on a series of long trips to remote corners of the globe: Greenland, Siberia, Alaska and the mountains and deserts of North America. This was it; I was smitten. In my weekends off back home, and the odd day skiving from work, I searched for the same experiences in fell and dale, on mountain and moor, along coast, river and crag, seldom to find it except in miniature, and even then only when viewed through rose-tinted spectacles - the kind that consciously blocks out fences, sheep and other people. The wide expanse of deserted wilderness is no longer to be found within our shores. Even my attempts to find the wildest places in our country using computers and satellite data turned up only vestiges of the prehistoric wilderness that must have once covered this land, a pale and insignificant shadow of their former selves. Today’s landscape is massively fragmented and altered beyond any true wilderness; a rural idyll with our neat patchwork of fields, hedgerows and country lanes… and even this is under threat from intensive agriculture and urban sprawl.
And yet…? And yet there exists the opportunity some say to recreate the wilderness. May be not the vast open tracts of wilderness that I saw in Alaska or Siberia, but smaller vignettes of past landscapes within the British countryside. The Dutch have done it in Oostvaardersplassen and even the Americans are doing it in parts of their former wilderness areas after hunting, logging and ploughing their way across 99% of the “wild frontier” in scarcely more than 300 years. So why can’t we?
The basic tenet of re-wilding suggests that we could, if the will was strong enough, set-aside parts of the countryside that may be under-used and/or unprofitable to modern agriculture and let nature take over as the dominant force of landscape change. Some argue that the current downturn in the economic fortunes of upland farming is an opportunity that is too good to miss and we should act to return parts of the landscape to a more wild and natural state. Others, perhaps some of you reading this now, would not countenance such a change lightly. After all it is farming that has made the landscape of the Lake District that which we see today and a great many people’s jobs and livelihoods are at stake. Maybe it is all just a question of scale and perspective. Nobody is suggesting we return the hills to an empty wilderness of biblical proportions, rather that in more marginal areas the balance is tipped in nature’s favour to create a more varied landscape where wildness can flourish next door to humanity. Exactly how re-wilding is carried out could cover a broad range of activities, from reducing the head of livestock grazing a patch of fell to allow natural regeneration of indigenous species to occur through to full scale recovery programmes covering large areas of the mountain and fell side. The National Trust is one of the country’s main land owning conservation bodies and is spearheading re-wilding experiments in the Lake District by taking sheep off previously grazed land on two of their farm properties. In doing so the Trust is aiming to monitor how fell side vegetation recovers.
Part of the mystery of re-wilding is that no one really knows for sure what the hills were like before people began to settle and farm the land. Pollen records have shown that there were certainly more trees, but these were cleared long ago for firewood, building materials and to make way for grazing animals. Although years of grazing has prevented the natural regeneration of woodland in the Lakes and other upland areas, the climate has also changed and we cannot be certain what would grow back if we left nature to her own devices. It would be natural in any sense of the word, but it may be somewhat different in pattern, composition and structure to the woods that occupied the area prior to human settlement. It may be that climate change and over-grazing will act to make natural regeneration a slow and tortuous process. In this case, human intervention may be required to give nature a helping hand, through reseeding and tree planting programmes.
What is certain, like it or not, is that tourism and outdoor recreation are a major economic force within the Lake District National Park. Whether or not tomorrow’s tourists and outdoor enthusiasts will appreciate a more naturalised Lake District is a moot point. People clearly enjoy the landscape the way it is, but times change and so do people’s tastes, and I would expect those tastes to develop alongside the changes in the landscape.
Landscapes change; they are dynamic, living entities. Whether human action or the forces of nature cause the change is to some point irrelevant. There is much merit in the arguments for responsible change driven not by the economics of the last century, but the needs of the present. I fully appreciate the need to preserve those parts of the landscape that are of historical and cultural importance, but we also need to encourage landscapes of tomorrow that meet the future requirements of both people and nature in equal measure. The harsh reality of recent times is that some farms and local businesses will go to the wall, helped along it can be said by Foot and Mouth. This may well speed up the process of re-wilding in the long run, but not in the controlled way any of us would like. Certainly, what is already a difficult and contentious issue will only be made harder by this latest disaster to it the farming community. So where does this leave us? The current situation suggests that farming in the uplands of Britain is in severe decline and while the Foot and Mouth outbreak will be blamed for many terrible losses, it cannot hide the underlying downward trend. Predicting the future always requires a leap of faith, but clearly there is change ahead in the way farming is supported. Two extreme scenarios are: (a) a Lake District largely devoid of upland farming and managed almost entirely for tourism and nature conservation in which large scale re-wilding becomes possible, or (b) maintenance of the status quo but one supported more and ore by external subsidies for livestock production and countryside stewardship. Neither of these may seem particularly inviting, but it is clear that “the times they are a’ changing” and there seems little we can do to stop it. Maybe it is time then to redress the balance in nature’s favour, but I would countenance that we must first look towards local communities and the economies on which they are based to ensure as smooth and careful a transition as is physically possible. The park, its community and visitors should work together in order to realise the middle ground; a vision of the countryside based firmly around Fraser-Darling’s vision… wilderness and plenty.