I invented rewilding when George Monbiot was still in short trousers. The Herefordshire countryside was not then as degraded and inhospitable to wildlife as it is now, but it was dominated (like the rest of the UK) by the idea that all land should be farmed except where reserved for the sporting pleasures of aristocrats, landowners and their friends. So the idea that some land could be taken out of farming appealed to the young anarchist in me. I assumed that if I could buy some farmland and fence the farmers out and let nature take over it would outrage the landowning classes in an amusing and interesting way, as well as encouraging wildlife. I was probably right, especially about the outrage. I bought a few Premium Bonds, and waited for the winnings, which I have still not received, so I was never able to realise this, my first ecological dream.
My second dream came a little later when I started reading books by the adventurous naturalist Frank Fraser Darling. Somewhere he laments the loss of the Caledonian Pine Forests, the ‘Great Wood of Caledon’. He describes how the bare sheep-gnawed mountains of the Highlands had once been covered with forests of pine and birch and juniper, full of eagles, ospreys, otters, martens and polecats and even wolves and lynx and beavers. Now they seemed to be devoted, like Herefordshire, to the sports of wealthy landowners and to sheep farming. Learning about this, our very own forgotten rainforest clearance, was the beginning of an anguish about the state of nature which has only grown with age.
Yet this post is quite a hopeful one.
My third major ecological dream was about Whittlesea Mere, in the East Anglian Fens. The Mere was six miles by three miles, by far the largest lake in lowland England. If it still existed it would now be of international importance. It was drained in 1851 by a group of six wealthy local landowners.
The mere and the surrounding fens had been common land and had supported communities of fen people who worked the fens in common, fishing and fowling on the mere and cutting reeds around the edges, and grazing cattle on surrounding marshland in summer when it dried out a little. It had without doubt an ecology of a richness inconceivable in modern England. What the drainers did was legal, in that a Parliament of landed gentry like themselves passed an Act legalising the drainage of the mere, but the people of the fens who had their world and their livelihood drained from beneath their reputedly webbed feet had not consented, or been consulted. Taking this common – for a lake can be a common too – from the people of the fens, and converting it to privately-owned land for the benefit of a few rich men, was one of the most flagrant aggressions of the English enclosure movement. Draining this huge and wonderful wetland and lake and using it to grow carrots seemed to me heartbreakingly mercenary when I read about it in my youth, but it was then utterly inconceivable that anything could be done to redress it or reverse it..
Gradually things have changed. We can use the internet to get together. We can use it learn about and support organisations like ‘Trees for Life’, who are working on reforesting projects the Highlands. We can join powerful membership organisations like the RSPB and the National Trust. With the support of writers and journalists like George Monbiot, whom I single out here partly in restitution for having conjured up the image of him still in short pants, we have been able to start to develop politics and ideologies that offer an alternative. The notion that everyone is entitled to an interest in the way that land is managed, and that the planet actually belongs to us all and to our children, is now slightly less extraordinary than it would have seemed to the landowners who drained Whittlesea Mere, or to the farmers and landowners of my childhood.
When I worked the skylines and winches years ago extracting Sitka spruce and Douglas fir logs on the slopes of the Five Sisters of Kintail in Wester Ross, the landscape was brutally divided between Forestry Commission plantations and Deer Forest. The Deer Forest was bare of trees except maybe where a gnarled rowan hung on to the side of a crag. But when I went back up a few years ago the glen was slowly filling with young pines and birches, encouraged by the National Trust for Scotland, who have land entrusted to them in the glen there. On the same trip we went to the Mar Lodge estate in the Cairngorms. Here too the National Trust for Scotland has reduced the sheep and deer numbers to let the trees regenerate. There are places on the estate where the ancient ‘granny pines’ still survive, along with the heather and bilberry understorey. When you remove the grazing pressure of the sheep and deer, the birches and the pines get going in no time, and in that setting you very soon have a restored forest ecosystem with all the appropriate vegetation and fungi because so much of it is still there even when the trees are lost. Proper pine forest in a few years, the sort of thing I dreamed of. And further east the Cairngorms Connect project aims to restore the forest and montane ecosystems and wetlands in an area of 600 square kilometres. We are achieving things that seemed utterly impossible when I first dreamed them as a boy.
Fired by a rare feeling of optimism, remembering that trip north, I dared to go on the internet to investigate the state of Whittlesea Mere. The Great Fen project is a long term plan to restore some of the fens and wetlands in the old fenlands of East Anglia, and I was delighted to read that farmers were reacting indignantly to the suggestion of the re-flooding of Whittlesea Mere, which is now 3000 acres of carrot fields. More internet trawling revealed a Defra document analysing the costs and benefits of various fenland and peatland management regimes which concluded, if I understood it correctly, that taking into account rising sea levels and calculating the value to the planet of peatland restoration and carbon sequestration and recreation and tourism and food security and so on and so on, it makes economic sense to stop the carrot growers and flood the mere. At the rate at which they are destroying the peat soils there they’ve only a few more years anyway before they are down to the clay that lies below the fenland peat, so I think they should cut their losses – our losses actually -and let the water flood back in. And the beauty of fenland restoration is that it is very quick. Just add water, and the reeds and willows grow fast, the fish breed and the birds fly in, and soon the restored fen looks like a primeval fen, even more quickly than a pine forest regenerating among the heather and bilberry.
On days like this I dare to hope that we can fix it if we work together.
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