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Are we ready for real wilderness?

Posted: Monday 7th November 2016 by trustadmin

Urban fallow deer by Jamie HallUrban fallow deer by Jamie Hall

Mathew Frith investigates re-wilding and asks, could it happen in London?

The wider countryside in Britain is largely inhospitable to wildlife, and our nature reserves and designated sites are small isolated fragments, ill-equipped to stem the downward trends for most species. This is the problem that needs tackling... 

Over the summer the Trust was alerted to a possible lynx sighting in Sydenham Hill Wood. Whilst undoubtedly a large tabby, it coincided with headlines describing the escape of a Carpathian lynx into the Devon countryside, stoking a growing debate about re-wilding parts of Britain. Could it happen here in London too?

The ‘wilderness’ issue has been sharpening its claws in conservation circles in Britain for over 20 years, taking much of its cue from initiatives in Europe focused on mega-fauna, whether it’s the long-term recovery of European bison (which require significant tracts of woodland) to reversing the declines in wolf, brown bear and Iberian lynx.(1

This approach has tended to dominate the re-wilding debate, on the basis that an ecosystem that can support large wild herbivores and apex predators will be more naturalistic – and therefore ‘healthy’ – than those habitats that are currently managed for wildlife in a largely agricultural landscape.

As people over the past centuries have wiped out predators, and destroyed the habitats upon which our biodiversity depends, an approach that can eventually sustain the full suite of fauna amounts to real conservation gains. The wider countryside in Britain is largely inhospitable to wildlife, and our nature reserves and designated sites are small isolated fragments ill-equipped to stem the downward trends for most species. 

This is the problem that needs tackling if we are to see the loss of biodiversity halted; there is a growing consensus that larger tracts of land are required for nature, and letting them become wilder is a critical approach to help reverse these declines. Wilderness could effectively ‘put back’ some of the charismatic beasts we’ve lost, and counter the damage we’ve done to our wildlife in the process.

Proponents of re-wilding also argue that this will strengthen the ecosystem services (for example, floodwater management) that high quality habitats can provide, trigger a new eco-tourism industry based on wildlife watching, and give a new boost to our efforts to ‘reconnect’ people with nature. But what would wilderness look like and mean for a city like London and her environs?

Size matters

Nature conservation has typically been about managing land to sustain and enhance biodiversity, through interventions such as coppicing, scrub clearance and grazing. Our work varies from high intensity, hands-on management that is more akin to wildlife gardening (at sites such as Camley Street Natural Park), to, in rare circumstances, non-intervention; with much of our conservation work somewhere between the two.

The idea of wilderness is to move towards one end of that spectrum – to non-intervention – so as to allow natural processes to dominate. At the extreme it is the withdrawal of total human presence such as paths, signage and visitors, so that nature operates freely – ‘red in tooth and claw’ – and without interference.

Most of the re-wilding focus has been in the Scottish uplands and islands where large expanses of (agriculturally) low-productive land are available, and the introduction of predators, such as wolf and lynx, might be useful tools for managing the artificially high numbers of red deer.

Clearly existing land uses and ownership are hurdles to counter – as have been witnessed in the protracted efforts to re-introduce European beaver into Scotland – but this is where the initial steps are being taken, such as the creation by philanthropist Paul Lister of the 9,300ha Alladale estate in the Highlands, where he has released wild boar and elk and hopes to reintroduce wolves within fenced areas, as well as planting 800,000 native trees.

Closer to home

Closer to home a proposal in the mid-1990s (by Sussex Wildlife Trust officers) to allow the woodlands of West Sussex to revert to a more naturalistic state and expand in certain areas (2), has resulted in remarkable changes at the 1,400ha Knepp Estate south of Horsham. Here, owner Charlie Burrell has ripped out fencing and gates and allowed free-roaming cattle, ponies, pigs and deer to create their own landscapes – a mosaic of habitats from grassland and scrub to open-grown trees and wood pasture – in a similar fashion to the herbivores that would have grazed here before people arrived.

At low cost, they also provide income in the form of wildrange organic meat. The changes at Knepp since 2001 have turned it into a breeding hotspot for purple emperor butterflies and turtle dove, as well as supporting 2% of the country’s population of nightingales. Nevertheless, it hasn’t been without its critics – a problematical issue is that it no longer looks a tidy part of the Sussex countryside; a chocolate-box aesthetic still dominates our view of rural Britain.

Female beaver with kits by Mike Symes / Devon Wildlife TrustNevertheless, re-wilding isn’t as fanciful as it was once and public support is growing. A number of European beavers, of unknown origin, have been present on the River Otter in Devon since at least 2010, but when video evidence emerged proving that the beavers had given birth to kits in 2013, Defra planned to trap the colony and transfer them to a zoo, arguing they were an unsanctioned release of a once-native species.

A local campaign, led by Devon Wildlife Trust, to support an alternative plan for a five-year trial to monitor the beavers’ effects on the landscape, hit the headlines last year. Defra backed down, and the Trust now lead the trial; the beavers were re-released on the river in March 2015, with more kits being born that summer.

Room for nature to breath

Arguably, re-wilding – or wilderness – is as much a philosophy as a process. It is about giving nature more room to breathe. It’s about us taking a step back, and giving up control. Clearly a lot of our wildlife is here because of the way we have managed the land for the past few thousand years.

Much of our conservation activity mimics old agricultural practices to maintain a landscape of a bygone era, for example, bluebell woodlands and chalk grasslands. Can this be sustained in a changing climate? Nature’s needs have changed, and perhaps our attitudes need to as well. We should mimic nature where we need to, and let her do her own thing when we don’t.

A re-wilding of Britain – even if possible at a significant scale – would result in changes to the landscape that are difficult to foresee. About half of our plant and animal species require open space, and many others need forest edges. Will re-wilding, through the impacts of large herbivores - such as wild boar and ponies - and the weather (such as storms, frost, drought), create the necessary conditions? At this stage we don’t know; it is imperative that current re-wilding initiatives monitor this.

So could it happen in London?

The Trust has long-sought opportunities to take forward re-wilding, but we are constrained by the size and ownership of our land and its environs. Even on our largest reserves, relaxing our management is not as easy as it seems. We have responsibilities to funders and neighbours, and the sites’ ecologies are often down to a consistent approach delivered over decades.

If this changes we could lose some of the key biodiversity interest for which they are designated and protected. This needn’t be a problem in the bigger scheme of things, but we need to be confident why we’d take forward such an approach and how to deal with the likely consequences.

Our work on Living Landscapes sets out an ambitious re-wilding stall, embracing steps towards less-intensive management, for example restoration of meanders and backwaters on the rivers Crane and Wandle. At a small scale Woodberry Wetlands demonstrates this; but if we were to relax management here the reservoir would mostly disappear under a reedbed and this would change the Wetlands’ value for wildlife and visitors.

Oostvaardersplassen - going large

Konik ponies at Oostvaardersplassen by EM Kintzel / I Van StokkumTwenty kilometres north of Amsterdam lies the expanse of Oostvaardersplassen, a publicly-owned polder reclaimed from the sea in 1968 and intended for industrial development.

The 56km2 site was left unattended and remained undeveloped, resulting in the emergence of a wetland area colonised by greylag geese, whose grazing prevented forest succession and created habitats for a range of rare bird species. From the mid-1980s – as a nature reserve - the managers introduced herds of horses, heck cattle and red deer to diversify the ‘naturalistic grazing’ and these animals gradually ‘de-domesticated’, developing behaviours and creating habitats that are claimed to be analogous with Europe some 12,000 years ago.

Oostvaardersplassen has been the focus of the re-wilding debate, in particular on the introductions of wild and semi-wild large herbivores and allowing nature to make its mark, but it hasn’t been without its problems. During a particularly harsh winter in 2005, many animals died of starvation, leading to public outcry against alleged animal cruelty.

However, what Oostvaardersplassen represents is a place to study how land can be managed in a wild way; “it serves as the inspiration and catalyst for the proactive ‘development’ of ‘new natures.’”(3

Wild London 

Parts of London such as Fairlop Plain, Crayford Marshes, the ‘Green Arc’ around Epping, and land near Ruislip affected by HS2, could potentially offer space for ‘new natures’ but we can’t ignore the complicated ownership patterns that usually stop the creation of large enough areas for coherent, healthy re-wilding.

However, wild red, roe, fallow and muntjac deer are now within London. More provocatively, wild boar populations are less than 50km away and moving nearer, after being hunted to extinction in Britain some 700 years ago.(4

At the smallest scale we can all contribute and help; we can leave parts of our gardens wilder; park managers can increase areas for wildlife; and architects can design in green, wildlife-friendly roofs.

None of these ideas are new, and we must clearly do more as London is set to grow by another two million people by 2050. Whether beavers can return to the Lea Valley in the near future or not, London still needs dramatic action to conserve the wildlife we cherish across the capital. It is a fight we have to win. 

Mathew Frith is the Trust’s Director of Conservation.

This is an extended version of an article published in London Wildlife Trust’s membership magazine Wild London.

Main banner image by Jamie Hall


1) Rewilding Europe initiative aims to rewild 1 million hectares of land in ten areas including the western Iberian Peninsula, Velebit, the Carpathians and the Danube delta by 2020.

2) Woodland cover c2010 in West Sussex was 19%, the second highest proportion for any English county after Surrey. English average is 8.2%.

3) Jamie Lorimer & Clemens Driessen (2014), Experiments with the wild at the Oostvaardersplassen, Ecos 35(3/4) , BANC.

4) Original populations thought to be extinct by 13th century, subsequently reintroduced (many times), and finally extinct by end of 17th century.

Beavers Lane street sign

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