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Posts Tagged ‘rewilding’

Rewilding in the UK

Photos: Murdo MacLeod
Scotland is inviting nature to return to abandoned industrial spaces.

The idea of “rewilding” industrial spaces, or turning them back to nature, makes me happy. One often reads about it happening in the UK, but we could do it, too, if we wanted to.

This photo essay in the Guardian is about how, in Scotland, rewilding often happens through benign neglect. Bella Bathurst wrote the text and Murdo MacLeod took the photos.

“Since the idea of rewilding took hold, it has generally been seen as a rural pursuit involving withdrawal from farmland so that animals and vegetation can restore their own ecology. At its most herbivorous, it includes allowing hedgerows or scrub to flourish unchecked. At its most primal, it involves deliberately releasing animals such as beavers or wolves in the belief that the re-entry of a single alpha species brings with it a cascade of ecological benefits. …

“The perception is that it is expensive, far away and often inaccessible. It certainly isn’t something that just anyone can do.

“But what if the wildest places of all were right under our feet? In the forgotten spaces in our cities, rewilding has always happened naturally, land falling under stone and resurging again, concrete lids flipped off before submerging once more. In the margins and the demilitarised zones, the abandoned embankments, the bits we don’t want or the lands already contaminated beyond human tolerance, ecology is thriving.

“In some places – such as the land around the abandoned Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine – plant and insect life has adapted to the extreme conditions: boars have moved in, there is a new radiation-munching fungus and, in the thin strip of no-man’s land between the borders of North and South Korea, leopards and Asiatic black bears have been spotted. …

“In Scotland, the 40-mile strip between Glasgow and Edinburgh has always been mined, for not just coal, but stone, gravel, lead and even gold. After centuries of hard pickings, parts of Lanarkshire and Ayrshire have an upended appearance. What was underground is now on top and what was above has gone below, with buildings and bridges slumped over old drift mines and razor-lined spoil heaps terraced by extraction tracks. Wildfowl nest on lochs made from old coal holes and an orchid called Young’s helleborine, discovered in 1975, favours only the best iron ore. …

“At an explosives factory once owned and operated by the Alfred Nobel Company, [sections] are still in use, but most of the 330-acre site was long ago abandoned. Along the cracks in the old pipelines and through the decaying buildings, it would be quicker to list the native plants that are no longer there than those that are. …

“Public feeling is that big business should be obliged to make good what it has taken, but human attempts to restore land are often amateurish. Planting a few conifers and flinging around a mix of wildflowers may be a quick fix, but sometimes it appears that the best thing to do is nothing. …

“In 1913 the 13th Earl of Home tried to lift local unemployment at Douglas by allowing mining nearby. The mining unseated [his] castle, it was demolished, and the flooded workings (known locally as the Black Hole) are now so patterned with commuting birdlife that it resembles an avian Heathrow. …

“On the other side of the Clyde, between the Erskine Bridge and the old John Brown shipyard, lies what used to be the Beardmore naval construction works in Dalmuir. In the early 20th century it produced munitions, planes, submarines and warships before being converted into a fuel-supply depot and then being gradually abandoned.

“Now a cycle path runs through it, but otherwise there is nothing new here except nature: golden leaves of birch springing from the concrete jetty, hawkweed drifting Ophelia-like in the drowned oil storage tanks, wrens nesting in the rusted embankments, mallards cackling from the blackthorn scrub. …

“Dalmuir is beautiful, dangerous – and almost certainly contaminated. … Halflands like these can be among the most joyous and optimistic places on earth, but they can also carry with them a polluting sense of menace. Finding them means that you may end up meandering across an indeterminate line between a walk in the park and full-scale urban exploration; you explore at your own risk. …

“They also have a habit of vanishing. Brownfield sites tend to be classified as wasteland, and with the pressure on housing, they are first in line for redevelopment. Ardeer is intended for ‘regeneration’ and Dalmuir will shortly be dug up to make way for the Scottish Marine Technology Park, a deepwater ship hoist and a new small-vessel fabrication yard.”

More at the Guardian, here.

Abandoned naval construction works in Dalmuir, Scotland. Explore at your own risk.

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rewilding_longhorn-cattle-in-knepp-repton-park-landscape

Photo: Charlie Burrell/ Knepp Estate Castle
Longhorn cattle were chosen for a UK “rewilding” project as stand-ins for their extinct ancestor, the auroch.

Here’s a concept that was new to me: “rewilding” the countryside — that is, bringing the land back to an earlier and less developed state.

At the radio show Living on Earth, we learn that a UK couple was able to turn a large, unprofitable farm into a profitable one by letting the land go back to nature.

“BOBBY BASCOMB: When writer Isabella Tree and her husband, Charlie Burrell, inherited an estate in West Sussex, England, they assumed they would continue to farm as generations of family had before them. But the intensive agriculture of their predecessors grew increasingly difficult, and they decided that farming was no longer a viable option. So they began to mull over another idea: Give the land back to nature and let it take its course. Isabella Tree’s recent book is titled Wilding, and its the story of what happened to the land when they gave up farming and let nature take the reins. …

“ISABELLA TREE: We inherited this piece of land from my husband’s grandparents [in] the 1980s. And it had been intensively farmed for ever since pretty much the Second World War. [But] the farm was losing money hand over fist. [We] kept buying … bigger machines, throwing more pesticide, more fertilizer, more nitrates, built bigger dairies and changed our types of cows to more higher-milk-yielding cows. …

“We tried contract farming [and] sold all our farm equipment. It was a very, very black day. … Charlie’s ancestors have been here since the Nash castle was built two hundred and twenty or so years ago. It really isn’t for us an option to sell. [We’re] stewards of this land, and we can’t just sell up and move out. …

“BASCOMB: Well, how did you even come up with that alternative? I mean, for most farmers, I think it’s probably pretty counterintuitive to just let the land go. I mean, that’s not what you do as a farmer.

“TREE: It is a very, very difficult thing to do, you’re absolutely right. …

“BASCOMB: You talk a lot in your book about the importance of introducing herbivores. What animals did you introduce and why? …

“TREE: We had to introduce animals that we knew would be able to survive outside all year round without supplementary feeding, that would be able to fend for themselves even in a harsh or wet winter. So, we chose old breeds, we chose Old English Longhorn, wonderful cows with great white finching stripe down their backs and great big horns. And then Exmoor ponies, one of our oldest breeds of horse, they are fantastic at surviving, out in any landscape. Very, very hardy, indeed. And Tamworth pigs, another old breed that’s very closely related to Iberian swine. So, they’re the closest we felt that we could get with an English variety of pig to the wild boar. And then we had roe deer here already in low numbers. And then we introduced fallow deer and red deer. …

“BASCOMB: What does it look like? What does it smell like, even sound like, and how is that different from what you started with? …

TREE: When you walk around Knepp today is the sound of insects, for a start. On a day like this, it’s a hot, sunny day, you’ve just got the sound of crickets and grasshoppers, you’ve got bees, you’ve got hover flies, you’ve got every sort of insect out there. It’s thick with insects. If you go out there on a bicycle, you have to wear sunglasses or, you know, because you’re getting insects in your eyes. …

“This used to be the norm 50 years ago. But in the era of pesticides, we just don’t see insects anymore. So the sound of insects is astonishing. And then, of course you’ve got the bird song, surround sound bird song. Go out into the thickets, it’s sort of like the African scrub. … It’s a wonderful thing to be sitting in the middle of.

“But it’s a double edged sword because we now go on walks in other places in the UK, places where we always used to enjoy, you know, an hour or two to walk, and now we notice what isn’t there. And it’s that, it’s what Aldo Leopold called that sadness, that tragedy of having an ecological education. You know what isn’t there and what could be there, what should be there. …

“We literally haven’t introduced anything apart from the free-roaming animals. So, they’ve all found us on their own. [We] have 13 out of the 18 breeding species of bat in the UK. One of them called the Bechstein’s bat is so rare, it’s rare even in Europe. … We have Peregrine Falcons, we have them nesting in a tree. Usually you associate Peregrine falcons with cliffs and clifftops. They nest in steeples and cathedrals, but not in a tree. Nightingales are another species that is associated with woodland, but at Knepp they’re taking up territories our exploding hedgerows and our thorny scrub. And so they’re choosing a very different habitat because it’s suddenly available to them. So, it’s really changing the science books, we’ve forgotten that this is where nightingales love to be.

“And I think that’s one of the lessons from Knepp, is that we’re so used to seeing species in a very, very depleted landscape, that that’s where we think they want to be. But in fact, they’re often clinging on by their fingernails to habitat that just isn’t optimal for them. And where they’d much rather be is in the kind of habitat that we’re presenting for them at Knepp.”

More at Living on Earth, here.

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