Renaturing vs rewilding

For several years rewilding has been one of the influences on how I manage Century Wood. It’s never been an entirely comfortable fit though, since “wild” is quite an extreme goal. I’ve contented myself with encouraging elements of wildness but now I think it would be more productive for me to talk about “renaturing”, and I imagine a spectrum with wildwood at one end and very controlled plantation forests at the other.

Rewilding started to enter the public consciousness in Britain about the time I bought Century Wood in 2008, and in 2013 George Monbiot’s book “Feral” gave it a lot of publicity and provided a popular manifesto. I was already thinking about ways to encourage large scale reforestation, and Monbiot’s book crystallized the way in which British uplands are kept bare by sheep, deer, and EU Common Agricultural Policy basic payments.

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Beavers in the city of Lyon

Last year I went to Lyon in central France and although I didn’t see the beavers that now live there I did see the trees felled and their distinctive tooth marks. The signs of beaver activity were in a park by the River Rhone about 3km from the very centre of Lyon. Beavers were hunted for their fur throughout Europe and became extinct in most of France. However in the lower reaches of the Rhone south of the Lyon they survived and have been recolonising the river northwards.

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“Broadleaf” magazine, Winter 2018

The winter issue of The Woodland Trust’s quarterly “Broadleaf” magazine dropped on the mat today.

This edition’s features are:

  • the Trust’s new landscapes programme, that aims to connect up woodlands to allow wildlife to move around and be part of larger populations, which in turn has benefits for genetic diversity and disease resistance
  • an article, with some striking photos, on the reintroduction of beavers and their impact on water quality, flood control, and recreating habitats – the original British coppice workers
  • a walk through Lineover Wood in the Cotswolds (with an accompanying map) and some information about the volunteers who manage it and their Christmas campfire feast (which sound like a great idea!)
  • and an article on Orienteering as a way of enjoying woodland and how to get involved

News items include:

  • wildcat reintroduction, including the possibility to bring them back to England and Wales as well as extend their range in Scotland
  • an update on the Northern Forest, including the Government’s desire to use it as a testbed for the reforms of agricultural and forestry funding after Brexit, as we leave the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy rules and target more of the money at wider environmental and social benefits from flood control etc
  • the huge Summit to Sea rewilding and restoration project in mid Wales

There’s more about “Broadleaf” in the Trust’s blog.

Pine martens and Glen Affric

I’ve already written about visiting Glen Strathfarrar in the spring. and the next day I went 10 miles south to Glen Affric, one of the main areas where Trees for Life has been working to preserve and extend the kind of Caledonian forest which once covered most of the Scottish Highlands. Unlike Glen Strathfarrar, Glen Affric is mostly owned by the Forestry Commission so access is straightforward with car parks, maps, and marked trails. In one area I saw evidence of pine martens, although not the creatures themselves.

Some of the pictures at the end of this post were taken from the side of the road, but they are mostly on the walking trails which start at the Forestry Commission car park near Dog Falls. My route was mainly to walk up the hillside to the south of the car park and then down to Coire Loch which is surrounded by the forest.

Near the loch, I saw a lot of toads on the paths – almost standing on one as I tried to avoid stepping on another at some points! Then on the trail from the loch to Dog Falls I saw some pine marten droppings (“scat”), as shown in these two pictures. They both have a UK penny for scale (similar in size to a US or Euro one cent piece.)

The pine marten was almost driven to extinction due destruction of its woodland habitat and persecution because of its perceived threat to nesting birds. In 1981 it became protected, but surviving populations were only known for certain in the Highlands. Gradually numbers have risen, and pine martens have been discovered in the lowlands and Borders, and in parts of northern England and Wales. It’s not clear which of these are surviving populations and which are recolonisation from the Highlands.  There have also been reintroductions, notably in mid-Wales, and these may account for the recent sightings of them in Shropshire – only 40 miles from Century Wood!

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Glen Strathfarrar

At the start of the year I blogged about natural regeneration of woodland, and the land’s ability to regrow trees and resurrect forests from seeds waiting in the soil if deer, sheep, and humans allow it. One of the examples I used was a dramatic photo from Alan Watson Featherstone’s blog which he took in Glen Strathfarrar. It shows the effect of deer fence in allowing trees to come by themselves if left ungrazed. In April I visited the valley myself.

There is a 17 mile long private road running most of the length of the glen, with the low land and the hills also part of a private estate. Scots law has always allowed access to private land on foot and wild camping, but car access is controlled by the land owner. In this case, there is a gate near the village of Struy and 25 cars per day are allowed in. You get a ticket and your registration is noted to prevent overnight stays with cars. There is also a hydropower station in the glen, so there is some engineering traffic too.

These pictures show the lochs and islands driving westwards along the glen:

I saw several deer, including this one which kept ahead of my car and couldn’t go off up the hillside due to the deer fencing running parallel to the road. At one point a couple of buzzards were also circling.

Apart from construction activity around the hydropower station, the only people I saw were in two four wheel drive pickups (gamekeepers?)

The picture on the left shows a derelict house and in the distance on the right you can see the estate owner’s house in the distance, surrounded by trees.


Coming now to the purpose of my visit, this is what I wrote in January:

Alan took this striking photo there of forest regenerating naturally, which he has kindly allowed me to reproduce from his blog post. There’s a deer fence in the middle. To the left, trees are coming back naturally with deer excluded. To the right, the trees are scarce and the deer are free to browse any saplings that emerge.

This picture shows the new woodland in context, with the surrounding ground in April not as green as in Alan’s photo from May.

The road is near the bottom of the picture and I parked up and walked up the deer fence boundary on the right hand side of the wood.

This is the fence itself, as it heads up the rather steep hillside. The effect is particularly striking in the photo on the right.

The day after I visited Glen Affric and saw evidence of pine martens, which I’ll post about next.

Natural regeneration: Nature’s grassroots rebellion

There’s a rebellion going on in Britain. All around us. The resistance wins some battles and loses others. It has fought us since we first began to clear woodlands and create fields thousands of years ago. Its aim is reforestation with native trees, its method is natural regeneration, and in more and more places it is winning – increasingly with our help.

Often when trees are felled, worried people want to be reassured that the land will be replanted. People talk as if trees are like a field crop that has to be replanted after harvesting, to avoid leaving the treeless earth bare. Tree planting has an important place, but it must remembered that in most places it accelerates the reestablishment of native woodland, or guides what species will be present. It is not the fundamental and necessary way in which we find ourselves with a woodland. Ask yourself: why would native trees have to rely on human planting?

The fundamental way woodland reestablishes itself is natural regeneration. Trees grow from seeds already waiting in the ground; or brought there by birds and animals; or by undead, overlooked stumps and hedge trees reasserting themselves and breeding a new generation of rebels to lead a local revolution. We can interfere with this process with scythe, brush cutter, and mower. We can delegate the job to flocks of sheep. We can let unchecked populations of deer, rabbits, and grey squirrels put down the insurrection. But the trees keep trying and more and more of us are finding ways to help them.

One of the pioneers of rewilding and reforestation is Alan Watson Featherstone, founder of “Trees for Life” in the Highlands of Scotland. In George Monbiot’s “Feral”, he meets Alan and sees the now inspirational landscape in Glen Affric:

Glen Affric is one of the few parts of Britain in which the work of the Forestry Commission has, from the beginning, been largely benign. Since a sawmill was built in the valley in 1750, the old trees had been under siege, while the sheep grazing beneath them prevented almost all recruitment. The commission bought most of the glen in 1951, and, neglecting its customary duties, decided to preserve it rather than to wreck it. In the 1960s a young forester persuaded his bosses to let him fence 800 hectares of the glen, arguing, against the received wisdom of the time, that the trees could regenerate without being planted. The results were spectacular, an unequivocal rejoinder to those who said it was impossible. We could see them on the brae on the far side of the loch: stockades of pines a few decades old, their spiky profile broken in some places by the great humps of older trees. This experiment was one of the factors that had inspired Alan to found Trees for Life.

An hour’s drive north of Glen Affric is Glen Strathfarrar, and Alan took this striking photo there of forest regenerating naturally, which he has kindly allowed me to reproduce from his blog post. There’s a deer fence in the middle. To the left, trees are coming back naturally with deer excluded. To the right, the trees are scarce and the deer are free to browse any saplings that emerge.

You can’t see the deer in a photo like this, but without their natural predators like lynx and wolves their effect on the landscape is huge. It would be easy to look at a hillside like the one on the right and assume trees can’t grow, if you hadn’t seen what’s flourishing on the left. This emerging wood in Glen Strathfarrar is between about 150m and 250m above sea level, and as we can see this isn’t too high for natural regeneration. (For reference, there are birch woods in Norway at altitudes higher than the summit of Ben Nevis.)

Nature’s rebellion benefits the reestablishment of the forest cover we once had, but it’s increasingly being recognised that increased tree cover could benefit us too. Not just visually and emotionally. Perhaps even financially, and not just with things like tourism. Further south again is Loch Eilt, with this barren hillside at about 50m to 100m that’s been in the news this week. This landslide poured mud and rocks onto the West Highland Line and derailed the first train to come along, blocking the line for days and costing money for Network Rail and the people who finance it (principally taxpayers.)

There are trees in the landscape, including that small wood just to the right of the train. But there could be a lot more, and one of their benefits is to stabilise hillsides and protect against erosion, both the gradual carriage of soil down to rivers and off towards the sea and more dramatic erosion events like this.

With Brexit coming and our eventual withdrawal from the EU Common Agricultural Policy, there’s a debate about how these benefits can be recognised, with concepts like “natural capital” and “environmental services”, and proposals to dramatically increase tree planting. But for now the CAP payments still provide incentives to land owners to keep these barren treeless landscapes. Various euphemisms are used to refer to the natural progression from grassland up to woodland via scrub and pioneer tree species, but they implicitly and unintentionally recognise that the trees’ insurgency will succeed unless checked. As we reconfigure rural policy and support, it mustn’t be assumed that all trees have to be planted. If deer numbers were controlled and sheep removed, woodland could regenerate itself over huge areas without having to wait its turn to be planted.

Nature’s rebellion isn’t just against the moorland landscapes maintained by sheep and deer. Oliver Rackham’s magisterial “Woodlands” describes Shrawley Wood in chapter 19, where the Forestry Commission attempted to replace native lime trees with a conifer plantation:

Shrawley Wood, Worcestershire, is probably the biggest limewood in England. Most of it is nearly solid lime (including one of the tallest native trees in the kingdom). … In the 1530s it had been a wood with common-rights of woodcutting, divided into ten named coppices. …  Shrawley Wood fell into the hands of the Forestry Commission and was given the usual treatment. But Agent Orange here met its match. By 1985 Shrawley was back to being a magnificent limewood, and one had to look carefully for miserable remains of conifers.

I’m seeing the start of something similar at Century Wood, which is a 1980s hybrid poplar plantation, with natural regeneration of hazel plus some ash and oak, and then a few naturalised species like sycamore and horse chestnut. These non-native poplars are susceptible to cankers, and shed their upper branches. Some of the resulting stags are dying, leaving standing deadwood trunks a few metres high. Some of the still living stags are even overstood by the highest branches of the hazel. Even if I wasn’t gradually removing the poplars, they will be gone within a few decades, and the native (and naturalised) species will have won their rebellion.

Brown bears at JuraParc

Around the same time I photographed lynx, wild boar and wolves at the La Garenne zoo in the Jura mountains of Switzerland, I also had the opportunity to see the smaller JuraParc with its group of brown bears.

JuraParc is essentially a restaurant in a mountain pass which added a herd of North American bison, and then wolves, bear, and deer in a sheltered valley. The bison aside, all of these species are native to the Jura and Alps and exist in the wild to varying degrees. From the end of the ice age into the Middle Ages, wolves and bears were common in British woodlands too. Reintroducing them is less realistic than bringing back boar and lynx, but it’s certainly being suggested in fenced areas.

You can see in the first two pictures the layout of the site in the valley, with raised walkways which also form boundaries between the different enclosures. It’s much bigger than La Garenne, and they make use of the cliffs at the edge of the valley for the wolves and bears. I’ve included a short video which gives a better impression of the bears moving around the space and interacting.