Friday, October 28, 2005

Great creating nature

John Vidal in The Guardian reports proposals for "huge" new reserves (8,000 square kilometres, which is approx 3,000 square miles or 3% of UK land area by my calculation) for some forms of wildlife (but not others - e.g. no bears or wolves). Gail Vines in New Scientist looks at the increasing presence of wildlife in urban areas, and asks whether cities are a new niche or a trap.

1 comment:

Caspar Henderson said...

Sound and fury about "the wild" (ierremód in Old English, but of course we are talking about a long time before that) continues in The Guardian:

Why Britons are born to be wild

Stephen Moss
Friday October 28, 2005
The Guardian

Private Frazer, of Dad's Army fame, would invariably refer to his Scottish homeland as "a wild and lonely place". Yet despite this off-putting image, our desire to visit Britain's wilderness is greater than ever. In every season of the year, climbers, ramblers and birdwatchers beat a path north and west to places where they can escape the hassle and hustle of modern urban life. And now the Wilderness Foundation has proposed converting 800,000 hectares of uneconomic upland farms - an area larger than Devon - into large-scale nature reserves.

But the wild hasn't always been so alluring. For most of our history, mountains, moors and heaths were avoided, and with very good reason: if the cold didn't kill you, then a fall, being eaten by wild animals, or attacked by people would.

The big change happened in the 18th and 19th centuries, when Britons moved wholesale from the countryside into the new towns and cities of the industrial revolution. No sooner had they settled down, than the desire to return to their roots drove them back out into the wilds. By the middle of Victoria's reign, there was hardly a mountain peak or stretch of moor that wasn't being climbed, walked over or simply stared at. Wild Britain was in vogue.

Since then, we have kept up our love affair with the wild, and even turned it into big business. Skiing trips, wildlife holidays and outward-bound courses make it hard to find solitude anymore.

One of the attractions of these wild places is that while the wildlife may not be very plentiful, its very rarity makes it sought after. So birders hope to see ptarmigan and golden eagles, while botanists search for tiny alpine plants, which just manage to survive in our harshest climates. And if the Wilderness Foundation plans get the go-ahead, we might one day be able to watch reintroduced species such as elk, wild horses and maybe even wolves, all of which would help restore long-lost biodiversity to our island.

Yet, ironically, many of our wild places are just as artificial as any other British habitat. These bleak, open landscapes were once covered with trees, which were cut down to allow sheep to create the close-cropped turf we think of as "natural". Grouse moors are as managed as any other kind of farmland; while the Dorset heaths are only maintained by the ruthless clearance of scrub. Only the high tops of the Cairngorms can truly claim to be natural.

But all this still fails to explain why people with little or no interest in wildlife still long to escape to the wild. Recent studies have suggested that our need for wild places is literally a desire for a "breathing space" to gain perspective on our day-to-day lives. Just remember to take a map, wear the right clothes, and eat plenty of Kendal mint cake

Stephen Moss is a producer with the BBC's natural history unit.

Britain's landscape was never wild - just ask the cavemen

Monday October 31, 2005
The Guardian

May I just add the time dimension missing from Stephen Moss' realistic reminder that "many of our wild places are just as artificial as any other British habitat" (Why Britons are born to be wild, October 28)? The ubiquitous post-glacial forest began to be burnt down 10,000-5,000BC by hunting, fishing and collecting communities - and, during the next 4,000 years, much British upland became treeless under the impact of early farmers. Their stone axes felled timber, and their crop-growing and grazing animals inhibited arboreal regeneration. Dartmoor, for example, one of the "wilderness" areas specified in the imaginative scheme of the Wilderness Foundation, was divided up by territorial boundaries and walled field systems during an intensive phase of agriculture either side of 1300 BC which, abandoned, left those granite uplands looking pretty much as they do today.

Similar stories, attested by palynological sequences and radio-carbon dates, relate to most other British uplands and indeed both to higher areas in the lowlands such as the Marlborough Downs. Let us re-establish faunal biodiversity in our wild places but let us not delude ourselves that they are wilderness in the sense of being untouched and natural. From West Penwith to Shetland, they are cultural landscapes created, mainly by unsustainable farming regimes, 3,000 and more years ago.

Prof Peter Fowler
World heritage adviser, UNESCO

I support the Wilderness Foundation's vision of "rewilding" large areas of land (Wild herds may stampede across Britain under plan for huge reserves, October 27). Through the CAP reform, and the move away from public subsidies to support ecologically damaging, intensive agricultural production, we have an opportunity to return large areas of land back to a more natural state, reversing a legacy of damage to our countryside.

But rewilding projects will only succeed if they are designed on a scale large enough to support viable populations and natural processes, and if policy makers embrace the concept of ecological change in our landscape. If the Dutch, in their highly populated and modified landscape, are able to pioneer such a rewilding approach, I see no reason why we cannot return a more natural and dynamic landscape to parts of the UK.

Michael Thornton