It may be all the rage in conservationist circles, but ‘wilding’ or ‘rewilding’ requires rather more human invention and management than the terminology suggests or media will admit. Perhaps a rebranding is in order?

WHOEVER coined the term ‘wilding’, and the media and politicians who abuse it, are all to blame for many of the problems experienced by people like myself trying to undertake conservation and environmental work in our woodlands.

Too many people now think you can just walk away from nature and ‘let it happen’. They seem to believe a broadleaf woodland will magically appear, full of wild flowers and endangered animals, quite suddenly and without any effort.

The problem is not helped when estate agents broadcast the location as ‘much loved by Londoners’ and the property ‘suitable for equestrian use and wilding grants’.

A local estate, in its publicity, under the heading ‘Wilding’, has suggested the introduction of beavers and ‘pigs’ and announced native county cattle browsing to make inroads into the proliferation of bramble and bracken. But our county red cattle were never bred for rough browsing. And the likelihood of beaver ever having been present in the area in the past is non-existent, geography and topography being pretty much the same since the end of the last ice age. 

The mooted re-introduction of boar is incomprehensible. Efforts to contain boar on an estate with many rights of way, visited by many people, would certainly negate any benefits that might be achieved, and their presence would likely be detrimental in the long term. I actually planted hazel there almost 10 years ago to support the then nearly extinct dormouse population (some even denied their existence on the site). The dormouse population has increased and expanded over much of the woodland policies.

Boar would definitely destroy young hazel, coppice regeneration and ground flora, reducing the dormouse habitat to below sustainable levels. If the ‘pigs’ get out into the arable or replants, heaven help us! 

When contracting to the then local conservation board, I spent weeks clearing areas of downland from bramble and blackthorn to allow orchid and scabious to appear as part of a restoration project. Since then it has been ‘rewilded’, the orchids and wild flowers have disappeared, overrun again by scrub and bramble. Similarly, a woodland thinned and cleared at ground level produced large tracts of spotted orchid. The understorey has been allowed to revert to scrub and bramble, resulting in the disappearance of the orchid. 

Forestry Journal: The woodland where spotted orchids were in profusion before being overgrown and suppressed by bramble, scrub and nettles.The woodland where spotted orchids were in profusion before being overgrown and suppressed by bramble, scrub and nettles. (Image: FJ)

Apart from tree planting around the county and clearing paddock that has been allowed to be overgrown by bramble (or trying to wild a bit of ground and grow trees), I am currently working on two sites regenerating the woodland. The latest is probably the worst example of uninformed ‘wilding’ I have seen (the term proudly used by the owner). Originally ancient woodland grazed by cattle, it is now overgrown with blackthorn and very nearly a hectare of ragwort (actually two acres, measured). Much of the natural oak regeneration has been so badly damaged by squirrel and deer it will have to be cleared before new planting or – even better – seeding (real local provenance) can take place. We can only terminally prosecute the squirrels when the owner’s neighbour and friend is absent because she thinks “they are happy and wild creatures and Mr Packham says shooting is wicked”. I’m not knocking Chris Packham for introducing much of the population to many of the birds and beasts of the countryside and their life cycles.

However, a little appreciation of the work done by different sectors of the rural economy to create the conditions he broadcasts from would be appreciated and present a more balanced opinion – even better if he never used the term ‘wilding’.

Why don’t the general public understand that natural regeneration wilding has to be managed and monitored to see it meets the objectives set? Planting new forests is not wilding, nor is regeneration, but it is packaged by the media into wilding. The work undertaken at Blenheim and reported in Forestry Journal 334 (June 2022) is certainly not the popular concept of wilding, nor is it described as such. It does demonstrate thought, planning, execution, teamwork and backbreaking hard work. It also demonstrates going through the whole gambit of carbon footprint algebra to obtain funding.

Holkham is another estate where major work is being undertaken in conservation and restoration, with an emphasis on still being able to grow crops to feed an expanding population (incidentally, a recent trip to Norfolk to meet relatives also resulted in me learning that Holkham provides fodder for the giraffes at London Zoo). 

It’s not the misunderstanding of the general public that is at fault. It’s the flagrant misuse of the word ‘wilding’, when what is really meant is conservation, restoration and regeneration. I suggest that politicians and popular media journalists are not the people best suited to create a better understanding. I’ve seen and heard them wax poetical about scenery using a multitude of words but then use only one to describe differing complex and multi-faceted tasks. The environment is not an entertainment segment in a schedule. Nor should it be a political pawn. I can’t believe a politician who claims environmental credit because he can ride a bicycle and promotes ‘wilding’ (that’s my MP, not the now-extinct PM). 

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Similarly, the reintroduction of species is packaged as wilding. Probably the most successful wildlife reintroduction so far has been the red kite. A nucleus population established and supported, then allowed to expand over the national countryside. There is nothing better than the magnified shadow of a red kite on a snow-covered hillside as you face an almost vertical uphill hike to the pickup with tools (yes, we do have snow in the South East and scarp slopes steeper than many Munros). The red kite was re-introduced, not ‘wilded’ – but it is a wild creature.

Conservation is about maintaining the present level or condition and not letting it degenerate any further. Restoration is about repairing a damaged environment, returning it to the condition it once was and even improving it. Regeneration is taking land in its current use and returning it to its original form and condition – typically from arable to woodland or heathland. These are my definitions, rightly or wrongly (I’m not a scholar), but they are precise. In no way can the totally different types of work involved be called ‘wilding’ nor can they be genetically described as ‘wilding’.

Now we are being told by Natural England that ‘rewilding’ should be called ‘nature recovery’. Rewilding Britain states ‘rewilding’ is the restoration of ecosystems to the point where nature can take care of itself. Neither body seems to suggest that any work has to be done now or in the future. “Just let it happen.”

Another body has embarked on the reintroduction of European bison (Wisent, Bison bonasus) to revive biodiversity, though the bison disappeared more than 6,000 years ago from the British landmass. They state that these animals will ring-bark trees and push them over, which will allow other plants to thrive. I plant, care for trees and design and manage for habitat and wild flowers, so that’s like a red rag to a bull for me and quite contrary to the exhortations to plant more trees. Anyway, the bison species (Bison schoetensacki) most likely to have been here became extinct not because of human intervention, but as a natural event. The range of this bison started to become restricted some 450,000 years ago when the Weald Artois barrier was first breached and certainly 11,500 years ago when the Channel Barrier would have prevented its migration to the British landmass. Any that remained would have died out naturally as their habitat disappeared under forest cover and migration paths were interrupted by rising sea levels.

Forestry Journal: Downland orchid site overrun with bramble and scrub.Downland orchid site overrun with bramble and scrub. (Image: FJ)

This bison project cost £1.2 million and now employs two specialist ‘rangers’ to look after four animals. I’ve no time for the Emperor’s new clothes. I’m too busy clearing diseased ash, repairing an ancient woodland, planting a new woodland and constructing habitat (targeting stag beetles); conservation, restoration and regeneration.

I did get brought up short the other day. One of my nieces is deeply involved in sustainable energy generation. She gave me a bit of a lecture after I had complained about a solar panel farm, set to be constructed on traditional arable land near me. Part of her remit is to try and create wildlife habitat on renewable energy sites. She pointed out that my work will not solve the immediate climate problem. What I do will take some 40 years to come to fruition, while her work makes an impact the moment it comes on stream. Her work also significantly increases the areas available to grassland butterflies and such. I felt suitably chastised, but relieved she never called it ‘wilding’.

Martin Charlton is an experienced forester and estate manager, contractor and conservationist. He has spent much of the last 25 years involved with conservation activities, planning and planting woodlands and constructing wildlife habitats, with some contract coppicing and farm work when his schedule allows.