The case for re-wilding

Rewilding allows habitats to be shaped by natural processes, without human intervention. In Britain, the uplands are ideally where we should concentrate our efforts: here the population in lowareas such as the Scottish Highlands are among the least populated areas in Europe-and the management practices are often unsustainable and heavily subsidised. Deforestation is one of the threats to biodiversity in tropical countries, hence the efforts to restore rainforest in Borneo, the Amazon and the Congo.

Less well-known is the historic deforestation in Western countries, and nowhere more so than Britain. The landscape in much of Britain’s uplands, characterised by open vistas and barren hills and mountains, is assumed by many people to be natural. Reportedly, we have less than one percent of our original forests? Without active human management of the uplands, what we would get would be a mixture of habitats, including closedcanopy pine forest, birch woodland, coastal oakwood, moor and bog. The management practices in question are intensive grazing by sheep and artificially high numbers of deer, or burning to maintain artificially high numbers of grouse.

It is these practices that have replaced ecologically rich and diverse habitats in the uplands with comparatively simplistic ones: mostly heather and grassland monocultures.

The common assertion that “moorland is internationally rare habitat” ignores the fact that heather is a colonist of deforested land-its abundance in Britain is because the aforementioned management practices prevent other habitats being established. This leaves Britain’s uplands ecologically impoverished Scottish moorland supports only three percent of priority species, compared to woodland which supports 39 perceny. Trees for Life have restored over 4000 hectares of Caledonian pine forest by creating deer exclosures and planting over a million trees since 1989.

In Caithness and Sutherland, 5,000 hectares of peat bog has been restored by blocking drainage ditches and felling conifer plantations, creating vital wader and wildfowl habitat that will sequester 400 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. Schemes like the Pumlumon Project in Wales have also demonstrated sustainable methods of upland farming. by replacing sheep with Welsh White cattle and keeping livestock in enclosures, to reduce grazing pressure on the landscape while providing grassland habitat for rare waders.


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Edward Grierson

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August 2021
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