Near Horsham in West Sussex is a castle estate called ‘Knepp Estate,’ which, alongside farming, has let a great deal of the estate return to the wild. Medium-sized herbivores such as longhorn cattle, roe and fallow deer, Exmoor ponies and pigs roam freely on the estate. So far, these rewilding techniques have regenerated the soil’s nutrient quality, making farming once again viable near the site, whereas traditional intensive farming had rendered the soil unworkable without large quantities of chemical fertiliser; farming is finally profitable once again in the area.
The benefits of rewilding are numerous; vastly increased biodiversity and carbon sequestration, as well as social benefits such as those George Monbiot wrote about in Feral; the sense of adventure and wonder that is lost without true, unadultered wilderness. The cause of this article is not to reiterate these benefits. I am simply looking at a common cause for human intervention in rewilding projects; fencing out or culling herbivores.
Knepp estate has had to fence off certain areas of land to guarantee that young trees and other vegetation will survive undamaged by the grazing and browsing habits of the herbivores present. It is the intensive grazing of the ‘white plague’ of sheep and other large herbivores such as deer and cattle, kept for commercial use, that has helped transform the British Isles into monolithic and expansive grassland. As a natural process in a pre-human past, grazing and other herbivorous habits helped create mosaic-like environments of grassland, scrub and woodland believed to have existed in the Pleistocene era. In the Pleistocene, however, there were predators to maintain herbivore population and also their behaviours and approaches to their environment. The herbivores that existed were also diverse in species and especially size, with even Britain hosting megafauna; the skeletons of ancient hippopotami have been found underneath central London. Interestingly enough, Knepp Estate’s aims are to add more species of herbivore, to include elk and bison.
Dundreggan, an area that rewilding organisation Trees For Life have been working on in the Scottish Highlands, has had success by fencing out the red deer that are endemic to the area. The result has been a surge in young tree growth and inception, sometimes species that one wouldn’t expect to find, all without much human planting necessary. The biodiversity in the area is vibrant, with more than 3,000 new species recorded in Dundreggan alone. The area is lacking a natural predator, specifically the wolf; were a wolf present, the organisation would no longer need to fence out the deer, as the wolves would maintain their population by preying on the weak and sickly deer, altering the deer behaviour by scaring them away from open spaces, such as open land on the fringes of forests, and also stretches of open water where a deer may be more at risk. This has a chain reaction, that has been highlighted with the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in America; as the deer left open water alone, trees were allowed to grow along the waters edge, shading and cooling down the water, making it habitable for fish and other animals which helped filter the water of impurities. Knepp estate fenced off an area of newly-planted trees along the Adur river, to eventually grow to cover the water and cool it down, in a venture the Ouze & Adure River Trust termed ‘trees for trout,’ and effect which Yellowstone has achieved through the reintroduction of natural predators.
Tree Planting Along the River Adur at Knepp Estate. Author’s own image.
Trees for life currently run a volunteering programme called ‘project wolf’ wherein volunteers emulate wolf behaviour to scare deer away from the vulnerable rewilded areas. Many concerned with reintroducing a natural predator to the British Isles have claimed that the Eurasian lynx would be the least problematic predator to reintroduce to the British wild lands. With a Pleistocene rewilding project such as Knepp Estate, what predator should be present? If one could be decided upon, in this present day with many stakeholders in rural areas so set against the reintroduction of predators, could it be emulated, such as the project wolf campaign? The estate already cull their animals to maintain a natural population, and so the need for a natural predator has not gone unobserved. Species are being reintroduced in Britain, albeit at a slow pace, and the predator question is enshrouded in cultural myths of fear, which forces rewilding organisations to sadly intervene where another ecological relationship has been persecuted and removed over time.