Rewilding Norfolk: Wild thinking and wild ideas

Blog post by David North on 23 Nov, 2019

This is the first of three posts inspired by attending an NWT workshop at Cley Marshes on rewilding. Rewilding is a topical issue in nature conservation with the term ‘rewilding,’ and the ideas behind it, much talked about, sometimes controversial and interpreted in many different ways by different people.

Inspired by the NWT workshop, the ideas of keynote speaker Charlie Burrell from the Knepp Estate rewilding project in Sussex, and from the discussion between landowners and conservation professionals attending the workshop I want to explore whether rewilding is possible in Norfolk and its role as a tool in our response to the climate and biodiversity emergencies. But in this first post I simply want to consider what we mean by wild.

Wild life, wild places, wild landscapes, wild experiences. Wild is a powerful word but its meaning is hard to pin down. We probably all have different images of ‘the wild’.

The opposite of wild is tame and wildlife is often contrasted with domestic livestock or our pets. Wild landscapes, wilderness and wild places are distinguished from farmland or from other developed land and the built environment. So what makes an animal or a place wild? Are there degrees of wildness? Are our ideas of the wild based on a romantic ideal of the natural world or can we find any firm ground to help us understand what it is ‘to be wild’.

Brown hare with farm machinery, credit David Tipling

Brown hare with farm machinery, credit David Tipling

A Norfolk farmed landscape is usually highly organised; different crops in different fields all with neat boundaries, whether hedge, fence or dyke, bounding each field margin. We contrast this controlled landscape of penned in domestic livestock, crops in tidy rows, most often of a single type over a large area, with the complexity, lack of straight lines and to our eyes disorder in wild places and habitats.

We perhaps intuitively feel that dams domesticate ‘wild’ rivers and perhaps even that wind-farms out at sea to an extent ‘domesticate’ the ocean landscape or even the wind itself. Agriculture, from its earliest origins, tamed the wild by bringing under control wild species, both plants and animals. By creating barriers and boundaries to the movement of livestock, by bringing land under our control and by simplifying and restricting the number of plants growing to those which provided food, fuel or materials for our use, we tamed the wild. We tamed wild lands, wild animals and wild plants by giving them a defined human purpose.

In contrast most of us would say the defining quality of a wild animal is that it belongs to no one, is free to come and go, and ultimately free to live and die outside of the confines of meeting a human need. The wild is self-willed. Its purposes are its own. Migratory birds, like the winter geese that cross our Norfolk skies arriving from distant lands are a perfect symbol of what is free and wild.

Perhaps key to the meaning of wild is the recognition that the wild is not controlled by us. It is unlimited and unbounded, and has its own intrinsic purposes. This is why storms are experienced as wild in their unpredictability; arriving, creating a degree of chaos, upsetting the equilibrium, and then going, all in their own time and fully outside of our control. The sea with its tides and constantly changing nature is for many of us, one last, truly wild, environment hinting of hidden, or not so hidden, dangers and of forces much bigger than ourselves and fully outside our control. From our human perspective wild environments are those where the species present are not ‘chosen’ by us. Wild places are areas where the nature of the land is shaped by natural forces outside of our control and where many possible outcomes are ‘allowed’ rather than a single predetermined one such as a harvest.

Brown hare with farm machinery, credit David Tipling

Yellow horned-poppy flower, credit Bob Ward


We are drawn to, and value, these wild places, perhaps not only for their often rich wildlife, but also because in them we more easily connect to forces much larger than ourselves and recognise that these forces that shape wild nature also shape our own wild human natures. Nature of course doesn’t recognise the definitions we place on it and for the peregrine nesting on Norwich Cathedral, or the blue tit nesting in your garden, these places are as much part of their wild as any other landscape might be. Perhaps wildness, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder but, like beauty, wildness is a also one of the qualities that many of us value beyond words or any definitions. So how, as people concerned to protect nature, can we make sure this quality of wildness is also not lost? And is ‘rewilding’ the answer?

... to be continued

David North has worked in Norfolk for the RSPB, National Trust and most recently Norfolk Wildlife Trust

Header image by Neville Yardy

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