This is the third post 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. In this final post I will explore whether rewilding – the creation of more space for nature through the restoration of natural processes and ecosystems – has a role in Norfolk and, if so, where that role might possibly be.
It might come as a surprise that much of the pioneering work and thinking on rewilding in Europe took place in the Netherlands: one of the most densely populated countries of Europe. This low-lying country, with an intensively managed and agriculturally-productive countryside, is not dissimilar to Norfolk. But what about here? Are there really opportunities to create areas on a landscape scale where natural processes can be given free rein to create space for nature?
If we are going to make Norfolk wilder, and help wildlife thrive in our county in the 21st century, let’s start with the places where most people live. Our urban and highly developed public spaces are so often biologically almost sterile. Let’s turn parts of the concrete jungle into a living, breathing, green space and allow more of those over-mown urban grasslands to become richer in trees, wild flowers and insect life.
It’s not just good for the health of our planet, it can also bring huge benefits to people; the services that wilder urban green spaces can provide include mopping up urban air pollution, cooling and improving air quality and reducing the run-off of rainwater from hard surfaces that can lead to urban flash flooding.
Given the climate emergency, and the low percentage of Norfolk (less than 10%) that is wooded, we should consider creating new woodlands and enhancing existing ones. It was exciting at the Cley workshop to hear about plans from two Norfolk estates to diversify habitats within woodland. With some careful initial intervention to remove non-native conifers, they plan to create wood pasture where low intensity grazing by rare native cattle breeds and ground disturbance by pigs will create open habitats within a treed landscape. Both estates also aim to expand the area of woodland into currently farmed land by allowing natural succession to develop scrub habitat which in time will also provide a nursery for young woodland trees.
A more mixed patchwork of habitats – heath, scrub, deciduous woodland and grazed heathy grasslands – might just prove more resilient and adaptable to future climate change. This is not such a radical idea, as Norfolk Wildlife Trust is already working in partnership to create new heaths on former Brecks conifer woodland and to reintroduce grazing to these areas.
Norfolk has more than 10 chalk rivers, which are globally one of our rarest habitats. Norfolk Rivers Trust is already active in restoring rivers by enabling them to naturally meander, where in the past they had been straightened. Their work has included removing barriers, such as dams and weirs, to enable fish and eels once more to migrate along their ‘rewilded’ courses. Though these projects have not necessarily been labelled as rewilding, they aim to reinstate elements of natural functioning.
Rivers are being reconnected to their natural flood plains: a crucial stage in their rewilding. Perhaps in future the reintroduction of beavers to the headwaters of some of these rivers could take this rewilding to the next level. Across Europe beavers have been successfully reintroduced and the benefits to wildlife have been clearly demonstrated. Research has shown that by creating ponds, adding a rich resource of dead wood and changing the way rivers flow, beavers hugely benefit other wildlife. They also provide benefits to people including reducing downstream flooding, improving water quality and, potentially of financial benefit to rewilding projects, they also attract wildlife watchers!
Along the North Norfolk coast and around the Wash, we have one of the most important habitats for migratory birdlife. A habitat that provides the ecosystem services of both coastal flood protection and acts as a valuable carbon sink. This habitat is saltmarsh.
We know from sites such as Essex Wildlife Trust’s Abbot’s Hall Farm that nature will create new saltmarshes when sea banks are set back. Small scale projects, including at Brancaster, have already taken place in Norfolk. Historically more than 50% of the Wash and North Norfolk saltmarshes were reclaimed by people – might there be space to allow natural processes to ‘rewild’ some areas of reclaimed coastal land, returning it to precious, wildlife-rich saltmarsh?
Peatland soils occur both in the west, the area we still call the Fens though it’s largely dry, and in parts of the Broads. When peatlands are farmed the peat shrinks, releasing huge amounts of carbon dioxide as it oxidises. Peat soils are also subject to wind blow. In some areas of the Fens the peat soils are now thin and close to exhaustion making future farming difficult and increasing the real possibility of rewetting and rewilding them. Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s creation of the Wissey Wetland from former arable land demonstrates what could be possible over much larger areas.
Peatlands only cover around 3% of the world’s land surface. They store more carbon than nearly any other ecosystem on the planet (twice as much carbon as the world’s forests) and rewilding them through restoring them as wetlands not only benefits wildlife but can stop flooding elsewhere and also prevents them adding their stored carbon dioxide to our atmosphere.
Rewilding may be controversial, partly because in some people’s minds it’s solely about bringing back lost species, such as wolves, bears, lynx and beavers. In reality it’s much more about working with natural processes and removing the barriers created by us that prevent nature from shaping habitats and landscapes.
Projects like Charlie Burrell’s Knepp rewilding project (itself in part inspired by earlier rewilding projects in the Netherlands) are now inspiring landowners in Norfolk to begin projects. Much remains to be learned about the best ways to do this, but I’m optimistic that while not replacing traditional labour intensive, and often very expensive, nature conservation management, rewilding will have an important future role to play in restoring wildlife in Norfolk at a landscape scale in ways which are sustainable and beneficial.
In Norfolk rewilding is likely to happen on land areas which are not currently nature reserves. It can play a valuable role in creating wildlife habitats which restore links between our protected sites. If early projects, such as the ones just beginning in Norfolk, can demonstrate how rewilding can benefit people, economically as well as through the ecosystem services these areas provide, then we will see further rewilding projects develop. The UN decade of ecosystem restoration will run from 2021 to 2030 and perhaps as our understanding of how nature and natural processes are crucial to our health, wellbeing and survival grows, rewilding will come to be seen as less controversial and something to celebrate and welcome. Making Norfolk just a little bit wilder might just be possible.