Rewilding Norfolk: Wild thinking and wild ideas (Part 2)

Blog post by David North on 30 Nov, 2019

This is the second 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.


Nearly everyone who cares about the natural world and, I suspect, all of the many conservation organisations who work to protect and enhance Norfolk’s wildlife, would agree that providing more space for nature is a key to reversing the current declines in nature which have been so widely documented in recent reports.


Of course there are many ways to create more space for nature and in recent decades conservation organisations, including Norfolk Wildlife Trust, have pioneered many ways to restore and recreate habitats. NWT members will be aware of numerous successful past projects, from the felling of large areas of conifers at Grimston Warren followed by successful restoration of heathland, to the creation of new freshwater wetland habitat and reedbeds near Downham Market in the Wissey Wetland project. There are also lots of smaller scale habitat creation projects taking place in Norfolk through private individuals, farmers and landowners. These range from the creation of new native species deciduous woodlands, to developing new wetlands, such as the ‘Big 50’ Norfolk Ponds project reported in the current Winter issue of Tern. All these diverse projects have a common focus on creating habitat for wildlife. But are they ‘rewilding’? Or is rewilding something entirely new?

Ash tree, by David North

Sow thistle, by David North


One way to answer this question is to consider rewilding not so much as a new and different conservation technique but more as a different way of thinking about achieving more space of nature. If you can imagine a scale of wildness from 0 to 10 then a city centre multi-storey concrete car park might score near zero and a wilderness area like the Bass Rock with its huge gannet colony, or closer to home our wonderful, wild, coastal saltmarshes, might score close to 10. Adding a green roof and some tree planting to the urban car park might move its wildness score from 0 to perhaps a 1 and in similar vein allowing your regularly mown garden lawn to turn into a long-grass meadow for the summer months by cutting it less often might move its wildness from say a 2 to perhaps a 3 or 4.


In rewilding projects, though the techniques used may be similar to traditional habitat restoration, the thinking is much more about creating land where ecological processes can function more naturally rather than on specific outcomes such as creating a defined area of a specific habitat type or attracting a particular breeding bird species. The ultimate aim in rewilding projects is that the system becomes largely self-managing and though interventions may sometimes be necessary these should be light touch and designed to enable the establishment of fully functioning ecosystems. Of course it’s only in very large areas, supporting big enough wildlife populations to be self-sustaining over long time periods, that human intervention may not be needed at all. And it’s only in very large areas that keystone species such as large herbivores, or in some wetland situations beavers, can be introduced to roam freely enabling them to fulfil their role in creating and maintaining natural diversity and complexity within habitats.

However even in the case of the grass roof on a city car park there is still some new natural functioning created: the green roof will photosynthesise and in small part capture carbon. It will absorb and transpire rainfall reducing urban flooding and provide a habitat for flowers to grow and pollinating insects to benefit from. So in my eyes this would also count as rewilding, though very low on the scale whose heights aspire to wilderness creation and the restoration of ecosystems including top predators and large grazing animals as ‘ecosystem engineers’.


Ash tree, by David North

Ash tree, by David North

Like many new and evolving ideas rewilding may currently lack any one clear and agreed definition. But on a spectrum most would agree that in habitat creation and management terms rewilding is natural regeneration to establish new woodland not tree planting; it’s grazing of grasslands not mowing, it’s the introduction and use of traditional breeds of large herbivores to graze at low densities freely over extensive areas not the use of modern breeds tightly managed by electric fences and moved from compartment to compartment by people. Rewilding is enabling and allowing rivers and streams to meander freely across flood plains that do periodically flood with their channels shifting over time; not rivers canalised and controlled by flood banks and dredging. Rewilding is allowing and enabling nature in all its complexity to thrive; not target orientated to favour a few rare species or prescribed and controlled by management plans. Rewilding thinking doesn’t attempt to snare nature in a catalogue of designations and targets for species. Rewilding is more willing to wait and watch rather than to quickly intervene. It recognises that nature will develop in unique, unexpected and surprising ways when allowed to develop over time in its own way.


This may sound rather abstract and philosophical so in my third and final blog on rewilding I will look at what real opportunities there may be for rewilding projects in Norfolk and what a rewilded Norfolk landscape might look like. Rewilding is certainly not about to replace all the amazing work in creating and managing nature reserves that is currently happening, but in a world where so much of nature conservation is target driven and constrained by delivering management strategies and agi-environment plans there is certainly space for new thinking and creativity. Rewilding has the potential to bring a breath of fresh air along with new excitement and passion to conservation thinking. Given the scale of current losses and threats to nature new thinking, and new ideas like rewilding, can surely be a positive part of the solutions that are urgently needed to restore nature at a landscape scale.

... to be continued

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

Header image by David North

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