A couple of weekends ago, very much on a whim, we went to Warburg. It’s a peaceful place, a rambling patchwork of grassland, mixed woodland and scrub draped across a Chilterns slope at the end of a sleepy valley near Henley. It feels a long way from the rest of the southeast; one of those few charmed spots in these parts that are still wrapped in the illusion of remoteness. The irritating presences of London, motorways, stock-brokers and Boris Johnson melt away the moment you cross the threshold of what you might describe as a thin place of the modern conservation movement.
Whether it’s because I look harder when I’m there, or because the sites were selected for being rich in the first place and have been managed well since then, I do always seem to see more on the average nature reserve. More of everything – birds, insects, plants, mammals if very fortunate – but on this particular expedition the bounty came in the form of flies galore swarming over wild parsnip flowers, whilst 16 species of butterfly danced amongst them. And we missed a few of the ‘easy’ butterflies, so it could have been more. With the wild parsnip were other plants I rarely see or have never seen before: burnet saxifrage, clustered and nettle-leaved bellflowers, wild basil, broad-leaved helleborine and dewberry.
Warburg is a charming mix of habitats, and it’s this diversity that produces so much to please the naturalist’s eye. But it’s a diversity that’s hard-won. If active management ceased, within a few years the grassland patches would be scrubbed over to such an extent that they’d be nearly unrecognisable. That’s why Reading MSc students visit for a day’s hard work near the start of their course. It’s a lesson that conservation is as much about human choice and intervention as it is about wildlife. The current custodians of Warburg, the local wildlife trust, must make and remake a choice to actively maintain the reserve as it is every passing year, or many of the features that make it special will be lost.
There’s an increasingly popular movement that says this betrays an unacceptable fear of nature. That the last few decades of nature conservation in the UK have been misguided, and our scrub-bashing and hedge-laying are only so much tinkering about the edges whilst we’ve failed to go about the really important task of restoring large-scale ecological processes. I’m talking, of course, about rewilding. There’s also a feeling that it is arrogant to assume nature is better off with human intervention. Isn’t this in itself a subjective, values-driven statement? Is it equally presumptuous to assume that nature is better off without human intervention? Nature is not an intentional force, acting in a particular direction, any more than evolution is, and the ecosystem that exists at any one site at any particular time is at least as much a result of chance as it is an outworking of Mother Nature’s grand plan.
In any case, many of the most biodiversity-rich or unique habitats in 21st-century Britain, and the communities of plants and animals that inhabit them, developed through a partnership of nature and traditional management by humans. A kind of community co-op, if you like, made up of both people and wildlife. Perhaps the existence of such places, or their more natural equivalents, might be maintained in a more spontaneous way by the action of large, grazing herbivores, but around here it’s hard to see exactly where the herds of bison (or Monbiot’s elephants) are going to come from, or how it will be possible to sign up landowner after landowner to seeing their farms, gardens and, yes, nature reserves turned over to complete destruction, as they would see it. And if widespread reintroduction of grazing animals and their predators were somehow made possible, it would ironically become one of the biggest human wildlife interventions of all.
21st century Britain. No elephants here.
Having said that, the potential for rewilding – whatever exactly it means – more spacious parts of the country that retain larger, unbroken swathes of pristine (or near enough) natural habitats seems much greater. The Caledonian Forest is one oft-cited example. And here in the South, where a big landowner with vision wants to unilaterally give it a go, I’d not stand in the way, and projects of this kind like Knepp Wildlands seem to have had some intriguing results so far. There’s nothing at all wrong with the principal of conserving or restoring natural processes across large areas, and it certainly holds the key to conserving maximum biodiversity in the more unspoilt, undeveloped corners of the world, e.g. in the tropics or Taiga forest.
It’s here in the distinctly spoilt Home Counties that rewilding mania troubles me. Perhaps I am afraid of nature, but if so it’s only because the desire of nature in today’s lowland Britain appears to be to swathe everything in scrubby birch woodland at best, or Japanese knotweed at worst. We should also be cautious, by my reckoning, of trash-talking the current state of nature in Britain too much. It isn’t great, of course; it’s a shadow of what it even very recently was. Yet cry ecological boredom (a condition rewilder-in-chief George Monbiot claims to suffer from because he doesn’t go to bed at night worrying a lion might eat him in his sleep) one time too many and nature’s enemies in this country – and don’t doubt they exist – will be only too quick to suggest that if Britain’s wildlife is so impoverished, why not finish the job and wipe it out altogether? We need to be shouting from the rooftops about the beauties of what we have left to lose, not denigrating it in the name of a tenuous past and faintly implausible future.
It’s fair to suggest that nature conservationists are as prone as anybody to becoming set in their ways, and there are doubtless lessons to be learned from the rewilding debate that can be more widely applied. If it were possible to maintain the Warburgs of this world in a more natural way, for example, instead of labouring every year to keep the scrub at bay, then no hard-up conservation charity can afford to be cynical for too long. In the end it comes down to choice, as conservation always seems to. Science provides us with the evidence to achieve conservation goals, but struggles to provide an answer to how a landscape should look, and what species ought to inhabit it in a world that was, is and always will be in flux. I don’t honestly know what vision of nature we ‘should’ be working towards, other than that a rich, vibrant and exciting one would be preferable, but I’m deeply sceptical that we should be looking to a time just after or even before the last Ice Age for the only and final answer.
That isn’t to say that rewilding isn’t desirable, in the broadest sense of the world. Just that the question of what form it takes is very much an open one. Could the first, most profound rewilding that’s needed be within our own lives and communities, perhaps especially in the perceptions of today’s young naturalists? There’s as much wilderness in a small clump of moss as in a hectare of savannah. It’s just a question of scale. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most rewilding advocates I come across seem to be big mammal fans.
In the meantime, to see the potential of a kind of rewilding that’s more sympathetic to the landscapes and peoples of Britain as we find them, one needs only look up. There, across an increasing portion of the country, we see red kites: big, bold, beautiful and wild. Gradually following behind them, freely and of their own accord, are ravens. Above Warburg there are always ravens croaking. For the modern conservationist, ravens are no longer an ill omen but a good one, a sign that even in the absence of wolves and bears the wild may already be on its way back.