An ecological landscape – connectivity, cores and coexistence
I don’t think any of us ever thought when we were setting up the Wildland Network around 2005 that what rewilding in Britain needed was a development oriented organisation focused on socio-economic support of rural communities (1). Other sector organisations with much greater perspective and experience can do that, not least it having been one of the principle aims of the subsidies dispensed under the European Union’s common agricultural policy (2). It just seems to be the way that ambition for wild nature in Britain always heads for the appeasement typical of pandering to the lowest common denominator of rural land use prejudice, and doesn’t stick to the mission. The mission of a rewilding organisation is to assist with rewilding! That REFARMING (Rewilding) Britain has committed itself to socio-economic support of rural communities and, on the back of it, is demonstrating a devastatingly low aspiration for the wild nature of Britain, will only create dismay among real wildland advocates, confusion among prospective supporters, and ammunition to those with that more development oriented agenda (3-6). What clarity in its purpose will add any credibility to this approach being defined as rewilding, when it is likely to be a dumb aping of failed agri-environment funding schemes? Don’t people recognise that the rhetoric employed by REFARMING Britain is predicated on syllogisms, such as from identifying “what the viable business models are to develop sustainable incomes for local people and businesses” being linked to a “rich mosaic of forest, glades and wild pasture, that can shift and change in response to natural processes” (4,5). Why should the latter follow the former? Will whoever is really driving the policy of REFARMING Britain ever relinquish this rotten approach, this creeping normality that is being foisted on us?
Where does rewilding and repeopling come from?
Undoubtedly, there has to be a switch to a land use in many parts of Britain that potentially has some benefits to wildlife in making a less hostile environment to a coexistence with wild nature (and see later) but this doesn’t depend on a badging of rewilding when it should be the duty of all land users. Bewilderingly, when I am interested in having areas with a reducing influence of human land use to better procure a meaningful coexistence, this focus of rewilding on socio-economic development of rural communities reaches new heights of absurdity in being linked to the repeopling of rural Scotland. I was alerted to this nonsense when a meeting was held in the Cairngorms last May that was to be an “informative discussion around Rewilding and Repeopling” (7). Warning bells rang when I saw that Frans Schepers of REFARMING Europe would be there, he and his organisation being past masters at this syllogism game in associating their form of rewilding to socio-economic gains (8). The Communications Officer of the John Muir Trust (JMT) went along to the meeting to hear the four speakers “exploring the potential for rural regeneration via ‘rewilding’, the modern definition of large-scale nature restoration” (9). So, large-scale nature restoration is now rural regeneration via rewilding – more foisting of a creeping normality. Apparently, Schepers set the tone of the evening, his “inspirational presentation” outlining the “far-reaching economic and ecological improvements” that REFARMING Europe is “spearheading in eight major projects”. It must not all have been plain sailing once it got to question time, as it seems goodwill on all sides would be needed to bridge the gap “between conservation and community, rewilding and repeopling”. No doubt there were some in the audience that equated rewilding with the Highland Clearances, although the narrative of the clearances does not fit the historical facts of rising population, lack of evidence for deaths, the diversification in employment and housing and the movement to urban areas, and the willingness of many but not all landlords to assist in the economic opportunity for improvement by way of emigration (10).
So where does this rewilding and repeopling come from? JMT as an organisation has always maintained that it’s about support for rural communities, but this is not reflected in all its activities, and it detracts from the known gains that have been made for wild nature on some of its land, and which were not derived as a result of community deliberation. I am not aware that the native habitat restoration at Li and Coire Dhorrcail on the Knoydart peninsula is anything other than a decision by JMT as land owner to fence it off, remove sheep, reduce deer numbers, and plant trees (11). Employment and income from deer management and stalking hardly constitutes a community replacement activity (12). Instead, I find that it was in a talk by historian James Hunter in Edinburgh in May 2017 that rewilding was coupled with repeopling (13). Hunter’s talk was allegedly a “searing critique of the normal approach to "wilderness" management, whilst seeking to overcome the tension between rewilding and repeopling”. What it seems to me is a ramble of somewhat circular arguments, and which addresses a limited timeframe in history. He says that before the Clearances, when there were more people in the Scottish Highlands, there were more eagles, but there is no nod to the increasing efficiency of raptor slaughter with the invention of the shotgun, a feature of his timeframe span as large sporting estates developed. What he was doing was reflecting on what he believes are the inaccurate descriptions used for Wild Land Area 35, one of the 42 Wild Land Areas in Scotland identified by mapping i.e. perception of emptiness; unobstructed by human elements; strong sense of naturalness; arresting wild land qualities; sense of solitude; notably secluded; strong sense of remoteness (14,15). Hunter asserts that they are erroneous when using these terms for what is patently a degraded land – his term is “ecologically knackered" - but which is not how those places seem to him – “In my head they’re linked with people” because he associates them with being a home before the Clearances.
Hunter invokes Frank Fraser Darling who, in his West Highland Survey completed in 1947, had been scathing about the bad land use of the Highlands that had first been stripped of its natural forest cover, and then subjected to repeated burning, intensive grazing, overstocking, and other forms of maltreatment that had drained the soils of fertility and made them steadily less productive – Darling remarked it was a “devastated terrain, and that any policy which ignores this fact cannot hope to achieve rehabilitation” (16). I doubt that Darling, if the term had been around in the 1940-50s, would have seen the rehabilitation that he called for back then as the start of rewilding, as Hunter asserts. Darling went on to be an advocate on a larger stage than just Scotland of retaining whatever wilderness was left - he had come to know what used and unused land was (17). However, the rehabilitation he had been advocating in his West Highland Survey was about using land better, as it was obvious to him that the primary reason why there were so few people in the Highlands, and why there was a constant economic problem, was because it was a devastated countryside, ecologically knackered to the point where it had much reduced potential productivity (16).
This is entirely different from Hunter’s tenuous argument in support of his link between repeopling and rewilding. Hunter believes that small scale grazing with cows would have continued if there had been no clearances to make way for sheep, and that this would have obviated the ecological knackering (13). This is a very debatable point for so much of the wild nature that disappeared even before the Highland Clearances, such as the native woodland and the large carnivores. His implication then is that returning people to the Highlands would reverse the ecological consequences of the Clearances, but that assumes a compliance with his farming ideal, as well as the dismantling of sporting estates. It does not necessarily follow that there would be large scale gains in returning wild nature – “the return of birds and mammals not seen here for some time. Ospreys, red kites and sea eagles … beaver and wild boar. With, maybe, down the track, the lynx, the wolf, the bear” and so we are in the territory of syllogisms yet gain. I’m not interested in getting into arguments about where it is acceptable in the Scottish Highlands to repopulate with people, I just don’t see what’s in it for wild nature. I wonder though whether those who will seek to capitalise on this dishonest reframing of rewilding alongside repeopling in Scotland will have noticed that Hunter was emphatic in his talk that this repeopling would not necessarily be inside Wild Land Areas.
The distinction between used and unused land
Hunter’s talk was laden with cultural references
to the point where he ends with a casting of a future, when the “Highlands
have been put right ecologically. And socially and culturally as well”. I
am never comfortable with this invocation of culture, as I don’t buy into this
nonsense generality that people are part of nature, and that collectively as a
species we embellish by our existence. Nor did American geographer Carl Sauer
when writing back in 1925. Sauer did not believe the physical environment was
the determinant of the trajectory of development of societies, the so-called
environmental or climatic determinism that was the prevailing theory in
geography when he began his career. Instead, he argued that geography should
be about the morphological study of cultural landscapes, a systematic study of
the ways in which humans have manipulated the natural landscape over time
This brings into sharp focus the distinction between used and unused land. That there is a desperate need to give wild nature its own space in Britain is shown by how patchy the distribution is for once widely distributed native mammalian carnivore species in Britain, the predator control by land users leading to persistence only in refugia where control was least intensive. A recent study reviewed the current status of Britain’s extant mammalian carnivores, and the anthropogenic processes that affect their populations, and found that fox and badger were widespread although the populations of both were under pressure for different reasons; that otter had regained much of its territory once its persecution from hunting was banned along with a particular sheep dip that poisoned it; and that polecats, which had almost been extirpated from Britain by the end of the 19th century, had extended their range throughout southern Britain from refugia in Wales, while pine martens had expanded their range southwards from the Scottish Highlands (19). Data on stoats and weasels were insufficient, but that for wildcat showed a species in dire peril. Where there has been a recovery for some species, even though most are still at long-term historical lows, there is still much more scope for greater distribution and density. The authors, however, had a caveat for this recovery - “Better understanding of the social aspects of interactions between humans and expanding predator populations is needed if conflict is to be avoided and longterm co-existence with people is to be possible”
Eating out wild animals to extinction
Even where there is suitable habitat available,
like my local, publicly-owned ancient woodlands, it may be too distant from
existing populations, and the intervening landscape too hostile to migration,
to expect an expeditious return – it’s that mismatch again between wild nature
and the activities of rural people that begs a solution to coexistence. Every
time I walk that woodland, I am reminded of what Kent Redford, an American
with a background in tropical conservation, wrote in 1992 about forests where
hunting had stripped out the native species (20):
Humans are continuing to eat out wild animals to extinction, not just forest animals, the direct harvesting for human consumption of meat or body parts being the largest individual threat to these native species, especially for already threatened species (21,22). That’s a trend where there are still extant populations of wild species to exploit and human populations that seek to rely on them for subsistence or commercial hunting, but our woodlands have been empty for a long time, the defaunation here reaching back through centuries, such as wild boar being hunted out in medieval times (23); roe deer hunted out of England, Wales and southern Scotland by 1800, needing several reintroductions from Scotland to return them into England during Victorian times, but only slowly spreading back to Wales (24); red deer becoming extinct in much of England, Wales and the Scottish Lowlands by the end of the 18th century, the patchy distribution now reflecting areas of native species (Scottish Highlands, Dumfriesshire, Lake District, East Anglia and SW England) and areas of cross-bred feral deer released by the Victorians (N England, N Midlands, East Anglia, New Forest, and Sussex)(25); and as well the intolerance towards avian and mammalian predators that led to their persecution so that for instance pine marten had been persecuted out everywhere other than refugia in Scotland by the beginning of the twentieth century (26).
I have to say that my local woodlands are not entirely empty, as I see roe deer in most of them; small burrow entrances as evidence of rodents like wood mice, bank voles and shrews; the distinctive sound of tree creepers, the squawking of jays, and the territory-setting drumming of Great Spotted woodpeckers and yaffle laugh of Green woodpeckers; badger setts in some; and dippers, wagtails and even the odd heron looking for fish where there is a beck flowing through the woodland. However, there are few species that can be found in the cavities of old growth forest conditions, no forest mammals like pine marten that make their den in tree hollows, and few woodland owls like tawny and barn owl that nest in tree cavities. They are still empty woods because of that. We have to stop this obsessive compulsion to manage woodlands, because the apparent increase in plant species richness is just an indicator for management disturbance, and has nothing to do with woodland diversity (27). Additionally, if you don’t look up in a woodland, you are going to miss a lot of the diversity that resides in the lichens and mosses that colonise in the crowns of trees (28). More fundamentally, if we left our woodlands alone, then they may get old enough to have the range of natural tree damage from age, disease, wind and snow, that gives rise to dead wood, and to cavities which the mobile species like owls could exploit (29). We may also see greater use of woodland by stoats and foxes, the hollows could become home to pine martens and even wildcat could use deadwood piles or among tree roots as den sites, but how would these mammal species get to my woodlands, which do have some of these old growth characteristics, if there aren’t any local to them?
We need both land sparing and land sharing
At this point, I would usually say that I am uninterested in used land, that my aim for wild nature is for it to have its own self-willed land in large, strictly protected core areas, and that my judgement is that it is only publicly owned land – like my publicly owned local woodland but on a larger scale - that offers the best chance of achieving that removal of the burden of extractive activity that is needed (30-34). However, I have to accept that those species missing from my local woodland, if they are not to be translocated by human agency, will have to cross the space of used land to get there, which is not easy when there is so much habitat fragmentation and little in the way of structural recompense (35, 36). We have to move away from the hackneyed oppositional arguments in nature conservation between land sparing or land sharing because we need both – land sparing for core areas of wild nature and land sharing in the spaces in between. This land sharing is the coexistence that was the caveat for achieving recovery in the distribution of Britain’s of predators (see above).
I wrote last time about the urban matrix, a complex habitat mosaic made up of patches, such as remnants of natural and semi-natural landscapes, parks, cemeteries, green spaces, wastelands, and other vegetation areas that overall constitute the green skeleton in amongst the physical development, the green infrastructure that contributes to the biological diversity of a city (37). The permeability of the urban matrix, the possibilities for plants and animals to move through urban areas, is strongly influenced by the amount of greenery, and the barrier effects that prevent the movement of flora and fauna. That an urban ecology exists is testament to a coexistence and connectivity, the types of land use in that urban green skeleton not always prejudicial to it being a shared space with wild nature, and thus there is less need for an intolerance that seeks to banish it.
Tackling rural habitat fragmentation and connectivity is a much bigger task, and offers little in the way of wider civic engagement when compared to urban ecology. What it needs is a coherent approach so often lacking in conversations about conservation in rural areas. The green skeleton of the urban matrix lends itself to mapping, as so often is the case in local community mapping processes (38) as well as in strategic planning and delivery for urban green infrastructure where connectivity in creating green space networks is one of four primary principles (39). In the same way, I see connectivity in rural areas as the primary principle for an ecological landscape that is characterised by the flux of species within a spatially heterogeneous matrix, that spatial pattern influencing ecological processes (40). An optimised ecological landscape has interrelated components that are co-principles – core areas and coexistence. The meaningful co-existence between humans and wild nature, so that the former is not at the exclusion of the latter, is essential for the establishment of wildlife movement linkages that connect the core areas, as it is for the compatible use areas that may surround the cores areas.
The movement of wildlife facilitated by these linkages overcomes the drawback of isolated refuges where there is a trajectory of failure over time, as the theory of island biogeography suggests that there is a tendency for species to be lost from land bridge islands, a process called faunal relaxation (41-43) and metapopulation biology that suggests that species in small patches lose genetic vigour from increasing inbreeding between themselves - inbreeding depression - when there is no interchange with outside populations (44-47). The linkages themselves need thought in how the hostility to species movement is reduced, whether by a focal species approach to design habitat needs for travel, such as corridors of vegetation, shrubland or woodland that provide cover and support, and possibly associated with rivers and streams (35,48,49) or if it is primarily a conscious decision by the land user to be tolerant of the presence of wild nature.
The evolution of the meaning of rewilding
The terminology of wildlife movement linkages and compatible use areas for corridors and buffers arose during the evolution of the meaning of rewilding by the Wildlands Project in America. You won’t find this in contemporary literature, because it’s written voice can only be captured in Wild Earth, an environmentalist magazine published between 1991-2004 (50). This is why I undertook an etymology based on a contextual analysis of the writings in Wild Earth that cited rewilding. I identified a number of objectives in the conservation of wild nature that became axiomatic with rewilding, and was able to formulate a synthesis of the meaning of the word from these – “a scientific approach to nature restoration and conservation that sought to heal the six ecological wounds, and that emphasized a map-based spatial approach to designing a connected wildland system, a wildland network design that was comprised of large, strictly protected, core wild areas on predominantly public lands with intact food webs, compatible-use lands around the cores, functional connectivity across the landscape by way of wildlife movement linkages, and which ensured the vital role of keystone species and processes, especially highly or strongly interactive species like large carnivores at ecologically effective populations, in the maintenance of ecological and evolutionary processes, such as disturbance regimes, hydrological processes, nutrient cycles, and biotic interactions, including predation” (51).
The association of carnivores with rewilding stems from an article in Wild Earth from 1998 by two conservation biologists, Soulè and Noss, who were heavily involved in the Wildlands Project (now Wildlands Network) their Cores, Corridors and Carnivores being shorthand for the scientific approach to rewilding that they set out for the Project (52). The recognition of the regulatory role of carnivores in biological systems was forefront in their approach but, as conservation biologists, they were keen to note that rewilding was not exclusively about carnivores because it was fundamentally about reinstating all of the keystones species that had been extirpated as a “critical step in restoring self-regulating land communities”. Given that the early descriptions of rewilding were not just about reinstatement of carnivores, but restoration at all trophic levels - intact food webs - then it is facile to consider otherwise in achieving a fully functional trophic ecology. Unfortunately, that apparent emphasis on carnivores amongst the three Cs is an easy target for those hostile to their reinstatement, and to rewilding, and has as well led to an unhelpful division between so-called herbivore and carnivore rewilders, a binary that should not exist, but which is more evidence of the contemporary drift in the meaning of rewilding (53). It has been a bit of a breakthrough for me in the conceptual interpretation of rewilding to recognise that its meaning that evolved over 1991-2004 can be captured in a straightforward equation where the Connectivity of rewilding is the sum of Cores plus Coexistence. Connectivity and Coexistence are new Cs to go alongside Cores, and have important implications for everything that happens outside of nature led areas. So much follows on from that, and which makes an awful lot of sense. While there will be those that lament the absence of Carnivores in this interpretation, it is a fundamental assertion in the evolved meaning of rewilding that the core areas will have fully occupied trophic systems in a nature-led, non-human autonomy.
It’s important to follow through the logic of that straightforward equation. That evolved meaning of rewilding that encompasses the restoration of full trophic occupancy and assembly alongside natural disturbance in nature-led core areas bordered with compatible use areas and connected by wildlife movement linkages, can be observed in use in the Wildland Network Designs (WND) the map-based, design approach developed by the Wildlands Project for spatially connected wildlands, and which are fundamental to rewilding (54-57). It is a coherent approach to restoration and conservation of wild nature and, if contemporary confirmation is needed for its emphasis on core areas, then it is given by a recent global study that identified both “hotspots” and “coolspots” of human impact on threatened terrestrial vertebrates. The findings were that almost one-quarter of assessed species are impacted across >90% of their distribution, and approximately 7% are impacted across their entire range (58). This led the authors to conclude that instead of "being purely reactive and focusing solely on securing a short term future for imperilled species, conservation efforts would benefit from proactively securing the coolspots of species refugia" - the least threatened areas - that will help ensure the "long-term persistence" of many species, especially if protection is "targeted at the most species-rich places" that currently remain threat free. This is the argument for strictly protected core areas of wild land.
Another recent paper goes further by arguing that understanding the role of ecological refuges is an important part of strategies to stem further global biodiversity loss (59). It talks about species having "persistence through tough times" by virtue of circumstances where stressors are minimalised either long term in fixed refuges that can be products of topographic complexity, including mountain ranges, rocky gorges, boulder piles, gullies or slopes; or from cover in the form of vegetative ground cover, higher-story vegetation complexity, or other essential resources such as greater availability of water along with riparian vegetation; and shifting refuges from meso-predator suppression, and where the availability of food, cover or other essential resources is greater than in the surrounding landscape, allowing individuals or populations to persist where they otherwise would not, at time scales shorter than an individual’s lifespan. The authors see that refuges are places that are used by species until a stressor is alleviated, after which the species can recolonise the surrounding landscape, and potentially other discrete locations further away – “Consequently, in many cases, a refuge must have appropriate connectivity to suitable habitat to facilitate long-term species persistence. As per standard landscape conservation principles, maintaining or enhancing connectivity between refuges, and between refuges and non-refuge habitat, is therefore an important consideration for management, such as through habitat restoration or maintenance of environmental flows”
Connectivity is explicit in WND, but there is a tendency this side of the Atlantic to portray rewilding as a wildland continuum (60). The continuum is really only a one-dimensional, linear relationship that shows no explicit spatial element of connectivity between the different land uses on the spectrum. Worse still, the continuum gives no emphasis to the need for core areas, described by Reed Noss and colleagues as the central component of a landscape design for conservation, and where “human uses are greatly restricted and natural processes reign” (61). They regarded core areas as essential for meaningful conservation – “Conservation strategies that lack meaningful core areas are naive, arrogant, and dangerous”. The absence of an emphasis in the continuum on the need for core areas makes it easy for the fake rewilders, the REFARMERs, to claim legitimacy for their low aspiration for wild nature, as they will say that at least they have alighted on some part of the spectrum. The need for core areas in rewilding is explicit in WNDs, and while the design maps do not explicitly portray a continuum of land use, it is inherent in that if you were to draw a random line across any one of them, it would travel through a variety of land use levels that can be deduced from their designation as the components of the WND such as the core areas, various compatible use lands and wildlife movement linkages, as well as the matrix of used land that these components sit in (for WND maps, see (54) Fig VIII.1 in (55) Fig 9.1 in (56) Fig 8.2 in (57))
Coexistence in used lands is explicit in both WND and the wildland continuum, and while compatible-use lands and wildlife movement linkages are seen to be essential support to core areas in WNDs, there never seems to be any recognition of the context in which areas on the wildland continuum see themselves in relation to others on the continuum. It can be and is divined by the REFARMERs as discrete, unconnected land areas, such as the fenced nonsenses of Knepp, the Oostvaardersplassen, and the REFARMING Europe and trophic rewilding areas, and is very likely to be the case too for the socio-economic rewilding of REFARMING Britain and Repeopling Rewilding addressed above. In these, there is a total disregard of any role in local or regional connectivity, nor any explicit commitment to heal ecological wounds across a landscape, or even admit to the existence of those wounds, and so how is that a coherent, connected and effective approach for the needs of survival of wild nature? Conservation conversations with land owners and users wherever rewilding takes place has to be about a meaningful coexistence through developing a value system for wild nature and expressing that through approaches to land use. Clearly, if a land owner or user doesn't want to play, then that has implications for where the wildlife movement linkage goes, requiring a bypassing of the hostile landscape of the opted out land. Isn’t it a public duty on land owners or users to see what place the land has in regional connectivity? Can they afford to opt out of coexistence when the Food and Agriculture Organisation has just reported that many key components of biological diversity that food and agriculture relies on are in decline, often rapidly, at the genetic, species and ecosystem levels (22). Should it be a statutory duty in the same way that core wild land areas should be strictly protected?
A National Wildlife Corridors Program
There are a number of countries in continental Europe that have national ecological networks often embedded in legislation (62-65) the Trame verte et bleue (Green and Blue Network) in France overtly combining terrestrial with aquatic ecological connectivity (66-68). As ever, though, I am impressed with a bill that was only recently introduced into Congress in America to establish a National Wildlife Corridors Program (69). If eventually enacted, it will, through a North American Plan for Maintaining Wildlife Movements, provide for the protection and restoration of native fish, wildlife, and plant species by way of the conservation and restoration of habitats that have experienced habitat loss, degradation, fragmentation, or obstruction to connectivity. It has some great language and terminology, wilfully lacking from our nature legislation, such as in the purpose of Program being to “provide long-term habitat connectivity for native species for migration, dispersal, adaptation to climate and other environmental change, and genetic exchange; and help restore ecological processes that have been disrupted by habitat loss, degradation, fragmentation, or obstruction”. The Act would grant authority to Federal land and water management agencies to designate National Wildlife Corridors on publicly-owned Federal land. However, priority areas on non-Federal land would also be identified, aided by a publicly available Wildlife Connectivity Database established to inform decision making, and through newly set up regional Wildlife Movement Councils collaborating with states, Tribes, local governments, and private landowners. A Wildlife Movement Grant Program would be set up to incentivize the protection of wildlife corridors on non-federal lands, and there would also be funds from Department of Agriculture conservation programs to provide incentives for private landowners to protect wildlife corridors.
I will be watching the progress and reaction to this legislation, as it knocks spots off any feeble attempts at joined up thinking in Britain on an ecological landscape. If only there was a coherent approach to rewilding in Britain within an optimised ecological landscape.
Mark Fisher 24,27 March 2019
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