Walking the wild places


Wild nature should be experienced for the delight and inspiration it gives, and so rarely does a week go by without I am walking somewhere in ancient woodland. They are my reassurement, as long as they remain safe from those who want to manage every wood out of its wild existence. Thus keep away if you thoughtlessly buy into Natural England’s recent position paper that said that “a step change is needed in the amount of active management of woodland, particularly of ancient woodland” (1).

It is in woodland that I see best an expression of our wild nature, a rare place where farming is not the dominating factor that it is in most of our landscape, and where instead natural forces hold sway. It is where the interactions between those natural forces and of native plants, animals and insects are so much more readily observed than in a farmed landscape. Farmed land has little three-dimensional structure, and is driven solely by the need to provide grazing, but woodland is the place where I can get away from farming, and especially away from that depressing smell of sheep or cow dung that pervades almost everywhere else.

If you want to understand how wild nature suffers from farming, then remember that farmland feeds only farm animals. Farm the land and almost all the native vegetation, all the food webs of wild nature, are thrown aside. I have remarked on this before when describing the transformative restoration on South House Pavement in the Yorkshire Dales as a result of the exclusion of livestock (see Wild foraging - reconnecting to our ethno-botanical heritage (2)). The contrast with the continuing grazed limestone pavement around it was a vivid and a contemporary illustration of how agriculture removes the capacity of the land to feed all our native species, rather than just the livestock of our farming. We should ask ourselves just how much right the human species has to limit the capacity of land in this way and remove its ecological value.

Living in a biophysical wilderness

It got me to thinking about what was the capacity of land in a situation where it was able to support all species. It has to be the case that a biophysical wilderness existed in Britain in the period after the last glaciation, when the ice that covered a large part of Britain receded, allowing the land to re-vegetate and thus support a returning mammalian life. Then, the Mesolithic hunter-gatherer cultures could also return since they would have required an ecologically-rich wilderness composite to have been restored before those lands could be occupied by them again.

I came across a study by Jacobi from 1978 (3) that considered a likely population of Mesolithic lowland Britain based on the food resource available to them. He worked through the density of deer available (one per 40ha), the potential success of hunting (1 in 6) and the nutritional value arising from deer kills; the density of coastal shellfish beds; and the distribution, harvest potential (30%) and calorific value of hazel nuts. His estimate for one southern lowland area of 6,500 square miles was that the landscape would have supported some 396 five-member family groups, a total of 1,980 individuals. Others have estimated the population of the whole of Britain around 9,000 BC to be lower at 1,100-1,200 people, rising to 2,500-5,000 by 7,000 BC (4) but I think Jacobi’s analysis on capacity indicates the likelihood of higher numbers than those.

Farmers arrived many thousands of years after the rewilding had taken place, and began the fragmentation and denudation of the landscape for the livestock and crops that they brought with them. Fowler, in his book The Farming of Prehistoric Britain says (5):
“..whatever was happening in Britain up to the fifth millennium BC in the relationship between Man and his environment, at some moment before 4500 BC a first boat arrived from the European mainland containing people who expected to live by farming. It was doubtless followed by others”

Thus in 3,200 BC, the early period after farming reached Britain, the estimate of population had risen to between 30,000 – 50,000 (6). While some of this was indigenous population growth, it was probably boosted also by inward migration as new settlers sought to exploit fresh lands for agriculture. Even so, in the absence of farming, a sustainable population for Britain, supported by the biophysical wilderness that existed, may have been somewhere up in the tens of thousands. Clearly, this is the baseline, the natural ecology where humans were part of the natural value, and did not markedly change the landscape. As farming bit harder and wider, the population that could be supported rose, but at the ever increasing expense of wild nature, and with the loss of a hunter-gatherer way of life.

Because the numbers that sustained themselves solely from what wild nature provided were so low, it would have appeared that vast areas of Britain were without people. Moreover, their influence was likely transient anyway as wild nature regenerated and restored the locally small and probably impermanent clearings in the woodland matrix made by Mesolithic hunter-gatherers as they “managed” resources or tended their quarry (see Challenging the bias: a Wildland Research Institute for Britain (7)).Vast tracts of open countryside, especially in the uplands, are people-less today, but whereas before this would have resulted in a biophysical wilderness being maintained, our influence now on the landscape is the dominating factor since almost everywhere is farmed, and has been for thousands of years. Unless we withdraw that farming, and allow our lands to regenerate and restore, we will not know what ecological value they have.

Proving the conservation "experts" wrong

South House Moor in the Ingleborough National Nature Reserve (NNR) had that farming pressure removed 10 years ago when sheep grazing was fenced out (see Woodland creation - in need of strategic direction and larger scale (8)). The changes in vegetation and species distribution have been monitored since then and compared to Park Fell, an adjacent area that continued to be grazed. Average vegetation height has doubled as dwarf shrubs made a dramatic comeback, and bog asphodel sprang up in all the wetter places. A British Trust for Ornithology survey over 5 years showed 37 species of birds on the ungrazed area, many of which were never to be seen on the grazed area, including willow warbler, redpoll, black cap. A survey over a six month period showed 45 times more small mammals on the ungrazed area, a matched capture had 56 field voles and 34 common shrews in the ungrazed area compared to only one of each on the grazed area. Raptor pellets were only found on the ungrazed area, correlating with the frequent sightings of short-eared owls. This is an area of land that is thus regaining its natural ecological processes, supporting many, many more species and not just the farm animals of the grazed area.

Scar Close is an area of limestone pavement in the same NNR that has been ungrazed for 34 years and has a vibrancy and a diversity in bird, plant, mammal and invertebrate life that is completely missing in Southerscales, an equivalent area of pavement closeby that is managed by a Wildlife Trust through grazing. Apart from just the sheer abundance of plants, shrubs and trees, you can’t help but notice the butterflies that revel in this reforming woodland, and you also hear the sounds of birds, missing from Southerscales. Another big difference is the soil on top of the pavement, and thus the plants that can grow there, so that they don’t just have to exist down in the grikes as they do on Southerscales.

The regenerating woodland of ash, hazel and rowan in places seems just past the scrub stage and into low canopy. These trees may never grow fully due to the thinness of soil and exposure to the wind of the upland climate, but the shadier areas they produce are full of dog’s mercury, or lily of the valley and hearts tongue fern – just a lushness of vegetation. What is surprising is the heath in places on top of the pavement where the shallow soil has developed and islands of peat have formed, and to see lily of the valley growing through it. I marvel at the ability of wild nature to restore itself, even though it has this hotchpotch approach in terms of types of habitat at the moment that is actually quite appealing.

Ash I suppose is never lost from this kind of landscape, but how far did the guelder rose have to travel? In fact there were lots of berried trees and shrubs, as you would expect from their seeds being pooped out by birds or mammals eg. rowan, downy currant, stone bramble, honey suckle, yew, bilberry, hawthorn, blackthorn. I found nuts developing on the hazels, and so if you add all this up, it’s another example of a place that as it restores and rewilds, begins to be able provide food for humans whereas as the grazed pavement just provides food for sheep. Like South House Moor, it gives the lie to those "experts" who say that biodiversity is lost if a landscape isn’t managed, a nonsense firmly rooted in the ideology of the conservation industry. That some other reality can exist is never allowed as it cuts across their vested interests. Ask any one of these "experts" whether they have stuck their hand in the wet, shady places in somewhere like the regenerating Scar Close and seen what invertebrate life exists there. Who are they to say what has more importance?

I walked the Axmouth to Lyme Regis Undercliffs NNR on the Dorset coast a few weeks after Scar Close. It was another remarkable experience, a much larger area of ecological restoration and which had been going on for some time to produce an ashwood that stretches along the coast for about five miles, and may be one of the best recent examples of plant succession to be found in Britain. Landslips have occurred along this coast for millennia, creating the undercliff areas, but a massive one happened in 1839 when a large field became detached from the main cliff and moved seaward leaving a chasm more than 100m wide, 50m deep and three quarters of a mile long. Because of its physical isolation, the undercliffs were left ungrazed from the 1900s so that plant and animal communities have developed naturally, producing a species-rich woodland. Thus along with the self sown ash and field maple, there are large areas of mixed scrub including wayfaring tree, dogwood, holly, spindle, blackthorn, elderberry and currant, with dense entanglements of honeysuckle, bramble, madder and clematis (traveller’s joy).

I loved the very rich diversity of this towering woodland with its superb examples of how climbers such as ivy and traveller’s joy can clothe the vertical surfaces of the cliff face, and the dark and humid understorey of profuse and vigorous growth of such ferns as hearts tongue. And it is because of its isolation from the top of the cliff that plant and animal communities have developed there virtually untouched. Minor land slips are still happening, especially where there are seeping water courses, and this produces more variation and fresh areas for colonisation by wildlife.

You can see the "problem" that people cause, the incorrigible behaviour that has to “improve” on wild nature. In the more accessible parts of the Undercliff in the middle section, exotic non-native species had been planted, such as the evergreen holm oak, the western red cedar, and sycamore. The oak and sycamore have seeded around resulting in a bare ground layer because of the density of shade, especially from the evergreen oak. I was also annoyed by the heavy hand of management, where instead of just cutting through trees fallen across the path, they were logged into sections and dumped as an unsightly pile. Orthodox forestry (man with chainsaw) but not appropriate in this wild nature.

Non-intervention and the richness of wild nature

Experience of this rich vein of wild nature in what were unmanaged areas got me to thinking where I might find other non-intervention areas that had had some longer continuity of wildness and which outstretched the previously farmed landscapes I had been walking. I alighted on three ash woodlands in limestone country, all sites of ancient woodland and so having a continuity of tree cover. Also, because of their being in “awkward” terrain that made their access and use very difficult, they would likely not have suffered in recent history at the hands of grazing or woodland management.

Scoska Wood NNR clings to the limestone scars and upper slopes on the NE facing side of Littondale. The sparse canopy of ash and downy birch has a tangle of bird cherry, hazel and hawthorn as an understorey that makes it difficult to navigate. Where it was wetter and shadier, there was a fabulous amount of woodruff. Other places were covered with sanicle, but the main ground cover was ferns, dogs mercury, meadow sweet and raspberry. A few diffuse flushes drain downwards, and I came across a fabulously dark one with a twisted mesh of willow, very wet and green from a mass of moss. I just blundered my way along roe deer trails, negotiating up terraces until I got to the base of the highest scar at the top, and found the only crevice that would get me up the scar. While this wood was hard work, it was worth it to experience the cool and moist conditions and the lush woodland flora.

Ling Gill NNR, a few miles north of Horton in Ribblesdale, is a fabulous but daunting wooded ravine cut down into the limestone. It starts off as a very narrow, wooded gorge as Cam Beck drops 30m in a series of falls before leveling out. The gorge there has steep walls of limestone that are so close together. The beck continues along the wooded ravine for about half a mile (800m) widening as it goes. I started in at the bottom end of the woodland, walking up along the edge of the beck, or using stepping stones, and with occasional forays up the wooded slope and along roe deer trails to look for plants. The wood is mostly wych elm and willow nearer the water with ash, aspen, rowan, hazel, hawthorn and bird cherry up the slopes. The ground cover is wonderful in this varying damp and shaded place: dogs mercury, woodruff, woodrush, ferns and especially hearts tongue, sanicle and a surprising number of patches of Herb Paris. There are mini-scars either side as you progress, maybe 3-5m high and often clothed in emerald green moss and occasionally weeping veils of water droplets. At one point, a large volume of the beck disappeared down a sink hole on one side, and then re-appeared on the other side further down. About half way up the beck I got stuck where the water lapped scars on both sides. I climbed up a narrow shoulder above the beck, assuming it would eventually take me back down to the waters edge, but instead it continued as a narrow shelf, and so I carefully climbed up and out of the ravine. Ling Gill was enchanting – a place of clear water, rock faces, lush ground cover and native trees.

The third of these ancient woodlands is Colt Park Wood, on the eastern edge of Ingleborough NNR, and which covers a long section of a prominent band of limestone pavement. It is shut off from livestock by a high scar to the east, and with walls or fencing on the other side, making it a rare survivor of the woodland that once covered most of this high limestone area. Ash grows on the deeply fissured pavement, and a tangled understorey of bird cherry, regenerating ash saplings and with hawthorn and rowan cluttering throughout. There is also much standing and lying dead wood, which adds to the effort needed to navigate through. The high humidity within the shelter of the woodland encourages the luxurious growth of lichens, moss, ferns and carpets of wild flowers like golden saxifrage, shining cranesbill, woodruff and wood sorrel. Some of the grikes (vertical cracks) in the pavement are quite wide, creating highways through the wood that are exploited by roe deer. Where I could, I used these highways, and also their linking trails over the pavement, but the monumental size of the pavement blocks and the many obstacles in the understorey required care and patience, but gave me much time to admire this very wild place.

I should tell you that because of the difficulties and dangers of these woodlands on limestone in NNRs, and because of their relatively small size, that they do not have open access. That in itself has an appeal for me in terms of their intrinsic wildness, but it should not be interpreted that non-intervention areas exclude people. I recently walked in the Lagodekhi State Nature Reserve in Georgia, up near the border with Russia and Azerbaijan. Lagodekhi is a publicly owned strict nature reserve of some considerable size (22,224ha) that bans hunting, felling and livestock grazing. It is a fabulously beautiful woodland wilderness of hornbeam, beech, birch and maple set amongst the Greater Caucasus mountains. The reserve supports carnivores such as bear, lynx, wildcat, pine marten and wolf as well as red deer, wild boar, roe deer, chamois and another species of mountain antelope known locally as tur. Its ground flora was rich in wildflowers and ferns, and its waterfalls and streams ran clear and very drinkable. The light touch of the trail management by the ranger staff perfectly fitted the spirit of this place - the butchering over-management in Axmouth to Lyme Regis NNR could learn a lot from this. I talked about this with Stig-Ĺke, a fellow walker from Sweden, and he said such over management that I described in Britain was both a waste of time and a waste of money.

Lagodekhi was the first strict nature reserve designated in Europe after scientists presented the report “Lagodekhi Gorge as a Monument of Nature and the Necessity of its Protection” at a meeting of the Caucasian Department of the Russian Geographic Society. Following a petition made by the Geographic Society and the Academy of Science, the Lagodekhi Gorge was declared a nature reserve in 1912, It thus predates even the Gila wilderness set aside by the Forest Service in New Mexico in 1924. Lagodekhi State Nature Reserve is a place that despite wars and geopolitics has maintained that regime of no-hunting, no felling and no grazing.

While we don't have the large carnivores of Lagodekhi in those non-intervention areas that I have walked, they do share a common evidence of an abundance of natural processes and a rich ecology. It is therefore bewildering to see that the future of these publicly owned NNRs in England is threatened by cost-cutting plans that will vest them in a charitable trust administered by third sector organisations (NT, WT, RSPB etc) (9). This will inevitably end up with those few areas of non-intervention - and which are not protected as such under our current legislation - being lost as the money sucking machines of the conservation industry seek to maximise their income from every grant and subsidy available from public funds, and which inevitably come with the requirement to manage for the nonsense of "biodiversity priorities". If we are ever to have non-intervention wild areas in England, then it is an exceedingly backward step to lose those that we already have on our NNRs by losing the NNRs themselves.

Mark Fisher 28 September 2010

(1) Natural England’s Draft Position on Trees and Woodlands, NEB PU18 04, November 2009


(2) Wild foraging - reconnecting to our ethno-botanical heritage, Self-willed land October 2008


(3) Jacobi, R. M. (1978). Population and landscape in Mesolithic lowland Britain. In (S. Limbrey & J. G. Evans, Eds) The Effect of Man on the Landscape: the Lowland Zone. London: CBA Research Report 21, pp. 75–85.

(4) Smith, C., 1992. The population of Late Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Britain. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 58: 37-40

(5) Fowler, P.J., 1983. The Farming of Prehistoric Britain. Cambridge University Press

(6) Pryor, F., 2003. Britain BC: Life In Britain and Ireland before the Romans. Harper Collins

(7) Challenging the bias: a Wildland Research Institute for Britain, Self-willed land August 2009


(8) Woodland creation - in need of strategic direction and larger scale, Self-willed land November 2008


(9) Transferring management of Natural England’s National Nature Reserves (NNRs) – update on current activity, Natural England NEB PU22 05, September 2010



www.self-willed-land.org.uk  mark.fisher@self-willed-land.org.uk