The rocky road to wild land

Wild goats

Beavers

Windfarms

Local issues

Farming

Wild, or more correctly, feral goats donít seem out of place in the Burren, western Ireland, or by Loch Lomond in the Trossachs National Park. And for many years, wild goats werenít always out of place in the Valley of the Rocks on the north Devon coast. Noted as livestock in the Domesday Book, the Lynton goats were encouraged over the centuries to become a feral presence. Unfortunately, in the mid-nineteenth century, they were judged to be killing too many sheep by head-butting them off nearby cliffs, and so they were cleared from this part of the Exmoor coast. Reintroduced in 1897 from a domestic herd, they petered out in the 1960ís only to be reintroduced again in 1976 with stock of a more feral nature from the Cheviots.

The wild goats of Lynton are promoted as a tourist attraction, but they are also considered to be an integral part of the natural landscape management of the Valley of Rocks, which is within a large Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) on the Exmoor Coast (West Exmoor Coast And Woods Ė about 700 hectares in 23 units). Sadly, they have strayed once too often and become managers of the nearby urban landscape as well, doing what herbivores normally do in peopleís gardens and in the local cemetery.

Last year, Lynton and Lynmouth Town Council resolved to remove the goats by any necessary means, and nine were culled at a dawn shooting, leaving only bloodstains on the grass as evidence. This year, the Council has been more precise and resolved to reduce the herd from about 120 to 30, either by culling or relocation. This is in spite of the offer of a substantial grant from English Nature, DEFRA and the Exmoor National Park Authorities to assist the work of the voluntary group, Friends of Lynton Wild Goats, to renew and extend fencing that would restrain their roaming.

Head butting between wild animals and the interests of people is set to become more widespread throughout Britain as enthusiasm grows amongst the statutory conservation agencies, and in many voluntary organisations, to adopt a whole landscape approach to nature conservation (for instance, Dorset Wildlife Trusts are appointing a project officer for a whole landscape approach). It will undoubtedly lead to some parts of Britain becoming wilder, and it should come as no surprise that there will be a return of wild animals in greater numbers as they take advantage of this new habitat range.

re-introduction of beavers

In Scotland, the hope is to give this a push through re-introducing the European beaver, lost to us 400 years ago through over-hunting. It has not been an easy path Ė the Scottish Executive turned down the first request from Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) for a licence to carry out a trial release of beaver. To allay fears and suspicions, the Executive asked for greater information about other European re-introductions (25 so far) and for any evidence on long-term impacts. SNH, having done their homework, resubmitted their proposal this month, asking ministers to approve a trial reintroduction of up to 20 beavers as early as 2006. The carefully chosen site for the trial is Knapdale Wildlife Reserve in mid-Argyll, which is national forest land managed by the Forestry Commission Scotland in partnership with Scottish Wildlife Trusts. Everything that could cause concern would seem to have been addressed and so the hope is for approval.

wind up from wind farms

Wind farms are proving to be another emotive cause, for once separating out environmental pressure groups that favour them, from landscape interests such as the National Parks and Tourism Boards, who fear their visual and physical impact. Itís becoming a cause celebre within the wildland debate as well, when antagonists consider their potential to despoil open countryside, which they often describe in emotive terms such as virgin moor and wild beauty. Perhaps this presumption for some intrinsic value in the landscape is taken too far when in the case of the current enquiry into the Whinash Windfarm scheme, opponents claim that the development would destroy a cherished landscape in a gateway to the Lake District. The fact that this gateway is approached by a six-lane motorway and that it is comprised of unremarkable farmland would tend to diminish their argument. The value of landscapes and the affect of wind farms need a better examination than this.

local issues

I can see the wind farm on Ovenden Moor when looking across the Aire Valley from my own local moor. I often travel over those moors into the nearby Calder Valley, spirits plunging with the damp, windswept emptiness of this moorland landscape. Its only real function is for the collection of water for its major landowners, Yorkshire Water, as the farming is hard and it is difficult to find new tenants. The wind turbines add some variety to this bleak landscape, and their whirring blades have little to disturb in the way of wildlife, bar a few wading birds. Only one thing would be better than wind turbines on this moor, and that would be a wholesale renewal of its original woodland. The two are not incompatible: the woodland would close off some of the views of the wind farm and generally benefit water management over the moor. But I know this will never happen because most of the moors are part of a Special Area of Conservation, fixing it in this bleak state with its management tailored for wading birds.

I encountered this ornithological pre-eminence again recently as it threatens to torpedo the rewooding I have worked for on the local moor above me. The promotion of rewooding has been on two fronts: a control for the extensive bracken cover that threatens to subsume the whole moor; and for the greater intrinsic variety that would ensue from rewooding. Just when it seemed there was some headway with the council (who owns the moor) a consultation with adjoining landowners revealed a concern about lapwing breeding at its edges. Expert advice came back that tree planting ran the risk of creating habitat for predators (now that would be something special if it happened) and so there would be a recommendation against. Thus potentially no future sharing of the moor by a greater variety of species from both the animal and plant kingdoms, with all the natural cycles that that entails. Just a poorly diverse landscape that gets a bit of a seasonal lift when the lapwings come to nest.

In the meantime, I walk the woodlands below the moor to give me inspiration, and to smooth away the disappointments of slow progress, but tensions creep in there too. Roe deer extend along the Aire Valley, and it is only partly a joke that poaching is the most effective form of deer control that the District has. Itís a frightening experience in woodland to come across youths dressed in camouflage and carrying guns, my camera used for wildflowers quickly lowered as they back away as I back away. And we are plagued by under age riders on gopeds and minibikes as they tear through woodlands as an alternative to road riding. At least the police are intent on cracking down on the riders, but it will take more courage than I have to confront the poachers. If we are to have more wildland, then we will have to develop a respect for it amongst ourselves so that we become considerate users rather than selfish abusers.

farming subsidies

There has been a fair amount of excitement at the coming this year of the new subsidy regime in farming, with some commentators divining opportunities for farmers to make a significant contribution to the rewilding of Britain. Misconceptions and misfacts dog this discussion. Unfortunately, even someone of the stature of Richard Mabey is not immune to this when in a recent Times article about farming and wildlife, he made the mistake of stating that only the landowner and not tenants could receive farm subsidy. In a subsequent article in the Times, on going wild in the countryside, Simon Jenkins also made a number of mistakes, the main one of appearing to conflate the single decoupled farm payment with the new entry level stewardship scheme payment, the latter being funded from a different, smaller pot of money under the Rural Development Regulation. The two payments have the potential to incentivise distinctly opposite farm landscape effects, with the former requiring a compliance with good agricultural condition, and the latter making a nod towards wildlife.

Both articles were hostages to fortune, since they gave opportunity for follow-up letters from the usual suspects (i.e. CPRE, CLA etc) pointing out the errors, but also allowing them to continue to propagate the myth that a farmed landscape is a panacea for all of the British Countryside. Mabey at least recognised in his article that it is likely to be land that falls out of farming where the greatest opportunities for rewilding can take place. But it is important to recognise that there will be no subsidy to do this (such as to cover forgone income) and thus it relies entirely on the altruism of the landowner. As we know, there are few landowners outside of public ownership that do not expect an income from their land and so if we want a wilder Britain, we will have as a nation to decide to pay landowners to do it, or to buy the land ourselves. Tinkering with farming is unlikely to give us what we want.

The many of us involved in promoting rewilding, particularly through a whole landscape approach, want to give it the best chance of succeeding without it creating more of the types of problems I have described above. Because of that, we are coming together to share all our experience in a new Wildland Network, the first meeting of which takes place in Leeds in a few weeks time. I hope to see you there.

Mark Fisher, 22 April 2005

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

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