Challenging the bias: a Wildland Research Institute for Britain


There is an inherent and determined bias in commentary on landscapes in Britain, and particularly on the potential effects of rewilding. As an example, I held up to contempt recently Anna Hill, an interviewer on the Radio 4 Farming Today program, for persistently seeking to impose her own agenda on research by the Rural Economy and Land Use (RELU) program about the potential impact of the five-a-day vegetable and fruit policy on farming and the landscape (Healthy eating 'alters landscape’ (1)). The research modelling indicated that because of a potential decline in demand for meat and dairy products, there could be a reduction in livestock numbers of up to 1.5 million “both in the lowlands but particularly in the uplands as a consequence of changes in the market place and the reform of the common agricultural policy” (2). I suspect the researcher was trying to point to the more marginal aspect of livestock production in the uplands and thus the greater likelihood of a reduction in livestock production occurring there rather than the lowlands, but the interviewer saw this as an open goal to raise the usual fears about abandonment of upland farmland. Thus she prompted the interviewee three times before he confirmed her prejudice, stated by her at the outset of the interview of “Inaccessible hills and moorland covered in scrub”

The reduction in livestock is less than 4% of the total (3) but more importantly the Policy and Practice Note issued by RELU based on the research, while indicating a potential decline in areas dependent on livestock production, says nothing about abandonment, or inaccessible landscapes covered with scrub (4). However, as is often the case nowadays, a press release from the research group stepped outside of the research and ratcheted up the rhetoric, with it being described as a “severe decline" in livestock production, leading to an “abandonment of upland areas" (5). Another embellishment was given in the online BBC news report when the spread of gorse, not mentioned anywhere else, was thrown in as a detractor (6):
“This would mean the land would become covered in scrub and gorse, and if left alone would become inaccessible to visitors”

Objectivity bypassed in the pursuit of bias

This mismatch between what research actually says and the popular coverage it receives exposes the inherent bias, but more dangerously it tends to perpetuate and support that bias. Thus I picked up on a report of research that suggested that woodlands were losing their individual character, becoming more similar to each other due to increased soil fertility and shading (7). The research had been based on a re-survey of woodlands in Dorset that were first characterised in the 1930s. The news report on the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) website explained that the re-survey had revealed that 117 species present in the 1930s were no longer in these woodlands, but that 47 new species had turned up since then. Some species including holly, ivy, Lords-and-ladies (Arum) and wild garlic were to be found in many more of the woodlands today, whereas other species had declined, such as red bartsia, yellow iris and devil’s bit scabious. This led the researchers to conclude that the species sets in the woodlands were converging to a common composition – a process of “taxonomic homogenisation”.

Sally Keith, the lead author interviewed for the news report (and from whose unfinished doctoral work this was) advanced the conclusion that increased nitrogen content of soils was a factor, but that greater shade was also selecting out the species that would grow in these woodlands today. She attributed the greater shade to overgrowth arising from a lack of woodland management which, if left unchecked, would leave all woodlands looking very similar. Her remedy - “we need to bring back traditional woodland management”

The rhetoric surrounding the research was ramped up in the BBC News online report, which appears to be a rehash of the Press Release put out by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) (8). Professor James Bullock, one of four other co-authors of the research paper, works for the CEH (which is funded by NERC) and his somewhat subjective opinion is (9): “poor countryside management has led to increasing homogenisation of biodiversity in British woodlands”

He was joined in this hyperbole by Sally Keith describing the woodland species set she found today as “an impoverished version of the past variety of nature" and that her research pointed to a need for “a better understanding of processes affecting our native flora if we are to conserve and restore the character of the traditional British woodland" the implication stated again that the impoverishment in species was as “a result of the decline in traditional management techniques, such as coppicing”

Not for red bartsia, it isn’t! This is a hemi-parasitic species of open habitats that is not associated with woodland anyway, and both yellow iris and devil’s bit scabious would not be considered to be woodland specialist plants either. Thus what this study was actually documenting was a shift from a mixture of open space species and woodland species in managed woodland, to a greater presence of woodland interior species growing in authentic woodland spaces as the woodland, free from management, has developed its own habitat characteristics.

I should also point out that the published research paper itself does not mention any one species, nor makes any attempt to delineate woodland species from open space species, nor justify why open space species should be part of a woodland habitat when they can be found anyway in open spaces away from woodland (10). Moreover, there is absolutely nothing in the research paper to justify the headline in the Science News article from the Royal Society, the publishers of the research paper, which exclaimed (11): "Loss of unique species in British woodlands". This is poor journalism. The published paper does not say that any of the 117 species lost to the unmanaged woodland are now extinct in Dorset. The word unique crops up again in the Observer article about the research (12), which says that Keith "had found the unique character of each wood had vanished". Maybe so in her eyes because she seeks to give some importance to her findings, but it is Professor James Bullock again that shows where the drive for this particular spin is coming from when he is quoted as saying about woodland "We are losing diversity on a large scale, with certain species driven out across the whole landscape. We can expect it to be happening across the country and Europe, as the same things are happening there"

The Woodland Trust in their document on woodland biodiversity (13) recognises the competing agendas for woodland, but believes that monitoring total species abundance as a means of assessing improvements in woodland biodiversity is unworkable and “to focus on any one species or group of species as a measure of overall biodiversity is likely to be misleading”

They rehearse the various arguments over the composition of the original Wildwood of Britain, deciding that the most likely condition was that of open spaces existing within a woodland matrix (and see Open or closed – what is the natural landscape matrix of a wild Britain? (14)) but then noting the impact that humans have had since on that Wildwood:
“Whatever the truth it is undeniable that over the millennia open space habitats flourished at the expense of woodland and that traditional woodland management (i.e. coppice, coppice-with-standards and woodpasture) sustained temporary or permanent open ground habitats within woods. Perhaps it is not surprising, therefore, that the majority of species with very specific habitat requirements not associated with old growth are instead reliant on temporary and permanent semi-natural open ground. It is debatable whether these are strictly woodland species

This finding of increased shade species in the Dorset woodland was prefigured in a prior research report commissioned by Natural England into long term ecological change in woodland (15). In that more comprehensive report, it discusses the changes in management that have given rise to a decrease in openness in woodlands. The authors wonder whether if left alone, natural disturbance would provide enough openness in woodland for the species that we have come to value”. Note that they regard the desirability of open space species in woodland as a value judgment. Thoughtfully, they also ask the question of whether it is feasible to return to the high levels of species richness shown in their 1971 baseline survey for plants if this was a consequence of a one-off set of circumstances around the specific management of woodland in the mid-twentieth century? They say the same argument might also apply to butterflies and birds in woodland, as it does to plants.

England has one of the lowest woodland covers in Europe (8%) and consequently one of the smallest amounts of woodland interior habitat. To impose open habitat species sets on such extant small-scale woodland through 'management' seems especially onerous, and does not admit to other realities for our wild nature. It is though the inherent bias of the conservation industry, as is shown by the massive amount of money, mostly from public sources, that is granted to reintroduce management to woodland - see for instance the £450,000 that Butterfly Conservation has been given to manage 27 woodland sites in Lancashire and Cumbria (16) - and it is given succour by the subjective and personal views of some researchers, even though their research lends those views no certain validity.

Pursuing a personal view

There are some researchers who appear to pursue their own bias vigorously through their work. I’m going to pick out Dr Althea Davies as an example because I have mentioned her work before (see Are Humans a natural disturbance? (17)). I described her fossil pollen data from a small woodland hollow in Scotland that revealed phases of disturbance and stable cycling going back 8000 years to when the trees were returning post glaciation (18). It showed a fascinating stable phase of cycling of alder, birch and oak that lasted from 6900 to 4200 years ago, and in which she showed little interest. I interpret that phase as locally small and probably impermanent clearings in the woodland matrix made by Mesolithic hunter-gatherers as they 'managed' or tended their quarry. They would make clearings around sources of drinking water, and probably made efforts to see that the herds of deer and other animals they hunted were not over-exploited. These clearings would mimic the course of natural disturbance such as gap dynamics from windthrow and from other disturbances such as snow and disease, and from natural fire regimes, and thus could not be distinguished from them.

A brief period of high disturbance followed, lasting 200 years and which was marked by a large decline in pine and other tree species due to an increase in the intensity and scale of human disturbance. Trees were felled to make way for agriculture, opening up the landscape to an influx of agricultural herbage of open landscape species during a second period of stable cycling starting 4000 years ago. Davies remarks that the highest diversity in terms of the pollen record corresponds with this period of most intensive landuse by people. She then implies this to be a virtue that should not be threatened by a removal of that landuse, regarding such a removal as an imposition on the cultural heritage of landscapes that this work, and much of her later work, shows her admiration for. What we don't get from her is any discussion on the value judgement she makes. Why should maximising number counts in palynological diversity, as a proxy for plant diversity, mean anything other than just a redistribution of species across a landscape that has been grossly altered?

In a subsequent conference report, Davies (who is a RELU Research Fellow at Stirling University) questions the validity of tree planting in restoration of landscapes denuded by trees since she believes tree cover was largely a victim of prehistoric climatic change, and not human destruction (18). She questions why “‘natural’ ecological processes” and “minimal human intervention” should guide landscape restoration as she doesn’t believe upland landscapes are degraded, and that the exclusion of people reflects an underestimation of “the value and spatial extent of past cultural impacts, particularly the positive effects of land-use on biodiversity”. Unsurprisingly, Davies believes that the “notion of wildland is exaggerated or perceptual rather than real”.

This admiration for cultural values also crops up in her peer-reviewed journal papers. In a study on wood–grazing balance over the last 400 years in an area of the Western Highlands, Davies combined pollen records and historical data to conclude that greater woodland intrusion and grazing by cattle occurred during periods when the market value for cattle increased, and the farmer likely increased his herd in response (20). The introduction of extensive sheep farming did not show up in the pollen records as an intensification of grazing of the woodland, but it is known that the farmer took steps to protect the woodland from sheep grazing, as was required by regulations (but the farmer didn’t, prior to introduction of sheep, protect the woodland from cattle grazing when the regulations first came in). This paper is an interesting match of pollen data with historical paper records that shows that farming has long responded to monetary incentive, but then Davies can’t resist pursuing her usual agenda by including this statement in her paper:
“Many woods were managed for multiple purposes in the past and promoting natural processes or pursuing pre-anthropogenic baselines will result in the erosion of cultural features that have shaped present landscape values”

This is muddled thinking that ignores the lessons of her earlier work. Thus Davies doesn't make a distinction between the considerably lower impact of the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers compared to the later Neolithic farmers. Her admiration is for the dominating culture of farming that displaced a land use that was more in synchrony with natural processes.

Davies gets to have a major pop at her usual targets in a review of historical environmental changes in relation to upland management and policy, written as part of her RELU-funded fellowship (21). In a mirror-image of my criticism, she believes that there are "uncertainties and subjectivities associated with ‘wild land’ and ‘naturalness’" but she gives no evidence to support that other than her admiration for cultural heritage:
“Abandonment and ‘wild land’ are not logical alternatives to agricultural management or mismanagement, as the outcomes are inherently unpredictable and idealised in ecosystems shaped by centuries of human activity”

Do the views of people like Davies matter?

Well, consider that in a tender document from DEFRA for research on alternative solutions for large scale restoration of biodiversity and in which opportunities in tourism and recreation could be generated, it is stated that (22):
"Studies of re-wilding, for [example], have generally identified limited opportunities in the managed landscape of the UK"

Where did this come from, as no justification is given? The likelihood is that it is the received wisdom because of the sheer volume of subjective prejudice there is on the British landscape scene. Here is another example, bizarrely in an article about conservation of southern Saskatchewan prairies in Canada, but written by a British author with an eye to the British scene (23):
“One school of thought regards rewilding as the most creative and proactive way forward in the twenty-first century, arguing that conservation has been on the back foot for too long, and has over-concentrated on protecting nature from outside threats……. However, rewilding is expensive and controversial, and can easily become an idealised, romantic myth ignoring reality”

Perhaps acceptable when seen in the context of spinning alternative scenarios, this last reference I offer comes in a background paper produced by the Countryside Council for Wales in looking at long term options for farming in Wales (24):
"The substantial abandonment of entire farms in remote areas has not delivered significant biodiversity gains as the process of “re-wilding” has been largely unmanaged”

It would be a naïve person who did not recognise the nodding agreement that this sentence would bring forth from the mainstream since, as is best said in the words of Bill Adams in his book Future Nature, a critique of ideas and policy on conservation in the UK (25)
“It is seemingly an anathema to many conservationists to consider letting nature go, allowing arable land to revert to scrub and woodland, allowing grazed hills to reforest, although the idea has its persistent advocates……Caution about the abandonment of land is partly about the loss of control. Much of our conservation is based very precisely on the idea of control”

How is this inherent bias to be challenged?

There is an obvious void in the evidence base, in informed and uninhibited discussion, and consequently in policy formulation for wildland and rewilding in Britain, putting us out of step with such places as North America, South Africa and Australasia, but also many of our European neighbours as well. Advocacy groups and some individuals have persevered, and have brought the issues into the mainstream media and thus into public eye (see for instance (26)) but the hard evidence that comes from objective research is far from being enthusiastically sought. It has to come from a positive and willing outlook that does not pander to the sceptics, but looks past current barriers and brings forward novel observations and solutions.

That was the conversation I was involved in last Autumn, and which now sees fruition in the launch of the Wildland Research Institute (WRi) in October this year (see the WRi website (27)). The Institute is based at Leeds University, and its Director, Dr Steve Carver, is one of the very few people in Britain to lecture, research and write about wildland. The Institute will take an interdisciplinary approach to research, combining social and natural sciences, as well as the arts and literary world, and will ask questions about the requirements, strategies and policies needed for a transition to a greater presence of wild landscapes and natural processes in the UK. A program of research collaboration is already underway with universities in North America, and WRi involvement in the recent Wild Europe conference in Prague (see Wild Europe (28)) is the beginning of its European collaboration.

From the research funding applications made so far by the WRi, it is not proving easy to buck mainstream academic and conservation thought. This was expected, but as more like-minded and enthusiastic people come together within the WRi to identify projects and how to carry out the research, then the credibility of the endeavour will become clear as will be the outcome. I look forward to making a contribution to this vital next step for wild and self-willed land in Britain.

Mark Fisher 29 July 2009, revised 2 August 2009

(1) Healthy eating 'alters landscape’, ssenredliW, Self-willed Land June 2009,%20BBC%20News%20online%2020%20May%202009

(2) Farming Today, BBC R4, transcript of broadcast and website comments, 20 May 2009

(3) Table 3.2 Crop areas and livestock numbers; United Kingdom in Agriculture in the UK 2008 - Tables & Charts, DEFRA March 2009+

(4) Implications of a Nutrition Driven Food Policy for the Countryside, Policy and Practice Note 6, RELU April 2009

(5) Would eating five portions of fruit and vegetables a day really benefit everyone? University of Reading Press Release 19 May 2009

(6) Healthy eating 'alters landscape', BBC News 20 May 2009

(7) English woodlands are losing their character, Planet Earth Online, 22 July 2009

(8) British woodlands suffering biodiversity loss, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology News 22 July 2009

(9) Woodlands 'losing biodiversity': British woodlands are less biologically distinctive than they were 70 years ago, says a team of UK researchers, BBC News Online 28 July 2009

(10) Taxonomic homogenization of woodland plant communities over 70 years, Sally Keith, Adrian Newton, Michael Morecroft, Clive Bealey & James Bullock, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, FirstCite Content, 22 July 2009

(11) Loss of unique species in British woodlands, Royal Society Science News 22 July 2009

(12) Neglect is casting Britain's once bright woodlands into darkness, Damian Carrington, The Observer, 2 August 2009

(13) Woodland biodiversity: Expanding our horizons, Woodland Trust 2000

(14) Open or closed – what is the natural landscape matrix of a wild Britain?, Self-willed land, June 2009

(15) Long term ecological change in British woodland (1971-2001): A re-survey and analysis of change based on the 103 sites in the Nature Conservancy ‘Bunce 1971’ woodland survey, K.J.Kirby1, S.M.Smart2, H.I.J.Black2, R.G.H.Bunce3, P.M.Corney4and R.J. Smithers, English Nature Research Reports Number 653, 2005

(16) £450k scheme will save endangered butterfly, Natalie Stewart, The Westmorland Gazette 24 July 2009

(17) Are Humans a natural disturbance? Self-willed land December 2007

(18) Davies, A.L. & Smith, M.A. (in press) More questions than answers? High resolution pollen records as a tool for conservation management at Ledmore and Migdale Woods, Sutherland. In Rotherham, I.D. (ed.). Working and walking in the footsteps of ghosts: the ecology, archaeology and management of ancient woods and associated land. Proceedings from the sixth regional biodiversity conference. Wildtrack Publishing: Sheffield.

(19) Back to the future: historical legacies and future implications, Althea Davies, Alasdair Ross and Alistair Hamilton in Conference proceedings - The Future of Biodiversity in the Uplands, 8th December 2006, Battleby Centre, Perth

(20) Understanding the changing value of natural resources: an integrated palaeoecological–historical investigation into grazing–woodland interactions by Loch Awe, Western Highlands of Scotland, Althea Davies and Fiona Watson (2007) Journal of Biogeography 34: 1777-1791

(21) Review of the historical environmental changes in the UK uplands relevant to management and policy, Althea Davies, 2008/9

(22) Alternative solutions for restoring biodiversity and generating opportunities in tourism and recreation: feasibility study , Biodiversity, people and landscapes research and evidence programme 2009-10, DEFRA

(23) Shared Visions, Shared Wildernesses: Wilderness Conservation in the Grasslands of Southern Saskatchewan, Ken Atkinson (2009) British Journal of Canadian Studies 21: 87-114

(24) Scenario Background Paper, The Sustainable Farming and Environment: Action Towards 2020 Task and Finish Group, Welsh Assembly Government

(25) Future Nature: A Vision for Conservation (revised edition) by William M Adams (2003) Earthscan ISBN 2 85383 998 1

(26) Britain's wildlife: Work on the wild side, Richard Girling, The Sunday Times, 12 July 2009

(27) Wildland Research Institute, Leeds University

(28) Wild Europe, Self-willed land