Ecological Surprise, Rewilding and Resiliency
When nature is left to do its own thing, it can surprise us. Conventional wisdom tells us that certain species belong to certain habitats, that trees and other plants only grow 'here'. That an animal's diet and behaviour consists of this, but not that. Yet, the more we find out, the more we realise, things are far more complex than we understand - and that we actually know very little. But this shouldn't be viewed negatively, as it merely highlights the myriad layers of ecological fascination we've yet to uncover.
Rewilding is about giving nature freedom. Allowing it the space and time it needs to reassert itself and create self-sustaining ecosystems once again - no longer held back by human management. Nature likes to confound expectation. And when given just a little bit of breathing room, it can bounce back remarkably quickly. So can we do it? Can we relinquish control enough to see what wild nature really looks like, in all of its unpredictable glory? We must, if we wish to deepen our understanding of the natural world, fill our knowledge gaps, and ultimately do a better job of protecting it and allow it to flourish.
Shifting baseline syndrome has played its part: that curious psychological and sociological phenomenon of lowered expectation where successive generations view their surroundings as natural and 'normal', because they don't have any other reference point. It's all they've ever known. As William Stolzenburg so eloquently puts it: "The world as first seen by the child becomes his lifelong standard of excellence, mindless of the fact he is admiring the ruins of his parents. Generation to generation, the natural world decays, the ratchet of perception tightens."
Rewilding exists to reverse that decay, but it is not about trying to recreate the past - that would be impossible. Rewilding is about looking forward - so what is possible? Well, only nature knows, but she has already given us many glimpses of 'ecological surprise', where the baseline has been raised and we've had to recalibrate our brains with what is achievable, normal, natural.
Before any planting took place at the Carrifran Wildwood project in southern Scotland - pictured above - there was a fair amount of scepticism. 'You'll never get anything to grow in there' could often be heard - but the pollen records sang a different chorus. However, much of the vegetation that once existed was well buried - the bare ground having felt the profound effects of sheep, deer and goat for centuries. It was surely now beyond saving. Yet, even in this nutrient-stripped landscape, there was enough energy left in the soil for it to spark back into life - and the results speak for themselves. Nature is incredibly resilient - it just needs a little helping hand now and again to kickstart natural processes.
Think of the exposed, storm-blasted Western Isles of Scotland and you're unlikely to think of woodland. But in little pockets of refugia away from grazing animals it can be found. Rowan, hazel and ash clinging on to the steepest slopes and rock faces. A scene played out in gulleys and gorges across Scotland - their inaccessibility the only reason they still exist. The last vestiges of ancient woodland, once widespread and full of dynamism; now reduced to isolated, degenerating museum pieces that serve little purpose. Nevertheless, even in these unfavourable conditions, there is much life to be found; and that energy I spoke of earlier - latent, inherent, simmering away - trying to release the flora from these geological bodyguards that serve as sanctuaries and prisons, so it can spread into new forms that create and accommodate more life.
Natural regeneration and colonisation without any human intervention may be the purest expressions of rewilding, but in areas such as the Outer Hebrides and Carrifran, seed sources are often hard to come by - the situation compounded by compacted ground, poor soil quality and erosion. For the last few years the community-led Hebridean Ark Tree Project has been collecting cuttings and seeds from the islands' remaining wooded areas for propagation. This native treasure trove contains genetic adaptations that help the trees to grow in this salt-spray laden, wind-lashed environment. Of the around 140,000 trees now planted, it is those grown from the existing trees that fair far better - their mainland relatives pushovers in comparison. It's a useful reminder that natural processes provide the most fertile ground for creating resilient habitats in the face of an increasingly capricious climate.
Ecological restoration and rewilding brings transformation. In the case of Carrifran, it turned one-dimensional short-cropped grassland into multi-dimensional woodland and montane scrub within 20 years. Despite a millennium of abuse at the hands of humans and herbivores, this barren valley needed just a few years to show us what it could still do. Restoration ecology and rewilding are bringing back - and creating new - habitats across the world.
Rivers are being reconnected with floodplains, creating wetland; farmland that has nothing left to give is morphing into scrub and forest, underwater meadows of seagrass and kelp are becoming re-established, no-take zones are allowing seabeds to recover. Brown mountain deserts now have ribbons of green flowing through them as naturally regenerating trees find their own way up the slopes thanks to reduced grazing pressure. Pine trees are reshaping heather moorland. Open scree has been colonised by birch and aspen. Mangroves are growing again on estuaries. Grasses, shrubs and wildflowers are sprouting back up through ploughed prairie.
Rewilding and resiliency go hand in hand - they are intertwined. As the stresses on our planet reach a zenith, we should be increasingly mindful of this. Nature seems to know what it's doing, nature can help us. Let's see what it can do.