They say a Stoic will always know beauty. It would be hard not to when we all had the luxury of wandering unchecked amongst Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s magnum opus throughout our formative years. The landscaped gardens, follies and glades around Stowe are the pinnacle of what many around the world believe the English countryside would, and should, have looked like in bygone eras. A postcard to bucolic perfection.
Whilst undoubtedly aesthetically stunning this is also complete nonsense. There has never been a time when mown grass, manicured hedgerows and carefully controlled coppices have been a natural part of the ecosystem of these islands. As humans, we all suffer from a low-level form of OCD that demands neatness, order and discipline from our gardens, fields and forests. This is not what nature intended.
Over the last 75 years this trend for tidiness and control of the environment has accelerated at a terrifying pace. During WW2, chemical companies became very successful by developing products that the warring sides could use to kill people and render territory unusable. This was known as a scorched earth tactic. When peace was declared the leaders of these companies made slight changes to their products, vast changes to their marketing strategy and moved seamlessly into the agricultural sector. Many of the fertilisers and pesticides that we use on our green and pleasant land today were formally used to kill troops in the trenches. The impact on our wildlife has been catastrophic.
If a young Stoic were to travel back through time and stroll through the Grecian Valley or around the Octagon Lake before the Victorians, the Tudors, the Normans, the Angles or even the Romans had graced these shores, they would find a very different habitat indeed. Mess was the order of the day and mess may be starting to come back into fashion after a very long hiatus. Some people are beginning to call this emerging rural culture ‘rewilding’ and it has all of the ingredients to be a very good thing indeed for our indigenous flora and fauna.
Rewilding has no fixed definition and in some circles it has become a divisive and even polarising term. It should never be about removing jobs or opportunities from the rural economy and it should never be about artificially reintroducing species if they wouldn’t have been there without human interference. It should be about making our natural biodiversity more robust, intricate and self-managing. A simple way to conceptualise this is to consider the roles that we have had to take on after wiping out keystone species from the British Isles.
Flooding is a seasonal problem in many areas and vast sums are spent by councils and communities in building concrete culverts, slipways and weirs. The Eurasian beaver was once ubiquitous across this island and would have moderated the flow down every river and stream. By creating an intricate network of dams beavers ensure that, during periods of drought, rivers continue to flow and, during times of spate, the flood is released slowly and won’t wash villages, roads or bridges away. We killed all of our beavers by the 1600s and so now we need to do their job for them.
The Forestry Commission believe that the ‘carrying capacity’ (that is the largest healthy number) for roe deer in the UK is 350,000. We currently have as many as 750,000 of them in our woodland. This is because we have removed every predator that might have kept their numbers in check, plus we have artificially expanded their food source by planting tens of thousands of acres of crops for them to merrily munch on. Lynx are ambush predators who belong in our forests and would keep the number of roe deer in happy balance. They don’t threaten people or livestock but their absence means that hordes of human hunters have to stay on top of our ever expanding deer problem. Without a managed roe population our stunning oak woodland will never regenerate naturally.
These are just two examples and the impacts described are only the tip of the iceberg. Beavers also benefit wild salmon populations and lynx would help to curb the grey squirrel invasion that has obliterated our native reds. The list goes on and it is safe to say that ecologists will never have a complete understanding of the positive impacts of returning some of the species that we thoughtlessly killed off in the past.
Beavers and lynx are ‘sexy headline’ animals that are easy for people to get excited about. The solitary bees, beetles and fungi that can be returned as part of rewilding programmes are less visually exciting but equally as important to a healthy ecosystem. The mycelial network of fungi that should link every tree, bush and plant in our woods to each other has been fundamentally disrupted by our constant obsession with clearing deadfall and our destructive theft of mature trees for ships, houses, mines and fires. It will take centuries to grow back but without it, the forests become shattered collections of isolated trees rather than vibrant communities of interlinking collaborators who can share resources, deter pests and spend their evenings communicating as a family.
My wife and I own an upland hill farm on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall where we are implementing large restoration projects across our woodland and grazed hillside. The focus will be on returning the species that would have occurred naturally in these valleys and helping the soil and ancient oaks to regain some of their former health. We will also be opening the farm up and inviting people to come and wander along our rivers and learn about the incredible network of nature.
We have already returned a family of beavers and next year we hope to reintroduce wild cats, pine martens and water voles. Lynx may be a little way off but I am confident they will one day roam these hills alongside bison, mouflon and wild boar. All of these creatures can co-exist among farming communities if we move to an agroforestry and silvopasture model that accepts that nature and mess come hand in hand. Our food will be healthier as a result and our landscape will be teeming with wildlife.
One day perhaps these animals will return to Stowe’s gardens and the Elysian Fields will benefit from beaver dams while the Rotunda shelters wild horses from the rain and white storks take off lazily from the Eleven Acre Lake. The buzzing of pollinators in the Chinese Garden will distract Stoics from their revision (or other outdoor pursuits) and red squirrels will frolic in the canopy of native trees that have returned to surround Cobham’s Column. Until then we will all continue to enjoy the manicured perfection of Stowe and for a wilder experience, you’ll have to come and see us at Cabill!