What does a truly wild landscape look like?
Does our modern sensibility of wilderness speak to how deeply disconnected from nature we have become? Is it time to reimagine the idyll as more wild and less curated? Less rolling fields of monoculture grain and more woods, interspersed with wild flower meadows. What does this mean for urban spaces? What wildlife would return to this new idyll? How would these wild spaces benefit us? How do we live with it/in it and how does it form part of a new economy?
In his 2013 book ‘Feral’ George Monbiot argues that many examples of ‘wild landscapes’ are actually sites of catastrophic ecological collapse, lacking in biodiversity, often subjugated to the service of two to three species that only benefit each other. Monbiot argues that the restoration of biodiversity is intrinsically linked with the health of our planet and the sequestration of carbon back into the land an our oceans.
Shifting Baseline Syndrome
For many in the UK the Scottish highlands are a paradigm of wilderness. In reality they are remarkably low in forested areas due to the proliferation of deer, which graze on sapling trees. Forested are higher in biodiversity and have a higher positive ecological impact compared to mountainous scrubland. This is an example of 'shifting baseline syndrome', whereby, we have become accustomed to a certain concept of wilderness, that is in fact not very wild.
Projects such as Knepp Estate in West Sussex have pioneered rewilding in the UK. Once the site of intense agriculture practices, the economic realities of modern farming, coupled with the devaluation of grain and dairy driven by our collective need for cheap food, forced the owners to revaluate everything they knew about land husbandry. Deciding to explore a theory that grazing animals such as fallow deer, red deer, longhorn cows, exmoore ponies and tamsworth pigs, could aid in restoring soil health and biodiversity to their estate, they set out on a minimal intervention program, that let nature and not humans lead the way. Despite initial skepticism and criticism, Knepp is now hailed as one of the most successful rewilding efforts in the UK. They not only hold safari tours, where you can experience the wildlife, they also have a range of award winning meats, culled from their free roaming deer, pigs and longhorn cows. They have seen an array of wildlife return to the estate, including endangered species such as the Nightingale and the Turtle Dove, that now thrive there.
They have shown that letting nature return to their pastures is more profitable, than using the estate as arable land. In 2015 Charlie Burrell (owner of Knepp Estate) became chair of Rewilding Britain, a charity established to help educated with regards the benefits of rewilding and lobby the UK government to make meaningful changes to its ecological policies
So what is rewilding in a nutshell?
Rewilding is about restoring ecosystems. In the UK 56% of species are in decline with 15% facing extinction. By working with rural communities and farmers, we can create space for nature to flourish and restore biodiversity. These wild spaces can exist alongside agriculture. It also benefits farmers by restoring soil health and reducing the costly reliance on fertilisers and pesticides. It has been shown to positively affect water quality, reduce flooding and prevent landslides.
By letting nature lead the way, we begin to reverse some of the impact of climate change. By rewilding our landscape and increasing biodiversity through the restoration of ecosystems, we can begin to lock Co2 back into the soil and the oceans. Organisations such as Rewilding Britain aim is to rewild at 5% of Britain, with 25% being used for more nature-friendly land and marine uses, that would encompass farming, forestry and fishing.
From a human perspective, spending time in nature has been shown to positively impact mental health. It creates an empathetic response to nature that helps us understand the importance of ecological measures and the fragility of ecosystems, in the face of modern industrial practises. Hopefully leading us to adopt initiatives that leave a positive ecological legacy for future generations.
Diversify Rural Economies
It can revitalise rural communities in new and surprising ways, by helping diversify their economy. Wild life tourism has proven to be extremely efficient in generating revenue, amongst many new opportunities. It also has the potential to help communities rely less on subsidies and grants, regaining autonomy and independence.
Positive Ecological Legacy
If we take action now, we can begin the process of letting nature recover. However, rewilding is about a long term strategy that future generations not only benefit from, but also use as the blueprint for how society and nature can exist together in order secure a prosperous future for all.
What does it mean for drinks?
The UK landscape has changed immeasurably in the last 100 years. During WWII the ‘Dig for Victory” campaign co-opted vast amounts of land, including wild land, in order to cultivate enough food to sustain the war effort and stave off shortages. Rationing did not end till 1954, ingraining a generation with the notion that food scarcity was the status quo. The truth being, that what followed was an over production of food, predominantly in grain and dairy production. However, the idea that all green space must be put to ‘purposeful’ use became ingrained. The concept that spaces should be left to the wild, deemed deeply wasteful and unpatriotic. Nature was to be controlled and corralled for the good of the nation.
(The Nettle Collins, made with gin, lemon juice and home brewed nettle beer)
The story prior to WWII, was not the same. The countryside looked very different. Hedgerows, brush, trees and cover crops intermingled with agricultural land. It was wilder than the rural landscape we now know, less curated. This wild landscape was a resource that connected generations. It provided a bounty that was part of our diet. Everything from birch twigs, rowan berries, nettles, hawthorn, acorns and oak leaves were all used in drinks, both alcoholic and non alcoholic alike. These recipes were seldom written down, instead passed down by word from generation to generation, shown rather than taught. The written recipes we now find, are somehow incomplete, no matter how concise or accurate, they are missing some essential wisdom, fractions of information that are observed rather than understood.
To try and recreate these recipes is to travel back in time. Understanding what the landscape looked like at time is an essential piece of that puzzle. It is important that we make these drinks, if we do not we will lose them. In not doing so, we lose an important part of our culinary culture. To make them forces us back into nature, to engage with the amazing array of ingredients that fall outside traditional agriculture. It allows us to broaden our culinary palette. Who knows maybe these wild ingredients might become part of our agricultural cornucopia one day. After all, it was the Romans who brought wild carrot to our shores, its descendant is now available in every supermarket and corner shop.