Thoughts on Rewilding

Over the last couple of years rewilding has become a popular topic of conversation, led perhaps by Isabella Tree or Rewilding Britain or Extinction Rebellion. I don’t count myself as expert in rewilding – it’s not the same as the tree planting that I’ve done – but I have some thoughts on it.

  • Trees can be planted in many ways. At one end of the spectrum might be carefully arranged specimens or a monoculture coniferous forest arranged in rows. At the other end is the tree planting that I practice – young native tree whips arranged as best I can to mimic nature. The space between the trees is left to rewild, although realistically the planted trees will outcompete most of the products of rewilding.
  • Between the trees I’ve planted is thick grass, supporting numerous field voles, ant hills, grasshoppers and other small creatures. There are lots of nettles, ragwort, knapweed, thistles and other flowering plants. Also a few brambles but these mostly encroach from surrounding hedges rather then springing up everywhere. Amongst this a few trees spring up, notably oak and hazel which I think have probably been seeded by squirrels.
  • Trees which have grown from wild seed are likely to be stronger than the ones I’ve planted. Wild trees have to go through an only-the-fittest selection process in order to survive and thrive. Trees I’ve planted were artificially helped in a tree nursery and then by me, they didn’t have to fight too hard for survival.
  • I’ve planted trees into established pasture. This monoculture of well established grass is slow to rewild because it outcompetes most seeds. I’m told that arable land would rewild much faster than pasture.
  • Rewilding relies on large animals to disturb the soil and compete with the scrub. I have only deer, which tend to eat small trees (whether planted by me or rewilded). In time brambles will move in and protect the trees from the deer but that seems to be a very gradual process.
  • Many people (including me) plant trees with the intention of slowing climate change by sequestering CO2. I understand that trees and grass sequester similar amounts of carbon in the soil but that trees sequester substantially more above ground. Trees are of course at risk of fire which might kill them and as they burn return much of the above-ground carbon to the atmosphere. If this is not a major threat today it might be in years to come if climate change leads to long hot dry periods.
  • Planted trees establish much sooner then rewilding. How quickly you are able to sequester carbon is important, I see this as one important benefit of planting over rewilding.
  • I’ve planted a wide range of native trees and shrubs, some of these species are not present locally so rewilding based on whatever local seed is there might not have created such a diverse woodland.
  • Bringing in plants from outside the area (as I did with trees) carries a risk of spreading disease or pests. Rewilding based on naturally distributed local seed doesn’t carry that risk.
  • Before any significant intervention (for example planting trees), it’s important to have a good idea of the existing flora and fauna and how the site fits in with the surrounding ecosystem. This may mean seeing the site through the seasons and getting advice. It will take time which could be frustrating. My experience was that the process of finding and purchasing land takes months (like buying a house) and then you need to wait until tree planting season (winter), so observing nature can fit okay.