Hope, Confusion and Despair at the first WILDERFEST, but mainly hope
I spent three days at the first Wilderfest Festival recently, the brain child of Beaver Champion, Derek Gow, on whose beaver-blessed land in deepest Devon we gathered, and Sussex based festival impresario Huw Williams. Gow attended a small nature-based festival last year that was Williams’ inspired and frustrated response to consuming far too many re-wilding books during the first lock down. Wilderfest, a ‘micro festival’ aimed at ‘celebrating the beauty of nature and the potential of our native landscape and species to thrive’ is their first joint creation.
I am writing this article as a confused but concerned enthusiast of anything that will help prevent the ongoing decline of our wide open natured spaces and the creatures large and small that fly, run, hop, burrow and buzz in them.
So what is a micro festival…..well there were some bits you’d expect to find at a festival: Singing, notably Sam Lee with songs of the travellers who knew the older wild of these lands, and a rendition of the nightingale songs for which he has become known. We heard a captivating telling of a native American story from the days when man and woman and the great grizzly bear shared mutual respect. And of course there was booze, burgers and buckets of rain to ensure the full Brit fest vibe. But as an intimate gathering of about 150 people sharing a common passion it was, with more than a handful of professors on show, more like a conference. A small gathering, but a larger part of Britain’s established re-wilders, with books to their credit, or decades of field work to inform us, and academics with the data to make the case to go with the common sense and the passion. Many of these re-wild stars were meeting face to face for the first time, who knows what has been plotted and promised since!
And then there were farmers; doing their best, before and after Brexit rules and funding changes, to implement practices that would make money enough to keep their farm going, while at the same time providing habitat for nature to find her way back into their fields, hedgerows and wet-places (watery land featured in much of the conversation, but this is what happens when your host is a beaver warrior). Farmers were careful to avoid the word ‘rewilding’ which provokes some of their peers (especially Welsh ones), so ‘regenerative agriculture’ is the new stock phrase to learn and some people there have been at this for years.
For us concerned civilian onlookers, unbloodied in the trench warfare of subsidies, policy pronouncements and support schemes and DEFRA acronyms this is where it can get hard to follow. And super frustrating. Suddenly our concerns and our countryside seem to be in the hands of a few distant Whitehall officials, the NFU and dare we mention it, the agri-chemical mega corps that pull strings behind the scenes. It feels as if all is lost and there is little we, mere onlookers, can do.
But we can dream. A tour of the land (formerly a bog standard wheat and cows farm of the Devon sort) demonstrated some of the potential an integrated rewilding scheme might bring. The rewilding proposition is to let nature do its own thing, and only when something gets out of balance to intervene modestly. Knepp is held up as the prima face evidence of what this approach can achieve. But it takes a mixture of animals and plants to get this right, not one plant or one specie. The bull of a small clan of large water buffalo from China (to break up the land and make puddles) never took his eyes off us. Wild boar were about, but unseen, their job to churn up the ground inviting new growth. Exmoor horses, an ancient breed on this land, charged around at sunset and a small heard of timid mouflon retreated perpetually before us. There was a whole gaggle of birds ( feathers not my forte) making an appearance here after years of absence and of course there were beavers, also camera shy, though their handiwork was spectacular, if slightly smaller here than some text book photos had set us to expect. And around them a wet world. The beavers are super fenced in still, where they roam free in Europe (and in the UK on the River Otter in Devon) they have a radical impact on land around them.
So what did we do conference about? Of course, pride of place went to the role of the beaver in wildlife restoration and then there was a series of talks about their activity, history and the problems of extending this further in the UK. By contrast German Beaver King, Gerhard Schwab amused and amazed us with a long list of beaver introduction stories right across Europe. Did you know there are even beavers in urban Berlin? Sometimes where beavers were forbidden they turned up anyway and before paper waving officials could trap them they won the hearts of the locals and stayed. We truly were left wondering why aren’t beavers all over the UK already. Apart from managing flood water run off (‘downstream peak flow attenuation’ per the boffins from Exeter University) which at no cost to mankind could save millions in flood damage, they create habitats for all kinds of rewilding. By the end of Derek Gow’s ardent monologue on the wonder of the beaver I was quite prepared to believe beavers could also bring about world peace and end global hunger.
Looking in as a newby, I wondered why it all took so long if it was so right ? Is it that many of these experts are happier wallowing around in muddy fields or up a ladder attaching a nest box to a tree, than sitting in air conditioned offices filling out ‘another bloody form’, talking to officials, or enrolling fellow conservationists. Should the wildlife experts be the ones haggling with the civil servants and regulators? While many a success seemed to come from a ’just do it’ mind set, and sheer bloody mindedness at times, this limits the doing and the successes to the places the few skilled hands can get to and doesn’t enrol skilled volunteers or other conservation bodies or NGO’s to the cause.
And this is where some of the despair sets in. Several times we heard stories where conservation experts with other causes (enthusiasts and conservers of different birds or animals than our presenters were trying to introduce) stuck their heals in so firmly that years, even decades, of delays ensued. How in the face of collapsing wildlife numbers can such pettiness get in the way, aren’t we all on the same side? Such internecine feuding seems not uncommon in this world. An obvious example, newly introduced birds of prey might devour other small much treasured conserved species. As long as such sparing and refusal to see the bigger picture continues, the opponents of most rewilding projects have nothing to worry about.
Stories of obstruction were outshone by more spectacular stories of success from some of the top rewilding champions in the UK. In this small intimate gathering it was easy to ask questions and listen in on their stories. Here’s a little of the ones that caught my imagination. inspired me to dig deeper, or read their books:
Roy Dennis – The elder statesman of the group, in his very understated style told tales of introducing large birds of prey, osprey, golden eagle, and red kite, all over the UK, most recently bringing the white tailed eagle to the Isle of White. Dogged persistence seems to be his style.
Carl Jones – incredible first hand low key telling of how he has saved several bird species from extinction. Few people can boast of this remarkable achievement. With the support of the Durrell Foundation (founded by Gerald Durrell of TV and books fame) he implemented bird care and reintroduction techniques he first taught himself as a lad in Wales. These are now used throughout the world when scarce species need a hand.
Guy Shrubshrole – already known for his book Who Owns England?, picked up on its subtitle …’green and pleasant land..’ explaining how much of our temperate rain forest (once pretty much all of our western seaboard) is lost, the subject of his next book. In a rewilding context this brings habitat loss, species extinction, and asks what can we do about it– a theme in his upcoming book. It also shows that, ‘now’, as a base line for ‘conservation’ is a very low bar to aim at.
Ben Mcdonald - returned to this low bar, seeking to bring back long-lost species that were once an inimitable part of these lands, the pelican being his favourite. He backed up these reintroductions with a much needed vigorous financial and economic analysis of the case for ecotourism. Rebirding, his first book makes many of these arguments. And his recent (Cornerstones) of course argues for the return of beavers, but also boars, whales in our oceans and lynx in our forests.
In many continental countries the spectacular pointy eared lynx roams freely, keeping the local deer population alert and on the move, they don’t have time to chew into every budding sapling, and trees benefit and later all the wildlife that goes with them. From a viewing platform over Gow’s lynx enclosure we were treated to a glimpse of these shy creatures. While Gow professes to have no intention of introducing lynx any time soon, his lynx parade in part to inspire a vision of things to come, ready for the day the British public is supportive and the official forms have all been filled, for his lynx to be some of the first out the traps.
All these rewilding dreams are very well and would be nice to have, but we have to feed ourselves and food sovereignty is back on the agenda, and we can ‘t afford to do all of this, we have to pay for covid and the cost of living crisis. Besides which, aren’t destructive industrial farming practices the preferred means of production for farmers, all humbly in service to ensuring there is food on our plates. This is where the expertise of Jake Fiennes comes in. Making the final presentation, a man of many hats, formerly at Knepp, now on all sort of committees in farming and government, and with an
unmatchable command of the lingo. He knows the data and most of all was not shy of sharing the bottom line impact of all he is doing at the Holkam Estate in Norfolk where he is Head of Conservation. Offering some of the insights from Land Healer, his recent book, he is obviously a consummate and skilled people-person and passionate about restoring, not just conserving nature. His success as food farmer and a nature restorer at Holkam is a model many can follow.
Possibly next year Wiliams and Gow will have a gathering recounting all sorts of new progress. As more books are written, and read, and climate concerns continue to grab headlines, more people will find their way to Wlderfest and similar gatherings. And here is the hope. As the number of confused and concerned onlookers grows they can underpin the support needed for a small but growing number of experts and re-generative farmers, like those gathered here, in their efforts to not just preserve what is left, but to restore some of the damage already done. All while putting food on our plates, creating new ecotourist jobs and making a profit.
JOHN L SCAIFE