Going wild in Dorset

Aspiring rewilder Hannah Sharland wonders where the wildness was at last month’s Rewilding Dorset workshop

Rewilding Britain Dorset Portland View e2938b9148c634b29c18b9991fbf2127

As a recent graduate and aspiring rewilder, I felt a little out of my depth at Rewilding Dorset. There I was, mingling with representatives from well established nature organisations across the county and further afield. Each had some title, a defining reason to be there.

I live in Dorset. I love the idea of rewilding,” was my general answer to anyone who asked. How could I even hope to explain the feelings, memories, the moments that had come together to bring me here? 

George Monbiot in the jungle

It all started with whale poo and why it matters, according to George Monbiot. I was hooked. I read articles, journals, watched TED talks, whatever I could find. And then there was my trip to Sumatra. Here, after three days trekking with Salak, my 20-year-old jungle guide, I settled into a wooden shack on the fringe of the Ketambe jungle and read Feral.

As I was reading, I heard a clunk… CLUNK!” The sound shook me out of my reverie and I tore outside. A group of macaques in the forest canopy had been dropping fruit on the roof as they bounded between branches. Later, my jungle reading was disturbed by the sound of heavy shuffles and smacking lips. I peered out and saw a flash of copper-orange. Orangutans. People of the Forest. I wanted to follow them into the trees. Orang kota (people of the city) and orang kampung (people of the village) were missing something. Monbiot and the monkeys convinced me there and then, we were missing the wild.

But is it rewilding?

So this was it. I might finally learn how rewilding could happen here in Dorset, my home county. I wasn’t prepared, however, for all the talk about cut-and-burn conservation. Where was the ambition?

I also heard about Hardy’s Egdon Heath, The Wild Purbeck Nature Improvement Area, managing a healthy landscape”. These projects are, of course, important. But they do not resemble what I think of as rewilding. They are interventionist, requiring active human management. They aren’t about nature taking its course.

I left the event feeling uneasy and a little bit empty. Sure, there’d been excellent discussion about rewilding’s potential – beavers in Devon, the Knepp estate, Wild Ennerdale. We’d even had fantastic insight into the way policies could be exploited for rewilding and, better still, how rewilding could be put into practice. The nature organisations charged with conservation in Dorset, though, seemed fixated on heathland restoration and management in general.

Nature knows best, surely?

When I first became aware of rewilding, I was on work experience with the Dorset Wildlife Trust. I joined a team launching The Great Heath Living Landscape. But for all the curiosities and tiny creatures of wonder, I couldn’t help wondering, what would happen if we just stopped? No more cutting or burning.

The New Forest holds some of the answers. It’s by no means as wild as Yellowstone, but it’s still a great example of rewilding – grazers and browsers roam free and drive nature to create a varied woodland, heathland and scrub mosaic, with a diverse functioning ecosystem.

But what happens to all the wildlife that has adapted to live on the Dorset heathland? Well, in the first instance, the point of rewilding isn’t to protect any one species selectively over another. Take the sand lizard, for example. The males are vivid green in breeding season and are fascinating to watch scurrying between battlements of bracken. They thrive in open habitat, so if the heathlands were to succeed into closed canopy woodlands, where would they go?

Jonathan Spencer of the Forestry Commission gave me an answer to a question niggling at my mind for two years. In Russia”, he said, sand lizards have adapted to live in alluvial deposits from silty rivers.” Importantly, his message was that we mustn’t confound an animal’s ecology with its local natural history”.

Doublethink and adaptation

George Monbiot has highlighted the doublethink of conservationists in this country. Red light to chopping down trees and burning forests in jungles, like the one I ventured through in Indonesia. Green light to chopping down trees and burning land in the UK. We were worried about species going extinct when forest fires spread through Sumatra and Kalimantan last summer. We’re worried about species going extinct when we don’t cut and burn forests in Dorset.

Today, the extinction rate is between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than its natural background rate. Because of us. Species need time to adapt alongside their environment as it changes. But when we’re changing the habitat to fit our visions, are we giving them ample time? Of course, many species are already missing, so that makes this a lot harder to gauge. The sand lizards attest to the resilience of species in an ever-changing environment. Perhaps it’s time to trust nature to do what’s best.

About the author

Hannah Sharland is an investigative writer and travel journalist. She studied creative writing and linguistics at university and will shortly be starting a masters in investigative journalism. Her ambition is to pursue a career in environmental and humanitarian investigative journalism.