My adventures in rewilding
From reintroducing goshawks to planting woodland and digging ponds, falconer and farmer Nick Fox reflects on what rewilding has meant to him over the past 40 years
My adventures in rewilding started in 1972. Being a falconer who hunted with a goshawk, I thought ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to see gosses back in UK?’ After all, they had been killed off by gamekeepers and deserved to be back in their rightful place. There was no Wildlife and Countryside Act then, no licences, no quarantines, no radiotelemetry. We just got on and did it. Now we have goshawks back all over UK and it looks like they’re here to stay.
Could we have done it nowadays, with all the public consultations and stake-holder meetings, feasibility studies, trial releases and computer demographic modelling? Probably not. At least not without a huge effort and cost. It would cost millions now, and we did it for free.
We cannot turn the clock back. We can only go forward.
In the early 80s the red kite population in UK was down to just 25 pairs and the gurkhas were protecting the last nests from egg thieves. The sad thing was; although the kites usually laid three eggs, they seldom reared more than one young. So I suggested to the Kite Committee: why not collect some of the eggs and just leave one viable kite egg and two dummies in each nest? Bring the eggs to me and I will hatch and rear them for you, alongside all the falcon eggs we breed.
Within a year or two, licences were organised and eggs started to arrive. We started hatching these eggs and rearing them using foster buzzards. Just before fledging, we returned them to their nests. But when the field team climbed to the nests with our precious cargo of chicks they found that the wild single chick was half the size of our chicks. Clearly the problem the Welsh kites faced was a shortage of food.
After rearing 53 kites, however, confidence in managing them was growing and soon the proposal was to reintroduce kites to England and Scotland. I took the first two in our old Cortina across to the Chilterns. More arrived from Spain. With new habitat and some fresh genes, the kites did well and after a few years I retired from the Kite Committee.
In the early 1990s I started work in Mongolia, Siberia and China. The Saker Falcon was under pressure. We did lots of surveying and radio tracking and satellite tracking, trying to get to grips with the limiting factors. We organised and attended endless conferences and meetings. But at the end of the day, studying does not actually do anything for the study animal. It creates lots of scientific papers and degrees, but the poor old study animal struggles on with its additional burden of back-pack tags, microchips, and blood sampling. A point is reached where you have to decide to do something, usually based on very incomplete knowledge.
If you ask the animal the right question in the right way, just doing something shows you the next step forward, just as the baby kites told us about their food problem. So we put up 5000 artificial nests at 2km intervals across the Mongolian steppe. In 2014 they produced 2,500 fledged Saker chicks, as well as lots of other raptors. Clearly the problem in those areas was a lack of nest sites.
The key to rewilding is long-term control over the land. If you haven’t got that, all you can do is talk about it. My wife and I started out with no money. We worked hard breeding falcons and doing wildlife consultancies and gradually managed to buy more cheap land in Wales. Now our holding consists of 278 acres on four adjacent farms and we have looked after it for 33 years.
Gradually we’ve taken about 30 per cent of the farm out of agriculture. We’ve dug 23 ponds, the largest being a 350 metre lake. And we’ve planted lots of woodlands, shelterbelts and hedges. But a pond is just a hole full of water and a plantation is just a field with trees planted on it. How do you go from there to a ‘finished product’, a pond that is teeming with life, or an ‘ancient’ woodland?
There are two approaches: one is to wait and see what happens. The other is the interventionist approach. I’ve tried waiting and seeing. A new pond can quickly become dominated by a certain species that others cannot compete with. Another pond nearby may be completely dominated by another species. There is no balance. The same can happen with woodlands. And however long you wait, if a species – such as the beaver – is completely extinct it can never re-colonise. I am too impatient. I like to give nature a helping hand by inoculating the new habitats with ‘starter packs’. A few bucketfuls of sludge from old ponds enables many of the plants and invertebrates to establish a foothold in the freshly dug pond. And a few front-end loader buckets of topsoil and leaf litter from the old woods will help the fungi and invertebrates to colonise the new woods (it’s like making home-made yoghurt using boy’s toys).
This is a bottom up approach to rewilding. Once the pond below water is flourishing, and the reed beds and shoreline plants are thick and luxuriant, then small mammals and birds may return. The dabchicks first come just to breed in the summer, but then as the habitat enriches they can stay all year.
My wife and I are planning on dying. We don’t know when. We know that we are just temporary custodians of the farm. So we are creating a charity called The Bevis Trust for Wildlife Management. ‘Bevis – the Story of a Boy,’ was written by Richard Jefferies in the 1860s, and reminds me of my own childhood in Wiltshire. It conjures up the exploration of nature by farm children at the time of the great agricultural depression. We cannot turn the clock back. We can only go forward.
About the author
Nick Fox has been a falconer for over 40 years. He farms in Wales and runs his own business International Wildlife Consultants.