It’s always nice to get someone else’s views on what you are doing, so one day I met up with the very lovely Alick Simmons to show him round the fields and chat about all things rewilding.
NOTE: I have recently set up an organisation dedicated to returning nature to the Somerset Levels through distributed rewilding, expanding on the work I have done below. Please visit http://www.somersetwildlands.org and sign-up or donate to support.
“Frustrated with the lack of diversity in the largely-anthropogenic landscape of Britain and underwhelmed by the bland experience of the farmed countryside, my interest in the idea of re-wilding has been growing steadily, To be sure, I like visiting the excellent nature reserves of the South West of England but what I really want to see is the landscape and its wildlife, unfettered and unprimped. Spoiled by visits to Finland and the USA where there are landscapes free from ploughs, traps and pesticides, I started to take an interest in what efforts were being made to rewild the UK.
After following a few folks on Twitter with an interest in re-wilding, I started to follow @themushypea, Alasdair’s account detailing his experience with two parcels of land he is re-wilding in Somerset. I realised he and I didn’t live so far from each other and, despite a few delays because of other commitments and the Covid-19 lockdown, we finally managed to arrange a date when Alasdair kindly offered to show me around.
Alasdair has two fields near Godney, not far from Glastonbury and we met on the road next to one of them one warm morning in June. He’s an enthusiast. By enthusiast, I don’t mean nerdy like me who wants to document and list everything he sees. He’s enthusiastic about the land, how it supports life and about what happens when you leave it alone.
So what’s here? The two fields lie in the heart of the Somerset Levels, some of the lowest-lying land in Britain. Both flood seasonally and are drained by the rhynes that bound them, and are given over to unimproved grass. Alasdair has essentially done nothing to them since taking them over several years ago. Sure, he’s put in a scrape for water birds, etc (who wouldn’t?), but that’s all. There are now great stands of rank grass and increasing numbers of wild flowers which contrast with the mown grass or grazings in the fields nearby. The shrubs and trees that bound the larger of the two fields are encroaching further in as they are no longer browsed by cattle and sheep (Well, not often; Alasdair did admit to hosting unplanned but infrequent visits by his neighbour’s cattle. ED – one of the fields has now been grazed by a small herd for two weeks this year, partly out of interest, partly out of neighbour relations, but the encroaching scrub was protected). Slowly, the land and its fauna and flora are changing. It’s not yet a haven for rare beasts and flowers. It may never be but it is obviously ideal for many species of lowland plants and animals that would be otherwise very common were it not that so much of the land is given over to agriculture.
We had a look around both fields and as it became warmer it was clear that insect life was abundant. Dragonflies and damselflies were everywhere: everything from Emperor to Common Blue Damselfly was present. There were dozens of Meadow Brown butterflies and we even saw an early Marbled White. I almost trod on a Grass Snake. In the hedges were singing Whitethroat, Blackcap, Cetti’s Warbler and Chiffchaff. Roe Deer are frequent. It was clear that wildlife is thriving. It’s a success and one that is likely to grow as the years since the last human intervention increase in number.
Alasdair freely admits that it is early days and that he has no real idea what will happen. He is obviously a patient man, an attribute that does not seem widely held amongst those are privileged to be custodians or the land. (Show me an estate, a nature reserve or a farm without a plan to dig a hole at one end of the land and another to fill one in at the other and I’ll be amazed). He’s content to wait.
So what’s next? Alasdair believes that there is a place for small scale re-wilding also across the country. This would be in addition to flagship and managed nature reserves like Minsmere and Ham Wall. What’s needed is a growing network of small parcels of land, not necessarily contiguous, but close enough together to act as sources of bio-diversity and bio-abundance for new parcels as they get re-wilded. It’s an ambitious objective but Alasdair has a plan, at least for the Somerset Levels: It’s called Somerset Wildlands and you can read about it here www.somersetwildlands.org
And me? I intend to go back and start looking at the day-flying moths.” -Alick Simmons