In December Nico Powell – a young researcher and wildlife enthusiast – joined us for a socially distanced day down on the marshes, looking for harvest mice nests, and generally mooching about. These are his reflections on the day!
Alasdair Cameron has started a new project, the Somerset Wildlands, that is acquiring fields, or “stepping stones”, around the Somerset Levels and letting them go wild. In this case, the definition of wild simply means letting go, releasing the fields from centuries of agricultural use and allowing for natural processes to take over.
Last week, Alasdair invited me to come along to see one of the sites in person. Upon arrival, the first shock is how intense the contrast between his field and his neighbour’s is. Even from a distance, you can easily spot the messy mosaic of green, brown and yellow of his field, surrounded by the fluorescent green of grass shining in the cold sunny morning.
We are met at the gate by Peter Cooper and Kitty Macfarlene. Peter works with Derek Gow, who is paving the way for many species reintroductions in Britain and has recently published Bringing Back the Beaver: The Story of One Man’s Quest to Rewild Britain’s Waterways. Despite his youth, Peter is probably one of the most experienced ecologists in methods of reintroduction. He’s got a sharp sense of humour and a talent for puns, as well as an encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of Britain’s native species. His own blog is an interesting selection of personal observations and contributions to conservation controversies. Kitty is a folk singer, extremely adept at transferring the feelings that nature inspires in her. She’s spoken before of her special relationship with the Levels, and her song Glass Eel is tremendously evocative for all those yearning for a closer, deeper connection to the land. With one focusing on recovering the ecological links that bind us all together and the other creating bridges to human attitudes of care and wonder, they are successfully weaving a future that sees us living in thriving multispecies environments.
Last year, Alasdair and Peter released 90 harvest mice (listed as a UK Biodiversity Action Plan priority species) in one of the fields. Today, we were here to look for their nests. No bigger than baseballs, these nests are weaved out of the long grass that the mice pull around themselves. We rummaged around a specific species of bush that Peter pointed out to us, close to the dyke at the edge of the field. It was fun work, using our hands to search through the overgrowth. We counted at least 10 in the first half an hour. The mice had made a home.
The Levels are special in many ways. Visually, the dykes that demarcate property instead of hedges or trees means your eye takes in a wider, broader perspective of the landscape. It feels open and freeing, and being able to see for miles in all directions across the Levels makes it easier to imagine a place teeming with wetland wildlife.
In front of us stood the Glastonbury Tor, and with it the reminder of the people and animals who have inhabited this area for thousands of years. As I plodded across the marshy field, I thought of the Sweet Track, one of the wooden trackways our Neolithic ancestors built in 3806 BC for easier movement across the wetlands. The wealth and diversity of biotic activity in those days seems unimaginable for us now, but walking the land has a special way of connecting us to its past. One of the old names for Glastonbury is Ynys Wydryn or “Isle of Glass”, probably in reference to the still water around it.
It is the regeneration of the wetlands that brings us here, and the plans come alive when walking across Alasdair’s field. I moved away from the mouse-surveying, off to do a lap of the field. Every few steps across the boggy land, which at this time of the year is held afloat by all the long grasses that just lie there after dying, a bird would fly off, disturbed. I looked ahead and spotted some movement, a trio of roe deer, standing close to the messy shrubs at the other end of Alasdair’s field. I was able to walk towards them for a moment until they spotted me and belted. They flew over the ditch, making their way across the neighbour’s plain open field. “A very mammalian day!” celebrated Peter, alluding to the hare that had run away from us as we stepped onto the field, as well as the massive molehills and the abundance of badger and fox droppings.
These encounters create powerful triggers in the imagination. The Levels stretch out in front of us, and in my mind the neighbour’s fields are slowly engulfed by reeds. Most excitingly, to me at least, is the proximity of Glastonbury. It speaks of a future in which humans are concentrated on the drier high-ground and the Levels are allowed to rewild, a future in which we merge technology and tradition to create different ways of living with nature, living with the wild at your doorstep. Alasdair predicts that within the decade there will be wild boars and beavers in the area. (Editors note – both species are not too far away, and will likely spread. The more space and scruffy space we have for them to spread into the more chance they have of survival. Cranes, have already been introduced to the Levels and Osprey and Sea Eagles could soon become more regular fixtures as they spread to other sites). In the long term he sees possibilities for lynx as well. None of these – except for the lynx – would necessarily have to be actively reintroduced, but like many of the migrating birds that are appearing, would come out of a simpler process in which animals move towards the spaces that organisations like Somerset Wildlands are facilitating. For now, the nearby sounds of machinery remind us that peat extraction is still going on. Much is yet to be done.