Making space for nature in the Somerset Levels
The Somerset Levels were once England’s Okavango Delta. From pelicans to lynx, beavers to sturgeons, its wetlands, woods and estuaries teemed with wildlife, much of it now gone. Somerset Wildlands is a new organisation aiming to restore some of that lost wildlife and wildness through a process of distributed rewilding. The Levels may never be what they were, but we have an opportunity to create a wilder future and a world-class wildlife core for the South-West of England and beyond.
Using our unique ‘stepping stones’ approach, we will purchase plots of land as they become available and create a distributed network of wilded sites, boosting wildlife populations and providing opportunities for species reintroductions and for wildlife to spread and adapt naturally. This natural habitat restoration will help to store and sequester carbon dioxide, and provide a host of social benefits.
As we increase both the abundance and diversity of life we will seek to maximise social value. We will work to ensure that the cultural benefits of re-wilding are realised, while maintaining the focus on protecting and providing space for nature. We will encourage citizen-science and education, with particular efforts to engage young people.
We anticipate that increasing wildness in the region will stimulate a local nature based economy. Wilded landscapes are multipurpose, and economic opportunity will arise – be it products from the land (botanicals, reeds, foraging), wildlife guiding, school visits, natural flood management or any other service that could be offered.
This is a landscape steeped in legend and history. It was here that Alfred the Great hid from the Vikings during his wars to defend Wessex, using the marshes and swamps as cover. It is here too that some believe the mythical Isle of Avalon, legendary resting place of King Arthur, once lay. We believe that by restoring space for nature and ‘wildness’ in the Levels, we can help to provide new opportunities for our cultures to engage with this environment.
By 2030 Somerset Wildlands hopes to have 1000 acres of new land undergoing rewilding in the Somerset Levels. We will do this through a mixture of land purchase and leasing, and by building up and encouraging a network of affiliated small landowners to form independent stepping stones.
Our wildlife is in crisis – both globally and nation-ally. The Earth’s animal population has declined by a half in the last 40 years. In the UK around 60% of species have declined in the last 50 years.2 We live in one of the most nature-depleted countries on Earth. In the Somerset Levels we have lost most of the large species that once lived here, and even smaller once common species like the Euro-pean eel have seen spectacular falls in abundance in recent decades, declining by around 90% since the 1980s. We cannot continue as we are. New thinking is required.
Conservation activities have been able to stem the decline in some areas and prevent vital populations from going extinct, but we need a new approach, both in terms of nature restoration and the scale of activity in order to begin to turn the tide.
There is evidence too that people – particularly younger people in more urban environments – are increasingly disconnected from nature, and that this can have an impact on happiness, education, mental health and physical activity. At the global level there is increasing evidence that our relationship with wildlife and the natural world is a key factor in human health and in the rise and spread of diseases. Climate change too demands new thinking. So-called nature based solutions – such as the resto-ration of natural habitats like forests, wetlands, marshes and the reinstatement of ecological processes like natural succession are one of the most important tools we have to mitigate and adapt to catastrophic climate change. For example the conversion of improved grassland to forest or wetland may increase carbon sequestration by around 14 tonnes of carbon dioxide per hectare per year.
Finally climate change means that many habitats and species will be forced to change in coming years, rendering it essential to create more space for nature to adapt.
Somerset Wildlands is seeking to rise to these challenges. By creating space for nature and natural processes and by not having ‘fixed outcomes’ we will provide areas where wildlife can adapt and find refuge. This will compliment the activities of standard conservation groups in the area. In doing so we will sequester and store carbon, provide opportunities for education and environmentally friendly economic activity and help restore the lost diversity and abundance of life
Stepping stones approach
Somerset Wildlands is using a process of distributed rewilding, which we are calling ‘stepping stones’. This will seek to develop a network of re-wilding sites throughout the Levels – some small, some large. Each of these will be managed in as light-touch a way as is practical using tools such as natural regeneration and ecological succession, rewetting, light grazing, species reintroduction or reinforcement and potentially tree planting in ap-propriate areas. In contrast to standard conservation which seeks areas of high value to nature and then protects them, or which frequently targets key species, we will acquire areas of normal farm-land and allow them to develop as spaces for nature, and keep an open mind about their ultimate outcomes.
Over time this will create numerous ‘islands of wildness’ within the target areas – providing refuges for wildlife and diversity within the overall landscape. These will augment the existing matrix of carefully managed nature reserves (often man-aged to maintain a set habitat or certain species) and the farmland beyond. Stepping stones will be of a variety of sizes, with smaller ones ranging from 1-100 acres, and large ones perhaps covering several hundred acres – as opportunities and re-sources permit.
In total the Levels cover around 100,000 acres, so our 2030 target would involve rewilding approximately 1% of the region. This may seem a modest medium term target, but we believe that even re-wilding on this scale would provide huge benefits to the wildlife of the overall landscape, and a strong foundation to increase ambition in the future, with public acceptance.
You can download the full strategy, with much more information, here.
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