Where Have the Wild Things Gone?
Experiences & reflections on the current state of climate, diversity, and environmental degradation in the UK, what has been lost, and hopes for the future.
By Jasper Pryor
Growing up in England I was regularly told how green and beautiful our landscape was. The rolling hills and the green fields. Going to Scotland as a child I marvelled at the beautiful, jagged peaks. These harsh landscapes seemed as though they had always been there. I had no reason to imagine that what I was looking at was entirely unnatural.
As I have grown older and industrial agriculture has intensified further I have started to look around me and see the countryside for what it is. A desecrated landscape. A sea of destroyed ecosystems with a few hedges linking them together. Our supposedly wild national parks are anything but. In fact, they are just large fields filled to the brim with sheep. Those hills are essentially just hunting grounds for lazy, wealthy men who take pleasure from shooting a semi-tame animal. It is ridiculous really.
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Experiencing the Natural Environment of The UK
I have been lucky enough to find this out firsthand. First of all, during the pandemic I explored the landscape around where I lived in Suffolk. I found that it was largely in a terrible state. Soil erosion was commonplace due to the excessive use of machinery. I also found that those wealthy families who owned these large estates had no intention of engaging with any positive change as their only motive was profit. This is a shame but it is also how England is and always has been. Unfortunately, we have a greedy and slightly simple ruling class who are incapable of independent thought.
As the lockdown was lifted I decided to walk the Scottish National Trail. This is a roughly 500 mile route which crosses the entire length of Scotland.
The scenery was beautiful and I felt incredibly lucky to spend so much time outside. There are clear signs that those who call Scotland home are fighting to restore some of the former landscapes. But, for a country which was originally dominated by the Caledonian Forest so little life exists in the valleys and hillsides. I walked for six weeks, spending all day outside, camping in forests and beside streams. In all that time I saw one otter, a handful of birds of prey and one red squirrel. That is pitiful.
Through centuries of neglect and mismanagement we have created an ecosystem that is essentially nonexistent. As an island nation we can’t rely on the good work of neighbours to see wild populations recover. We have to recreate these habitats ourselves and reintroduce the animals which have been lost. It is a mammoth task.
The Contrast: Environmental Degradation in The UK
In England, we have decided that climate change is happening elsewhere, with the deforestation of the Amazon and desertification in North Africa. We think our seas have changed because of melting ice caps.
Yet, the west of the UK was once covered in temperate rainforest. Still, there are small fragments of mossy woodland on Exmoor, near to where I work on Dartmoor there are tiny patches of what once was the dominant landscape.
If you walk the hills of Dartmoor, or Snowdonia in Wales I can guarantee you that you will be walking in a human engineered landscape. I can also guarantee you that there will be no extraordinary encounters with truly wild and unique creatures. They no longer call these supposedly wild places home because the habitat that exists here is desolate.
In the valleys of Wales you are far more likely to see the open wounds of environmental degradation. These are the land slips that have occurred as the rain has poured off the hills with no trees or shrubs to hold the soil together. These open wounds are exacerbated by sheep who then use these hollows to shelter from the wind. A wind which whips incessantly due to the fact the valleys have no vegetation to break the flow.
It is tragic that the UK, a wet and temperate landscape, houses so little life. Even more so, when we consider the fact that we proselytise to those around the world with an assumed level of superiority.
In the UK we have a pitiful 13% forest coverage. This is far below the European average. What makes this even worse is that roughly half of those trees are non-native trees planted in rows for forestry. These dark conifers grow in squares, within these trees almost no life exists as they shade out native plants. They provide homes and nutrition for very few creatures.
The few that manage to scrape out an existence then have their homes torn down around them when these blocks are clear-felled. It is shameful. We have to see that this is entirely unsustainable and something which we need to redress.
Projects Aimed at Environmental Restoration
Currently, I am working on a project on Dartmoor that is seeking to restore a small valley. Native broadleaf trees have been replanted and a small family of Eurasian beavers have been reintroduced.
We have been treated to the return of struggling wildlife such as the beautiful woodcock, a small and agile bird which likes wetland scrubs. A variety of deer call this area home and in the future there are big plans to recreate habitats for a plethora of wild creatures. There are hopeful spots such as this across Devon as pioneering people have carved out patches of wild land amongst a sea of monocultures.
All the land surrounding our project is denuded and overgrazed by an army of sheep. The sheep are worth almost nothing at market today. I know this as I used to work on a sheep farm in the Suffolk marshes and their value was kept extremely low by the import of lamb from New Zealand and Australia. The most valuable thing to most sheep farms are the government subsidies. This strange position means that taxpayers are essentially funding the continued destruction of landscapes by maintaining a form of farming which has almost no commercial value.
It is complicated, though. The cultural value of sheep farming is enormous to many of the UKs uplands. Many families have been involved in this practice for centuries and they seek to uphold the traditions of their forefathers. This makes it a complicated topic but not one we should shy away from. It would be fine to have some areas of uplands with sheep grazing in rotation.
In some ways, this method can keep meadows open and allow for diversity. It is crucial that we find a compromise which does not sideline either the people or the creatures that call these hills home.
Addressing the Loss of Diversity
The positive aspect to this is that our generation has the chance to recreate formerly beautiful landscapes.
With hard work and some targeted legislation we could recreate this mosaic of habitats. Reintroducing lost species such as the Eurasian beaver allows the recreation of wetlands and also slows down the flow of water.
Many English rivers have been canalised at one point or another. This was originally done to allow for easier movement of goods but now these rivers frequently break their banks and cause enormous flood damage. With beavers we have a chance to create pools and meanders which will slow the flow of water. These pools are also invaluable habitats for all manner of creatures from dragonflies to newts.
We have to recognise that our ecosystems rely on diversity. As things stand, the UK is bereft of this diversity. First of all, we have to accept this fact and stop lying to ourselves. Then, we have to realise that we have a chance to create something beautiful.
This possibility is inspiring and empowering in equal measure. Natural life rebounds so quickly when we give it half a chance. With some careful planning and a lot of hard work we can leave this land infinitely more diverse than we found it.
There are places of strength from which we can grow out of. For example, Glen Feshie and Glen Affric in Scotland house genuine areas of old growth pine forests. Forests with thick understoreys of heather, sphagnum moss and bilberry bushes. These offer us the chance to recover. I plan to walk through Scotland in fifty years time and I hope to be sleeping in forests that house lynx, pine martens and wild boar. If we can achieve that then we can be proud.
Thoughts on the Environmental Future of the UK
The UK is a wet and temperate place. There are rich soils housing many creatures who are hoping for a chance to flourish once again. The abundance of life that is possible is remarkable.
I want to see clouds of butterflies and hear raucous skeins of geese. I want to see our seas filled with mammals and fish. Our shorelines shimmering with the movement of curlews and avocets. All looking over the shoulders at white-tailed eagles and ospreys. We have lost so much but we should see that as a challenge rather than a defeat.
I want my generation to sit in awe of the life in front of us. There are a number of factors that we must resolve but none are too complicated. All are possible with the will and the desire to do so.
About the Author
Jasper Pryor is a young English writer and passionate environmentalist. He has a love for slow travel which has led him to walk the length of Scotland and cycle from Calais to Naples. Over the last year he has spent much of his time exploring Wales and searching for forgotten wilderness. Along the way he has discovered the beautiful corners of Europe and the degraded nature of so much of the UK.