The Best & Worst Bits of Owning a Rewilding Project
What does rewilding *feel* like?
I’ve been doing rewilding on a small scale for about 2 years now, and spent the previous year researching and visiting the site. I usually write about how to rewild, but not what it actually feels like to be a rewilder. So let’s take a look at the highs and lows…
It’s late November on the field and as the seasons change, I look out across a liminal landscape of golden scrub and wicked thorn, stretching out to the wooded horizon.
Humid air sits atop the land like a blanket and the last ditch leaves hang on to their holdfasts, seeking one final sunrise atop heaps of blackthorn and bramble. On my 3.5 acres of Somerset flatlands, these overgrown hedges are mounded up – braced against the threat of winter winds.
Autumn here is a passing thought, that tears through the branches, whipping life from limb.
Nestled in our warm, crackly-dry homes this winter, we’ll look out at the slanting rain with a wry smile. “At least I’m not out in that”, we’ll think.
Well, most of us will. I’ll be plodding across the field, ankle deep in sloppy brown sludge and the remnants of old pasture. Like you, and like my father, I used to hate the rain, rushing inside at the merest hint of precipitation. But there’s something about being forced to endure the elements that changes you.
Over the first year of working on my project, I spent more time in misting, blasting, harrowing rain than I can recount. My coat is good for about half an hour, before the stuff starts seeping through. But when there’s work to do, like putting in fenceposts, planting trees, digging ponds or laying hedges, there’s really no hiding from the weather.
You can’t pop in for a tea when you’re stuck in the middle of a field.
Yet somehow, over time, your body begins to embrace these sensations – the shivering wet cold, wild wind, spattering drops hitting skin. There’s something visceral about it which send electric shocks down your spine. I understand now why farmers don’t wander about in head to toe Gore Tex, but seem to wear a uniform of tattered rags instead.
And so it was for me – far from rejecting the winter winds and autumn rain, I run out into it, screaming at the sky; ‘is that all you’ve got?!’
Needless to say, the neighbours think I’m a little bit eccentric. Yet I find them out there, too – out in all kinds of weather. Because if you’re a rewilder and a Brit, then, by definition, you learn to love the outdoors – to live the outdoors.
In this low landscape, you can see the weather coming from a while away. On one occasion, I watched as a downpour soaked the southern half of the field, while the northern half, where I stood, remained dry. You’ll learn more from watching your land than from reading any book.
As you watch, the land will change – the water levels rise and fall. Where once there was a tussock, now there is a tiny island, surrounded by a miniature pond, with waving grasses submerged in its depths. Here there is the skeleton of a tree, where soon there will be leaves, nests, then berries. But knowing the tree means reading it in every season – learning the pattern and colour of the bark, so that you can recognise it again when you stumble upon these lines and shades in the back of a supermarket car park, or on a wind-blasted moor.
Watching is half of rewilding, and in the far distance you’ll see the birds coming just like the weather. Watch them arrive. Because as you learn the land, so you’ll learn the birds that live here. The more you see them come and go, the more you’ll know them by a flick of the wing, a turn of the head or the way they bounce from tree to tree.
As time passes, more and more birds will arrive, bringing you hope, joy and a lot of time in confusion, cross-referencing bird books. Ponds are like a magnet that draw in the migrants and overfliers which pass across this patchwork landscape. My land is an oasis – seven pools scattered across a thistle-strewn field. Snow white egrets, nervous wagtails, flighty snipe and striking shelduck all appear, and I stand there silently and watch.
Are we nearly there yet?
It was trespassing, I suppose. We hadn’t yet bought the field when I first showed my son the land. He was 6. From speaking to the landowner, it seemed like we were just weeks away from the final sale. In reality, it was months.
Yet here we were, in late August, trudging through this featureless expanse of green pasture that would soon become rolling slopes of wetland, young woodland, meadows and that tiny bit of allotment I stuck down the end. My son asking why we were walking on a bit of field that wasn’t the public footpath.
“We’re not allowed here, dad!”
“Don’t worry, I’m just showing you something, OK?”
I jumped up onto a stack of mouldering hay bales which were dumped in the corner of the field and pulled him up after me. Soon, these would become his climbing frame, but for now, they were a viewing station – a lookout post.
I pointed towards the far hedgerow – the thin green line which stretched across the end of the field, two hundred metres away from us.
“All this land. Everything from here, all the way to over there. All of it will soon belong to us. We can do whatever we like here. It’ll be our project – we’re going to bring nature back… together.”
And we did.