How to Rewild a Field
A step by step guide to small scale rewilding.
Let’s walk through the key steps to follow when rewilding a field, and, crucially, explain why these steps are necessary.
Along the way, we’ll offer some tips on how to make these steps pay for themselves, either with grants or produce.
Is Rewilding Just Leaving Land Alone?
Rewilding is often described as ‘leaving land to go wild’, but if you actually do that, what you’ll get will probably be a bit bland.
That’s not to say leaving land to go wild isn’t valid – it’s a very low effort style of ‘passive rewilding’ and in wild places, it can create great habitats. But in those areas there’s lots of diversity, not just in the plants and animals, but in many other ways too:
- Drainage – how dry is the soil and how often does it flood?
- Water cover – how much of the land is permanently underwater?
- Exposure – is it high or low compared to surrounding land?
- Aspect (sunlight/heat) – is it on a North- or South-facing slope?
- Soil Chemistry – how much nutrients and organic matter are present?
- Connectedness – is the habitat part of a big block, or isolated?
- Grazing pressure – how many grass-eating herbivores per hectare?
- Browsing pressure – how many bush- and tree-eating animals per hectare?
- Predation pressure – how much are herbivores are scared away or eaten by predators?
But humans have changed this natural variety over thousands of years:
- Drainage – ditches and pipes installed to funnel rainwater into rivers
- Water cover – ponds filled in to make space for crops, buildings and gardens
- Exposure / Aspect – land flattened by the plough and large rocks removed
- Soil Chemistry – organic matter content fell, so we used more fertilisers
- Connectedness – wilderness broken into chunks as farming took over
- Grazing pressure – overgrazing as livestock levels are much higher than in nature
- Browsing pressure – large browsers like Bison were wiped out
- Predation pressure – deer (browser) populations shot up as their predators vanished
‘Rewilding’ is about trying to recreate the diversity and natural processes of a wild landscape, but when most of the underlying variety has been removed, this is difficult.
So the first step in rewilding is to try and get back some of what ecologists call ‘heterogeneity’ – the complexity in a landscape. Complex habitats have complex food webs, supporting more species, and often more animals, too.
Restoring Nature's Lumps
Fields tend to be flat – they might be sloping, but the land is generally quite smooth from one side to the other. What we want to achieve in this step is to bring back some of the natural lumps and dips which create variation in drainage across your land.
You’ll want high and dry hillocks, perfect for ground-nesting insects and reptiles, and soggy bottoms, ideal for fish and amphibians. These species will support predators higher up in the food web. A flat field may all dry out in one go, leaving no refuge for aquatic creatures, or it could all become waterlogged, killing off ground-dwelling animals.
Simple scrapes like this one at RSPB Otmoor allow water to pool on the land during winter floods and create habitats for plants, birds, amphibians and invertebrates.
Making Wildlife Ponds
Action: Create ponds and use the soil to make hillocks; remove artificial drains.
Ponds are an ideal way to start, though shallow ‘scrapes’ are another option. There are grants available for free pond creation in some areas – search for ‘Great Crested Newt pond grants’ or look for providers like FWAG in the SW and the White Cliffs Countryside Partnership scheme in South Kent. The great thing about creating ponds is that you’ll also create ‘spoil’. Spoil is the soil removed from the hole – it can be used to make the dry hillocks mentioned above.
Artificial drains may have been added to your land in the past, or dug into the soil using a mole plough – removing these, or blocking them (if it’s permitted) can create patches of waterlogged ground upstream. Digging down into these damp patches can easily turn them into more long-lasting ponds. Be cautious about pond liner – in areas with a high water table, it may float up during floods, and the liner can be extremely expensive on larger scales, especially if it gets punctured!
Pigs and some other animals like Bison and Beavers naturally create scrapes and ponds as part of their everyday activity. It’s quite likely that your field is a bit too small for a Bison (and probably a Beaver), but bringing in pigs occasionally could help make watery spaces the natural way!
What Happens If I Just Leave the Field?
With some, but not all of our wild herbivores wiped out (Bison, Aurochs, Straight-tusked Elephant (pictured above), Rhinoceros), other species introduced (Muntjac, Rabbit) and predators of large herbivores hunted to extinction (Wolf, Lynx), our ecosystems are in a bit of a mess.
Under natural conditions in the UK (if humans had never arrived), your ‘abandoned’ field would likely end up as a ‘wood pasture’ with a mix of woodland, scrub and grassland – the areas each kept in check by herbivores (Sandom et al 2014).
Instead, because of our unbalanced ecosystems, over time you’ll end up with a high canopy broadleaf woodland that’s fairly low in biodiversity. Much of the valuable undergrowth will be eaten away by deer, and, without Bison to stop areas of grassland turning into forest, you’ll have no glades for wildflower meadows, no ponds and no valuable edge habitats.
This is not really ‘rewilding’ – it’s more ‘land abandonment’. Rewilding the land is taking it back to a wild state where natural processes can allow biodiversity to recover, so you’re either going to need livestock for this next step, or a lot of manual labour!
We have lost many of the animals that would naturally be found in the UK, but we can replace some of these functions ourselves, while creating valuable products like timber, wild dairy and wild meat.
Grazing or Coppicing Your Field
Action: Graze cattle at low densities or coppice woodland by hand.
Cattle in wild landscapes are much more spread out than we keep them in farm fields – this means that patches of the landscape have time to grow up into woodland. Meanwhile, browsing of forest edges, storms and flood damage open up woodland, creating new grassland patches (in Europe and elsewhere, wildfire is also a factor) (Honnay et al 2004).
Cattle mimic the behaviour of our extinct mega-herbivores like Bison by both grazing (eating grass) and browsing (eating trees and shrubs). This is the natural cycle of the landscape, but it isn’t possible when there are too many herbivores on your land, as every little sapling will be nibbled or trampled to death (Smit et al 2015). Trees will never have a chance to get established, so the field will remain grassland forever.
On the flip side, a field without herbivores will end up as bland, high canopy woodland, so we need something in the middle. There are two approaches to this – one involves grazing livestock on your land (at low density or only occasionally) – this creates a wood pasture (scrubby grassland) landscape (Samojlik & Kuijper 2013). The other involves using a saw/chainsaw to selectively cut areas of trees to ground level, encouraging new shoot growth (mimicking the activity of beavers/bison) – this creates a coppiced woodland. Both have benefits and drawbacks:
Cattle (wood pasture)
+ Meat produced, natural effect on vegetation structure, natural fertiliser, trampling, seeds pushed into ground by hooves.
– Fencing and water required, must find and care for animals, vet bills, potential for overgrazing, ground may be compacted, dung may cause problems with water quality.
Manual Labour (coppiced woodland)
+ More precise vegetation management, firewood and related products, coppice good for biodiversity, outdoor activity, less animal welfare issues, less impact on soil.
– Deer fencing may be required, protective gear, dangerous, kit maintenance, emissions from petrol-powered saws, noise pollution, not natural process.
Whether you choose the first or the second option essentially comes down to a few things:
- Are you comfortable managing livestock?
- Would you rather produce firewood or meat?
- Do you prefer woodland or grassland habitats?
- Do you have a lot of deer on your land?
A wood pasture landscape at Knepp, where cattle, pigs and deer roam freely at low densities.
Creating a Diverse Habitat
Action: Decide what habitat will lead to maximum biodiversity by looking at the surroundings.
Mosaic landscapes – patchworks of different habitats with plenty of edges – are often most suitable for wildlife, as biodiversity increases at woodland edges (Normann et al 2015). Coppiced woodland and wood pasture are both examples of mosaics, with a variety of different heights of vegetation. Coppiced woodland is easy to manage at a small scale, while wood pasture is more suitable for large areas.
While large blocks of consistent habitat may be important for supporting certain animals (perhaps fewer than you think), one field isn’t usually big enough to support a habitat big enough to make this kind of impact. However, if the field sits between two habitat blocks (e.g. two woodlands), then turning it into woodland could be incredible for biodiversity. Wildlife corridors and stepping stones are essential to one of the 3 ‘D’s of rewilding – Dispersal – movement of animals (and plant seeds) across a landscape (Perino et al 2019).
The 3 D’s of rewilding – follow these and your land will be both biodiverse and bioabundant!
Mother Trees and Dead Trees
Action: Leave a few big trees standing, and leave dead wood on your land.
It’s important not to ‘over-manage’ your habitat – while you can do coppicing, the ideal situation would be to leave some of the wood on your land to rot away. Some trees should be left standing into maturity, as these ‘mother trees’ play an important role in the mycorrhizal network (a sort of fungal highway between plant roots). Nutrients pass through these networks from older to younger plants, improving their chances of survival (e.g. Nara 2015).
Some dead and dying trees should be left standing (unless they pose a significant danger to humans), as ‘standing dead wood’ is also a rare and important habitat for insects, fungi and birds like Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers. As they decompose, just like any other trees you leave on your land, this wood will return its nutrients to the earth, improving the soil chemistry.
Dead trees play an important role in an ecosystem, supporting many different species and returning their nutrients to the soil as they rot.
How to Plant Trees for Rewilding
Action: Before you get out the spade, consider leaving existing tree seeds in the soil to grow on their own.
Whether or not you decide to plant trees decides on a few factors:
- How many native tree seeds are in your soil?
- How diverse is that mix of trees?
- Is your land protected from deer and grazing?
Trees grown from local seeds (especially seeds found on your land) will be better-adapted to the local conditions, which makes them more likely to thrive. However, if your land hasn’t got a rich ‘seedbank’ in the soil, or you want to hurry the process along a bit (biodiversity crisis anyone?!), then planting trees is another way to go. Remember that you’ll probably want to protect planted trees against deer to avoid devastating losses. We usually recommend tree shelters (‘tubes’) for this on small projects – yes, they’re plastic, but you can recycle them.
Can I Offset My Carbon Emissions By Planting Trees?
Action: Think twice before planting a tree. Make sure it’s the right species, in the right conditions, and avoid thinking of them as an ‘offset’.
Trees can help to restore the hydrological cycle, and they can reverse biodiversity decline – if they’re the right trees, in the right place, like the uplands of the UK. But the wrong trees in the wrong place (as is so often the case with cheap offsets), can exacerbate climate change.
When forests burn, this produces greenhouse gases, contributing to a short term rise in the greenhouse effect. But while planting trees may be good in some places, overall, trees can’t actually offset the impact of fossil fuels.
Fossil fuels were stored underground for hundreds of thousands, millions of years. They’re vast stores of carbon that we release into the atmosphere, adding to the existing greenhouse gases which were previously in the system. You can’t fight this simply by restoring forests because:
- Forests keep the carbon within the above-ground system
- Trees grow too slowly to make the rapid impact we need and may die as the climate changes
- When trees die, they release greenhouse gases
You might think that it’s harmless to suggest that we can offset by planting trees. But this underestimates the impact on our brains. When we can pay a fee to remove the guilt associated with environmentally-damaging activities, it just makes these activities more appealing.
The unfortunate truth is that we can only fight climate change in the long term by reducing emissions and sequestering excess carbon beneath the ground, in the oil wells it came from, rather than by planting pretty trees!
Forestry (Passive Rewilding)
Action: Allow trees to grow back from seed, protected by thorny scrub; fell big trees.
Trees that grow up naturally, as land ‘relaxes’ back into its previous state when it is no longer farmed, may be protected from deer by thickets of thorny scrub (Olff et al 1999). This scrub is not only prickly, it’s also unappetising to deer, and it acts like a miniature fence, protecting the growing tree seedlings until the tree grows so tall that its shade kills off the scrub (Smit et al 2006, Oldén et al 2017).
This cycle is the wood pasture process, but the large herbivores in this case will be wild deer rather than cattle. It’s fine if you want a low-management medium between coppicing and wood pasture. The only management involves removal of non-native invasive species and cutting down large trees every so often to avoid the habitat ending up as bland high canopy woodland.
Two years in, this rewilded field is being managed as a coppiced woodland, but brushcutting is being used to maintain the value of some grassy areas and resist the spread of Blackthorn.
All habitats will benefit from digging of ponds and the creation of hillocks with removed soil – grants are available in some areas.
Grow Hazel, Willow, Lime, Silver Birch and Oak for coppicing alongside other native trees. Cut sections of the woodland back to ground level every few years depending on the species and coppicing style. Leave some of the chopped wood on site to rot down and leave some large trees standing.
Raise livestock at low density, allowing woodland and scrub to develop in areas. Let the cattle browse throughout the site, including in woodland, and leave dead wood lying on the land to rot down.
Allow trees to grow back on the site from native tree seeds, but remove invasive species. Cut down trees occasionally to prevent the site from becoming low biodiversity woodland.
An Easy Way to Think About It
Don’t forget the ‘3 D’s of rewilding’ – try to keep them in mind when making decisions about your plot. Getting all three right will lead to an ecosystem which not only maintains itself, but is also rich in plant and animal life and a pleasure to visit:
The bigger the plot, the better, but make sure it’s easy for wildlife to move onto and off your land. Fences will make this harder, which is why deer fences are a double-edged sword.
Diversity of habitats and landscape will help to encourage diversity in your flora and fauna. If you’re lacking native plant species, don’t be afraid to find seeds elsewhere and bring them in, as diversity can help make a habitat more productive.
Natural landscapes are ever-changing, not manicured gardens – don’t be afraid to knock down a tree or dig a new pond every so often. In fact, we positively encourage it – this creates new habitats and opportunities for plants and animals to get established.
Beckert, Marvin R., et al. “Soil and tree biomass carbon sequestration potential of silvopastoral and woodland-pasture systems in North East Scotland.” Agroforestry Systems 90.3 (2016): 371-383.
Honnay, Olivier, ed. Forest biodiversity: lessons from history for conservation. Vol. 10. CABI, 2004.
Jørgensen, Dolly. “Pigs and pollards: medieval insights for UK wood pasture restoration.” Sustainability 5.2 (2013): 387-399.
Nara, Kazuhide. “The role of ectomycorrhizal networks in seedling establishment and primary succession.” Mycorrhizal Networks. Springer, Dordrecht, 2015. 177-201.
Normann, Claudia, Teja Tscharntke, and Christoph Scherber. “Interacting effects of forest stratum, edge and tree diversity on beetles.” Forest Ecology and Management 361 (2016): 421-431.
Oldén, Anna, et al. “Grazing and abandonment determine different tree dynamics in wood-pastures.” Ambio 46.2 (2017): 227-236.
Olff, H., et al. “Associational resistance of plants to herbivory may lead to shifting mosaics in grazed woodlands.” Plant Biol 1 (1999): 127-137.
Perino, Andrea, et al. “Rewilding complex ecosystems.” Science 364.6438 (2019).
Samojlik, Tomasz, and IES KUIJPER. “Grazed wood-pasture versus browsed high forests: Impact of ungulates on forest landscapes from the perspective of the Białowieża Primeval Forest.” Trees, Forested Landscapes and Grazing Animals. Routledge, 2013. 159-178.
Sandom, Christopher J., et al. “High herbivore density associated with vegetation diversity in interglacial ecosystems.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111.11 (2014): 4162-4167.
Smit, Christian, J. A. N. Den Ouden, and H. E. I. N. Z. Müller‐Schärer. “Unpalatable plants facilitate tree sapling survival in wooded pastures.” Journal of Applied ecology 43.2 (2006): 305-312.
Smit, Christian, et al. “Rewilding with large herbivores: the importance of grazing refuges for sapling establishment and wood-pasture formation.” Biological Conservation 182 (2015): 134-142.
Ward, Susan E., et al. “Legacy effects of grassland management on soil carbon to depth.” Global change biology 22.8 (2016): 2929-2938.
Read more about rewilding...