How to Run a Small-Scale Rewilding Project
A case study in practical rewilding of a field.
In Somerset, there’s a 3.5 acre field, cut down the middle by a public footpath. Here, rewilding principles are being applied and experiments run over many years to discover the most cost-effective and efficient way of restoring small-scale projects.
An Example of Small-Scale Rewilding
Two years ago, this rewilding project looked almost the same as every other pasture in the area. Now, it’s a buzzing wildlife metropolis, with 7 huge ponds, 800 young trees, visiting ducks and waders, rare songbirds, undulating meadows and, even from a mile away, the difference is striking.
Rewilding isn’t just ‘leaving land to go wild’ – it’s much more than that. It’s about restoring natural systems and processes and reconnecting sites to the wider landscape by restoring lost and degraded habitats. There are different ways to go about it, and I’m firmly in the ‘active’ camp – get those early interventions in place that will help the plot to recover rapidly.
The project was acquired in January 2022, but the previous landowner’s management ended in June 2021.
Soil and Grass Restoration
The best way to approach rewilding is to start it off with pigs – introducing pigs into a landscape helps to ‘reset’ the soil, turning over compacted grass and mud, exposing the seedbank and allowing natural regeneration of trees to begin. But small scale rewilding makes this difficult – if it’s a hobby project, especially under a few acres, introducing pigs can be a logistical and ethical nightmare. But there’s potentially a way around it, with a pond.
Action: If your land is suitable, and you are prepared to put in the time, introduce pigs to ‘reset’ the soil.
Pond creation was messy – but that’s beneficial, as it turned over the surrounding topsoil.
Wildlife Pond Creation
My rewilding project is very low-lying, so it was ideal for pond creation – this meant that I was able to get ponds created for free by FWAG SW. They, and organisations across the country, create ponds for Great Crested Newts, using a pot of money funded by developers when ponds elsewhere are removed.
Pond creation is fantastic for wildlife for a whole host of reasons – water on the land is not only a habitat for many creatures and plants, but also an important place to drink, especially during droughts like we had this summer. Even during the height of the drought, 3 of the 7 ponds continued to hold water.
Action: Install ponds – search to see if you qualify for a ‘Great Crested Newt pond grant’.
Thistles were the most successful plant at first, leading to hundreds of butterflies, including a few rare Clouded Yellows.
Seeding Wildflower Meadows
But why are ponds a suitable replacement for pigs? Well, when ponds are created, this involves the removal and relocation of a significant amount of topsoil. Cleverly, the excavators piled this to one side, using it as a topping to cover the ‘dead’ clay below surface level, which was spread around the banks of the ponds.
If you take a look at my land, wherever this topsoil was churned up and spread out, the dominant grasses was replaced by a more diverse and structural mix of wildflowers. The seedbank had been exposed, and the grass, turned upside down, was knocked back, allowing me to sow a local wildflower seed mix, which, after a few months, began to get established alongside the existing seedbank.
I planted Yellow Rattle with this seed mix to try and make sure that the high nutrient levels in the soil didn’t cause the grass to overwhelm the wildflowers in following years. However, Yellow Rattle found it hard to get established due to the lush grasses. Wildflowers took hold more readily where grasses were less dominant – on the nutrient-poor clay banks of the ponds.
Action: Sow a locally-appropriate native wildflower mix (from Habitat Aid) on rotavated or scarified ground, with Yellow Rattle in the mix. Cut grasses at appropriate times of year to allow the species to become established.
The project as seen from a distant hill at the end of the first growing season in late 2022.
Right Trees, Right Place
I had spent the first autumn examining the hedgerows, trying to identify every tree, to see what was ‘missing’ – what species were native to the area but weren’t present on the field? I checked this using the NBN Atlas and iNaturalist, which gives a good idea of a tree’s natural range, cross-referencing a list of common native trees from the ‘Twigged’ guide that the Woodland Trust have produced. This guide also gave me an idea of whether the trees would be suitable for my soil type.
Over time, I’ve learned more about the trees that should be present from visiting local and national nature reserves which bear a resemblance to my own land. I’ve used this real-world information to supplement the digital research.
Overall, it turns out that the field is very degraded – there are few species of plant or tree present. This is particularly noticeable in terms of the tree species, as I’ve only found Blackthorn and Hawthorn in the hedgerows, plus a single Ash and a single Grey Willow. Beyond the field, within 100m there are also Goat Willow, Alder, Elder and Hazel. But this still represents a fairly small sample of what should be found in the area.
My tree planting plan was created from the initial research – missing species were added to the planting map, while species already in the hedgerows would be transplanted instead (as their genetics or ‘ecotype’ were already perfectly adapted to the local environment). To be clear, if I had a rich and abundant seedbank at the rewilding project, leaving the seeds to grow would have been the best move, but I had zero natural regeneration of new species in the first two years!
Action: Create a tree regeneration plan to enrich the tree diversity, based on species which are native to your area and adapted to your ecosystem.
Pro Advice: If you haven’t got the time or expertise to research an appropriate planting plan, and you have over 5 acres, get in touch via the contact page.
I used this detailed tree planting map as a plan when planting saplings across the site. Note the variability in depth and structure of the planting.
Planting Trees – the Rewilding Way
When the trees came, I didn’t plant them in rows, but in a more naturalistic style, trying to replicate the type of pattern you might see in a wild habitat. This wasn’t just for aesthetic reasons – diversity is likely to be higher if you maximise edge habitat and vary the depth of woodland across the site. You’ll note that I didn’t cover the site in woodland – our landscape wouldn’t have looked like this in the past – it would have been very much a mosaic, so that’s what I tried to replicate here.
Some species of plant and animal are adapted for closed canopy woodland, whereas others are adapted for woodland edge, so it is beneficial to have a mix on your site. Think, too, about sunlight – make sure that you have sheltered glades, sunny margins and damp, shady patches – maximise the number of niches to maximise biodiversity.
Action: When laying out trees on your site, try to replicate a natural, mosaic environment, and avoid planting in rows, to maximise biodiversity.
When writing about the project, as on this sign, I keep it positive and inclusive, explaining how the site will add value to the local area.
Talking to the Public
My small scale rewilding project is sliced neatly in two by a public footpath. This is a double-edged sword – on the one hand, I love having visitors who can appreciate the work I am doing. It makes the project more rewarding to see people enjoying the uplift in biodiversity. On the other hand, it comes with some risks – public liability/privacy is one of them; dogs disturbing wildlife is another (fencing helps with this); while public disapproval is a third.
The messy pond excavation work and plastic tree tubes had the potential to make some people annoyed, so I put a lot of effort into interpretation. I have signs at the entrance and exit, and deliver upbeat, comprehensive messaging that explains what is happening on the site. This has led to many positive interactions, as members of the public call me over to enthuse about the work I’m doing. I haven’t had a single negative interaction since starting the project.
Action: Post positive, detailed interpretation signs at access points to your site to help the public understand and appreciate your work.
Even in the driest months of the year, many of the clay ponds hold water, attracting wildlife from miles around.
Small-Scale Rewilding Project Principles
Throughout this whole process, it’s been helpful to have a sort of mantra that has enabled me to understand what steps to follow. This has been the ‘3 Ds’ of rewilding – diversity, dispersal and disturbance. I’ve maximised each of these at every step, and it has really paid off.
Within the first two years, we’ve had Shelduck, Heron and Swallows repeatedly visiting the ponds, Kestrel and Barn Owl regularly hunting in the meadows and the invertebrates and mammals have absolutely exploded in abundance. By late summer, you can barely move without stepping on a vole or disturbing a butterfly, cricket or grasshopper (the sound is incredible). The contrast with the previous absolute lack of wildlife is breathtaking!
Restore biodiversity from the bottom up by replacing lost species of wildflower and tree, and create ‘structural diversity’ by altering the landscape with ponds, hillocks and scrapes. Use low-density livestock (or management) to mimic natural processes like grazing, rooting and browsing.
Connect your plot to the wider landscape by removing barriers like fences where possible, and by replicating adjacent or nearby habitats like scrubland or ponds to encourage species to move over to your land.
Keep the landscape dynamic by cutting grass at the end of summer, digging ponds, coppicing trees and disturbing the soil, and allow natural disturbance like streams shifting in their banks and trees dying, which creates new niches.
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