After the Norman Conquest, William the Conqueror imposed ‘Forest Law’ on the Anglo-Saxons to defend the king’s sovereign rights to all wild animals. The Forest Law applied to all the land used by fauna, as well as any land the animals passed through. The coveted wilderness not only included trees, shrubs and grasslands, but wetlands, such as peat bogs and marshes too. In 1598, an English lawyer named John Manwood defined a forest as a “territory of woody grounds and fruitful pastures, privileged for wild beasts and fowls of forest, chase and warren, to rest and abide there in safe protection of the King, for his delight and pleasure.” The Anglo-Saxon kings loaned land to the nobles in return for fealty. These manors consisted of crop fields, hay fields for grazing livestock and uncultivated wilderness, which was described then as the ‘wealde’ or ‘waste’.

This notion of possession may have begun as a royal decree, but the ethos of belonging has persisted throughout the centuries, and its influence is evident in how the United Kingdom’s human residents interact with their more wild inhabitants today. As Norwegian ecologist Dolly Jørgensen reveals, “The identification of what belongs (the lost nature) and our longing (the emotional attachment to it) in the present will affect how environmental restoration practices are carried out in the future. A sustainable future will depend on questioning how and why belonging and longing factor into the choices we make about what to recover.” According to this philosophy, nature is not gone; it is merely lost. What is lost can be found again. It can be rediscovered and recovered. There is agency here; there is hope!

An inspiring example of restoring nature to its former glory can be witnessed in Natural Habitat Adventures’ webinar, “Rewilding the UK: Helping People and Animals Thrive.” Expedition Leaders Liane Thompson and Heather Chrystie take us on a journey to West Sussex, England, where wildlife has reclaimed the land in the absence of human intervention. This conservation success story begins in the time of the Holocene, after the end of the last Ice Age.

Water flowing at Aberystwyth, UK

A History of Environmental Harm

Set in a temperate climate, the lowlands of central and Western Europe were covered with deciduous forest and a mosaic of wetland, grassland, scrub and thickets. According to pollen studies, tree species like oak, elm, ash, beech, hornbeam, lime and hazel peppered the landscape. Indigenous species of large herbivores that lived within this ecosystem included: roe deer (Capreolus capreolus), red deer (Cervus elaphus), elk/moose (Alces alces), European bison (Bison bonasus) and the wild ancestors of domesticated cattle and horses: aurochs (Bos primigenius) and tarpan (Equus przewalski gmelini). The European beaver and the omnivorous wild boar, together with natural predators, such as bears, lynx, wolves and wolverine, played significant roles in shaping the pre-human environment, too.

Human occupation of Britain originated with hunter-gatherers—nomadic people who made minimal earthly impact. The forests represented the unknown, and the creatures that inhabited these dark places were feared. Wolves were the most persecuted of predators. Local legend claims the last wolf was murdered by John Harrington of Wraysholme Tower on Humphrey Head, Cumbria, in the 14th Century. The event is recorded in “The Last Wolf,” written by Edward Postlethwaite in 1496. Anthropogenic disturbance became increasingly apparent with the introduction of the agricultural revolution. The felling of trees and clear-cutting of fields meant more monocultures and less biodiversity. In Europe, aurochs became extinct due to suppression by livestock and by hunting. The last cow died in Poland in 1627.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, forests became nothing more than fuel for the timber trade. Wild ungulates were no longer tolerated because they could damage the precious wood. Habitats were further fragmented during the Industrial Revolution—an era marked by a booming human population and immense pollution. The invention of coal-powered machinery facilitated extractive processes, creating a deadly concoction of greenhouse gasses with no green space to sequester the carbon. The last tarpan was captured around 1860 and died in Moscow Zoo almost thirty years later. During World War II, farmers were incentivized to convert every inch of arable land to feed the nation, calling it the ‘Dig for Victory.’ Between 1932 and 1984, the surface area of species-rich grassland decreased on livestock farms in England and Wales by more than 90%. It’s estimated that today, two-thirds of the UK is used for agriculture, and 8% has been built on, leaving little room for nature.

Beautiful swampy wild river water surface with reed grass on clear blue sky and green forest background

Knepp Wildland: A Restoration Framework

Knepp Castle and Estate has been a landmark in West Sussex since the 12th century. The grounds served as a fortified retreat in times of battle, a hunting lodge for royalty, and farmland from the medieval era until the year 2000. That is when the present owners, Charlie Burrell and Isabella Tree, discovered Dutch ecologist Dr. Frans Vera, catalyzing a rewilding revolution. Using Vera’s book, Grazing Ecology and Forest History as a guide, the Burrell family set to work with these words at the heart of their mission: “The intention is not to try to recreate the past. That will always be impossible. Our world is irrevocably changed. But we can try and create something interesting and valuable with nature, using the components that are left to us.”

Create something interesting and valuable they did indeed. Using domestic descendants as proxies for some of the extinct species, the Burrells replaced tarpan with Exmoor ponies and aurochs with longhorn cattle. Tamworth pigs now root and disperse seeds like the wild boars did, and free-roaming deer graze peacefully once more. Knepp is now a breeding hotspot for critically endangered nightingales and turtle doves, and the property boasts the largest population of purple emperor butterflies in the country. Additionally, all five UK species of owls and 13 out of the UK’s 17 species of breeding bats can be found there. Professor Sir John Lawton, author Making Space for Nature says: “Knepp Estate is one of the most exciting wildlife conservation projects in the UK, and indeed in Europe. If we can bring back nature at this scale and pace just 16 miles from Gatwick airport we can do it anywhere. I’ve seen it. It’s truly wonderful, and it fills me with hope.”

A bird handler with an Indian Eagle-Owl at the Chester Cathedral Falconry and Nature Gardens in the city of Chester, UK

You can witness England’s wild side by traveling with Nat Hab and World Wildlife Fund on our next adventure to the Cotswolds, Britain’s largest designated national landscape!