Intensive Agriculture and Biodiversity at Wild Woodbury 


Guest Post by Seb Haggett, Wilder Dorset Community Ranger at Dorset Wildlife Trust

Britain is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. As our use of chemical fertilisers, pesticides, and other synthetics have increased, so has the sterility of the land.


We are seeing a huge decrease in biodiversity, the mass extinction of species and the collapse of whole ecosystems. Since the advent of these chemicals, we have taken two mutually beneficial things – grazing animals and fertilising fields – and separated them to make two massive, industrial-scale problems in separate
places.

If we look back just a couple of generations, we can see how much things have changed.
Gone are the times where we could have flocks of finches feeding on cover crops over winter, where Curlew could safely nest in the countryside and where there weren't 1,000,000’s of introduced game birds decimating the land. We now take multiple crops a year, churning up any nests and mammals along the way, and pump the land full of chemicals which then pollute our waterways and oceans.

So where did it all go wrong? Why are we treating nature as a collection of resources for short-term benefit?
Is it solely the farmers fault? Not necessarily. It is a much more nuanced and ethically complicated problem. I believe that much of the world no longer considers our relationship with the environment a significant part of the larger biophysiological picture of human health. There has been so much constriction, numbing, and diversion in our capacity to feel love for the natural world that our emotional lives are being harmed. We need a much wider proportion of people to have a deep understanding of the interconnectedness of life on earth, and value biodiversity, in order to change societal systems on a fundamental level.

So, what can we do? We need to change the beliefs that have been built into us over the past 100 years and help others to do the same.
I’ve recently started working at Wild Woodbury, a community rewilding site in Bere Regis, and can’t wait to see how it changes over the coming years. When I first walked around the 170ha of land, the main thing that struck me was the awful state of the soil. Some of the fields were very compacted from years of cattle grazing, some had suffered from severe topsoil runoff due to the planting of maize and many were devoid of any diversity whatsoever. However, even after a few weeks, changes started to happen. The fact that these fields hadn’t been ploughed for the first time in many years gave them an opportunity. An opportunity for ‘agricultural weeds’, or bare-ground specialists as they should be called, to sprout and start providing a seed source for birds, for mammals to start digging and begin the aeration of the soil, and for invertebrates to move back in.

For me, when thinking about the restoration of landscapes, you must begin with the health of the soil.
Bare ground specialists e.g., Common Field Speedwell, Chickweed, Scarlett Pimpernel, can quickly establish when given the chance, and protect and restore soil that has been left exposed by human-caused disturbance. Of course, this will also happen where natural disturbance takes place too, but due to the lack of wild large herbivores and rootlers, it does not happen as much as it should. In addition to bare ground specialists, we can expect nitrogen and phosphorus-loving plants to quickly become widespread, feasting on the high levels of synthetically added chemicals in the ground. These plants, which include nettles, thistles, ragwort and docks, have wrongly got a terrible reputation for being a nuisance in the countryside and are often sprayed or chopped down at the first sight of them. Ironically, this is possibly the worst thing to do for the people who don’t want them seen, as the plants themselves will be fixing the nitrates and phosphates into their structure, therefore removing them from the soil and making the conditions less suitable for them to grow the following year.

These plants are also incredibly important for wildlife.
Ragwort, for instance, has 168 insect species that either partially or fully depend on it (35 fully, 83 significantly, 50 parasitic on the insects that depend on it). At Wild Woodbury, we are seeing these first stages of succession across the site. Bare ground specialists are starting to establish themselves over several fields and nature is starting to return. Flocks of Skylark and Yellowhammer have been building in the fields where seed is available, Snipe and Woodcock (pictured) are foraging at night, and Wood Mice have been excavating masses of holes. These mice in particular have been a surprise, due to both their number and the mass of material they have been extracting. Usually, these small rodents would be ploughed up, but we have seen them thrive on the bare ground in a few fields, and they are also spreading across the whole 170ha of Wild Woodbury.

So, what can we expect for the site?
For me, in years to come, it will have evolved into a dynamic mosaic of bare ground, scrubland and mature woodland. Old breed cattle, horses and pigs would have been introduced, keeping it a forever changing landscape where a large diversity of species are thriving. It will provide a green space where people have the chance to get into nature, where they can learn, and where they can enjoy seeing the wildlife around them. Most of all, I see it providing enthusiasm and hope to others, so everyone can see a way to help reverse the ecological and environmental emergencies we are in and encourage more people to do the same for our nature and wildlife.

If you wish to know more about the Wild Woodbury site, or contact me for any other reason, please feel free to email me at shaggett@dorsetwildlifetrust.org.uk

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L-R Seb Haggett, Grass snake & Canary-shouldered Thorn - both species have been spotted at Wild Woodbury

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