Rewilding South Georgia

Grytviken South Georgia
Former whaler at Grytviken. Richard Meyer: Unsplash

There’s something about being island-born that calls you back, even if delivered there by accident (instead of London).

Gazing from a mainland shore, if I see an island I feel drawn to visit and savor the mystery. It is Avalon guarding King Arthur’s bones; it is Ludovico Einaudi’s Islands. Some I have known harbor memories of medieval monks living in caves, others are cities for nesting seabirds, while my island is sandcastles on the beach and flying kites on top of the ‘downs’. But not all are so idyllic.

Gruinard off the west coast of Scotland was a no-go island for 50 years after the government contaminated it with anthrax spores in a wartime experiment to develop a biological weapon. And Lundy off the north coast of Devon used to be a base for Barbary pirates. Both have lost all traces of dark history.

Not so for South Georgia, a 100-mile-long streak of mountain in the South Atlantic. It was a refuge for Ernest Shackleton’s crew after an epic voyage when pack ice crushing their ship close to the Antarctic continent forced evacuation by rowboat across the Southern Ocean in 1916. One of the most remote places on earth and associated with polar exploration, it is in fact only 54°S compared to Edinburgh at 55°N.

Between 1904 and 1965, some 175,250 whales were processed at Grytviken and other locations. Ghosts of that industry are strewn around the stations: rusting tanks, boilers and hulls of whaling ships. Thankfully, today there is no more gore, litter of bones or stink of boiling blubber.

It wasn’t the rise of oilfields that put whaling out of business but the tapering of stocks. Hunting became highly efficient by arming harpoons with a grenade. Imagine the outrage today if hunters blew up hippos, the closest living relatives of whales, which I vouch are not as smart as whales and their relatives.

What went on far from home and under the waves took a long time to wake public sensibilities. Since the 1980s we have a commercial whaling moratorium that is now generally observed, except for two nations, and just in time to save species from extinction.

Given a chance, nature can come back and as bountiful as ever. Islands offer outstanding opportunities for conservation. Images of Grytviken flicker between the ruin of former industry and vitality of rewilding. Rookeries of four species of penguins exist in greater densities than anywhere else on earth. The sky is full of the cries of seabirds and thousands of albatrosses nest on the hilltops. Fur seals and elephant seals bask with their pups on the beaches, fearless of humans they seldom encounter. Offshore, humpback, fin and blue whales blow spouts of water and dive unmolested. What a draw for a naturalist who delights in wildlife on the rebound.

To visit South Georgia would be like going home as it is a British territory. But despite the pull of another island to check off my list, it will only exist for me in pictures and imagination. Apart from a tiny staff in the summer months, the only visitors are from an occasional cruise ship stopping en route to the Antarctic. They step on shore for a few hours, which is no way to get a feel for an island still healing. Do we always have to intrude on nature and leave our mark?

Into the Wild at Knepp Estate

Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell loved to travel from West Sussex to the fauna of wilder places in the world. No longer. They have re-envisioned their ‘backyard’ as semi-wilderness. Some backyard! They own the Knepp estate of 3,500 acres where, until the year 2000, they struggled to keep an arable and dairy farm out of the red, only turning a profit twice despite the tools and chemicals of intensive management.

The land was impoverished after centuries of farming the famously sticky Weald clay (local people have 30 adjectives for the mud). Vagaries in market prices and dependence on subsidies have plunged many small and mid-sized farms into bankruptcy, but they drew back from defeat with an original idea, though it inflamed tradition-bound rural neighbors.

They sold their livestock and farm equipment to let natural processes rule. People grumbled at the eyesore and wicked waste of food production, but over the next two decades the experiment in land ecology rolled forward to win plaudits. Isabella’s account of the makeover is acclaimed by the Daily Mail as the ‘most inspirational book of the year’ (2019).

The couple was inspired by the Dutch ecologist Frans Vera who championed a controversial rewilding project on reclaimed land near Amsterdam, the Oostvaardersplassen. There are other large projects across the continent, but none in England apart from Knepp. Vera dismissed conventional belief in northern Europe under uniform tree cover before human immigration. He imagined a cool savannah with indigenous red deer, wild boar, extinct aurochs and other large herbivores grazing in a mosaic of forest and grassland. Without a tightly-knit canopy it was a more biologically diverse and productive environment.

Knepp estate
Fallow deer

Strictly speaking, Knepp is not rewilded, which is why her book is titled, ‘Wilding’. Regulations, public opinion and feasibility forbade reintroduction of some native fauna. There could be no brown bear, wolf, lynx and of course auroch that might escape into local gardens, and even wild boar and beavers were excluded, though some feral animals already lurk in the English countryside. The environmental entrepreneurs had to find mimics for the original inhabitants: ancient breeds of cattle (English longhorn) and pigs (Tamworth) and they introduced fallow deer. Wildflower seeds were broadcast and Victorian drains were removed to recreate wetland, which would have horrified ancestors. Nature claimed land back rather quickly considering how long heavy hands ruled there. Herds of herbivores became self-sustaining, so much so they had to be controlled by harvesting or transfer to other estates.

Knepp estate
Tamworth pig and Longhorn cattle

Vera predicted browsing herbivores and the shovel noses of pigs would reshape the landscape. Animals and plants that were rare or extinct returned in remarkable numbers, many for breeding, including nightingales, purple emperor butterflies and two of the rarest bats.

Even the more pigheaded detractors have admitted the couple’s courage and fortitude. Government grants were beyond reach, even from agencies founded to promote nature, and the whims of nature offered numerous obstacles and setbacks, but support was won from leading naturalists and ecologists who continue to help the project evolve. The estate is now a place of pilgrimage, safari tours and so-called glamping (glamorous camping). The prime organic meat is in demand and helps to provide economic stability that once seemed a dream.

A large estate with a castle isn’t an ideal model for other farms with marginal land and strained budgets, but Knepp is shining example for them to consider formerly unthinkable options that frighten bank managers. There is no more conservative base than the countryside where people will often resist change by appealing to aesthetics. But the beauty of landscape is in the eye of the beholder and the image of fields clothed in monoculture and hills (called downs) cropped to the dirt by fluffy sheep has changed, and quite perceptively even in my memory from intensive farming. This is a matter of Shifting Baselines, described in a much earlier post. The southern English countryside is more bereft of wildlife and open spaces for spiritual refreshment of local and visiting folk than any European neighbor. It lost wilderness thousands of years ago to cultivation of almost every fertile acre.

Young people were always a source of hope for a brighter future and more daring imagination. There are many more today who want to reset our relationship with nature, shifting from the absolute domination of enslaved land to a gentler and more sustainable partnership. Some people ask if this moment of history in a pandemic is an opportunity not to be missed. It is a work in progress, like the Knepp project, and to that I say, Amen.

Photos courtesy of Knepp estate