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  • Writer's pictureTom Roberts

Thinking like a human being…

Tom Roberts

I had no idea when I bought an 11-acre sheep farm in West Wales to begin a small-scale rewilding project it would profoundly alter my view of myself, of nature and even humankind.

Frankly, when my wife and I bought Lanlwyd, a 350-year-old farmhouse near Aberystwyth four years ago, I had no real idea what we were going to do with it. Certainly, after a lifetime of travelling the world as a documentary filmmaker, I wanted to reconnect with the nature and bring it into my daily life.

In my youth, I had hiked through the North American wilderness and subsequently supported conservation campaigns for decades. I had even researched a film on the climate crisis eighteen years ago, which left me deeply disturbed. All that is happening now was predicted long ago.

So when I moved into Lanlwyd, I brought my professional project-oriented drive and impatience with me. I was determined to do something to help nature recover and mitigate climate damage – but exactly what that was, I wasn’t so sure. The simplest thing was to get the sheep off and plant some trees.

Trees were an easy option: there is plenty of readily available advice, and if you stick to native species, planting those that thrive in your locale, you are unlikely to go wrong. In all, we planted over 650. Of course, in my impatience, I mostly planted 3m and 4m trees, which meant at least three years of intense watering before their root systems could sufficiently regrow from the transplanting to support them.

The sheep were a different matter. Removing them opened the door to dramatic change and considerable uncertainty. As the sterile monoculture of grazed land gave way to an awakening of nature, my anxiety and excitement rose in equal measure. Creeping thistle and buttercup, surging rye grasses and any number of other scrub species battled for supremacy. Creating beautiful species-rich meadows was clearly going to be a long-term task.

To my surprise, these challenges required more than determination and hard work. They demanded a very personal philosophical reset. The first intimations of that came to me during the initial tree planting. My two sons, the heavy-lifters, had gone off to bring another 4m hornbeam, while I stood in the middle of our east field deciding where to put it. Trying as hard as I could, I just couldn’t see an aesthetic solution that didn’t appear to make a linear connection with other trees just planted. In frustration, I shouted out to the surprise of my approaching sons; Damn it! I’m thinking like a human being.

How can you organise the randomness of nature, replicating its chaotic coherence, its beautiful disorder? You simple can’t. It seems such an obvious idea but its implications go deep. If we can’t aesthetically organise a tree-planting operation to look natural, other limitations on our ability to manage nature soon become apparent.

Anyone with the slightest interest in conservation or awareness of climate change will be conscious of the huge assault humankind has mounted against nature – industrial development, chemical pollution, mechanical agriculture, CO2 emissions to name a few. It’s hardly news. But working on a limited scale in a rural community I soon became aware of the myriad smaller ways we seriously harm the natural world, damaging it without intent or even awareness. The list is far too long to recount here so a few examples will have to suffice.

The Foot & Mouth outbreak in 2007 was caused by poor sanitation at a laboratory in Surrey. The disease was devastating to farmers and the Government was determined to act forcefully to prevent future infections. Among the changes DEFRA ordered was that farmers would no longer be allowed to dump dead livestock in a distant field. The carcasses would have to be sent to an abattoir. The current cost is £250 for a cow and £80 for sheep. I feel for farmers hit by this double whammy – they have not only lost a significant investment but must now pay to remove it from their land.

At a stroke DEFRA altered an element of nature that had existed for half a billion years. When large animals die, they become a food source for birds, small mammals, beetles and dozens of other insects, fungi and bacteria. The mineral content of the remains enrich the soil. All that is now gone.

We can be certain of one thing – when DEFRA took that decision there would have been no one around that table who would have even considered the consequences for UK wildlife.

Sheep droppings and cowpats are not a subject often discussed. But on many farms they have become a weapon against the insect world. High stocking densities and overuse of deworming medicines have created a class of resistant parasites that are becoming increasingly difficult to control. Many of these commercial treatments are excreted and have subsequently devasted the natural beetle populations. The irony of course is that dung beetles are a natural way of keeping animal parasites under control.

I suppose one could argue that our technology has simply exceeded our understanding of the complexity of nature – and as our understanding grows, we will correct these kinds of mistakes. But human folly seems to have no limits. Consider the disastrous plight of the once popular black poplar tree our forbearers bequeathed us. Weren’t they supposed to be much closer to the natural world than we of the 20th and 21st centuries?

The massive black poplar is a gorgeous tree with its deeply fissured bark, a knobbly trunk and sweeping branches. They were widely planted in parks and wealthy estates, becoming an important part of our landscape and culture for centuries, and an inspiration to our famous painter, Constable. Yet they are now close to extinction. Why?

There are said to be only 200 black polars left in Wales and when I set out to plant them here at Lanlwyd I quickly discovered why. It was relatively simple to purchase two dozen male trees but finding females proved a near impossible task. It turns out that the female black poplar exudes quantities of sap and other detritus in the summer months. For centuries the females were considered a nuisance and cut down in their youth or not planted altogether. Is it any wonder that hundreds of years later, this once hugely popular tree is almost entirely gone from our landscape.

Our disconnection from the natural is not a recent phenomenon. It resides in human egotistical self-absorption and apparent self-interest. It is useless to pine for the good ole’ days – because there never was a time when we didn’t plunder and abuse the natural world. All that has changed is the scale of our destruction given the dominance of our population and economic development.

Small-scale rewilding is an exercise in reconnecting with nature and at best, simply nudging the direction of natural processes. It needs considerable patience and humility – and requires us to rethink our relationship with the natural world. The first step is to recognise that its infinite complexity and dynamism, not to mention its profound interconnectedness, eludes us and will do so forever.

We must take heed. We can live alongside the nature world. We can even aspire to live within it. We can hope, with due deference, to manage the worst outcomes resulting from our assault on nature, but we can never, ever, control it.

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