REWILDING THE RIVER

Information leaflet, September 2019

Rewilding means returning the land, including waterways, as near as possible to its natural state. It is currently a very popular concept, particularly amongst those who understand climate change to be the result of a failure of our modern way of life as a whole, and who are looking for creative ways to achieve a different direction.

To be realistic, it would be an enormous and, in the present circumstances, politically unlikely project – to rewild, for instance, the whole of the Brue valley. Nevertheless, it is worth noting the advantages that would come from such a change:

The river would be returned to its natural, meandering shape, and the rate of flow slowed down. This would greatly reduce the loss of topsoil that is eroded and washed out to sea. The current rate of topsoil depletion is estimated to mean that there are only 50 to 100 annual harvests left before our soil is completely exhausted.

Combined with tree planting and re-forestation, particularly around the river’s headwaters in what was once Selwood Forest, this would retain water in upstream areas and prevent sudden and dangerous flooding. Combined with the removal of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, it would also allow the natural flora and fauna to regenerate.Besides a general improvement to the area’s biodiversity, this would result in the return of large stocks of fish and waterfowl, which once supplied a substantial proportion of the local human population’s food. In addition, the river would once again flood seasonally, depositing nutrient-rich silt on the surrounding land and providing fertile summer grazing without the need for chemical inputs. Rewilding would not ‘ruin’ agricultural land and simply cause food production to cease.

A return to a genuine wetland landscape would also provide the possibility for a number of local industries to be revived, including small-scale brick-making  and producing other materials required for ‘vernacular architecture’; pollarding willows to use for hurdles, split-wood fencing and the framework for some basketwork; and withy growing, providing the raw material for willow work generally.

These may look at first sight like ‘going back to the past’, but if our society is really going to embrace change sufficient to meet the challenges of climate change, loss of habitat and species on an enormous scale, and a dangerous level of topsoil erosion, then the way forward is to return our focus to our local communities and a high degree of self-sufficiency. Rewilding then becomes a viable option.

Somerset will become progressively more at risk of flooding, both from rising sea levels and from more violent storms. If, for instance, major floods above Bruton should seriously threaten to over-top the flood prevention dam there – which could cause very rapid erosion of the structure – then the political reality would change quickly and radically. Ultimately the River Brue could rejoin the River Axe, and our local river would come back into its own.

For more, and practical information about Rewilding see, for instance, Isabella Tree’s book about the Knepp Estate in Sussex, ‘Wilding’.