The Perception of Wild Land

“We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.” ~Wallace Stegner

I’ve been fascinated by natural history all of my life; whether it’s watching house sparrows squabbling over peanuts in the garden or experiencing the thrill of a pod of orcas hunting salmon in the fjords of British Columbia.  Where I am based, in south-west England, we are fortunate to have many wonderfully biodiverse habitats and sites where we can immerse ourselves in nature.  As an ecologist this should be nirvana!  So why is it that I find myself frequently dissatisfied?  Why do I keep looking longingly at the twitter feed from Scotland: The Big Picture?

Now don’t get me wrong, I love the Somerset & Dorset countryside in which I live and work, but you can never escape the evidence of human intervention.  The sound of traffic, the stump of a felled tree, the empty crisp packet or the ubiquitous dog poo bag hanging from a low branch.  For me, they all detract from the experience of immersing myself in nature.  Recently I spent an all too rare day walking and scrambling in the Lake District.  Eager to beat the crowds, I was on top of my first hill of the day by 7am.  Standing there with the wind in my hair, looking out over a landscape almost completely devoid of trees & overgrazed by livestock, I should have been thoroughly miserable.  But I wasn’t.  Despite its ecological shortcomings, I revelled in my location.  But why?  The answer is simple; I have an insatiable yearning for wild land.

Now before you start screaming at your computer in despair, yes, I understand that the landscape I was looking at is entirely managed and, if you know what you’re looking at, you can see it’s been highly impacted by human activity.  But wildness is a relative concept; it varies according to each persons’ perception.  So from the perspective of someone from the crowded south-west of England, this landscape (at the time I was there) provided a) a lack of people; b) a relative lack of manmade structures; c) remoteness from roads/railway stations; and d) a rugged/challenging terrain.  Whilst the ecologist in me could see that naturalness and biodiversity were depleted, these were compensated for by the above attributes.

And that is a huge challenge for the current rewilding (or simply ‘wilding’ as I like to think of it) movement.  Putting aside, temporarily, the very valid heritage & cultural concerns of the upland farming community, the majority of people already see our uplands as being ‘wild land’.  If most of their wilderness needs are already being satisfied by these attributes, is there sufficient public appetite to also restore naturalness and wildlife?


Overgrazed, yet still contains many attributes of ‘wild land’


For me, as an ecologist, the following quote from Aldo Leopold rings true:

“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.”

But not everyone is blessed with an ecological education and, for most people, our uplands are already places of great majesty and beauty.  Whilst most ecologists & conservationists have a vision of a more natural and ecologically rich landscape, we need to engage the wider public with that vision.  We need to show other users of wild land – the walkers, climbers, mountain bikers – how their wilderness experience can be enhanced even further by more wildlife.

With more wildlife encounters, my recent day on the Lakeland fells would have been as near perfect as possible.

I would urge everyone to take a look at Scotland: The Big Picture for inspiring imagery, video and storytelling.