Be a guardian, not a gardener … Holly Hughes reports
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“Rewilding is about giving the land back to wildlife and giving wildlife back to the land,” says environmental consultant and writer Féidhlim Harty. But if, like me, you tend to think about rewilding as a solution for large tracts of land, what can rewilding mean for those of us whose outdoor spaces consist of a narrow yard, a balcony, or even a window ledge? How can you really rewild in an urban jungle? Féidhlim says rather than asking how much space is needed, we should ask how much space is available, because whatever the size, there can be benefits on multiple levels.
Féidhlim suggests starting with the Half-Earth Principle, “which seeks to dedicate half of the planet as space for nature in a natural, wild state so that biological diversity of life can thrive; and half for people, including space for housing, crops and livestock.” On a practical and individual level, this means splitting whatever land you have access to – a garden, one flower bed, a yard – and turning half of it into a rewilding zone. This zone becomes a core protected space in which non-native plants like rhododendron are removed, native species are given space to thrive, and interfering practices like lawn-mowing, pruning, and spraying are eliminated. How big or small this core space is immaterial says Féidhlim. “If you can’t manage to rewild half your land, then rewild any of it that you can spare, even just the boundaries.” And if you don’t have any land to split? You can create some. “The joy of rewilding is that it can be done in even the smallest of places,” Danny Alvey, chair of ReWild Wicklow, tells me. “All you need is to get some native plants and put them in pots. Choose ones that are the best for providing shelter and food for pollinators – the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan has a great list on their website.”
Chelsea Gold Medal-winning garden designer Mary Reynolds, founder of We Are The ARK, agrees. A movement dedicated to promoting rewilding practices in our homes, schools and public spaces, ARK is an acronym for Acts of Restorative Kindness – the ethos that underpins Mary’s work. “A windowbox full of local soil that allows native weed seeds to flourish and provide food and reproductive partners for the insects is a great start.” After years of working on high-profile projects around the world, Mary now calls herself a “reformed landscape gardener” and encourages all of us to become “guardians” not gardeners. There is a misconception, she says, that rewilding is simply a case of throwing down tools and leaving nature do its thing. But after centuries of being stripped of its natural ecosystems and diversity, a manicured space left to rewild will not do so naturally or organically. Rewilding is as much a process of mediation and protection as it is about giving autonomy back to nature.
This is where the concept of nature corridors comes in. If you have a fenced or walled garden, rewilding this space, or part of it, isn’t enough. You need to create avenues in and out of it so that critters can rehabilitate and replenish it. No matter where you live, you can create nature corridors. Féidhlim says it’s simply a case of looking anew at your land and asking yourself, where the routes are that wildlife can take to get to and from their newly protected habitat. “If you have a hedgerow bordering your garden or your street, consider if this corridor can be extended or connected to other woodland habitats. If you have a fence, stone wall, or other boundary marker, ask if you can find ways to improve interconnectivity with other habitats.”
“There is often a misconception that rewilding is simply a case of throwing down tools and leaving nature to do its thing.”
If this sounds like a gargantuan task, Féidhlim assures me it’s the opposite. “Often it’s as simple as moving a fence back a few metres to let plants thicken up and give animals some space.”
Mary Reynolds agrees. “Wildlife cannot move easily through fences or walled-in gardens,” Mary says. “Often this stops them being able to access many sources of food and sanctuary.” For those in shared urban spaces, the solution is about communication and collaboration. “If you have neighbouring boundary walls or fences, discuss getting a contractor to drill a hole or two in the base of each boundary (checking that you don’t destabilise them structurally), to allow free movement of creatures between gardens.”
Let’s not forget that every public space we encounter, from parks to roundabouts, hedgerows to motorway verges, presents an opportunity for rewilding. Ask your local council to create a core protected space in your nearby park. “Neglected, overlooked areas are perfect for this,” says Féidhlim. Talk to your local Tidy Towns committee about incorporating rewilding practices into their work and, in particular, opting for native species when planting. “We need to ensure when public spaces are planted that native plants are always chosen,” says Danny Alvey. “They are just as beautiful and interesting as any imported plant and provide edible food for all our insects, birds and mammals.”
All over the country, there are courses on rewilding techniques. Wildacres, a not-for-profit nature reserve in southeast Wicklow, runs regular interactive workshops. Once acres of grassland, Wildacres is now home to seven acres of native woodland, wildflower meadows, native hedgerows, wildlife ponds, and stunnng wildlife. Join a workshop at www.wildacres.ie and discover how to create your own wildlife pond and rewild your garden for biodiversity.
ReWild Wicklow takes a hands-on approach to learning with volunteering opportunities for anybody interested in restoration and rewilding projects. “We’ve partnered with 14 other organisations and landowners in Co Wicklow to organise 42 volunteer days,” Danny says. “These volunteer days have included activities such as planting trees (over 5,000 now planted), restoring peatlands (over 100 small timber dams built), vegetation management, seed sowing, erecting deer fencing, building nest boxes and setting camera traps.” Book a course at www.rewildwicklow.ie.
For those interested in waterway protection, Féidhlim will be running courses on enhancing water quality and wildlife habitats in waterways later this year. Find details at www.fhwetlandssystems.ie. @holly_hughes_words