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Wild Abundance in a Time of Decline

Wild Abundance in a Time off Decline

The ecology of the natural history of habitat creation

Wren Franklin, manager of Ryewater Farm

October 2021

1. Introduction

In the 1980’s, Clive Farrell, a property tycoon with a keen interest in the natural world, sought a new project to provide an absorbing interest. He purchased Ryewater Farm, near Sherborne, an estate of 100 acres. The land had been altered considerably by modern agricultural practices. The aim was to rewild the land, bringing diversity back to the farm. Science Café welcomed Wren Franklin, manager of Ryewater Farm, to showcase the pushback against modern monoculture and countryside degradation.

2. Background

Rachel Carson’s, ‘Silent Spring’, published in 1962, demonstrated to a mass audience, the destructive practices by humankind in the natural world. Many themes still echo in our management of the environment today.

These influences have been drawn together in the ‘UK State of Nature Report’, a snapshot on biodiversity reaching back 50 years. 6,654 indicator species were reviewed. There has been a relentless decrease in wildlife. Of 24 biodiversity indicators (reflecting ecological health), 14 are in long-term decline.

Current research suggests that the steep species downturn can be viewed as the ‘sixth extinction’, with five previous very notable extinctions in the fossil record since the start of the Cambrian period (545Ma); an extinction being defined as the disappearance of >75% of species which are gone, for ever.

Detrimental influences include land use pressure for agriculture and housing. In all cases, habitat features have been stripped out and ecological niches lost. Pollution, in various forms (e.g. micro-plastics), is also implicated. Most significant for Wren is nitrogen and ammonium pollution from intensive agricultural practices. This has the effect of changing the distribution of species. Nutrient loving species become more dominant excluding the original diverse floras which preferred low nutrient soils. Field silage grasslands, for example, are rich in biomass but species poor with only five associative species. In the background is climate change, nudging temperatures higher at rate greater than most species can adapt. Globalisation, as author Oliver Rackham points out, brings fauna and flora into contact with novel diseases for which they have no immunity. The most obvious cases are Dutch Elm Disease (1980’s) and Ash Dieback (now), noted by last month’s speaker on plant diseases. For Wren, 1971 was the peak of landscape denudation.

The question is, are we bound by these trends or can they be reversed? Governments push policy decisions in the search of beneficial outcomes. Individuals have also made their own attempts, creating gardens, planting trees or rewilding, as is the case at Ryewater, large tracts of land.

3. Creating new habitats

Initial planning involved working with artists and local people for development ideas. In preparing the site, the top 12 inches of dark, acidic, intensively farmed soil was removed, revealing the original nutrient-poor Oxford Clay soil. This later supported a widely diverse range of calcareous-loving plants.

Different environments were created. Ephemeral pools, drying perhaps every five years, are good for amphibians. Great Crested Newts quickly took advantage of the pools. Such species spend one third of their life time in water. Suitable mounds of soil were provided for ants, these insects being a keystone species in grasslands. A newly constructed hop-walk supplied food for butterflies.

Another activity of importance, at summer’s end, is seed harvesting. Seeds with local provenance are a powerful tool in wildlife planting. Once collected, they can be mixed with a carrier and broadcast by hand. A woodchip layer in the planting area provides suitable nooks and humidity for seeds to germinate. In contrast to hand broadcasting, growing plug-plants uses fewer seeds.

During the first Summer, annuals flowered in abundance and perennials started their first year of growth. Bare ground specialists, such as grasshoppers were in evidence. Ant colonies were established, encouraged by newly prepared mounds of soil. Orchids were notable incomers, the seeds of which are like dust and require wind to travel to a germination site. Also, linkage with suitable soil fungus (another positive indicator) is needed for healthy germination and growth. Importantly, nutrient is not added to soils, which reduces biomass but increases diversity.

Data collection is diligently performed to discover how well the project is proceeding. Butterfly numbers, for example, are surveyed with a walking observational survey carried out weekly in Summer. The abundance of various species can be compared with international data sets. Volunteers are used for recording, surveys and data collection whilst the bulk of work on the farm is carried out by employees, contractors and seasonal workers.

4. What have we learnt?

Several years on, what has been achieved? The farm is bucking national diversity trends. 19 species show increasing numbers whilst only 5 (one example being the Cabbage White butterfly) indicate a decrease. Data shows 11 species with earlier emergence, some by 14 days over the past 10 years. Earlier emergence by insects (due to rising temperatures), can be detrimental to birds whose breeding cycle, with associative food requirements, remains linked with previous emergence times. 120 species of birds have been noted at Ryewater, 48 regularly breeding on the estate (e.g. hobby, kingfisher). Nightingales, in steep decline in UK, also breed at Ryewater, which is at the very western edge of their range. Ringed birds are frequently recaptured, suggesting Ryewater is a migratory stop-off point. A previously wooded area has been re-seeded to Hazel, Willow and Ash coppice and is now harvested.

Having started the project with ‘boring’ dairy pasture, the farm now has many different habitats. For Wren, an important part of the project is its spiritual dimension, connecting humans to nature. Observational skills, once well-developed amongst young people have been largely lost (so-called ‘ecological illiteracy’). Visiting sites, such as Ryewater can reawaken those skills. Although the farm supports a small beef herd of cattle, it has yet to make a financial profit.

The whole estate is designated an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) and SAC (Special Area of Conservation). Designation provides stability to rewilded land; reversing the rewilding process then becomes very difficult.

5. The future

Whilst 11% of UK land is urban and 35% protected (good for diversity), the remaining 54% has everything to play for with regard to rewilding. The natural world can be considered a ‘great tapestry’ but whilst our tapestry looks somewhat worn and thin in places, rewilding brings a story of hope, suggesting that we do have answers to environmental problems, even if we don’t always implement them in practice.

The year 2024 will see the enactment of the ELMS (Environmental Land Management Scheme) which may offer better opportunity for those seeking more in the way of landscape recovery.

For individuals interested in rewilding their own garden, Wren recommended not keeping the garden too tidy, have lots of environmental niches with piles of dead leaves, meadow rather than lawn, and avoid persecuting flora and fauna in the garden. When collecting seeds, pick when you see they have matured. Verges often have older, long established flora. In sourcing seeds commercially (where local sources are not apparent), seek local provenance and avoid cheap mixes which may also contain less desirable species and importantly, might hark from a different environment.

For Wren, the conclusion of decades of work at Ryewater Farm is ‘create valuable new habits, and new species will establish themselves’. If Rachel Carson was still with us, she might nod approvingly in the direction of Ryewater Farm.

A visit to Ryewater Farm is planned for Summer 2022.

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