Succession is everything, well almost

Why I think knowing where you’re at in succession is the best measure of progress in rewilding.

Rewilding is one of those words that’s very hard to define. It seems to mean different things to different people. For retractors rewilding might be anything from removing all the people to removing all the jobs. For believers it’s the integration of people and landscape in a way that benefits both. 

I think when we talk about rewilding we should talk about succession. Then it’s easier to define, it’s easier to measure progress, it’s easier to demonstrate the land that represents ecological poverty and the land represents abundance. 

The basis is more life. Rewilders would like to see more life forms, not just more species, but more abundance of individual species and a landscape of fulfilled roles. All those fungi, plants and animals contributing to provision of more and more of the services that builds a thriving system of living things.  

Succession is the process which takes land from having little to no life, and no soil through a long series of development stages and eventually to the climax community. First it’s the pioneering lichen and plant species which when they die add their bodies to the gradual accumulation of organic matter. Their nutrient input and actions open up the floor for a  gradually more complex community of plants, fungi, and animals which continually add their exudates and cadavers to the increasing organic matter. Then we get some thin soil which means more plants can grow, which bring in more fungi and bacteria and protozoa and nematodes and micro-arthropods and worms and pretty soon we’ve got nutrient cycling and a chance for more life to take up the new opportunity and lead that land gradually but steadily towards more and more and more. More food and more living space for more living things. The snowball is rolling.

Of course this can be set back by a fire or a landslide or compaction or fences or heavy or sustained grazing pressure or lava or pollution or a great number of other things. But if the ingredients, in the form of the right organisms are there, nature will keep the painting going, adding layer after layer of complexity and life. It doesn’t stop. Evolution will cleave species in two to fill new niches, create new opportunities and refine all the DNA of all the organisms there to be better suited to meet the challenge of the ever shifting environment. 

In my part of Scotland the climax community is an oak dominant forest. Not a monoculture of oak, but oak at many different stages of life with hazel, willow, alder, rowan and many more tree and plant and fungal players in the mix. A little further west or north it might be a Scots pine dominant forest. Just having oaks or Scots pine isn’t the end of the line, though, the process must continue to evolve for, well ideally hundreds, or even better thousands of years. 

Given that Scotland has lost something like 95% of its original woodland and that woodland would have been – for the most part – climax community it seems reasonable that we should be attempting to re-establish a good proportion of the land which could be climax community to be just that. 

Now this isn’t for everywhere, we have some habitat types where that sort of climax community wouldn’t belong. On the peat bogs, wildflower meadows or wetlands are just some examples. However it’s exciting to think of just how much land we do have that could reach climax potential; if only the brakes were let off. 

I should mention that even within the areas of forests there is space for moorland, there can be bare rock, there can be lochs and bogs all sorts of patchy environments. Lots of edges between the different habitat types and a great diversity of different habitat types. 

no grazing vs grazing

You can feel when you’re in landscape of ecological poverty just as you can feel the aliveness of healthy ecosystems. It restores us to be in the good stuff. Around here if you put up a deer fence and wait a few years you can see what the land was trying to do, what the rolling ball of success will do if the brakes are removed. 

We deer fenced about 10 acres of land in the late 90’s and sat back to see what would happen when you took away the hungry mouths of sheep and deer. Here’s what happened. The only difference is grazing pressure. Inside the fence hares and voles are the only tree eating herbivores. When the fence went up there were no trees inside. Outside the fence the sheep and the deer occasionally roam. The trees came on their own. We were lucky to have a nearby seed source of 80 year old birch which go the ball rolling. There was two years of nothing and much murmuring of trees maybe not making it through the thick grass sward. Then they started coming. It’s all natural regeneration and it didn’t take long. 10 years in the birch was well established. Now the dense birch has started to open up and there’s hawthorn, Scots pine, juniper, oak, willow and some wide open spaces with blaeberries and heather.

This land is on its way and it feels good to walk among the dynamic growth.

biomass ratios in soil

So how do you measure succession. Well it just so happens that by analysing the soil you can come up with a bacterial to fungal biomass ratio, specific numbers, which will place the soil in question on the succession scale.

You can then get a baseline number and track progress through the years.