Dr Ed Shaw, one of our Trustees and Directors, offers his thoughts on wildness and rivers
Since I was a child a big part of what gave the natural world its magic was its wildness. It’s a quality that I think we all instinctively recognise, but I’m not sure I can completely put my finger on what it is about it that’s thrilling. Perhaps it’s the spontaneity, apartness and independence from humans, and the sense of exploration, adventure and discovery that wild places can give us. While most of our surroundings are designed, owned, controlled and mundane, wildness is exciting, liberating, and mysterious.
Inevitably as I grew older my horizons widened and I began to understand just how modified and managed Britain’s landscape is. As a consequence the wildness and magic our countryside held for me retreated and diminished. To a great extent the same knowledge nurtured a new appreciation of traditional landscapes; valuing how historical land management has shaped moorland and water meadows etc, and this mostly compensated for the loss. Yet at the heart of me my childhood fascination with wildness remains.
Thick forest envelops a pristine river high in mountains in Sichuan Province, China
A few weeks back I was fortunate enough to participate on a short expedition in the mountains of south-west China, during which I recorded the habitats of poorly known species of plant. While the ecosystems of many rivers in China have been severely degraded, there are still some truly wild rivers in remote parts of the country. On this trip I visited one such river, located high in the mountains in Sichuan province. The vegetation along the riparian zone was completely pristine, having never been cut, burnt, grazed, planted, or otherwise managed in any way. For me, spending time there and soaking up the wildness was sublime.
Wilderness in Sichuan Province, China
The experience got me thinking, not for the first time, about wildness back in the Don Catchment. I’m sure that like me many people must have wondered what the rivers in the Don Catchment would look like if they had never experienced any human impact? Might, for example, the upper reaches of the Don look like this river in China? Clearly this river is far more powerful, but otherwise the climate and the types of plants are not so different as to make comparison meaningless. It’s completely speculation, but I suspect that this pristine Chinese river does indeed represent a vision of what a wild upper Don would look like.
Ponds in the beds of old river channels stud this Alaskan wilderness. Photo by Travis / CC BY
As for the lowland rivers in the Don Catchment, these are perhaps the most altered and least wild in the catchment, being ‘straightjacketed’ between flood banks in channels dug to rush them as quickly as possible to the Humber. As they are so radically altered I find it hard to imagine what the lower Don landscape might have looked like in its wild state. I suppose there would have been a complex and extensive arrangement of rivers, ponds, reed bed and marsh. One reason wetlands form in lowlands is due to the propensity for sluggish low-gradient rivers to meander. These meanders aren’t fixed, but naturally shift as they erode their way downstream. Big loops can become cut off when high flows give the river the energy to find and cut a new easier channel, leaving behind the old channel to gradually silt up and form ponds. Over thousands of years lowland landscapes can become riddled with such ponds. While such places have mostly been drained, you can see what they look like in wilderness areas such as in Alaska or the Amazon.
The River Yare in the Norfolk Broads. Photo by Pengannel / CC BY
Chris Firth suggests in his book ‘900 Years of the Don Fishery: Domesday to the Dawn of the New Millennium’ that before drainage the wetlands of the lower Don landscape might have been similar to the network of waterbodies and wetlands present at the Norfolk Broads. He also references another author who draws a comparison to the celebrated great expanse of wildlife rich wetlands at the Doñana National Park in Spain.
Doñana National Park, Spain. Photo by Daniel Lombraña González / CC BY
So, what is the potential for us to have wilder rivers in the Don Catchment? This is a difficult question and honestly I don’t really know. Fully rewilding a lowland river would require large areas of space for meandering. Clearly our catchment is packed with infrastructure, farmland and settlements, making such a degree of rewilding costly and complicated. In contrast, there is more scope for rewilding the rivers and streams in the upper catchment as little new space is required. I suppose it would simply entail a process of letting the vegetation and the river do its own thing.
Beautiful woodland grows along the Rivelin above Sheffield. Photo by 19andy76 / CC BY
To a certain extent this has already happened at some locations. As the steep-sided valleys that hold rivers such as the Rivelin, Loxley and the upper Don are difficult to farm or develop, the land was often put to use as managed woodland (e.g. coppicing, charcoal burning). Today ribbons of woodland follow a number of the upper rivers, and as they are no longer worked they contain many mature trees. However, these riparian woodlands, which are beautiful and some of my favourite places in the catchment, seem tame and domesticated in comparison to the river in China. I’m not sure why. It could be because their current management checks their wildness, or maybe it takes far more time than these woodlands have had for wildness to completely return. It could even be that while these woods appear different from the riotous forest I saw in China, they are indeed what a British wildwood looks like.
Anyway, our landscapes have many functions, and wild areas are not always the best use of land. That being said, one of my long term hopes is that eventually better landscape management and technology will enable us to let more spaces go wild in the catchment and allow nature to run rampant, so that future generations of children (and adults) can be thrilled by the wildness on their doorstep.
Dr Ed Shaw, Trustee & Director