The Somerset Levels, in southwest England, was once a vast, wild wetland spanning the flatlands from the Mendip Hills to the Atlantic coast. From pelicans to lynx, beavers to giant river sturgeon, this great tangle of marsh, forest and river teemed with wildlife. It was England’s Okavango Delta.
Sadly, like most of our habitats, the Somerset Levels is a shadow of its former self. Many of its large animals are long gone, and even once common species often struggle to survive - a sad reflection of the broader British wildlife crisis.
Yet there is hope.
Somerset Wildlands is a charity working to bring back some of this lost life through rewilding: cultivating wild stepping stones – patches of land large and small - that can blossom into spaces for nature and wildlife to flourish again.
Unlike standard conservation work, which seeks to protect biodiverse areas or maintain specific habitats, Somerset Wildlands buys ordinary farmland and allows it to rewild into something extraordinary. The purchased land is left as wild and unmanaged as possible, giving nature free reign and adding something different to the existing mix of managed nature reserves and farmland. Typical conservation work is important, and achieves valuable things, but there isn’t enough to conserve. We must make more spaces in which nature can thrive and evolve without human control. That’s why the Livebarefoot Fund proudly supports Somerset Wildlands.
So far the results are promising. Left alone for a few years, nature is stirring back to life. Grazing land is transforming into a vibrant mess of flowers, hedges, scrub and grass. Thistles, trefoils and wetland plants jostle for space. In summer, the air positively hums with insect life; spiders and grasshoppers festoon every stalk, and pushing through the chest-high grass releases clouds of butterflies and dragonflies. Snakes and fox cubs also shelter in the dense vegetation, while marsh harriers scan for prey overhead.
But rewilding is about moving forwards, not backwards. While Somerset Wildlands looks to the past for guidance and inspiration, this is in service of creating a wilder, healthier future – for wildlife and people.
Human history has long entangled with and shaped the Somerset Levels. From Glastonbury Tor - or any of the other hills, or ‘mumps’, rising like islands from the flatlands - you can still imagine our ancestors using wooden walkways to navigate the grasslands, reedbeds and salt marshes when the flood waters were high. It was in these marshes and swamps that Alfred the Great hid from the Vikings when defending Wessex. And some believe this was the site of the mythical Isle of Avalon, legendary resting place of King Arthur. Humans here have since removed and added species, scarred the landscape with roads and houses and changed the air, water and climate.
We can’t ignore or undo this human history, but we can help people step into a wilder, more regenerative relationship with the Levels. So as well as making space for nature to thrive, Somerset Wildlands also reconnects people with nature. For example, they’re working with other landowners who share their vision, and wish to rewild their own land while providing opportunities for people to engage with wildlife through volunteer monitoring, education or nature tourism.
This sense of hope is key to rewilding. We needn’t accept either the decline of our wildlife or the loss of nature from our lives. By making space for nature to simply be - letting life-giving processes play out without controlling them - we can return joy, wildness and health to the land and our lives.
Support Somerset Wildlands here.