Rewilding is a somewhat radical approach to conservation, which aims to restore natural ecosystem processes by giving nature space to grow and function. It sometimes also involves the reintroduction of key native species which plays a big role in the functioning of the ecosystem, such as large herbivores and carnivores.
Tom Murphy from Cork Nature Network, spoke with Randal Plunkett, the 21st Lord Dunsany, and manager of the Dunsany estate nature reserve in Co. Meath. The reserve has recently been admitted to Rewilding Europe, an association of rewilding projects in Europe, and is the first and only Irish member of the group.
Randal took over the management of the Dunsany Estate in 2011 from his father. The estate had been managed for livestock and although Randal continued this practice he found that it was not cost effective for the effort. Forest plantations were present but understaffed and ailing financially. Land for tillage and silage production was being rented out. Randal was not happy with the efficiency of the agricultural management and he was beginning to have ethical and moral concerns about the practice. Now a vegan, Randal told Cork Nature Network about his research into the topic and how his own experiences on the farms showed the many environmental harms of the system. As a believer in environmental justice and restoration, he felt he could not condone animal agriculture on his land. Randal was interested to learn what his lands could be like with different land management systems. Thus, the Dunsany rewilding project began as a matter of both conscience and curiosity.
Around the end of 2013 and beginning of 2014, Randal ceased livestock production on the estate. As an amateur naturalist, he expected quick changes to the land. Thistles and ragwort grew thick on the grassland where cattle had once grazed, and for a few years, Randal could see nothing but these coarse weedy species. However, he soon started to see a much more diverse community of plants emerge – the soil was changing to allow the growth of a much wider range of wildflowers and grasses. As well as this, by neglecting to cut or remove anything from the grasslands, Randal has seen the distribution of plants in the area become much more non-uniform. Some areas are thick and clumpy with plants, while others are sparse. This diversity in microhabitat is not only likely to benefit invertebrates, but also other mammals and birds. Wet grasslands which otherwise might have been drained for agricultural use are allowed to stay as wetlands, and Randal hopes that marshy areas will spread across the estate as they once did, attracting water-birds like the elusive snipe.
Randal’s forests were starting to change due to his practices. He had also stopped permitting hunting on the estate, and so the populations of mammals like deer, fox, badger, and rabbits had increased. He has noticed changes in the deer’s behaviour in particular; where they had once been the bane of the native tree species in the forests, they had now started to dine on non-native species. They seem to particularly enjoy laurel, which previously competed strongly for space and light with other tree saplings. As well as protecting his estate’s mammal life, Randal has also rejected potentially lucrative offers to utilise the trees of his plantations, and after consulting with an ecologist, has decided to just leave them to grow.
As a result, the forest has begun to “self-thin” – weaker trees are allowed to die and rot in place, even to collapse (health and safety permitting), and the remaining mature trees grow to form a canopy that allows more light to filter through than a normal commercial plantation, resulting in a much more diverse ground layer of plants – it was also noted that there are more varieties of bramble in one of his plantations than anywhere else she had seen. Fallen trees and branches also form ideal shelter for animals like hedgehogs, as well as invertebrates and fungi.
Randal isn’t totally hands-off in the management of his rewilded estate, however. As a filmmaker by training and trade, he supervises filming projects on the picturesque estate through Dunsany Pictures. One of the driving factors behind Dunsany’s rewilding was a script that Randal was writing set in a truly wild location – similar to a method actor living life as their character, he wanted to live the life of his script by creating a more wild landscape around him. Filmmakers are required to pay a “tree tax” to the estate, paying for the planting of a species of their choice on the estate. Randal patrols the estate during hunting season to discourage poaching keeps the paths around the manor house clear with a homemade biodegradable spray (made mainly from vinegar and salt – Randal is a staunch opponent of harsh pesticides such as Roundup). While perfectly manicured hedgerows might fit into the idyllic image of a country estate, Randal is much more keen on a wilder sort of tradition. He is planting traditional hedgerow species such as hawthorn, and allowing them to grow as wild as possible to provide habitats for birds, mammals and insects. He understands the public safety issues of hedgerows in Ireland, but also laments the zeal with which they are cut back in some places.
Aside from its cinematic appeal, the Dunsany reserve is primarily a site for scientific research. Researchers from Trinity College Dublin have frequently visited the reserve this year to gather data on the changes in the landscape and for student projects on everything from beetles to butterflies, and grass to trees. Data collected from the estate is also submitted to the National Biodiversity Data Centre to contribute to their records.
Randal has already seen the encouraging presence of a diverse range of grasses, brambles, and insects on the estate, as well as the return of woodpecker, previously absent from the county. Randal hopes to accumulate a few decades of data to demonstrate the changes rewilding has brought to the estate, and to use as an example in encouraging this form of conservation.
He admits that this will be a slow process, and obviously not possible everywhere in the country – however, he is obviously passionate about the project, and wants to lobby for the green agenda.
It was certainly a pleasure speaking to Randal. He has genuine passion for his project and for environmentalism and seems committed to leveraging his privileges not only to improve his local environment, but that of the entire country through lobbying government and facilitating scientific research. He envisions a truly green Ireland, where everyone, farmers and non-farmers alike, can contribute to the health of our environment, and reap the enormous benefits a fully functioning ecosystem can provide. These contributions could be in any form, whether providing a safe habitat for wildlife in a back garden, an educational ecotourist outing on a larger plot of land, or, as has been ongoing at Dunsany, a site for scientific research into the outcomes and benefits of rewilding.
For more information about the estate, you can visit the estate’s page on the Rewilding Europe website https://rewildingeurope.com/rew-project/dunsany-nature-reserve/ and the estate’s Instagram page (@dunsanynaturereserve).
Interview by Tom Murphy