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Growing a wildwood: How to rewild a field for local wildlife

BY Brendan Quayle

25th Apr 2023 Environment

Growing a wildwood: How to rewild a field for local wildlife

If you have the space, rewilding a piece of land into a wildwood can have immense benefits for local wildlife and carbon capture

“That dread thing…which the Rat had vainly tried to shield him from—the Terror of the Wild Wood!”

But in the end dear little Mole in The Wind in the Willows found shelter and comfort in the Wild Wood, he saw its grace and beauty, and dreamed there of Pan—the Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

For a true wildwood should have a bit of everything: ugliness and beauty, terror and peace, and not just for rats and moles. And there’s a bit for everyone—for everyone should have access to one.

If you don’t then you could make one yourself, even if it’s just a garden corner or a few old trees. Your very own home for small mammals and a working carbon storage machine.

How passive rewilding works

Wildwood scrub with trees growing in forestOver time, grasses and seeds naturally grow into a scrub that is ripe for trees to emerge from

The most authentic way to make a wildwood would be for you to fence off an area of waste or spare land (to keep away rabbits and other grazing animals) and wait for twenty-five years.

Left alone, it will naturally convert to rough grasses, thistles, nettles and ferns—all from seeds already in the soil or brought in by birds and small mammals.

Soon shrubs will start to establish, shooting up over the grasses and showing the bigger weeds whose boss. It has become scrub—a birthing chamber for trees.

"You have become part of a revolution of lazy ecologists. You’ve rewilded!"

And as if by magic, the carbon eaters will appear, most likely first with silver birch, elder, holly hawthorn, sycamore and rowan, then, in time, beech, ash, oak, other maples and whatever garden, park and other wild trees are in the vicinity.

You might be grey by now and wizened like an old oak but your wood oaks are fresh, green and thriving and you have become part of a revolution of lazy ecologists. You’ve rewilded!

How to grow your own wildwood—proactively

Tree saplings in wildwood tree nursery protected by plastic tubesPlastic tubes help to protect tree saplings from grazing deer

There is of course a shortcut to all this. Not being willing to wait for a quarter of a century, I myself took the easy way. I cheated!

Along with the old rambling cottage we moved to in the North Country came a field and the chance of our own wildwood.

Firstly, we kicked off the tenant farmer who’d been abusing the soil with a range of nasty chemicals to grow crops for the unhealthy processed food industry, then we ploughed in a wild pasture crop and grazed it with sheep and cattle to encourage the return of worms and a range of beneficial insects.

"With the help of the government’s Forest Authority, we planted a small wood with native tree species"

Soon the grasses grew, and the field buzzed with new life: shrews and voles, mice and voles—watched over by predatory owls and joined by small birds, butterflies and bees flitting around a sea of poppies and wildflowers.

Then, with the help of the government’s Forest Authority, we planted a small wood with native tree species.

Horrible plastic tubes had to be placed round the saplings to discourage deer and rabbits from chewing and strip barking them to nothing, but it wasn’t long before the first specimens shot out of them, and we had a working, carbon eating, wild, wildwood (bio-degradable tubes are now available—but not in my day).

How a wildwood benefits local wildlife

Fungi mushrooms growing on wildwood floorTrees communicate with each other using a fungi network between the forest floor

20 years later, we now have a fully-fledged nature reserve, and some trees are over 150 feet in height.

Deer and rabbits were allowed back, and along with them arrived possies of badgers, foxes, bats, squirrels and an array of wild birds: magpies, jay, thrushes, blackbirds, sparrows, tits, tree creepers, robins and finches.

Owls hoot and hunt there by night. About a year ago a family of passing buzzards one took one look at the new wood and its tasty arrivals and opted for a semi-detached new hunting ground.

The reserve, named after our Wildcat Monty, is changing all the time. The trees “talk” to each other through a network of fungus at their roots and “decide” between them which ones thrive and which ones become insect havens.

"The leaf detritus of the seasons builds up the acidity in the soil so loved by woodland flora"

Bluebells have already arrived and in time wild garlic will set amongst the woodland floor, as the leaf detritus of the seasons builds up the acidity in the soil so loved by woodland flora.

In the spring the new leaf is glorious—so green you could eat it as salad (well some of it). In autumn you can stand in the middle of the wood and, amidst a range of reds, yellows, bronzes and browns, imagine you are in New England.

As for the scary bit. By silvery moonlight and on a dark stormy night our wildwood can be an eerie place, with the haunt of ghost owls, banshees, barking roe deer and grunting badgers. Not then for the faint-hearted.

But come the comfort of dawn and all is once again well and, adventure over, just like Mole and Rat we can return peacefully to our gardens and fire and tell tales to our grandchildren about the magic of Monty’s Wild Wood.

The Shining Stone book jacket

Brendan Quayle's novel, The Shining Stone, is out now

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