Durlston photo exhibition unwraps thorny question of rewilding

A challenging exhibition on rewilding has just opened at Durlston Country Park, Swanage – where the idea has already been practised for generations.

Dorset photographer, geographer and podcaster Sam Rose has posed the question ‘What if you just leave nature to do what it will?’ and in a fascinating display of thought provoking photos he has illustrated just that.


A journey in photos – make up your own mind about rewilding

Letting nature look after itself

Rewilding explores the idea of letting nature look after itself, aiming to let land grow wild in an attempt to restore degraded landscapes and ecosystems – but was tarnished after gardens of weeds won top prizes at prestigious flower shows.

The exhibition, entitled ‘Rewilding Unwrapped’ takes a deeper look into this idea, exploring its advantages and disadvantages, and why it will work for some areas and not others.

It is open daily from 10am to 4pm until Sunday 10th December 2023, and for those who are intrigued to know more, there is a chance to join senior ranger Katie Black for a guided walk on Sunday 26th November 2023.

Katie will discuss national nature reserve management to answer the question ‘Why don’t we just let Durlston go wild?’, exploring where and how wilding techniques are used at Durlston and where they are not.

Durlston Castle, where nature has been reshaping a manmade landscape for decades

High profile supporters and critics

Rewilding has high profile supporters like Sir David Attenborough and Ed Sheering, has featured heavily on farming soap opera The Archers and also got a mention from former Prime Minister Boris Johnson at a Tory party conference.

However, the concept of rewilding has been criticised by gardening guru Monty Don, who claimed that an unkempt ‘wild garden’ might be very good for wildlife, but was no longer a garden.

And there has recently been criticism of allowing ragwort to grow wild at will because butterflies love it, since it is also highly poisonous to livestock like cattle and horses.

The national exhibition includes several photographs from Purbeck

Sam Rose/whatifyoujustleaveit.info

A dead tree or a source of life? One of Sam Rose’s challenging photos

“We hope it will engage interest”

Durlston ranger Paul Jones said:

“People may be asking why we have the exhibition here when Durlston is already a national nature reserve, a quarried landscape shaped by humans which nature has adapted to by accident.

“The meadows are human made systems, but it just so happens that the way it was operated at Durlston over many decades has been beneficial to wildlife

“On the other hand, there are places like Wild Woodbury, an intensively farmed landscape that is not reaching its full potential for nature conservation, where they are starting with a relatively blank canvas and letting nature reclaim it.

“By and large, what the public understands as rewilding has been used on sites which are not supporting much wildlife, so I think many people will come to Durlston and wonder how it applies to us.

“We hope the exhibition will engage discussion and interest, and put into perspective what rewilding is, as the term is very broadly used.”

Early spider orchid at Durlston
Durlston Country Park

An early spider orchid at Durlston is just one of the rare species growing wild here

One of the UK’s best wildlife sites

Durlston is home to a whole suite of wildlife including the nationally rare Lulworth skipper butterfly, and many species of orchids, including the early spider orchid, bee orchid and pyramid orchid.

Amongst its wildlife successes in 2023, was one field which alone contained more orchids than Durlston has had on the entire estate in the past.

It is envied as one of the best wildlife sites in the UK, with thousands of species to be discovered, including more than 250 species of birds, a riot of rare wild flowers, lizards, snakes and a wealth of insects including grasshoppers, crickets and glowworm beetles.

A Victorian castle, amazing views and spectacular wildlife – Durlston has it all

“Durlston is the creme de la creme”

Paul Jones said:

“In many ways, Durlston has already been rewilded, it is a national nature reserve, it is the creme de la creme already and we like to think that what we have been doing as a community has taken us in the right direction.

“We are in a good place at the moment – a lot of the things that are being talked about, like not mowing areas and letting hedgerows grow wild have been in place at Durlston for decades, but that doesn’t mean to say we are not going to learn from what is happening elsewhere.”

Unsightly weeds, or the beginnings of an ecosystem where nature knows best?

Sam Rose/whatifyoujustleaveit.info

Hannah and Jan from Heal are among the pioneers of rewilding pictured in Sam Rose’s exhibition

“Trust nature to know what it is doing”

Exhibition photographer Sam Rose said:

“Rewilding can mean many things to many people. It is a spectrum of approaches based on allowing natural processes, rather than people, to take the lead in nature conservation.

“This means ceding control to nature and then accepting that we do not know necessarily what will happen, but that we trust nature to know what it is doing – which it normally does.

“It might mean leaving an arable field to grow weeds and scrub, which actually support pollinating insects, which attract more birds and bats, which are predated on by raptors, and so on – expanding and refilling the web of life from a barren monoculture.

“It might also mean introducing beavers onto a formerly straightened river, allowing them to fell trees and build dams.

“This will change the course of the river, clean farm chemicals and sediments out of the water, slow down the current in the winter and allow water to flow in the summer, meaning less flooding downstream and more water in drought periods.”

Sam Rose/whatifyoujustleaveit.info

Rare breed cattle, like Albie, the White Park bull, can help with rewilding landscapes

Sam Rose/whatifyoujustleaveit.info

Wild boar introduced into manmade landscapes can be engineers of a wilder ecosystem

Huge benefits for health and wellbeing

Sam Rose added:

“We are living in the midst of biodiversity and climate crises. The planet is warming and changing as a result of our actions, and more than 60 percent of our species have been depleted in the last 50 years, many now facing near extinction from the UK.

“Rewilding can help all of this. It improves soil, air and water quality, and it has huge benefits for health and wellbeing, enabling people to get closer to nature.

“It creates spaces in which there are free roaming rare breed cattle, pigs, deer, horses and beavers, often all mingled together in one single space, so people can interact with nature in a way that contemporary agriculture doesn’t allow.

“In a world in which we are so disconnected with nature, this is more important than ever.”

Talented photographer Sam Rose showcases some thought provoking images at Durlston

Further information

Discover the wonders of Durlston Country Park on its website before visiting in person

What If You Just Leave It? Find out at Sam Rose’s website

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