Herbivore Guild : Diversity creates diversity

The short video here shows me making a rock art image of three animals that form a “herbivore guild”. For me, this is rich with intriguing associations – see my blurb below to find out why.

Like many people who are into “rewilding”, I like the idea of there being impressive creatures living lives where they can express their natural behaviours in natural settings in appropriate areas not too far from where I live. I felt an urge to create some art that carries the essence of that idea. The animals that live on a landscape are part of that landscape, which means the landscape includes the animals, and they also form an ecological landscape – a set of niches that various other animals have evolved to make use of – and so I thought I’d make a piece of art that does the same thing – makes animals that are part of the landscape, by using paints made from Earth pigments on a real rock canvas. So the canvas is a piece of landscape, or a micro-landscape. So in its very substance the rock art really embodies this idea of these animals being part of the landscape. That’s the basic idea of it: rock art for rewilding. 

Herbivore Guild and Mosaic of Habits

For this painting, I decided to show three large herbivores that together can contribute to biodiversity: a red deer stag, a hardy Tauros bull close to its wild aurochs ancestor, and a wild Exmoor pony, again, of a kind close to the ancient type, as these wild types are hardy and able to survive in the wild. Such guilds can form an important part of rewilding projects, where they are allowed to engineer mosaics of different habitats.

The importance of these mosaics is talked about a lot, but what does it actually mean? I think this can be illustrated by the case of the nightingales of Knepp. Ornithologists are still, at the time of writing, trying to work out exactly why, when these birds with their amazing song have disappeared from most of Britain and their numbers are still falling, there is a burgeoning population at Knepp which has arrived since the rewilding project began. It’s known that part of the reason has to do with the way that thick scrub has grown up in this landscape in a special way, namely where it is in close proximity to fertile grazed meadow. This has come about through the combination of allowing the land to scrub up, as well as introducing large herbivores hardy enough to survive without chemical assitance. These herbivores have both slowed down the process by which thorny scrub becomes closed canopy woodland and have kept open the areas of meadow between the patches of scrub, keeping these grass areas full of healthy dung that sustains large numbers of invertebrates, tightening up the scrub between the open patches in the process. Populations of creatures that depend on dung need it all year round, so animals that are hardy like their ancient ancestors and don’t need to be taken into barns in the Winter are important. This mixed habitat is what many animals are after. For example, the nightingale seeks the thick thorny scrub to nest and for safety and shelter, but it also likes to be on the edge of grassy areas rife with invertebrates where it can venture out short distances to hunt for food. Knepp gives it exactly what it needs.

Turtle doves and cuckoos are likewise honey-throated birds of the scrubby, grassy ‘woodland edge’ who are doing surprisingly well at Knepp and badly in most other places in the UK.

Earth Pigment Paints

The colours I needed for the three herbivores in my painting are not at all difficult to make, which is handy. I only really needed some red, orangey browns, dark brown, black and some white for the muzzles. I always use natural pigments, sometimes purchased or made using purchased ochres and sometimes I find pigment sources myself in the landscape. Finding the pigments can be fun. We’re hunter gatherers by nature, so we like to get out into nature, find something and bring it back. So going out and collecting earth pigment materials just kind of fits well with our own nature, which makes it an example of rewilding yourself, or perhaps re-naturalising would be a better term.

Making paints can be fun too. For this painting, the red pigment for the red deer came from a beach in Studland on the Isle of Purbeck. I made this from some soft red sandstone I got from a boulder that had fallen down onto the beach. I didn’t want the sand from the sandstone to be in the paint, making it rough and grainy. I didn’t want to grind the sand down into a fine powder either, because the inside of the grains is a light colour that would lighten the paint. I loosely broke it down into sand and then boiled and stirred it in water for a time, then decanted off the coloured water leaving the sand grains behind (as briefly shown in the above video). The other paints in this piece are also made form materials I’ve collected in the landscape, except the black which is lamp black: a paint made from soot. The rock slabs I use are a hard sandstone, which allows the paint to soak in and stain it.

Calling out from the past

As regards the subject matter, this is my own version of that scene in the Lascaux Hall of Bulls where aurochs, deer and wild ponies are shown together. A few years ago, I was out shopping – I think I was in WHSmiths – and the Simple Minds song with the refrain “Don’t you forget about me” was playing at the moment that I happened to be looking at some artwork showing some animals that went extinct around the time of the last mini ice age – I think it could have been a promotional poster for one of the animated Ice Age films. Anyway, the combination of this song along with the sight of those animals felt like one of those skin-tingling moments of a-causal meaningful coincidence that Jung called Synchronicity. In other words, it felt like this was a kind of message from the beyond saying “don’t forget about those animals.” When I chose the title for my current series of rock art paintings, I went for Keystone Creations, and I also chose a secondary strapline: Rock Art for Rewilding. Looking at those ancient cave paintings from places like Lascaux, Chauvet and Altamira can give you the same skin-tingling feeling of something calling out from the past asking not to be forgotten. And in fact the feeling that these paintings give us has surely helped the rewilding cause in tangible ways.

Pony, deer and aurochs in Lascaux

While I felt the tingle, standing there hearing the Simple Minds song while looking at the Ice Age poster,  I couldn’t answer the why: why might it be so important not to forget about them?

The important of the ecologically “recent” past

From things I’ve been reading and watching more recently, I think I have more of an answer to that now. It’s not simply a matter of recreating something from the past that is lost, just for the sake of it. There have been many different ecosystems in different periods of Earth’s history with all sorts of creatures that don’t now exist, and we couldn’t recreate all of them. It has to start from a position of finding nature based solutions. I’ll pick out three things for now that need solutions. Firstly, the Earth, including my native Britain, is suffering from a great loss of biodiversity. Biodiversity allows nature to be robust in the face of future changes. We need to keep nature biodiverse. Second, in large areas of Europe there is rural depopulation and a decline in traditional agriculture. These areas could quite easily become self-managing national parks with the same kind of pull as those in Africa if they hosted diverse, vibrant and charismatic communities of flora and fauna. People would be drawn to visit them, which would have economic advantages for those areas. Thirdly, such rewilding areas would be of great psychological benefit to humans. Getting out in nature is good for mood, but having the Serengeti on your doorstep is at a whole other level.  

Large herbivore guilds are an important part of this picture. Animals that had an ongoing impact over evolutionary spans of time created niches for other animals to occupy. To upgrade ecosystems, you need an awareness of what those niches are, even if you need to introduce proxy animals or analogous niches to create them. Those plants and animals that are around now fit into niches in the recent ecological past, and by recent I mean the Pleistocene and Mesolithic, because evolution is a slow process. And it so happens that human culture existed in the Palaeolithic; we ourselves evolved into what we are, took on our current nature, during the Pleistocene.

The Eco-Services of the Aurochs

To choose one element of the herbivore guild shown in my painting, large, hardy cattle capable of eating a diverse natural diet can have multiple ecological effects. Aurochs were massive animals, with the males standing up to 2m at the shoulder. There are projects underway to breed cattle similar to aurochs, their ancient ancestor, such as the Tauros project in Spain. I should mention first of all that we’re talking about much lower numbers per acre than the ten million cows currently in the UK, so methane release is not something we need to be concerned about. The aurochs was an important feature of the fauna of old Europe. Some of the ecological effects are:

  • Maintaining a balance of woodland and pasture. Their heavy hooves push tree seeds into the ground and their weight and behaviours can help tree growth, which is to their benefit because the woods provide much of their winter food, when the temperature cools and the grass stops growing. Simultaneously they maintain areas of open pasture. The evolution of grass is such that it expects to be grazed. Without grazing, the old dead grass lies around, only decomposing slowly. Grazing rapidly turns grass into dung which puts the nutrients back into the earth more quickly in a decomposed form. This combination of wooded areas and pasture is good for biodiversity.
  • Healthy dung. Because these types of cattle are hardy, they can survive on natural food and without medication throughout the year. This means their dung is healthy, not polluted by strong chemicals. As a result, it’s fantastic for the soil and for invertebrates. A quarter of its own body weight in invertebrates per year are sustained by the dung of one cow. These invertebrates are then food for other animals such as birds and small mammals.  The urine and dung also enrich the soil, helping to increase biomass.
  • These large animals create paths through the forest that are important for many other small animals and plants. Because they browse, they also trim back the forest plants, which again creates the niche that natures expects, on an evolutionary level, and so benefits a number of plants and animals. Without these herbivores, certain plants grow into a “leggy” form that is not actually the balanced state that nature expects to see in evolutionary terms. These leggy plants crowd out other ones making poor quality habitats for flora and fauna.
  • Nutrient pathways. These large animals eat in one place, then move around, dropping their dung as they go. This can help to move nutrients from areas where they are rich to areas that would otherwise be nutrient-poor.

What about methane?

You might be thinking: hey, but aren’t the livestock that are killing the planet also large herbivores? There’s actually no comparison. It’s not just the difference in diet that means less methane. It’s also, above all, the massive difference in numbers. Natural, wild populations in functioning ecosystems are much smaller than intensive livestock ranches. Then there’s other factors, such as the make up of the herds. Livestock operations consist of young, fast growing, quick metabolising cattle, which are replaced rather than living lives as mature animals. Hence, they consume more and produce more methane. Then there’s the equine component: horses produce less methane than cattle. Plus there’s the fact that existing ecosystems are systematically destroyed in order to create livestock operations, which is very different to rewilding projects. But mainly, it’s the massive difference in the numbers.

A diversity of eating styles

The rewilding idea is not about introducing just one large herbivore. It is a mixture of different grazers and browsers with different dietary predilections that helps to maintain a diverse range of plants, and thus wildlife. While red and roe deer are predominantly browsers of fresh tree growth by choice but will also graze to an extent, fallow deer, ponies and cattle are grazers by choice, but will also browse. And while ponies eat coarse grasses, cattle prefer fine grass. As such, this trio are not in major competition for food, and because diversity creates diversity, these guilds are also good for maintaining a wide array of plants, their combined effect reducing the chance that one particular plant will dominate and crowd out others. As deer’s favourite food is saplings, they help maintain open grassy areas, which benefit the grazers, and the deer feel more safe with big things with horns on side. This guild can exist autonomously within mosaics of woodland and grassland, as a keystone collective, in other words engineering habitats that many other creatures make use of.

In various places there are now areas of mixed landscape combining grassland and wooded areas where herbivore guilds graze and browse in the ways they evolved for, such as deer as well as wild ponies and hardy wild cattle chosen to be as close as possible to their ancestors, as found in the old cave art. A pioneering example was the Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands. As an experiment, to counteract biodiversity loss, a guild of large herbivores was introduced here featuring wild ponies, hardy cattle and red deer, to create a Serengeti-like landscape. The results were amazing, with populations of small mammals and birds rebounding. An example of a British rewilding experiment inspired by the Oostvaardersplassen is the Knepp estate in Sussex, which again has been an extraordinary success and has produced results concerning the numbers of other species such as rare birds and butterflies that conservationists had only dreamed about. I find it interesting also that the only place where a type of cicada lives in the UK is the New Forest, which has long been grazed by both ponies and cattle, as well as deer. The New Forest is a very important area for many other plants and animals too, several of which are found nowhere else. It’s interesting now that nature reserves in the Isle of Purbeck area are looking to follow in the footsteps of the New Forest, by introducing some ponies and cattle and also pigs I believe to reduce certain plants that are threatening to overtake the area. There’s also something to be gleaned from the fact that though sparrows have disappeared from almost all of London now – an extraordinary concept to get your head around – the one place in London with a descent sparrow population now is London Zoo, because of the insects that the large animals attract.

As well as this ecological motivation, such rewilding is also motivated by the idea that people will benefit from contact with such charismatically creative natural systems, and undoubtedly the images in those old caves has helped to inspire the vision. Indeed, one of the reasons why I think deer and horses should be considered where suitable and appropriate for rewilding projects is precisely that they create human engagement. Now that – like it or not – we’re in the Anthropocene, this is a very important factor, giving humans a gut level reason to value the area as an, in quotes “undeveloped wilderness”. Such animals become an asset to an area precisely for this reason. It’s been said that horses make a landscape more beautiful and the same can be said of deer, which we feel lend an air of nobility and majesty, and humans have long felt some kind of totemic connection to large ungulates such as cows. We continue to get a moment of thrill from seeing deer unexpectedly, derived in large part no doubt from ancient, atavistic instincts hardwired into us in evolutionary time, where we recognise an animal with which we existed in a natural predator-prey ecological relationship. Our myths are full of magical deer, white harts and golden hinds, spirit animals that guide us to our exalted fate in the enchanted forest. Really, they’re guiding us back into the world of our inner hunter gatherer. As such, the presence of these animals has the potential to further the conservation cause, because it is a major motivation at a deep, non-intellectual level, for keeping areas natural, much as the Norman kings kept forests to go hunting in.

True, deer can do a lot of harm ecologically if there aren’t other forces in the system moving them around to prevent over browsing in one place and keeping the numbers down. But assuming that’s taken care of, they are an asset to an area in the Anthropocene because of how they can turn it into one that humans value at a gut level.

This current painting, as I’ve mentioned, draws some inspiration from the palaeolithic art in the Hall of the Bulls in the Lascaux Caves. I’ve no desire to produce a replica of the Lascaux paintings – I want rock art to be reborn as a living tradition, not just a museum piece, so I’ve done them the way I wanted to do them.

If such guilds were in operation in Ice Age Europe, and this Lascaux art shows they were, then it tells us that there must have been open grassy areas, but it also tells us more than that. Deer are natural browsers and do not do well if there is only grazing, so presumably there were trees too, and in the cold of Winter, when grass stops growing, the natural tendency of wild cattle and bison is to browse in woodlands and eat materials from trees as grass stops growing and grassland no longer provides enough food to sustain them. There were no farmers around to provide bales of hay to supplement winter feeding. So the fact that these guilds survived the Winter tells us this must have been a balanced landscape of woodland and grassland.

How did areas of woodland manage to grow with these browsers around, eating the saplings? We’ll look at that in another post in this series, and it’s not just about predators moving the herds on and reducing their numbers; it’s also about nature’s barbed wire: thorny scrub. In terms of rewilding projects, before you let these herbivore guilds loose, you need to allow time for that scrub to develop, as via the process of succession these will create protective nurseries for saplings and will thus develop to become the wooded areas. But I thought it best to start with the large herbivore guild for my first painting in this series to establish the connection with the Lascaux art.

For now, let’s just take it as red that these herbivore guilds are moving around, not staying too long in one place, and that the landscape is a balance of woodland and grassland with a great diversity of different plants.

Stay natural.