What connects King Alfred, cranes and Indian elephants? You’d be forgiven for not knowing. The answer lies in the heart of Somerset, in a wonderful initiative that is taking place on the Levels that aims to allow Nature to reclaim some space on the land and restore a better balance: Somerset Wildlands.

Set up in 2020 by visionary environmentalist Alasdair Cameron, he explains how his journey in conservation began in childhood.‘ Like many children I was fascinated by animals and would spend hours drawing maps and marking in where the creatures would live,’ he tells me. ‘At the same time though, growing up in Britain and Ireland, I think there was a deep sense of ecological gloom hanging over everything, something I only came to identify later on. There was a strong feeling that 'real' wildlife was what happened in the rest of the world and that whatever we had left was small, domestic and in constant decline. ‘As I learned more I understood that wasn't quite true, but I also began to realise just how much we had lost. The reverse of this was when I understood just how much we could gain by doing things differently.’

Alasdair Cameron's aim is to acquire land to make space for Nature. Alasdair Cameron's aim is to acquire land to make space for Nature. (Image: Big Picture Project)

After studying Zoology at university, Alasdair was employed in a number of diverse roles, including medical research and journalism, but for the last 20 years has worked as an environmental campaigner and investigator. This has taken him around the globe and has involved projects that range from the UK’s energy policy and climate change, through doing undercover investigations into illegal wildlife trade and mining in India, China and across the Himalayas. ‘But I always knew I wanted to do more in the UK itself, knowing how behind we were in much of our thinking about wildlife,’ he continues. ‘I was working with people in India who were living alongside tigers, leopards, elephants and crocodiles, yet back in Britain people at the time were having kittens about the thought of a wild beaver or pine marten! In 2014 I was involved in a legal action to protect the wild beavers that had turned up in Devon, which at that point the Government was planning to get rid of. We won! The Government backed down and we now have a number of wild beaver populations spreading in the country. Then in 2016 I had the opportunity to personally buy a small amount of land and set it aside for Nature. The results were good and I learned a lot.’ This was the epiphany that led to the establishment of the Somerset Wildlands charity, which has since ‘built on that learning and brought in more people, to start creating wild spaces for everyone,’ as plants and animals colonise the spaces.

To my surprise Alasdair says that, logistically, setting up was quite simple, despite all the form-filling. ‘The main thing was to know what we wanted the charity to do. For me that was easy - the aim was to acquire land to make space for Nature, and, as far as we could, to leave that land alone to do its own thing.’

Starlings and fieldfares.Starlings and fieldfares. (Image: Medard Sandor)

Although nationally there is an increasing awareness of the value and success of ‘hands-off’ wilding projects like this, Alasdair says that, for Britain, this is still quite a revolutionary idea. ‘Almost all land in the UK – even land in conservation agreements, or many rewilding projects – is still heavily managed, or must also be part-farmed or is working with a fixed goal in mind,’ he says. And even though Somerset Wildlands is starting small-scale, their aim is to move away from managed conservation, allowing Nature to unleash, to create wild ‘stepping stones in the landscape where Nature can take the lead.’ This adds to the existing mix of managed nature reserves and farmland. It is a commendable vision. I ask Alasdair what makes the Somerset Levels so special for this project and he gives me a deeply evocative glimpse into the Levels of the past.‘It’s such a wonderful place!’ he says. ‘Once it would have been a vast wild wetland. From pelicans to beavers, wildcats to lynx, it would have teemed with life. And it wasn’t just those missing species, there was an abundance of everyday life we can scarcely imagine. Over the years it has been tamed and drained and while much of that life has been lost it’s still pretty good by UK standards. It has good connectivity with its ditches and rhynes and there are few large roads in the Levels themselves.

‘Wetlands too are just such visceral environments,’ he continues. ‘They’re so beautiful but can also feel very alien, hostile even. There is enormous potential to create more space for Nature. The wildlife of wetlands is spectacular, but also vulnerable - to drainage, development, pollution….One of the reasons we focused on the Levels is that, at the time we began, most of the thinking around rewilding was on the uplands, but we wanted to show there was value to this approach in a lowland, wetland environment.’Alasdair explains that there is also great potential for practical benefits from rewilding in places like the Levels, such as storing water at times of flooding in order to reduce pressure on populated areas, thus protecting homes and businesses. Another vital benefit of wilding is the prevention of soil erosion. ‘Keeping peat soils wet locks in huge amounts of carbon,’ says Alasdair, ‘and allowing [agriculturally] improved or semi-improved grasslands to revert into a mosaic of forest, wet grassland and scrub will also increase the amount of carbon stored on the land. Additionally, wilding can reduce water pollution - both by reducing the number of cattle and sheep, and also by potentially trapping pollutants as they flow through and over the sites.’

A recent Somerset success has been the Great Crane Project, spearheaded by the RSPB. These magnificent birds were once a common sight but disappeared around 400 years ago, lost due to the pressures of hunting them for food and the destruction of their habitat from land drainage. In 2010 the first 21 cranes were reintroduced to the Levels and the project has grown well since then. ‘The cranes are wonderful!’ enthuses Alasdair. ‘They have been hanging out in the Levels for a number of years and recently we began to see them flying over one of our sites down at Athelney. It would be great to think that they might start to use our sites more as they wild-up. And of course cranes are just one of the large birds we may see return to the Levels. Sea eagles, now introduced to the Isle of Wight, would once have been found in Somerset, along with ospreys and even pelicans. Some of those species may return themselves, others may need a helping hand in future.’ Smaller creatures, such as harvest mice, snakes, glowworms and legion invertebrates will also benefit f the improved habitats, as well as a host of small songbirds such as goldfinches, reed buntings and long-tailed tits. Somerset Wildlands now owns four sites and also works with other like-minded landowners in a wonderfully heartening collaboration of people who want to do something for the greater good. At the present time 105 acres are in the project, with some of the purchases of the owned land made possible by ‘philanthropic loans’ from the exemplary scheme, set up by Julia Davis, called We Have the Power (W:wehavethepower.org).

Athelney canal is rich with meadowsweet in the summer. Athelney canal is rich with meadowsweet in the summer. (Image: Simone Stanbrook-Bryne)

So where does King Alfred come into all this. It’s an enticing part of the ongoing project that has its toes dipped into the tenebrous mists of Somerset’s prehistory. Somerset Wildland’s Athelney site extends to 73 acres and is, arguably, one of the most historically significant places in the South West. Alasdair picks up the story: ‘It was here that King Alfred the Great, King of the West Saxons, hid from the Vikings during his wars with them in the ninth century,’ he says. ‘Athelney means 'Prince's Isle' and so it was already a place well known to the Saxons and had a monastery and a causeway linking it to the nearby village. From here Alfred rebuilt his army before going on to defeat the Vikings, converting their King Gudrun to Christianity. This was a pretty seismic moment and enabled Alfred's grandson to go on to create the first unified Kingdom of England. ‘Without the marshes, there might be no England as we know it. This is why we have sometimes said we are rewilding the birthplace of England. Although, realistically, the Levels won’t ever be exactly as they were back in the Dark Ages, Alasdair explains that ‘we think this is a wonderful symbol of the kind of country we could be, creating a wilder, better place for everyone. We are already beginning to see changes as the grazing pressure is reduced and the land begins to wild up, with an increase in insect life, and the emergence of patches of willow scrub.’

Alasdair tells me that there has been a great deal of archaeological interest in the locality. The protected Isle of Athelney borders the Wildlands site and was the focus of the first ever Time Team programme. ‘More recently we’ve had researchers from the University of Birmingham looking for Iron Age marsh forts on our site,’ he adds. ‘These are forts which would have been built out on the swamp and which will now be buried deep in the soil. They took some samples of ancient wood and peat and we look forward to their results.’ Britain is one of the most Nature-depleted countries in the world, but, as Alasdair says, ‘rewilding isn’t about going back in time, but about learning from the past to create a wilder, better future. It is about learning to let go, and let nature take the lead.’


• Somerset Wildlands has teams of volunteer wardens who keep an eye on the sites, recording and monitoring changes as the wilding process advances.

• The charity has already carried out a number of projects with university students and in 2024 will be working with local schools, teaching pupils about rewilding and wildlife.

• Join the charity, for as little as £5 per month; financial support helps them buy more land, and you can make one-off donations on the website. Members are invited to talks and ‘we will be arranging work-party weekends in Spring and Summer.’

• Do you have a patch of land that could be rewilded? The charity works with other landowners and believes that any land can be involved although they tend to ‘focus on patches of land which have been hard-worked, and which are starting from a pretty low baseline of wildlife. That way we are really adding value through what we do.’

• Talk about it! By having the 'conservation conversation' we can all spread the word. ‘We find the vast majority of people all over the country, including in the Levels, are very supportive of nature and rewilding,’ says Alasdair’. We need them to spread the word. That can be on social media, or just down the pub!’

• https://www.somersetwildlands.org/