We call these animals 'ecosystem engineers'! They trample, chew, scare, rub, dig, build, and chop their way through the wild, creating new habitats that are the homes for ever more animals, plants, and fungi to thrive! When we removed these ecosystem engineers from our landscape we unwittingly took away nature’s ability to build homes for the intricate web of life. The result? A slow but continual decline in biodiversity over a thousand years, unseen by us yet overseen by the life of a single Oak tree. There are oak trees alive today in the UK that were fully grown when bears, wolves and other ecosystem engineers rested under their canopies and rubbed upon their trunks!
Let's meet some of our finest ecosystem engineers and imagine how we could engineer like they did or find ways to welcome them back!:
The wetlands which beavers create by building small dams reduce the risk of flooding on floodplains, and are valuable for many animals, including otters, water voles, water shrews and wildfowl. Craneflies, water beetles and dragonflies in turn support breeding fish and insect-eating birds like spotted flycatchers and yellow wagtails.
Wild boars use their excellent sense of smell, strong snouts, and trowel-like trotters to root up the ground in search of fungi, roots, and bulbs. This rooting helps seeds and spores to spread, reveals invertebrates for birds to feed on, and creates bare earth where plants and sapling trees can take hold!
Brown bears damage trees (mainly the cambium) during feeding and marking, stripping bark and foraging for invertebrates and sapwood. Bear-made wounds provide important breeding and feeding sites for both insects and birds. These wounds are especially important for woodpeckers and insects that depend on dead wood. Brown bears therefore play an important role as ecosystem engineers.
White storks build enormous stick nests in trees and on buildings. These nests provide food and shelter for a range of other wildlife. House sparrows nest among the dead branches, butterflies overwinter inside, and the nests have been known to harbour more than 5,000 wild plant seeds, some of which germinate and then reseed the surrounding landscape from up high!
We're not about to go back to hanging out in loin cloths javelin throwing for dinner, but by rewilding we help rebuild habitats that are capable of providing so much more delicious local food to eat, clean water to drink, and cool clothes to wear!
Return of the ecosystem engineers (us!)A quick look at just a few of our lost ecosystem engineers shows just how much their presence actually shaped our natural landscape and created homes for so many other animals and plants! They (and we!), continually wilded the UK and made it richer for nature and for us!
Rewilding is our chance to bring some of these incredible animals back. But that's only half of the story. We can also look to ourselves as the ecosystem engineers we once were! We can rewild like our ancestors did and also engineer habitats by replicating the ways of wolves, bears, and bison! By doing so we can make a huge positive impact wherever we live. We can rewild not just our nature reserves and national parks but also our towns and cities, gardens and rooftops! So let's get rewilding and engineer ourselves a brighter future!