Wilderness and its appeal explored at Newcastle University conference

Delegates arrive on Tyneside from across the world for wild event which has lured experts in landscape and the wilderness

Dr Ian Thompson Nature reclaims an old industrial site at Blaydon Burn in Gateshead
Nature reclaims an old industrial site at Blaydon Burn in Gateshead

The call of the wild has lured experts from around the world to Tyneside.

Ninety delegates are attending a conference at Newcastle University under the banner of Landscape, Wilderness and The Wild.

Organised by the university’s School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, the conference is examining the various ideas revolving around wilderness and why it seems to strike a chord in many people.

At the start of the three-day event on Thursday, delegates were given a taste of North East wild.

They could choose from trips to the Northumberland coast, taking in Lindisfarne and Druridge Bay, where nature reserves have been created from former opencasted land.

There were also outings to Teesside, where nature areas are adjacent to industry, and the North Pennines.

North East ornithologist Keith Bowey also led a walk from Newcastle to Dunston Staiths in Gateshead, which is a roosting site for birds.

Dr Ian Thompson, Reader in landscape architecture at Newcastle University, is one of the conference organisers.

He says: “I am sure that we will hear all sorts of definitions of wilderness.”

Among the issues tackled in more than 30 presentations are claims that extensive sheep farming in the Lake District has created an “ecological desert” with wilderness being squeezed out of the landscape.

Dr Thompson said: “ There is an argument that intensive farming has created sterile landscapes and that countryside birds have moved in to gardens, while there are more urban foxes.”

Dr Ian Ground The look of the wild - picture taken by Newcaste University's Dr Ian Ground on a trip to Africa
The look of the wild - picture taken by Newcaste University's Dr Ian Ground on a trip to Africa

There is also the concept of rewilding - either allowing a landscape to return to nature in its own way or providing a helping hand by removing human interventions.

This includes reintroductions of lost species, with north Northumberland mentioned as a possible relocation choice for beavers at some time in the future.

A rewilding project is currently underway in Ennerdale in the Lake District.

Themes explored at the conference include:

  • Is there any wilderness left, or has everything been affected by humans and fossil fuel climate change?

Dr Thompson says: “ The claim is that there is no such thing as untouched nature any more, that there is now no room for wilderness.”

  • The development of “wild” places on the urban edge, where unused land is taken over by vegetation and wildlife.
  • How wild places are imagined, with the popularity of books, films and TV programmes on the subject, and how it is seen by writers and artists.

Another area for debate are the four types of nature.

They are:

  • First Nature: These are pristine landscapes, unsullied by human hand.
  • Second Nature: Where people have altered the landscape by growing crops, fertilising the soil, irrigation and damming rivers, building ports.
  • Third Nature: The creation of parks and gardens.
  • Fourth Nature: The re-creation of habitats on former industrial sites .

Delegates have come from Tibet, Sweden, Holland, Spain, Slovenia, Germany and Canada.

Another topic is the public interest in wilderness.

“I think it is in the human psyche. After all, we are cleverly disguised animals,” says Dr Thompson.

“On the first fine day this year the coast at Whitley Bay and Tynemouth was packed with people wanting to make contact with the sea.”

We are, he believes, only a few generations away from ancestors who, in order to survive, had to understand and be close to nature.

“My grandparents made elderberry wine and kept chickens. Now we get our chicken from the supermarket and few people know how to kill one,” says Dr Thompson.

“Now there are events which include foraging for wild food but many of our grandparents would have done that as a matter of course.”

Among a batch of North East experts contributing to the conference is James Littlewood, director of the Natural History Society of Northumbria, with an offering on the Tyne kittiwakes colony.

He says: “ Newcastle is almost unique among world cities in having a seabird colony in its centre.

“Local people and visitors are able to experience this amazing wildlife spectacle against the landmarks of the Tyne bridges, the Sage and the Baltic art gallery.

“Unfortunately, not everyone appreciates the noise, smells and detritus of a seabird colony in full swing and the birds are a divisive issue.”

Newcastle University’s Prof Andrew Ballantyne’s contribution is on the way humans have evolved in the landscape.

“It has gradually become possible to lose sight of the conditions in which we used to be able to survive,” he says.

“Now we who live in cities have a largely sentimental relationship with the idea of ‘nature’ which is occasionally disturbed by the experience of flooding, earthquake or tidal wave.

“Our instincts are bred into us from a time when we were precarious survivalists, and do not always serve us well in our changed circumstances.”


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