Digital Book of Landscapes


Rewilding: Accidental Oases

Ben Ferguson / Simon Ward
Chartered Landscape Architect, Atkins

Rewilding- to restore (an area of land) to its natural uncultivated state (used especially with reference to the reintroduction of species of wild animal that have been driven out or exterminated).

Rewilding is a word many people are hearing a lot more of lately but what is it about and how can it help us understand and improve our environments for both our benefit and the benefit of all species?

Rewilding can happen in a whole manner of ways and across a whole range of scales, it can be as a result of deliberate coordinated strategies or simply by accident.

One example of unintended rewilding is the Pennington Flash. A ‘flash’ in geographical terms is a water-filled hollow formed by subsidence. Today the Pennington Flash is a 70-hectare lake, set within a 200-hectare country park and nature reserve, located between Lowton and Leigh in Greater Manchester and is south of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal. However, its conception was purely accidental.

£1.6 billion Estimated economic damages in England
from the winter floods 2015/2016 1
42% Proportion of floodplains in
England and Wales physically separated from their rivers 2

The Pennington Flash is located on land that was historically low-lying agricultural land, which was prone to flooding from Hey Brook and Westleigh Brook, which ran through the area. From the late 19th century coal was mined by the Bickershaw Colliery in vast quantities from deep seams under what has become the flash, and the land slowly subsided. In the early 20th century seasonal flooding became worse and the flash began to form. Several attempts over the years to infill the flooded areas to return it to agricultural land failed and any attempts to farm the land were eventually abandoned – working against natural systems had become futile; a theme which is ever more resonant today.

Following decades of informal recreational use, the country park was eventually opened in 1981.

Despite there being managed areas of public open space and infrastructure for activities such as golf and boating on the lake, there are many areas of wetland and woodland habitat that have been ‘rewilded’, and as a result over 230 bird species have been recorded on site, including some which are rare and endangered. It is widely used by the local community and is a great asset in the local area for health and well-being as well as being of significant value in terms of flood prevention for the local area.

Figure 1: Pomona Island
£430 million Value of services provided by pollinating
insects for crop production 3
Under 10% Proportion of children who regularly
play in natural areas 4

Another accidental oasis – is Pomona Island in Manchester. Soon to be developed as ‘Manchester Waters’ this 26-acre slice of land is bordered by the Bridgewater canal on one side and the River Irwell on the other and due to the interconnecting canal locks, is technically an island. The name ‘Pomona’ (derived from the ancient Roman goddess of fruitful abundance) lives on from the Pomona Palace and Gardens – a hugely popular attraction which formerly occupied the site during the 1800`s before fire damage destroyed the main building in 1887. The site was then transformed into a dockland for the Manchester Ship Canal and was part of the Salford Docks complex, which remained active until the 1970`s. Since then the site has been abandoned; left to be reclaimed by nature and has become a unique piece of brownfield habitat, where a variety of rare species of flora and fauna have been spotted.

Over the years, this scarce type of riverside and brownfield habitat has become an attraction in its own right for ecological enthusiasts, wildlife photographers, bird watchers, environmental campaigners and curious local residents. Here Cormorants can be spotted spreading their wings atop the old lampposts, Kestrels hunt for prey, and rare species such as Little Ringed Plovers, Skylarks, Lapwings and Ringed Plovers use the area for breeding. As such ideas were floated to make this area an ‘Eden Project of the North’ – a valuable and much needed block of green space accessible to the numerous nearby urban residents.

In more recent years the threat of development has became ever more pressing and despite various grassroot campaigns, the first block of flats was erected on the northern part of the site in 2018. A masterplan exists which shows development proposed across the entirety of the island and with the current building boom in Manchester it seems unlikely that this slice of rewilded brownfield site will be saved.

In examples such as Pomona Island it is clear to see that economic imperatives often trump the ecological or social values that vital areas of wilderness can provide. There are amazing examples across the world where unique landscapes have been created out of post-industrial and post-agricultural landscapes. If we are to embrace rewilding and the benefits that it can bring, we must be prepared to open our minds to the value potential that such areas can offer, beyond the obvious wildlife ones, with social, mental and health wellbeing merits and others including sustainable drainage, air purification and counteracting urban heat island effects. In a society where many local authorities have declared a climate emergency Rewilding is one area we must capitalise on.

  1. The Environment Agency, Estimating the economic costs of the 2015 to 2016 winter floods. January 2018
  2. Tony Juniper, What Nature Does for Britain. Profile Books, 2015
  3. Tony Juniper, What Nature Does for Britain. Profile Books, 2015
  4. Tony Juniper, What Nature Does for Britain. Profile Books, 2015