Rewilding has been making a big splash again recently. With the recent Monbiot book ‘Feral’ and the formation of a brand new organisation – ‘Rewilding Britain’ – encouraging (very tentative) talk of charismatic big beast reintroductions, it is now firmly on the environmental agenda. Broadly, rewilding advocates a removal of altering anthropogenic factors and a ‘hands-off’ management technique, allowing the area in question to develop of its own accord without predefined outcomes. This may involve the reintroduction of flora and fauna previously removed or lost due to human influences. The basis for re-wilding has many appealing facets from a conservation perspective, not least the relaxation of the interventionist approach widely implemented in many natural areas, which serves to reinforce the dependence of endangered species on anthropogenic interference. Re-wilding may also be seen as a measure for ‘redressing the balance’ of destructive human activity over the past few millennia. The enforcement of a re-wilding ethic is not without its negative factors though, including the complexities of removing human needs and influence, uncertainty regarding outcomes and issues over the true nature of ‘wild’.
Though not a new concept, increasing dissociation with the land has brought about a romantic longing for something wilder, something to breathe some life into the mundane and everyday. This has advanced the desire to improve and expand wilderness areas and, though it is oxymoronic, to increase areas of wilderness for public enjoyment. This begs the questions how could the population at large benefit from these new wildernesses without visiting and experiencing them, and therefore sullying their intrinsic wildness? Any rewilding project would ultimately always be judged from an anthropologic perspective and therefore not truly wild. However this, many would argue, is still a vast improvement on the current provisions of nature reserves pegged to one permanent ecological habitat type.
This in itself is an issue though. Conservation practitioners are accustomed to an interventionist approach. From working in and alongside conservation organisations and with professionals and volunteers, my experience has been of an underlying desire to meddle, to be seen to be doing something, often to attempt to placate or secure funding or improve visibility of the organisation in what is becoming a crowded market. Can that desire to tweak and interfere by advocating practical approaches just be dismissed? If this is what our professionals are trained to do and have the skills for, can they resist the urge to exercise those skills? I have even heard from some the worry that advocating a ‘hands off’ laissez-faire approach would result in fewer jobs in the sector, particularly for those with a practical background.
Furthermore, the question arises regarding the actual results of re-wilded areas. With pristine wilderness no longer in existence in the UK, the outcomes of re-wilding are no longer the true representation of a natural habitat. With invasive species spreading and anthropogenic changes to nutrient levels, climate and species composition, certain species may come to dominate where they would previously have been negligible or absent. It must be judged whether the prospect of this is preferable to a static-interventionist approach of holding a site in a preferential condition for a few select species. During re-wilding these species may disappear from a site, but should this be discouraged? If the wild state of an area is unsuitable then it is surely not worthwhile maintaining it in an unnatural condition at great expense for ill-adapted species.
So much of conservation writing and rewilding theory is nostalgia. How can one have the right to be nostalgic for something one has never seen? The ideal of wilderness is a profoundly human creation. Where once areas of wilderness were viewed as inhospitable regions fraught with danger, the romanticism of groups like the Sierra Club and John Muir have transformed these in modern day thinking into areas of virtue, untouched by human influence. Industrialisation, accompanied by scientific and cultural advancements in recent human history has served to place the rural idyll on an ideological pedestal
An important question to address when considering re-wilding is what do we want from our environment? What is deemed as a favourable condition is ultimately determined from a human perspective, and ideas of restoration can rest as much on social traditions, such as aesthetic value, as scientific theory. An issue occurs when areas are left to re-wild and then fail to conform to expected anthropogenically defined outcomes, and a desire to once again manage the area to fit these standards is likely. A lack of preconceptions regarding outcomes with respect to species and habitat composition is necessary if re-wilding is to be truly embraced, indeed the prospect of an environment with no ‘outcome’ and a flux of successional stages should be accepted and expected as natural. In the UK, this will be particularly low with a population accustomed to a history of a managed landscape with farming and forestry being prevalent. The timescale for a return to a defined baseline condition may be a matter of decades, in many cases longer than the lifetime of those involved in site management. A need for visually obvious progress and an innate human desire to see achievement may often compromise re-wilding efforts.
A main issue with rewilding theory is defining a baseline for restoration. This has and will continue to be an area of debate between proponents as some species are looked on more favourably than others due to such esoteric data as their first appearance in the pollen record of peat bogs or the last recorded sighting. It has been argued that due to the historical pastoral use of land and anthropogenic shaping there is no relevant specific baseline for ecological restoration. My two penneth sits with defining this baseline around the disappearance of the land bridge with Europe, but such issues are minor quibbles. There are much more serious barriers to rewilding within the conservation movement, and that’s before the notion is even brought fully into the mainstream.
The big stumbling block
Much greater, more practical, stumbling blocks stand in the way of the rewilding movement though, especially in the UK. Big questions such as ‘where’ and ‘who pays’ need to be addressed. Logically, this will involve the traditional discordant wrangling between environmentalists and the farming lobby as the only areas now feasible for rewilding are the uplands of Wales and Scotland. Unsurprisingly they are likely to be at loggerheads again as each lays a claim as the defenders of an idyll. For the environmentalist, this idyll is a less tangible desire for a rawer natural experience, for the farming community, this idyll is the quintessential British landscape of pasture and crop.
“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”
― Aldo Leopold
Now, slowly but with gathering pace, the rural community is more willing to see and be told otherwise. Opponents push the notions that rewilding and in many cases the environmental movement is sentimental and unrealistic and it is true that there is a certain sense of collective guilt assuaging associated with rewilding measures. We all, rightly, have drilled in to us the damage our actions have wrought on the natural environment, though environmental education still lags in its position and importance at our secondary schools. But the main opponents to the rewilding ethic are not themselves averse to conjuring up a romantic idyll as a counterpoint. When arguing for the continuation of marginal, heavily subsidised upland farming, the farming community will talk of families owning farms for generations, of hard work and honest toil of salt of the earth types, of man’s intrinsic link to the land and the loss of community. These communities are already failing economically, and in many places are no longer viable with the growth of global free markets. Therefore would these subsidies not be better served supporting environmental practices that may have greater long-term value and support just as many jobs in tourism and conservation? Conservation will only succeed when the owners of land are paid to manage it in the public interest. They will need to be led by the nose, in most cases by waving money under it, and this may be the true issue that consigns rewilding to the dustbin as an exercise in conservation wishful thinking.
Positives for Rewilding
There is a future for rewilding though. Subsidies for marginal farming will undoubtedly become more stringent and many marginal farming communities are likely to disappear as the next generation look elsewhere for a career. And if you are looking for an example of how it can work, even in an urbanised area, I recently visited Zealandia on the outskirts of Wellington on New Zealand’s North Island. Surrounded by an impassable fence, the 225Ha reserve sits in a valley in the suburbs of Wellington and has removed all invasive species from the site and reintroduced some rare flora and fauna. It is heavily geared towards visitors and public engagement, aiming to educate while also providing a reservoir and sanctuary for endangered native species, but retains a wilderness ‘feel’ as the rear two thirds of the reserve have minimal paths and access, ensuring that the public largely remain in the front third, where facilities and hard paths are plentiful. Securing such a large area of land near an urban centre is unlikely in the UK, but perhaps this represents a future ‘shop front’ idea for the rewilding movement, such as we are seeing the start of at Knapdale in Scotland. Future sights for such reserves are plentiful (Snowdonia, Cumbria, Yorkshire etc.), and perhaps this tourism based approach will be the first step towards a wilder Britain.