Rewilding Britain – Pie in the Sky Romanticism, or the Future of Conservation?

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.

Lynx - Soon coming to a woodland near you...

Lynx – Soon coming to a woodland near you…

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.

Tigers, to my knowledge, still can not be found in Epping Forest. Although there was that business about a Lion on the loose in Essex a few years back, so who know? I digress...

OK, not quite. But it’s in my image library and I need to break-up this text, so give me a break, yeah?

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.

Elephants: Look at that noble, dignified face and think about what you've done.

Sorry. Wrong again.

“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.


5 thoughts on “Rewilding Britain – Pie in the Sky Romanticism, or the Future of Conservation?

  1. An excellent post and, as with some of your previous, has summed up much of what I see and experience as well. Feral certainly kicked off all sorts of debates and also some anxiety in our conservation sectors that George was risking upsetting the grants and subsidies applecart that many of us in conservation depend on. It still may happen…maybe. But my experience has been that if you show (Welsh) farmers money their hearts and minds will follow. Like you I have had the strange looks from newbie volunteers when I give them ‘the talk’ …you know… the one about dead wood, ivy, minimal intervention etc. When all they want to do is cut stuff, tidy up and light some fires to get rid of all the stuff they have just cut down. In Wales we have a funding scheme called Glastir which is just made for intervention and meddling in landscape for therein lies income streams with outcomes a long way down at the back of the priority list. I also manage conservation for a large government department with lots of land…a boss with acute schizophrenia, honeybees, meadows, more birds species…as long as it’s all tidy and cheap and they can get credit for it without having to commit to anything!

    I agree that there are positives for rewilding but I don’t think Zealandia is the way forward for Europe…too many fences (difficult history etc.). Anyway our invasives are here to stay and for the most part we have to accept them. I also look after a large river valley and (anecdotally) our stands of knotweed are providing cover for the otters and the impenetrable bamboo is providing refuge from the cohorts of dog walkers.

    I’m more inclined to favour the Ken Thompson approach as anything that gets established now will have zero chance of being like ‘the past’. So the valley I work in will rewild in due course…but it will regrow with all the scars and additions of 2000 years of the influences of people. So it’s going to be unique, and kind of exciting. At least that’s what I tell the vols as I get them to leave their cutting implements in the van!

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  2. HI Nigel, thanks for the great reply and I look forward to reading more about your project. I do think Feral and rewilding have important things to say about how we view and work with our natural environment and I do support it – in theory. I look forward to seeing whether much of what they are suggesting is actually implementable in reality. It is all very well pushing rewilding, but some people have read an anti-farmer undercurrent to it all, which is just not practical or progressive.

    Zealandia I mention more as an excuse to namedrop that I went there recently! It was absolutely amazing and inspirational, but as you say not really suitable for the UK (or even NZ on a large scale) and is largely built around removing predators of ground-nesting birds. It is perhaps much more of a ‘wild zoo’ than anything.

    Most of my recent experience of conservation has been in and around London, so a highly interventionist approach, a lot of cut and burn of pioneer species on chalk grassland etc. That’s understandable in an urban environment, but I think the idea of maintaining a static habitat is starting to wobble, but it remains difficult to convince a lot of land managers, especially in areas with high footfall to just ‘let things go’ a little.

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  3. Thanks. Interesting and thoughtful perspective. Money is key, obviously, but continuity of money more so. A farmer friend grazes limestone upland where he has, by thoughtful adjustment of grazing pressure, greatly increased flower and insect diversity. Changes in farm support payments will make it difficult for him to continue with his conservation work, just as it is really ‘paying off’. Funding subject to political short-termism just won’t do it. In UK, that brings National Trust into play, though I frankly doubt they would commit to a rewilding scheme of unpredictable outcome and untidy appearance!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Excellent points Terry, quite agree. I’m mildly positive about the whole Rewilding movement and the rise of a slightly more ‘handbrake off’ approach to conservation but I think it’s so difficult for site managers to look beyond their own ‘term of office’ and the impact they can have. And when you extrapolate that to politicians…well. As such it’s not surprising that farmers might become disillusioned with the latest iteration of Cross-Compliance or whatever form payments are taking next. They know what they can rely on to provide a regular source of income, they can’t be blamed for prioritising it. ‘Blame’ is something that some people within the sector seem to seek out before they even think about ‘solution’, or heaven forfend, ‘compromise’. But that’s a whole other subject for another day!


  4. Pingback: When to Stop Feeding the Kites? | adventures in conservation

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