Celebrated eco-campaigner George Monbiot noted in his book Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding that “The environmental movement up till now has necessarily been reactive. We have been clear about what we don’t like. But we also need to say what we would like. We need to show where hope lies. Ecological restoration is a work of hope.”
This is a vital point. Planet Earth is facing an ecological crisis. With scientists and activists talking about the sixth mass extinction as the human impact on the environment drives the rapidly increasing extinction of species from bacteria to plants to animals.
Biodiversity is, of course, fundamental to life on Earth. Providing us with the clean air, water and food we need to survive. But population growth, floods, droughts and wildfires, deforestation, soil and water degradation have brought us to a point where our exploitation of the natural world is no longer sustainable.
Stepping back from the brink
But it’s not too late to address the challenge. And rewilding can play a significant role in this process, helping us re-engage with nature, restore our damaged ecosystems both on land and at sea and help mitigate climate change.
Definitions vary, but rewilding is usually defined as activities which let nature take care of itself, enabling natural processes to repair damaged ecosystems and restore biodiversity.
Rewilding takes many forms, some more active than others. It can range from restoring rivers and rewetting peatlands to improving soil fertility to re-introducing lost plant and animal species to natural habitats. All with the aim of repairing ecosystems which have become dysfunctional or are facing destruction.
So how does rewilding differ from traditional conservation?
Nurturing Mother Nature
As the environmental campaigners Mossy Earth explain on their informative website, “In general, rewilding differs from traditional conservation as it is more focused on the action of ‘returning’ a place back to its natural state rather than preserving a place in its natural state. Thus, rewilding focuses on actions to move a place from an impacted state to a natural state.”
And, as you’d expect, there are pros and cons to both approaches. Again, Mossy Earth summarises this nicely. Some scientists think that some of the more radical types of rewilding lack “scientific evidence to back them or that, while they may be scientifically possible, they take away funding and attention from the tried-and-true methods of typical conservation action.”
But they go on to reflect on the value of experimental approaches, using adaptive learning to gain new knowledge about how to protect the natural world. And they acknowledge the need to return to a state of pre-human intervention to help heal damaged ecosystems.
Ultimately, they believe that “conservation work and rewilding work can work in synergy, and both are needed to protect and preserve the natural world while healing it and reducing the negative impacts that humans have caused.”
The world in a grain of sand
Of the different types of rewilding, re-introducing lost animal species to natural habitats is the one that often captures the popular imagination. Who can resist the sight of wild animals reclaiming their birthright?
Let’s take a brief look at three projects which provide us with some helpful insights into the opportunities and the challenges that accompany rewilding.
Red Kites in Oxfordshire
The reintroduction of red kites in the Chilterns (and beyond) has been one of the greatest conservation success stories of recent years in the UK. Driven to extinction in England by the end of the 19th century, kites were imported from Spain and released into the wild between 1989 and 1994 by the RSPB and English Nature (now Natural England). There are now thought to be over 1,000 breeding pairs in the area.
Bison in Kent
More recently, the Kent Wildlife Trust has reintroduced bison to Blean Woods nature reserve. The aim is to allow the bison, known as ‘ecosystem engineers’, to restore the natural biodiversity of the landscape as their natural behaviours – grazing, dust bathing, eating bark and felling trees – help other species thrive.
Wolves in Scotland
Rather more controversially, following the successful reintroductions of wolves in parts of the United States, there has also been much debate in recent years about the scope to reintroduce wolves to the more remote parts of Scotland. Wolves were the last of Britain’s top predators to be hunted to extinction (in the 18th century). And a new study suggests this would generate a range of ecological benefits, including the re-establishment of woodlands and a boost to biodiversity, mostly stemming from the reduction of overgrazing by deer.
But opponents are concerned about the impact on isolated rural communities. And farmers are worried that wolves will prey on their livestock. So, changes would be needed in the way livestock is managed (accompanied by appropriate compensation schemes). So, while there is a suitable habitat for the establishment of wolves in parts of Scotland, there are currently no plans to reintroduce them given the complex issues involved.
Not everyone’s a fan
Unsurprisingly, then, rewilding initiatives can be controversial.
For example, Chiltern conservationists believe that feeding scraps to red kites can make them dependent on food which does not give them the nutrients they need. It can also encourage them to concentrate in urban areas, resulting not only in a reduction in songbirds and other wildlife, but leading to instances of food being snatched from picnic tables and people’s hands. This risks them being seen as a public nuisance, which might encourage (illegal) persecution.
There are also concerns that reintroducing totemic predators such as wolves (the subject of much myth and demonisation over the years) into the wild might damage public support for general rewilding of the British countryside.
The National Farmers Union has been dismissive of calls to reverse the impact of farming (not least the systematic stripping of uplands to make way for sheep) by rewilding many parts of Britain.
There is no Planet B
The United Nations has listed rewilding as one of several methods needed to achieve massive-scale restoration of the natural world. The healthier our ecosystems, the healthier life on earth.
Humanity and nature are not in opposition. We are part of the same world. Healing the rift in the universal metabolism of nature is a matter of urgency. And by respecting and cherishing our environment, we not only demonstrate respect for others, but we learn more about ourselves.
As Albert Einstein said, “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”
Here at The Joy Club, this month’s theme is “conservation.” If you have any thoughts on climate activism, sustainability or conservation in general, please send them our way via firstname.lastname@example.org.