Authored by Jacob Robinson
Rewilding is an approach to conservation and land management that is gaining traction around the globe.
It can be defined as a restoration of ecosystems which allows nature to take care of itself. The aim of this is to reinstate natural processes and, where appropriate, the species that are missing from the landscape, allowing them to shape the habitats within.
To assess the need for rewilding, it is useful to revisit the current state of our environments.
The ‘green and pleasant’ land described by poet William Blake may be a statement that still holds true. Looking out onto the vistas that the UK offers, whether it be the fells of the Lake District, the rugged Highlands, or the peaks of Snowdonia, we are undoubtedly blessed. But once we take a closer look, examining the fabric of what lies before us, what once was a vibrant and complex scene is slowly beginning to fade.
To put it simply, the UK is one of the least biodiverse countries in Europe[i].
The Lay of The Land
The state of nature is laid bare by two statistics: forty one percent of species have decreased in abundance since 1970 and fifteen percent of species are threatened with extinction[ii]. This is the tip of an iceberg which includes the potential loss of plant biodiversity and sharp decreases in soil nutrition.
The inherent interconnectivity of the planet’s ecosystems demands diversity of flora and fauna for the environment to run smoothly and deliver the conditions for life to thrive. The decrease of species and plant life impacts so many more than birdwatchers or those wanting a nice woodland picture for Instagram. We all rely on the diversity of an environment that thrives for life to go on as we know it – every one of us.
A Path to Degradation
Humankind has a history of moulding the environment around us and our needs.
Whether it be the introduction of rabbits by the Romans, the stonewalls and hedges laid between farmers’ fields or the creation of vast reservoirs. The most tranquil and green landscapes have been touched in some way by the hand of human progress for millennia.
How we manage our land is a debate that has been raging for decades, if not longer. Currently, seventy two percent of the UK’s land area is managed for agriculture with about one third being arable and two-thirds pastoral grassland, moor, and heath. Half of that arable land is used for cereal crops, while pastoral land is predominantly used to raise sheep (over 30 million) and cattle (over 10 million)[iii].
But stripping away the complexities of a landscape is to tilt the scales towards a slow decline. It is this imbalance in how our land is used that has been the source of a slow march towards a monoculture across the landscapes of Britain.
Reversing biodiversity loss is the most obvious argument for such a reimaging of our relationship with our land. Rewilding Britain, the leading campaign group on the issue, have stated their vision to be “at least 5% of Britain rewilding, with 25% returned to broader mosaics of nature-friendly land and marine uses — including farming, forestry and fishing”[iv] but still recognising the complexities in delivering such projects.
Perhaps unexpected consequences of rewilding are the potential socio-economic benefits for the population. An analysis of over 20 sites across England covering over 75,000 rewilding acres has revealed a 47% increase in full-time equivalent jobs and a nine-fold increase in volunteering opportunities for local communities[v]. We cannot ignore the fact that there are many who rely on using the environment around them, and therefore simply reclaiming vast swathes without participation from a local community will undoubtedly cement boundaries to progress which need not be in place.
Another more tangible effect of rewilding can be the impact it has on the reduction of flooding. Restoring landscapes to a state for which was intended enables nature to use its own mechanisms to stem the consequences increasingly wet winters thanks to climate change.
An Unescapable Reality
There is an unescapable fact that, as a nation, we must take from our environment to some degree to survive.
According to Global Food Security, a cross-government UK programme, the “UK is not self-sufficient in food production; it imports 48% of the total food consumed and the proportion is rising. Therefore, as a food-trading nation, the UK relies on both imports and a thriving agricultural sector to feed itself and drive economic growth.”[vi]
We are chronically exposed to international variables drastically impacting the nation’s food security and ultimately the cost of living for the population. This is simply an unfortunate consequence of the highly interconnected world in which we now live and has been exposed most recently by the war in Ukraine; both Ukraine and Russia providing vast amounts of wheat and other agricultural commodities to the globe.
This crisis as, well as others such as COVID, place a strain on an agricultural system which is under continued stress and amplify a continued demand for Britain’s farmers to provide for the nation. Arguments that food security must be placed as a top priority are completely valid, but it is wrong to believe that the nation can only be fed at the expense of nature.
Rewilding acts as a supplement, an additive. Injecting such schemes into each farm and piece of nature means we can not only bring benefits to the habitat it concerns but for the communities which rely on the land.
And it now can be said that the Government are starting to take rewilding seriously.
The Local Nature Recovery Scheme[vii] has been set up to pay farmers for locally-targeted actions which make space for nature in the farmed landscapes. This could be creating wildlife habitat, planting trees or restoring peat and wetland areas. The scheme will support more radical changes to land-use change and habitat restoration such as establishing new nature reserves, restoring floodplains, or creating woodland and wetlands.
This is coupled with the previously announced Sustainable Farming Incentive[viii], which supports sustainable farming practices. Both are designed to provide farmers and landowners with a broad range of voluntary options from which they can choose the best for their business.
However, questions still surround the true impact these schemes will have. Perhaps if we are to see drastic change in rewilding, it must come from the communities and landowners best placed to make a change; tokenistic or blanket policies may not be the best way forward, rather increased support and education about the range of benefits.
Ultimately, we must escape from the mindset that prescribes that the environment is something we solely take from, to one which views our ecosystems as an entity which we must collaborate with. For the good of ourselves, and the planet.
Attached images owned by Jacob Robinson.