Reflecting On Rewilding (Once Again)

Ever since I first picked up a copy of George Monbiot’s Feral during my time as an undergraduate, I have been a firm disciple of the phenomenon known as ‘rewilding‘. I concur fully with the notion of restoring our degraded ecosystems to a more natural state, I support the reintroduction of extinct species – on both ecological and moral grounds – and feel that the rewilding approach, first coined by conservationist David Foreman, is by far the best means of soothing the grievous wounds inflicted upon the modern British countryside. If this makes me a “fantasist” or “eco-zealot” then so be it.

A few years back, I would have jumped at the chance of dumping Bears, wolves and other extinct megafauna back into the Scottish Highlands, or elsewhere. I would have, quite merrily, ranted and raved at those opposed to rewilding and would have proclaimed my belief in the practice from any available roof-top. I still would. Though in recent years, I have mellowed somewhat in this regard, and now find myself taking a more tempered, even critical, approach to the subject. Giving particular thought to the logistics, feasibility and, from time to time, the ethics of the issue. Not that this makes me any less of a supporter, and indeed, I still cannot help but cringe whenever I hear someone dismiss rewilding outright – much as certain rural factions and notable personalities have done of late.

grey_wolves_in_bavarian_forest_national_park_cropped

By [2] – [1], CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37294448

Take for an example Robin Page, the former Telegraph columnist who recently published a blog on the subject here. I am not a fan of Page, largely due to his persisted bashing of conservation NGOs, TV naturalists and “designer” conservationists, but also due to his apparent belief that the only people who deserve an opinion on rural affairs are those who graft in the fields. Similarly, I abhor his dismissal of rewilding as little other than a poorly disguised attempt at class warfare, perpetrated by middle-class bunny huggers. It is not. And I cannot help but feel that like so many others, Page believes “rewilding” to revolve solely around the reintroduction of large, controversial carnivores. I do, however (and I cannot quite believe I am writing this), feel he is right about a few things. Even if they are presented in an unnecessarily antagonistic manner in the article shown above.

My personal stance on rewilding is that it is not, simply, about the reintroduction of large charismatic beasties such as bears, wolves and lynx. It is, to an extent – and I am a firm supporter of the ongoing efforts to reinstate Lynx, and the continued reintroduction of Beavers. These things, of course, have their place and come with a lot of ecological benefits, though some – bears and wolves – appear a little far-fetched at present. I hope, in time, that such ambitious schemes will come to fruition, though for me, rewilding is more of a “bottom-up” affair, involving gradual change and a shift in our combined mentality. As opposed to simply headline grabbing schemes sure to split public opinion.

Rewilding, to me, is about gradually restoring habitats to a more natural state and making small-scale gains which, in the future, may provide the basis for further reintroductions and wholescale change. It is about increasing our forest cover, replenishing our dwindling network of hedgerows, creating urban green spaces, supporting more holistic farming practices, restoring our wetlands and, above all else, educating people with regards to the benefits of such positive change. All of which, I believe – in accordance with Robin Page it would seem – cannot come at the expense of people.

Some of the more extreme supporters of rewilding, shall we say, appear to approach the issue like a bull in a china shop. Or, worse still, with a mindset not too dissimilar to that of those who governed the former British Empire, domineering and almost colonialist. Favouring land grabs and clearances and, it seems, showcasing a distinct disregard for the people caught up in the midst of the clamour. I believe we need such people, if only to push boundaries and promote dialogue, but cannot support this mentality myself. Nor can I buy into the flourishing notion that those who stand in the way of rewilding – farmers, gamekeepers, foresters, sportsmen etc – are little more than obstacles waiting to be overcome. These people, whether we like it or not, have a right to their way of life, and many, particularly farmers, have an important part to play. We cannot, after all, live without food. Thus I find our tendency to goad these people, and to ignore their worries outright, altogether counterproductive.

Rewilders have already made some wonderful gains – in the Lake District, in Scotland and further afield – though these, currently at least, remain rather isolated. The only possible way I can see to extend these gains across the entirety of Britain is through the combined voices of all. Not just of the few pioneering conservationists ready and willing to take a stand or our cash-strapped NGOs. We must find a way to make rewilding work for all, and dare I say it, realise that Britain will most likely never again resemble the wilderness it should be. There are simply too many people and too many vested interests in the countryside. This, however, does not mean that we cannot make the country a whole lot better. I believe we can, but only through cooperation as opposed to perpetual bouts of one-upmanship and bickering.

It is all well and good me saying that teamwork would be wonderful, though I am not so naive to believe this will come overnight. The countryside, at present, is far too polarised. Largely as a result of differing ideals – with some championing management, and others preferring to let nature manage itself. With a select few, much like myself, adrift in the middle. Agreeing with the arguments put forth by both sides, and wishing that everyone would just “suck it up” and find common cause.

Of course, I do not have the answers on how to fix our fractured countryside, though I do hold an opinion. And I, personally, would like to see an increased focus from conservationists, activists, campaigners and other groups, on reaching a mutually beneficial solution that works for both man and beast. Cooperating with farmers to push for a fairer system of subsidies post-Brexit would be a good start. Subsidies which would not favour the wealthy, paying out based on land ownership, but would support those who actively work to the benefit of nature. Particularly smaller landowners, many of whom, at present, receive little recognition nor reward for the great work they do. I would like to see people actively campaigning for compensatory systems, ready and waiting to mitigate the losses caused by reintroduced fauna, and would like to see a concerted effort, from all sides, to tackle invasive species – you cannot very well aspire towards a “wild Britain” while we have half of the tropics running rampant around our nation. I would also like to see a greater focus properly defining rewilding – with emphasis on just what the process can do for the everyday man. From natural flood defences to more pleasant country strolls – the possibilities are endless.

Above all else, however, I would like to see a shift in the “I am right, you are wrong” mentality that abounds in our countryside, from both sides. I would like to see conservationists abandon the moral high horse and find common ground with those of opposing views. This certainly will involve compromise – this should be expected, we are somewhat of a minority after all – and would involve the adoption of a more pragmatic approach. One that involves listening, as opposed to dictating. Equally, however, I would like to see those radically opposed to rewilding accept that nothing remains the same forever, and that change must come in order to protect the wildlife and wild spaces we all adore, work in, work with or manage. The British countryside is broken and I see rewilding as the perfect means by which to fix it. If, of course, we choose to abandon our trenches and approach the matter as adults.

For more from James, you can follow him on Twitter, check out his Facebook page, or follow his personal blog at commonbynature.co.uk.

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James Common
Amateur naturalist, nature writer, conservationist, blogger and aspiring author. James is currently studying an MSc in 'wildlife management' and writes regular posts for Wildlife Articles, Conservation Jobs and Environment South Africa. He has been published, in print, on a number of occasions and tweets regularly at: @CommonByNature
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