Good fences make good neighbours

For the latest post in our joint series with Relational Thinking, Stephen Carver compares passive and active approaches to rewilding and discusses his contribution to the new book in the Ecological Reviews series.

The opening paragraphs of my chapter on land abandonment neatly mirror some of the online discussions I’ve been having about rewilding recently, the latest of which concerns the origins of rewilding in Deep Ecology and the Earth First movement. Much of this revolves around the perceived notion of rewilding being about excluding people, and the role of population growth as the main driver of the environmental problems facing the planet in the 21st Century. One correspondent states how [The rewilding movement’s] Malthussian [sic] origins should not be ignored and vigilance is needed to ensure it just does not become just the latest vehicle for misanthropic green fascism.

Here, perhaps, is where the differences between land abandonment (‘passive’ rewilding) and planned (‘active’) rewilding are at their most stark around the subject of intent. The drivers of abandonment are generally economic and/or cultural – think ‘flight to the city’ as farming in marginal areas becomes unprofitable or people just aspire to a different lifestyle. The effects, meanwhile, are strictly ecological as nature moves in to occupy the land left behind in an unmanaged way through in-migration and natural succession. The drivers of planned rewilding, however, are somewhat different. They might be inspired or enabled by early abandonment, but the difference lies in the conscious intent to revert the land to some former state of nature where humans are observers rather than active participants making a living from the land. Thus, replacing humans with nature is seen by some as misanthropic.

Carver - inside and outside fence - Scar Close, Yorkshire Dales
Inside and outside the fence at Scar Close, Yorkshire Dales

Of course, it never stops there as we cannot just sit on our hands and allow nature free reign, we must guide and intervene, lest she take the wrong path or do something unexpected (or even worse… unwanted). I find it ironic that the greatest symbol of many active rewilding project seems to be the fence. Planned rewilding of nature must be managed and maintained in-situ. It cannot be allowed to interact or influence adjoining lands where it might have detrimental effects on agriculture, forestry or other aspects of human endeavour. This gives rise to the notion of a ‘kept wild’ wherein wildness is only allowed to happen behind fences for our spectacle. This is akin to the zoo or safari park – keeping wild nature inside – and perhaps has its best expression in the shape of the much maligned Oostvaardersplassen experiment. Meanwhile, other active rewilding projects use fences to keep domestic animals out, since overgrazing by sheep and cattle is perhaps one of the greatest enemies of natural succession.

I’m a great fan of continua and the fence often creates a sharp threshold in the spectrum of human modification of the landscape. Perhaps the fence best symbolises the land sparing model that separates human and wild. The real debate around rewilding lies in the middle ground of land sharing, where the fence is removed, and we embrace nature and allow it back into our world for the benefit of all. How is that misanthropic?

Rewilding, a part of the Ecological Reviews series, is published by Cambridge University Press and available here.

Read more in our rewilding series:

Getting everyone on board with rewilding by Nathalie Pettorelli

Trophic rewilding: restoring top-down food web processes to promote self-managing ecosystems by Jens-Christian Svenning

Decolonising Rewilding by Kim Ward

Urban rewilding as a collaborative experiment by Cecily Maller

Rewilding in Britain: a case study by Sophie Wynne-Jones and Chris Sandom

Why rewilding? Leaving denial and magical thinking behind by David Johns

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