Rewilding in Britain: a case study

Over the past few weeks, The Applied Ecologist’s Blog and Relational Thinking have been exploring the hot topic of rewilding from a number of different interdisciplinary and management angles.  Now Sophie Wynne-Jones and Chris Sandom turn their focus to the UK as a, perhaps unexpected, example of where rewilding has grown.

If you ask someone in Britain whether or not they have heard of rewilding, nine time out of ten the name George Monbiot comes up, for both good and bad reasons. Monbiot’s book Feral has caused a lot of excitement and engaged a whole new audience in key conservation debates. But it has also sparked a lot of negative feeling. In our contribution to Rewilding, the latest addition to the Ecological Reviews series, we explore some of these debates, discussing what rewilding means in a British context, whilst also tracing a longer history of rewilding, pre-Monbiot, charting the approach of projects and interventions that have been ongoing for ten years or more. Our aim here is to look beyond the headlines to take a more careful look at what rewilding in Britain actually involves, as well as considering what we can learn from our uniquely British context.

Britain might not seem the most obvious place to look for good examples of rewilding. Britain is a small highly populated island, where the landscape is clearly marked with signs of human intervention. Our National Parks are not vast areas of unpopulated wilderness, but peopled landscapes with as much cultural as environmental value. We have one of the lowest levels of afforestation in Europe and none of the large carnivores that are so often (infamously) associated with rewilding. But in many ways this is exactly why Britain is such an important place to ask questions about rewilding.

The reintroduction of wild boar is one example of rewilding from a British context

Now is also a good time, because a) there is such a buzz around rewilding with both public and professionals engaging in a way that has not previously been seen, and b) we have a policy window with Brexit to do land management differently and potentially engage a wider range of stakeholders than would previously have been the case. It is important to stress, however, that whilst rewilding is often seen as markedly different from older approaches to conservation, it does build on some established priorities.  Particularly, the need to work at larger scales and connecting conservation areas so animals and plants can move, giving them greater changes of survival.

In our chapter of the book, we review a range of emerging and more established projects and interventions across the UK, which are either self-declared as rewilding or closely align with its key principles. We discuss where they are, what they are doing and why, and their ambitions for the future, as well as outlining who is involved and how difficulties are being dealt with. We found that, while the majority of projects are currently in Scotland, in more remote upland areas, rewilding is also happening across the UK: on conifer plantations, livestock pasture, low-lying wetlands and even whole river catchments. Excitingly, these projects encompass an array of different habitats – and challenge the stereotype of rewilding as being all about tree planting. Instead we see projects seeking to enrich the whole range of fantastic habitats that can exist in Britain. Whilst this has involve some reintroductions (and a few escapees!) – of beavers, pine martens, sea eagles and wild boar – larger carnivores are not a feature, or immediate aspiration, of the projects reviewed.

In terms of current management, and plans for the future, projects are marked by a low intervention, hands-off approach, exemplifying the mantra of allowing natural processes to take their course as much as possible – for nature to be self-willed. But this doesn’t necessarily mean ‘no intervention’ and often projects have required higher levels of activity at the outset to reinstate and restore natural processes. Projects are led by established NGO’s, but also involve innovative partnerships like Wild Ennerdale, grassroots organizations including Trees for Life and Wales Wildland Foundation, and bold individuals. This reflects the pioneering and sometimes risky nature of projects, as well as the passion and enthusiasm that drives them.

Despite a central focus on wilder nature, rewilding is also about people. The majority of projects reviewed aim to promote some form of human benefit, whether by enabling greater connection to the natural world, and ‘rewilding ourselves’, or by enhancing the ‘services’ we derive from the healthier ecosystems – including clean water and recreational opportunities. Nonetheless, it is also acknowledged that rewilding has come with some human dis-benefits and conflicts have been spotlighted in the media. Our chapter discusses the way in which projects have sought to address these, and how rewilding advocates have become more sensitized to the issues at play, seeking to work better with local communities and respect cultural values.

We close by looking to the future and proposing a set of criteria for rewilding in Britain, offering guidelines that are flexible enough to be inclusive whilst also enabling clearer consensus on what we are aiming for. Critically, we don’t see that rewilding is the right approach everywhere, nor that rewilding is a single idea that can be applied in the same way in all circumstances – but we do think there is scope for it to gain greater uptake. We hope our chapter offers a useful resource to take stock are how far it has come and some suggestions on ways forward.

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

Good fences make good neighbours by Stephen Carver

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


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