Rewilding seems to have started to gather momentum with the successful re-introduction of wolves into Yellowstone in the 90s. This led to all sorts of unsuspected trickle down effects and a tremendous improvement in biodiversity. The Messiah of rewilding in the UK is George Monbiot, who wrote a book about it a couple of years ago and founded an organization called Rewilding Britain.
I went to an interesting and whizzy panel discussion about it yesterday in Frome. There were a number of folk other than George there, including two landowners who are doing great things to their estates, The Knepp Estate and Alladale. These are brilliant projects run by interesting men, respectively Charlie Burrell and Paul Lister. Hats off to them. I’d love to be able to do something similar.
Rewilding seems to cover a multitude of things. For some, like Paul Lister, it is the re-introduction of apex predators like the wolf in Yellowstone. These are “keystone species”, also including animals like beavers, which have a disproportionate effect on their environment. His bugbear (and mine!) is deer, which wreck any chance of his replanting the kind of forest which used to cover the Highlands (they’re a damn nuisance down south too!). Some punchy predators would sort them out. Paul would love to re-introduce wolves, or perhaps less controversially the beautiful lynx. It makes a great deal of sense ecologically. For Charlie Burrell in Sussex lynx or wolves are rather tricky (!), but his pigs have been achieving interesting results. Another landowner local to us, Ben Goldsmith, has been doing similar things with boar.
It’s an interesting concept for me, because I’ve always thought the best way to change an ecosystem was from the bottom up; start with the plants. I can also now see you can achieve great things with the top down approach too.
Sadly I think the rewilding movement as it is in the UK will hit the buffers.
A clue as to why might lie in the backgrounds of Paul Lister and Charlie Burrell. Paul inherited the MFI fortune and Charlie is more properly Sir Charles Raymond Burrell, 10th Baronet. They’re not short of a few quid. They can afford to rewild like mad. You might be able to make some money out of folk paying to see your charismatic carnivores in the Highlands, but not as much as you can make by hosting stalking weekends or running grouse shoots, as Paul Lister acknowledged. Not even he can afford to ignore this current economic logic, unfortunately.
What is needed, as the panel said, is a root and branch change to our approach to land usage. Unless you’re proposing a massive forced redistribution of land, rewilding has to be able to pay people a living and/or give landowners a return – unless they happen to be philanthropists who have inherited/made vast amounts of money. In order to reforest our uplands, for example, we would need to pay hill farmers to plant and manage them. This would replace taxpayers’ agricultural subsidies to them with a different sort of subsidy.
This requires the rewilding movement to engage with people other than than the endearing earth mothers and princesses of Frome. In order to change perceptions going back to the Middle Ages it needs to engage with the EU, UK government, the farming lobby, media. It will also need the support of conservation groups. These are people George Monbiot makes a living out of antagonizing. It’s safe to say they are not comfortable bedfellows.
The next issue is one of definition. Is there a line in the sand we’re trying to work back towards? Much of England was deforested in the Iron Age, so far as I understand. Do we want to take it back to before this point and cover the country in wild wood? In which case what about the richly biodiverse features of managed landscapes like wildflower meadows or coppiced woodland?*
Lastly, I’m afraid these folk come across as pretty out of touch. Sorry guys, but you do. I understand what can be done with this approach and a lot of money, and why it could be a really good thing. Don’t tell me raising £50,000 for a village rewilding project is easy. Don’t tell me spending £6,000 per head on nationalizing British farmland is next to nothing or that Romania has “amazing farming techniques”. Most of all, don’t tell me that nobody else understands or cares about what you’re saying. We all need to find a realistic way to get rewilding projects into the mainstream.
*And talking about managed landscapes, please, PLEASE, don’t rewild your garden. Chances are you’ll lose biodiversity if you do, not gain it.