Rewilding Britain

Rewilding Britain, a new charity, spearheaded by environmentalist George Monbiot, launched in 2015—its objective to ‘make Britain a wilder place’. We take a look what rewilding could mean for Britain’s uplands and ask if it presents an impossibly romantic vision or a genuine opportunity for people to reconnect with nature, for the benefit of both.

When we think of Britain’s uplands, we tend to think of miles upon miles of rolling, green, sheep-scattered hills, or else of bleak, rugged, windswept moors with nothing but heather as far as the eye can see. These are familiar landscapes that many of us know and love from childhood holidays, train journeys, hiking expeditions and episodes of Countryfile, but how wild and natural are they really?  

In fact, according to Alan McCombes, Media Manager for The John Muir Trust (one of the organisations behind Rewilding Britain): ‘The way the uplands look today is the result of a very long process of destruction, involving many centuries of felling, burning and overgrazing’, which has left them ‘denuded of trees’ and ‘ecologically wrecked’.

But advocates of rewilding say that our hills don’t have to be like this. They say that by allowing large tracts of land to return to the wild we could enrich their biodiversity, strengthen their resilience to climate change and re-engage people with nature.

‘Rewilding isn’t a very complicated idea; it is about allowing nature to be self-willed and natural processes to dominate,’ says David Balharry, Director for Scotland, Rewilding Britain.

Regenerating woodland

Photo by Paul Maguire / Shutterstock
Photo by Paul Maguire / Shutterstock

Supporting the recovery of native woodland is fundamental to the rewilding concept. At present, Britain’s uplands are dominated by sheep farms and grouse and deer shooting estates. Sheep and deer keep the hillsides bare by selectively browsing out tree seedlings, while burning on grouse moors prevents scrub and woodland from regenerating. These practices have been blamed for the fact that Britain has only 13% woodland cover compared with the European average of 37%.

Rewilding supporters claim that planting more trees on the hills would not only improve wildlife biodiversity by restoring wildlife habitats, but also help to prevent flooding through the restoration of watersheds.

‘If you have a lot of tree and ground cover on a mountainside then most of the rain will be absorbed by the trees and plants rather than flowing into the soil and rivers and causing flooding downstream,’ explains David. ‘Tree cover is nature’s way of mitigating heavy rainfall.’

However, the rewilding movement does not envision blanket tree cover of the entire countryside. Rewilding Britain aspires to restore natural ecological processes to at least one million hectares (4.5% of the UK) over the next 100 years. On the uplands, this would involve the creation of a rich mosaic of woodland, glade and wood pasture.

‘When they think of rewilding people often imagine dense, impenetrable forest but this is not the case,’ says Dr Tony Whitbread, Chief Executive of the Sussex Wildlife Trust and well known commentator on rewilding. ‘We do need more trees, especially in our uplands, but many species also require open habitats to survive.’  

Species reintroduction

Photo by BMJ / Shutterstock
Photo by BMJ / Shutterstock

Woodland regeneration would initially require intensive labour, but ultimately, says Alan, ‘rewilding would lead to landscapes that function without human intervention, and in which species interact with each other as they would’ve done in the past’.

In order for humans to step back, we would need to reintroduce certain large mammals, such as beavers, boar, lynx and even wolves. These creatures are known as ‘keystone species’ because they play a critical role in maintaining the ecology of habitats, disproportionate to their population size.

Beavers are one such species because they prevent flooding by building dams, and allow species to flourish on the woodland floor by opening up the tree canopy. The Scottish government is expected to recognise beavers as part of Scotland’s natural ecosystem soon, following a recent pilot reintroduction of the mammals, which has been largely well received by the public.

The return of predators

Photo by Nadezda Murmakova / Shutterstock

Lynx and wolves are two other keystone species, which Rewilding Britain would eventually like to see return to the Scottish uplands, believing they would reduce the need for deer culling and help restore natural processes.  

‘Wolves would have a much greater effect than their numbers might imply,’ explains Tony. ‘They would create a trophic cascade down through the whole landscape, altering the grazing behaviour of herbivores through the ecology of fear’.

The theory is that predators cause deer to graze less intensively, thereby allowing forests to regrow, which would in turn improve soil quality and drainage and even restore the natural course of rivers. These outcomes have been achieved through the return of wolves to Yellowstone Park in the US, and are neatly explained by George Monbiot in this video.

But not everyone is keen on the idea of large carnivores roaming the British countryside. Christopher Graffius, Director of Communications for the British Association of Shooting and Conservation (BASC) describes the notion as ‘wildly unrealistic’ and ‘a recipe for disaster and tragedy’, arguing that wolves would pose a risk to pets and livestock, and pointing out that ‘deer populations are highest in areas with the highest human density’.

BASC also fears that wolves would not find enough food to sustain them in the mountains of Scotland and would end up starving. However, George dismisses these concerns as ‘scaremongering nonsense’, believing that ‘wolves would be in paradise in the Scottish Highlands, which is the only region where there might be serious prospects of reintroduction, and where the deer population is enormous.’

Both David and Alan believe that our fear of wolves is irrational, and stress that carnivores would never be returned to Britain without widespread support from local communities.

‘There is no ecological reason not to have wolves in Scotland,’ claims Alan. ‘The biggest obstacle is not the landscape or the ecosystem or the danger to people and livestock; it is public attitudes and politics.’

The return of apex predators to Britain may be a long way off, and indeed may never happen, but Tony believes that we can still rewild our landscapes by ‘mimicking the effects of predators through practices such as ‘pulse’ or ‘mob’ grazing’.

Impact on people

Photo by Matthew Dixon / Shutterstock
Photo by Matthew Dixon / Shutterstock

Critics of rewilding argue that it leaves people out of the equation and would have a negative economic impact on communities by reducing their income from traditional rural industries.

‘People who want to see rewilding generally don’t like people and see people as a problem,’ regrets Christopher. ‘The idea of turning managed areas into natural ones can be very dictatorial to the people who live in them, whose families may have earned a living off the land for centuries.’

George insists that this view ‘is simply untrue’, arguing that ‘rewilding has as much potential to enhance our own lives as it does to enhance wildlife’. Under the rewilding model, everyone would benefit from good things that nature provides—clean air and water, carbon storage, flood control and the chance to reconnect with the wonder of nature. In addition, those living near rewilded areas could benefit from ecotourism—a more economically sustainable alternative to current land management practices, which rely heavily on government subsidies.

David is quick to add that Rewilding Britain does not criticise rural communities for the way they use the land’; it simply aims to ‘empower them to discuss the option of rewilding with an open mind.’

Rewilding versus conservation

Photo by Matthew Dixon / Shutterstock
Photo by Matthew Dixon / Shutterstock

Traditionally, Britain’s remaining biodiversity has been preserved through the work of conservation organisations—work that many rewilding critics say is sufficient. Christopher acknowledges that ‘there will always be debate about how we use the land’ but believes that conservation is still our best option on our ‘small, intensively managed island where there is no longer any wilderness’.

However, The State of Nature Report, released in May 2013 revealed that 60% of UK species have declined over recent decades, suggesting that the current approach is not working.

In contrast with rewilding, conservation takes a heavy management approach and makes decisions, some say arbitrarily, about which species are worth saving. Furthermore, small, fragmented nature reserves are considered less resilient to climate change than larger areas of rewilded land.

‘Nature conservation has often been delivered by setting objectives and moving towards them,’ explains Tony. ‘It identifies what is important and looks at how to maintain it by manipulating the habitat but rewilding looks at the bigger picture. With rewilding we can’t predict what nature will look like; it is an emergent process.’

But we don’t have to choose between the two. David invites us to consider land management as a spectrum with ‘concrete jungles or intensive agriculture at one end’ and ‘wilderness at the other’. As we move up the scale we find systems that combine conservation with forestry and farmland before we get to rewilded landscapes.

In recent years, more and more conservation projects in England, Wales and Scotland have been taking a more natural, large-scale approach, bringing them closer to the rewilding model, while pockets of Scotland are starting to become truly rewilded.

‘By highlighting these examples and talking to people, we can build a more attractive and more sustainable future’ says Alan.

But as well as rewilding our landscapes, Tony believes that we need to rewild ourselves and we can do this by getting outside, wherever we live, and enjoying wild experiences.

‘Nothing in the UK is entirely natural or entirely artificial; there is wildness everywhere. Go out in nature and be surprised by it.’


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