Returning To The Roots Of Rewilding
Updated: Mar 13
Some of the ‘wild’ has been removed from rewilding – in the UK and Continental Europe at least. Fuelled by a misrepresentation of its original principles and scientific foundations, the arguments seem to have shifted from, ‘what can we do for wildlife’, to ‘what’s in it for me’? Shoehorning in anthropocentric benefits just to try and get people on board who aren’t even interested in finding out what rewilding is really all about, diverts energy away from fulfilling its core objective – to redress the balance in favour of nature. We’ve taken so much from it – now it’s time to put something back without expecting anything in return.
That’s not to say that rewilding doesn’t bring a smorgasbord of benefits to human life – benefits that will soon include a crop of financial rewards to landowners for providing ‘ecosystem services’, improving biodiversity and, crucially, the quality of habitat. But the point is, that shouldn’t be the main driver – rewilding is about putting wildlife and ecology first for a change, for appreciating the intrinsic value of it. And by doing that, it brings benefits to us in the form of cleaner water, cleaner air, less flooding, less soil erosion, less coastal erosion, more carbon capture, a deeper sense of wonder with our natural surroundings which can improve our wellbeing – all of this and much more. But nature is not here to serve us – we have a moral duty to repair what we’ve broken, and because we are part of nature, we stand to gain from this repair.
Beavers, bison, wolves and domesticated cattle behind fences is a step towards turning our countryside into a zoo – instead of self-willed land that chooses its own path with animals that are truly free. I don’t want this type of approach to become normalised. Taking animals out of a wild setting and putting them into managed enclosures goes against everything that rewilding stands for, which includes creating vast protected areas of wild land connected by corridors, with an emphasis on the role of keystone species and apex predators exerting a self-regulatory influence on trophic interactions. In other words, putting creatures back into ecosystems that help to sustain all other life, and create new life.
You could argue this is a necessary stepping stone towards acceptance – an adjustment period – and there’s some merit in that thinking, if it swiftly leads to the fences coming down and real change on the ground. But I fear at this moment in time, it’s just a manifestation of the continual watering down of rewilding as it comes up against a legacy of over-engineered, overly cautious wildlife conservation – stagnating in its own bureaucracy. No, I think once the fences go up, there is no guarantee they will come down again. Or if they do, they’ll be freed with more conditions attached. I hope I am proved wrong.
A lot of my frustration comes from the pace of progress, or rather, the lack of it. Deliberation and procrastination. We Brits are especially fond of it. Perhaps it’s our island mentality and the colonial spectre of control. We’re too used to being in control. Wild can mean unpredictable. How can we manage unpredictable outcomes? How can we plan, box-tick and then plan some more if we don’t know what’s coming next? Well, here’s the thing: it’s okay to not know what nature is going to do next – that is the beauty of nature. It looks after itself, sustains us, and captivates us with its complexity. We just need to let it go and marvel at what it comes up with.
Rewilding is a mindset, as much as it is a scientifically-grounded ecological ideology. It’s a new lens for viewing nature through that dials up the species interactivity and dials down the management. Because nature is not so scary. If we are to be scared of anything, it’s of our ability to destroy the nature around us and not expect any consequences as we sleepwalk into an ecological collapse. We also rewild because it’s ethically the right thing to do. To fix what we have broken. So how about we take a leap of faith and skip the fences? We know what nature can do for us if left alone, we just need to stop thinking it’s here for us to modify – because most of the time we don’t really know what we’re doing, no matter how many meetings, feasibility studies and frameworks have gone before it. Make wildlife conservation more about education, observation, study, and understanding, and less about management. The mental fences need to come down too.
Our incessant need to make rewilding all about us is missing the point, and risks becoming self-defeating. If we can’t find it within ourselves to give nature free rein, then we won’t feel the full rewards from it. The British vision for nature is still too myopic, mired in small-scale, institutionalised thinking that means we often can’t see the wood for the trees. We’re so preoccupied with maintaining the status quo and trying to keep everyone happy, that we’re missing the bigger picture. That bigger picture is a world where we live much closer to nature – not viewing ourselves as being separate from it. And a world where nature is untrammelled. There is currently too much time spent trying to recreate a specific type of habitat or trophic interaction with predetermined outcomes. Rewilding is a blank canvas – it should be nature-led at all times.
But our need to interfere is so strong, as is our need to attach monetary and material value to everything. Yes, it has its place, but I’m concerned it takes us down a road whereby, before we know it, it’s become more about people than wildlife and we lose sight of why we started the journey in the first place. Agendas become hijacked and it becomes all about the money, corporate culture and appearances. There are signs of this already beginning to creep in.
Much of what I’ve said is in an anticipatory sense – it’s by no means a ubiquitous problem in the movement – yet. But I can see it becoming more prevalent as rewilding grows in popularity. It’s already perceived by many as a panacea, which raises expectations and the likelihood that we put a price on nature. Some advocates of it are so determined to win over opponents they turn it into something it’s not just to get them on board – and that’s just disingenuous. Rewilding is not an idea that can be effectively forced onto someone. It can plant seeds in the mind, but whether they get watered or not is up to that individual. It’s something that happens naturally – not everyone ‘gets it’.
Yes, a rewilding project without fences risks upsetting some people – others will welcome it. Some folk will expect the project to come with a fully costed spreadsheet to answer the ‘what’s in it for me’, others will see a different value in it. Rewilding is not for everywhere, it does not seek to please everyone. It exists first and foremost for nature.