Rewilding under attack

Carrifran Wildwood near Moffat, Scotland

I read a recent article by Josie Appleton on ‘Rewilding and the attack on civilisation‘ with a mixture of dismay and incredulity. I had to look Josie up, but find that she is the convenor of the Manifesto Club which describes itself as a civil liberties group and that she writes for the Guardian and The Spectator and has written a book as well. Google also tells me that she studied at Oxford. What I wonder? And did she graduate? I couldn’t tell. I studied Geographical Sciences at Huddersfield Polytechnic and then for a PhD at the University of Newcastle before moving on to lecture at Leeds. Here I am also the Director of the Wildland Research Institute, so figure I know a thing or two about wilderness and rewilding.

Josie’s article seems an ill-informed attack on rewilding; describing it as a retrogressive approach. May be you agree, but in its defence I respond to a few of Josie’s criticisms here and add some much-needed balance.

A broad church

First and foremost, rewilding isn’t just about the reintroduction of missing predators, though that can form part of the mix. Rewilding is a much, much broader church and by choosing to only focus on the end of the rewilding spectrum that includes bears and wolves Josie appears to fallen into that classic journalistic trap of sensationalism which I would expect more from someone who writes for The Daily Mail rather than the Guardian. Rewilding can encompass a wide range of approaches. These focus on increasing the role of wild nature and natural processes in improving our landscapes for both humans and nature. In recent years it has become a bit of a catch-all for any conservation actions that involve a shift from the existing state to a wilder one, however slight. Examples might include river restoration where re-vegetating river banks, removing weirs and re-meandering stream channels can have tremendous benefits in terms of flood alleviation, water quality, erosion protection, habitats and recreation. Another example might be the planting of native trees species on former ancient woodland sites that were planted with non-native conifers between the wars to improve landscape, habitat and biodiversity.  And yes, it can mean the reintroduction of native species that have been lost from their previous range, usually because of the more rapacious activities of man. That might just mean butterflies and wild flowers, but it might also extend to more controversial species such as beaver and boar, white-tailed eagles and red kite.

Targeted rewilding

Another common misconception about rewilding is that we ‘rewilders’ want to rewild everywhere and everything. This is so far from the truth as to be absolute nonsense. We all like our food and recognise the need for landscapes that provide a range of ecosystem goods and services, and that includes farm produce. Rewilding is only appropriate in certain places and is not a universal treatment. Neither is it a top-down policy that is to be imposed on unwilling communities and land owners. Rather rewilding is an approach that, if successful, needs to be adopted from the bottom up with local buy-in and support that is enabled by enlightened policy from above. Where rewilding is happening already in the UK, it is happening with the agreement and blessing of land owners. How could it be otherwise? If Josie had cared to research some of the existing rewilding projects in the UK such as Trees for Life in the Central Highlands, Carrifran Wildwood near Moffatt and Scar Close in the Yorkshire Dales, she’d find no sensationalism there, only models of good practice.

What we all need to recognise is that modern land management has taken a tremendous toll on the country’s wildlife and wild places, and that we desperately need to work together – with land owners and managers, with government and local people – to reverse some of these trends. The RSPB’s State of Nature reports provide worrying detail on how our biodiversity has decline dramatically in recent years. We can use nature and natural processes to help achieve this. I’ve already given the example of the benefits river restoration can have on water quality, erosion control, flood protection, etc. and this could be boosted further through beaver reintroductions within selected catchments to initiate trophic cascades that create habitats for invertebrates, amphibians, fish, birds and small mammals as well improving water retention, groundwater recharge, sediment trapping, nutrient cycling etc. They would also add an extra layer of interest to the landscape from new wetlands and structure, to the activities of these charismatic rodents. Of course, there will be some conflict with local landowners, but these can be managed and compensation paid for loss of income should that occur. There are a number of ongoing research projects into the benefits (and possible costs) of beaver reintroductions, such as that at the University of Exeter, but early results are encouraging, and a number of pilot projects using rewilding principles such as “slowing the flow” are already yielding benefits, albeit without beavers. With or without beavers, there are net benefits to be realised from reinstating more natural, wilder rivers in the British countryside. All part of the continuum.

A broader perspective

Josie’s reading of the history of human dominion over nature and the land is rather one-sided and she needs to look at the issues involved from a much wider perspective; not just through the lens of farming interests. I don’t for a minute deny the knowledge or interests of those who work the land (therein lies my own family history… “a long line of slaves” as my dad used to say), but we do need to see beyond the immediate priorities of individual livelihoods and cultural histories toward the wider good. Here, I’d refer Josie back to the ideas of ecosystem services delivery and how this serves the interests of the wider global community. This includes people who may not live and work on the land but who benefit from those services it delivers; food, water, flood protection, landscape, recreation, wildlife. Where local dis-benefits occur in providing those services then appropriate payments can be drawn from the public purse. This is the ‘payments for ecosystem services’ model. We already do it to some extent; through production subsidies and environmental payments. Who pays the French and Lake District farmers Josie talks about to farm their sheep? The supermarkets don’t (or at least not enough to cover their costs and make a decent living), rather we do through our taxes which go to fund single farm payment schemes. An element of those payments could easily be diverted to pay compensation for any stock losses or, better still, for better husbandry and livestock protection so that farmers are better equipped to live alongside wildlife. I mean, what’s not to like… payments for traditional practices with full-time shepherds protecting the landscapes she purports to love? I’ve already seen this happen, for example around the Brandenburg region of Germany where wolves have moved in to abandoned Soviet military training areas.

What her example of French sheep farmers in the Pyrenees does show is that imposition from above without adequate consultation and mitigation measures doesn’t work. We have seen similar problems here with the current attempts to set up a trial lynx reintroduction in Kielder Forest. I can’t say any more than that, but clearly the process has not gone smoothly for various reasons. Better communication, better outreach and consultation over years rather than months, better policies and clear payment mechanisms backed up by education programmes are all needed for a mutually acceptable outcome.

Landscapes of change

Josie’s arguments about landscape appreciation and the English Lake District are also somewhat wide of the mark. It isn’t just the farmed landscape and sheep (however cute Herdwicks are) that brings in the tourists, it is the geology shaped by millions of years of erosion by wind, water and ice that has created the Lakes landscape. If it were flat no one would find it remarkable; and it’d be covered by intensive agriculture… no Wordsworth, no Beatrix Potter, no Herwicks, no Heaton-Cooper. The fact that it has interesting topography is what people find attractive; the challenge of the fells and the scenic grandeur of the rugged landscape. The current pattern of land use, the bare hillsides, drystone walls, in-bye land, Herdwick sheep and quaint stone villages is just a thin cultural veneer laid over the existing structure of rock, fells, lakes and valley. That’s not to denigrate its significance to those who live and work there, but it is temporary; a changing cloak that changes over time driven by land use trends that are a fickler mistress than the long-term cycle of orogeny and erosion. You can’t preserve everything in aspic like some kind of museum exhibit, it needs to develop and change with the times. If the hills were covered with a few more trees, people would still love it, and perhaps we could have England’s only natural tree line. Wouldn’t that be special? And remember, the fells haven’t always been so bare. Even Wordsworth wrote about the intensification of sheep farming and lamented the loss of wooded hillsides. The only constant is change itself.

The need for humility

Aldo Leopold said that “the first rule of intelligent tinkering is to keep all the parts”, whereas Josie seems to be saying that we’re better off without those wild animals that might compete with us for our food or are in some way detrimental to our livelihoods. I can see her point if looking solely from the shepherds’ point of view. But what of the wider moral argument? Her argument takes on a quasi-religious fervour in suggesting that humankind be given priority over nature and our duty is to make nature tame and, well, just a little bit dull. I wonder if she’d take the side of humans over the survival of the world’s last few tigers or elephants in those regions where human-wildlife conflicts are a constant fact of life? I suspect not. So why here in Europe? What gives us the right to deny existence to the European brown bear, the wolf, the lynx, the wolverine, the sea eagle? I’m not suggesting for a minute that the bear should be reintroduced to the UK (there’s neither the space nor the habitat for that and I don’t know of any serious rewilder who thinks there is) but we at least need to consider the lynx over the next few decades.

Josie and other nay-sayer’s like her need to realise that rewilding is already happening in the UK so her words are falling somewhat on deaf ears or are rather, as I suspect, playing to a particular audience. On the mainland, the (big)cat is out of the bag and will be difficult (if not impossible) to get it back in there. Whether or not it makes the leap across the Channel remains to be seen, but we to look more at the opportunities and work together instead of just throwing up ideological barriers to how we might coexist with our future nature.

2 thoughts on “Rewilding under attack

  1. I read this article as well, and was pretty underwhelmed by the depth of detail and understanding, especially of the situation in France. I left a comment, but do not have much expectation that it will be posted. I suggested that she read about the bears of the Pyrénées on the Office National de la Chasse et de la Faune Sauvage website:

    …….and the Direction Régionale de l’Evironnement de l’Aménagement et du Logement Occitanie website:

    ….. because she would have been able to correct a number of factual errors in her article, not least that it shows that 80% of the bears diet is vegetation, 10% insects, and the remaining 10% is from deer, goats and sheep. Bears never disappeared from France, so that the bears from Slovenia were not reintroductions, but were species translocations to widen the genetic diversity amongst the overall bear population. Moreover, these translocations were unlikely to have been seen in the context of “rewilding” since that word wasn’t much defined before 1998 by Soule and Noss, and the first bear translocations occurred in 1996-7.

    In addition, there is no French word for “rewilding” – perhaps the phrase that is nearest to its aim is “Remise à l’état sauvage” (Restoring to the wild state). In addition, there is no word in French for wilderness – sometimes this expression is used “l’espaces à haute naturalité” (high naturalness spaces) but there is a shorthand expression that can be confusing in English translation – “nature férale” (feral nature) because feral refers to a free-living but non-native species such as grey squirrel, goats, domestic cats etc.

    The translocations of bears was never intended to lead to significant ecological change as it couldn’t because of the proportion of vegetation in their diet shows that they have only a minor influence on the predation of herbivory, and thus on vegetation regeneration. Thus in that sense, bears don’t “rewild” locations. It should also be noted that the brown bear was included in a Decree as far back as 1981 that listed protected mammals on the whole territory of France, and which prohibits persecution.

    Thus it was incorrect to suggest that the translocation of bears from Slovenia was the point at which they were a protected species in France. In addition, since France was one of the founding members of the EEC, it became bound by the strict protection afforded bears under the Habitats Directive that came out in 1992, and which was also before the first translocation of bears from Slovenia.

    There are many reasons for why “rewilding” is so misunderstood, and Appleton’s poorly researched article just adds another one.


  2. Pingback: The Lynx Effect – Land Ethics

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