Rewilding in the UK

The topic of rewilding has become a hot potato of late. People throw in their ideas and thoughts on the matter very readily, but it can sometimes seem that many of their opinions are driven purely on emotion. At We Go Wild UK we are some of the biggest lovers of the outdoors you are likely to find. We would love nothing more than to see the animals that used to roam free in our country and the plants which once lived in the soil back where they used to be. But, should humans interfere after having caused the decline of these species in the first place? And how will it effect those having to live on, or close to the areas where these species are reintroduced? Within this article we look at what rewilding is, how it could be implemented and try to answer the aforementioned questions.

What exactly is rewilding?

Rewilding can be defined as the “process of drawing back or de-intensifying agricultural or commercial forestry production in carefully selected areas using natural principles and processes”. (Rewilding in England and Wales: A Review of Recent Developments, Issues, and Concerns – Steve Carver). Its also been simplified to a definition of ‘the mass restoration of ecosystems’. Britain wasn’t always the way it is today. Once there were great swathes of forest, giving the perfect habitat to mammals which we now only associate with mainland Europe. Wolves, bears and lynx were once commonplace. It is however, important to stress that the whole debate does not rest on the reintroduction of wolves. This is the idea latched onto by the media and therefore is often the thing in the forefront of the publics opinion, there is so much more we could do to help the UK and its ecosystems.

From our forested beginnings, there was great change afoot. Forests were decimated to make way for fertile, profitable farmland and these predators were hunted to extinction. We have looked at the idea of wilderness in the UK in a previous blog, which also made the important point that all those areas of the UK which we class as ‘wild’ and those which are an area of ‘wilderness’ have really all been crafted by human intervention. Every part of our Isle has been shaped by our hands and we are now slowly beginning to move our thinking toward aiding those species we once wanted to remove.

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What has been considered already?

Not everyone working to restore habitats and repair ecological damage considers it to come under the banner of ‘rewilding’, but projects within the UK are already working toward these aims. One of the biggest and currently most successful projects has taken place in Glenfeshie, Scotland. A direct conflict existed in the deer forest. There were those that saw the woodland as a hunting estate, then those that wanted to conserve the area for conservation. The Deer Commission (now amalgamated with Scottish Natural Heritage) took over ownership and agreed a reduction in deer numbers. As can be seen throughout this article, this decision was met with mixed reactions. The media portrayed this cull as a ‘massacre’, and gamekeepers from the area even formed a protest. Even with this conflict, the decision stuck and the cull was actioned. Once this had been completed the area was transformed. Instead of receding the woodland is now gaining ground, with seedlings now allowed to grow without the pressure applied by an overpopulation of grazing animals. This all seems very positive, but its important that we keep in mind the other side of this argument. Those whose livelihoods depend on the quality of the deer management must be borne in mind. Thankfully this is being considered by Scottish Natural Heritage. They released and reviewed in 2014 a management scheme entitled Scotland’s Wild Deer: A National Approach (WDNA). We can see this from this quote from the approach document – “There is a growing desire for deer management to deliver wider public benefits and to ensure the negative impacts on the natural heritage, along with wider economic costs, are minimised. Deer management is under increasing public and political scrutiny. The Review recognises this, and sets out the challenges that need to be addressed to meet this expectation”. This is a positive outlook and it is clear that Scottish Natural Heritage want to balance the needs of both camps when they make changes. They do also admit that each decision will be made after consideration of local issues, and this cannot be a one size fits all approach to ecological management. With this in mind they state that their vision “seeks to achieve the best combination of benefits for the economy, environment and people, while acknowledging that healthy ecosystems underpin sustainable economic growth”. This is just a single case which we have highlighted here, but you may have gleaned that the idea of rewilding is not a simple one. Not only does it give rise to emotional conflict between people, it also brings conflict with people’s livelihoods.

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The argument – Those for

The idea of ‘rewilding’ an area as a concept has been taking place for many years, but only recently was a formal charity set up in the UK to bring the information firmly into the wider public domain. Rewilding Britain see rewilding not only as a reintroduction of species, but also as:
– “Allowing nature to look after itself”.
– “Helping people to thrive alongside wildlife”.
– “Securing the good things that nature provides – clean air and water, carbon storage, flood control, amazing experiences”.
(Rewilding Britain website rewildingbritain.co.uk)

The argument stems upon the idea that allowing nature to take back control of these areas will benefit many different things by association. The animals themselves will benefit from the natural balance being restored. You only have to look at species such as deer to see the devastating impact they can have on forest regeneration. With an apex predator back in the wild their numbers would be controlled, allowing the vegetation to thrive, thereby allowing the array of autotrophs to achieve a much better grounding. This all allows for a more varied and vibrant biodiversity. As a result of this improved ecosystem, our surroundings are consequently improved. Air and water quality are naturally purified, more oxygen producing trees thrive and these give back natural flood defences to otherwise open spaces.

There is then the positive impact it could have on the wellbeing of those who visit these newly regenerated spaces. Its not just the health of its visitors that is positive however, its also the millions of pounds it generates in increased tourism each year. Its definitely big business, but this is where the businesses which already inhabit these spaces feel aggrieved by these new proposals.

The argument – Those against

Farming and agricultural tradition are the cornerstone of many local economies. Many communities are built on the foundation of what the land provides and its associated monetary rewards. When you look at a group with a vested interest in using the land for this purpose such as the NFU, you can see how their argument is in complete conflict to the rewilding idea of land usage. They say that “whether it is sheep, cereals, or cider apples, the reality is that when UK farmers produce more, it’s also good news for the UK economy”. (nfuonline.com) This would suggest that by electing to move forward with the idea of rewilding, the UK would be shooting itself in the foot as it would only hinder its own economy. When you look at a specific example, such as lamb sales, these are said to be worth £1bn, you can see the potential for losses if this intricate balancing act is not measured carefully. This goes along with the idea that rewilding poses a direct threat to the livestock themselves. In Europe this has been combatted via compensation payments made to farmers for livestock which is taken by predators. However, its noted that this is a minority of cases, such as in Italy, where 0.35% of sheep are attacked in the areas wolves live.

Another industry lobbying against these projects is the shooting industry. Those who own land specifically maintained to allow a particular species to thrive, inevitably leave the ecosystem of that area out of balance. Whilst some land owners attempt to find ways to help other species, many see the way they run their land as their own business and a way to maximize profit. They have businesses to run and their livelihoods depend upon this. This is completely understandable and if rewilding is going to work in these areas, compromises need to be made and the degraded state of the land would need to be addressed. Some landowners have even gone so far as to combine rewilding projects with the continued use of the land for shooting, but this is still a minority at present.

There is also laws and regulations, some having been in place for many years, which conflict with the ideas presented for rewilding. The Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 was put into place to regulate dangerous animals with regard to zoos and to eliminate people having these kind of animals as pets. However, this restricts the release of predators and herbivores into the same enclosure, but also states dangerous animals must be kept in defined enclosures. These things combined mean any reintroduction of predators would need to fight the laws created in this Act. There are also rules governing the way conservation areas are managed. They must remain in the state that they were found when they were designated as conservation areas. Although many argue these are outdated, they still state that ‘cutting, burning and grazing’ are the preferred methods of control. This goes directly against the idea of ecological restoration and again would leave the land in a degraded state.

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Where do we go from here? – our views

There is no question that this hotly contested debate has given rise to conflicts of interest. People from each side of the debate have very different views on how the available land of the UK should be put to best use. But don’t we now owe wildlife a debt for the damage we have already done? Don’t we need to at least try and fix the wrongs of the past?

The human race has put vast pressure on the natural world. The UK used to boast not just the species being touted for reintroduction such as wolves and beavers, but things such as lions, and even elephants. These were all lost, along with the habitats and ecosystems that supported their existence. We have continued to poison and pollute the atmosphere, we question the validity of global warming claims, and even our ‘conservation’ areas promote the slash and burn mantra not uncommon to the rainforest regions of the world.

Rewilding gives us the chance to make a real impact and create drastic change in the way we use our land. We can promote the idea of true wilderness, create a vast increase in tourism and improve our collective wellbeing in the process.

The example of Glenfeshie shows just how people from both sides of the debate can use the same land for their own interests, whilst keeping the integrity of the land at the forefront. It’s a very small piece of the rewilding puzzle, but the more pieces we can put into place, the greater the chance of building a network of land for wildlife to pass through. Not only this, it also shows just how quickly the natural world responds, given the chance to flourish.

In our opinion the real change that needs to be made is within the rules and regulations surrounding this topic. Many of these regulations and laws, some of which we talked through earlier are vastly outdated. They just don’t take into account the years of important scientific discoveries and what we now know about the natural world. These rules encourage keeping our conservation areas in a degraded state to ‘encourage’ wildlife, but shouldn’t the natural world be allowed to be just that? Other rules encourage farmers who farm infertile land to keep their land in agricultural state, in return they gain valuable subsidies. This perpetuates the idea that this non-natural state, complete with no room for wildlife to thrive, is what we want for our landscape.

This argument shouldn’t be a case of one side versus another, more how can we find a way collectively to enable our natural world to become a place we can all enjoy, for its beauty, for its ruggedness, for its truly wild nature. Our wilderness is still out there, we just have to reach out and grab it.

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