If you were to list the greats of natural history and conservation still around today, I’m certain that Professor Edward O. Wilson would be among, if not the, top of the league. World renowned for his studies of ants (“if human beings were not so impressed by size alone, they would find an ant more fascinating than a rhinoceros”), his part in conceptualising island biogeography, and texts such as The Diversity of Life which have shaped the way we look at conservation biology. And of course, there’s his coining of the brilliant word ‘biophilia’, everyone’s innate desire to be connected to the natural world.
But this week, Wilson decided to definitely not play small-scale with his latest proposal. To really avert the greatest mass extinction since the dinosaurs, conservationists should be working towards a ‘Half-Earth’ to safeguard the planet’s biodiversity, and ourselves by default.
Firstly, no, he doesn’t mean NASA should build a humongous laser butter knife and split the globe into two neat pieces. The idea is essentially giving just about half of the Earth’s area back to nature. Wilson argues that it’s pretty much the only sure-fire way of preventing mass extinction. When much of current conservation is like trying to pour water back into a bucket with a hole in it, he has a point.
Wilson was also unexpectedly timely in announcing half-Earth this week, for it is only a week before myself and over a hundred other young naturalists from across the UK come together in Cambridge for the launch of the youth conservation movement – Vision for Nature. As we discuss what we plan to change about conservation in the coming years, we’re well aware that many of our ideas will be big, controversial and deemed unrealistic by many. Which is why I’m thankful to Wilson for promoting the half-Earth concept, and hopefully making my own ideas slightly more palatable.
I’ve been mad about nature my whole life, but I can pinpoint the time I became passionate to give as much as I can for wildlife conservation at the age of six, when I first started noticing that so many wonderful animals in the Marwell Zoo guidebook had a fact-box beside them with a logo of an antelope skull and ‘ENDANGERED SPECIES’ written in bold, intimidating letters. Since then I’ve toed-and-froed between which area to specifically focus on, but in the last few years I’ve consolidated towards British wildland restoration (yes, ‘rewilding’ to give it the buzzword), and a long-term idea which, in tribute to Wilson, can effectively be described as ‘Half-Britain’.
And the place to start is, as George Monbiot, Peter Taylor and the rest of the rewilding lobby will tell you, in the uplands. 40% of the UK’s land area is made up of hills, moors and mountains that should be rich in both habitat and species diversity. The truth is that they’re not. While a few waders, butterflies and wildflowers do well in open, short-sward grassland, this is only one part of the habitat mosaic in what could be a dynamic system of great woodlands and wetlands in the valleys. However, highly unproductive grazing and frankly destructive grouse shooting and deer stalking estates have created a monotonous, low-biodiversity ecosystem across nearly half the country, which even many conservationists have the nerve to claim is good for wildlife – a combination of shifting baselines and fear of upsetting superiors.
Essentially, my vision of half Britain would see most of the country’s uplands greatly afforested and restored in their habitat diversity, but crucially, also linked together.
Looking at the map below, you can see how you could start – corridors down the nomansland between Edinburgh and Glasgow to the Southern Uplands and the hills of Northern England. The next corridor, between the Peak District and the Welsh uplands, would be trickier, but with enough careful management and education it could could be established – even if it means wildlife bridges over/under the M5.
With habitats restored and the core areas linked together, wildlife which cannot naturally recolonize but play vital roles within the ecosystem can be reintroduced. Beavers to restore wetlands and peat bogs, lynx to control numbers of roe and muntjac deer, and wild boar, nature’s gardeners, to enrich the soil through their rooting, and allow diverse flora to grow rather than the bracken monocultures of today.
In the long-term, the option is then open for bigger fry as the habitat matures, the corridors are established and people have had time to live alongside such wildlands. Red deer are not likely to be effectively controlled by lynx. Time to call upon the wolf. With enough land cover, perhaps even moose can find a home here again, and the globally endangered European bison can have another safeguarded refuge on our shores.
So a network of rewilded uplands, all linked together, with missing habitats and megafauna restored. Should I ever manage to get the project off the ground in my career, I know I’d never live to see the completed goal. We’re talking decades, potentially centuries here. But before I can get dreaming, I imagine most who read this will think ‘nice idea, very impractical’. I’ll give them some credit for that; it’s only human to be cautious towards proposals that seem too good to be true (though there are many who would also describe these aspirations as far from ‘good’).
But this is going by our current line of conservation thinking, and as the biodiversity crisis has got no better, we’ve got to think crazy. E.O Wilson is respected as one of the soundest, foremost opinions on conservation biology – and he’s proposing this globally, let alone just in Britain!
We already know these areas are largely useless for their current ‘economic’ purpose of hill farming, else we wouldn’t shove in subsides from the taxpayer that keep them afloat. Despite this, losses are so poor that a lamb born following a bad winter can be worth less than £1, mental health issues in farmers like depression are rife, and many of their children are upping sticks to the lowlands rather than carrying on this ineffective practice. In terms of carbon storage, water treatment, forestry, (controlled) hunting and ecotourism, returning the uplands to nature is likely to be far more beneficial to the economy than scraping a few sheep out of a biological desert.
We can continue trying to rinse blood from a stone in the wasteland, or we can regrow the garden. I’m well aware of the path I’ve set for myself is challenging and isn’t exactly a modest life-plan. It’ll piss off a lot of people, however hard I may try not to, but equally I know there are so many out there who feel the same way, and would also want to work towards making this a reality. As any conservationist will tell you, you might as well give up if you don’t work as a team. It’s something where Wilson’s biophilia really needs to come to the fore too. These kind of plans would require mass broadcasting to the public at large – it should be a people’s project.
That’s my vision for nature – who else is in?