It’s pretty amazing how quickly my childhood daydreams are growing into conservation’s zeitgeist. While I didn’t know the word ‘rewilding’ when I was eight years old, I would never have guessed optimistic hopes of having beavers back in the local stream would be a tenable prospect by the time I was at university, yet alone a middle-aged adult.
The change is dramatic even in the space of a few years. In 2015 I ran a rewilding workshop for young people from our youth nature network A Focus on Nature, not long after George Monbiot’s ‘Feral’ really brought rewilding into the mainstream. At the time I thought there were few outlets to explore the topic: but cut to late 2018/early 2019 and there are five rewilding conferences and workshops alone that I know of.
I was kindly invited to attend and write about the most recent of these, hosted at what you might think to be a pretty surprising venue – the Royal Agricultural University, with co-hosts Cirencester College. It’s fair to say farmers have not been the most supportive of rewilding; Monbiot has done much for pushing forward the agenda, but it’s fair to say for many of those who manage 72% of Britain, his views have been about as welcome as hair in your soup. So to have an opportunity where the agricultural sector are willing to engage with the idea, rather than stomping it into the ground in the hope it’ll shut up, is very positive to see.
With the focus being on rewilding in the UK context, it threw up all the usual questions this method brings when applied to a densely populated country that lies only 29 places away from the most wildlife-depleted nation in the world. For a start, one of the greatest complications over here seems to be keeping people involved somewhat while, paradoxically, trying to step back. Although Alastair Driver, specialist advisor for Rewilding Britain, stated the charity was inspired from ‘Feral’ with its foundations in rewilding’s original ‘cores, corridors and carnivores’ philosophy, communities and local economies have been instated as a chief cornerstone of the group. The first people talked to as soon as Alastair entered the role were the NFU, and it can be easy to see why. Even now in the earliest stage of their ‘summit to sea’ rewilding project in Wales, there is still a lot of talking to do with farmers afraid to be associated with organisations containing the ‘R’ word.
Perhaps the most iconic, or at least commonly mentioned, example of rewilding in the UK is the Knepp Estate, although this is again an interesting example as it falls short of ‘full’ rewilding and can be considered ‘rewilding-lite’ (a phrase courtesy of Dr Steve Carver). Yet you can’t deny that even in this contained area, where the livestock that graze it have to be managed in absence of predators, is an absolute cornucopia of wildlife compared to the surrounding landscape – I highly recommend anyone to visit at the height of June. I’m not sold on the theory behind the place, that the wildwood was a herbivore-driven wood pasture as espoused by Dutch scientist Frans Vera. But as a model for some farming landscapes it’s great, and we definitely need more of them. But surely this shouldn’t be where we set our limits with rewilding in Britain?
Part of the trouble with getting big, minimum-intervention areas in Britain is that much of our land is in private hands, and as CLA policy director Chris Price explained, this comes with plenty of complexities for landowners to examine. There are various other user rights to consider that increase with the size of your plot, and there is pressure to drive income from land while retaining its capital value. In the absence of large state-owned land (or at least due to the timidity towards rewilding due to its relative infancy), millionaires with a fair bit of a land to spare are currently the driving force of much of Britain’s rewilding effort; even if it is some way from the purist, non-intervention method devised in the US.
When we talk about restoring ecosystems to as healthy a capacity as possible, reintroductions are not far away as a key part of that, and certainly didn’t go untouched at this conference. Going by Twitter, one of the most dramatic impacts was made by my own boss, Derek Gow (and no, he’s not paying me to write this!) While I can say his rousing speech is not necessarily typical of a day in office, Derek’s declarations for doing, not talking, are needed words for those like me at the start of their careers, or otherwise well within them but despairing at the inaction. One of Derek’s big problems with UK conservationist for example is that we never stick around long enough to see jobs through. We need to become a trifectal blend of farmer and zookeeper to drive the restoration of key species back into our landscape.
Among these candidates covered in this conference were beavers, pine martens, and lynx. In the case of the first two, the step change in enthusiasm for their recovery, and the gradually growing tolerance from many initial sceptics over the past decade has been remarkable. Mark Elliott of Devon Wildlife Trust spoke enthusiastically of how successful education programmes in the River Otter beaver trial is building a sustainable template for living alongside this species once again. Meanwhile, Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust’s Andrew Stringer is in the midst of preparing for a pine marten release in the Forest of Dean which could go ahead next year, made more likely by the fact support has been won from the National Gamekeepers Organisation – one of the groups that caused the local demise of this species in the first place.
Certainly from the farming dimension, the lynx is more contentious, but is perhaps less controversial than the subject of wolves; a point David Hetherington made given the latter were the focus of most early discussions in the 90s, and may have made the subject of predators more abrasive as a result. David remains the most competent representative on the realities of what a lynx reintroduction in Britain should entail. His own research shows there is enough habitat and prey in Scotland. European experience shows how we can manage conflicts, but equally we must recognise concerns that are valid to rural communities and construct a respectful dialogue. Something that, when asked the question, he stated is something that does not appear to have happened with the current proposals in Kielder (and indeed since the event, Michael Gove has rejected the license following Natural England’s advice – in a critique that reads like the marking of a bad piece of undergrad coursework).
By the event’s close all 10 speakers sat for a final Q&A panel (bar the representative from Defra) alongside NFU rep and sheep farmer, Thomas Binns. Having immediately followed Ali Driver’s four key cornerstones as to what rewilding should be – consistent, resistant, stretching and inspiring – how did they see it all taking shape from now? Charlie Burrell was confident that the bigger scale we get, the less need for management – and by virtue, actual proper rewilding – will show itself. This point was backed up by Tony Whitbread of the Sussex Wildlife Trust, who pointed they are attempting minimum intervention Knepp-like approaches to some of their smaller sites. Whether these really need management I think again falls into our psyche of having a farmed landscape baseline, and whether we are aiming for whole ecology or certain habitats/species – but that’s for another blog.
The inconsistency of British rewilding in relation to its global contemporaries, thanks to the lack of large carnivores, was a point bought up by Jonny Birks in the audience (do give his pine marten book a read). The thoughts of Alistair Driver on this were summed up essentially as we should shape our countryside into one where future generations can make a vote on whether they want wolves. Likewise Derek, who is a great advocate of not being afraid of starting the sensible discussion now, pointed out ecologically you could do it tomorrow. The sub-urban, agricultural landscapes wolves are returning to in mainland Europe today are really not that different from Surrey, let alone Scotland after all. It’s something we need to accept culturally, and the tests of our tolerance in this regard will be how well we cope with smaller carnivores we can put back first – the martens, wildcats, and eagles.
By the conference’s summation, the word ‘balance’ seemed to be the key word. There are bold times ahead, and personally I can see striking a chord between a minimal-interventionist policy and our deep-set psychology of management to be one of the greatest challenges beyond just top predators. But the point was made that all speakers were passionate, knowledgeable, and importantly within this conference’s context, were understanding of the concerns and were willing to work together to solve them. For all the semantics, I think that’s certainly one of the most optimistic things to take home.