In recent weeks it feels like arguing among wildlife people has stepped up a notch. I wish I could say I never get involved, but I sometimes do, not always helpfully. Occasionally it is useful, often less so. But it does tend make me think, and examine my own reasoning. One area which comes to my attention time and again is around rewilding. What it is, what it isn’t and how it overlaps with other things.
Now I will be the first to admit that rewilding does not have a crystal clear definition. This itself does not bother me. I’m trained as a scientist, but I have long worked in politics and campaigning and I know that ideas can have huge power. Punk and hip-hop don’t have crystal clear definitions either, but they have still changed the world.
Having said that there are a few ‘definitions’ kicking around. For example Googling the phrase brings up: ‘restore (an area of land) to its natural uncultivated state (used especially in conjunction with reference to the reintroduction of species of wild animals that have been driven out or exterminated)’.
Actually that is not too bad. The idea of restoration causes some confusion though. The most important aspect of this definition I think is that the land is being restored to an uncultivated state, not to a specific point in time or set ecosystem. And I do think this is a crucial aspect of rewilding.
For me at least rewilding should be open ended, and open-minded about outcomes. It accepts that things may not turn out as we expect. It is not necessarily about recreating a lost habitat – although in some cases rewilding may be the best way to get as close as possible to a previous state. This sets it apart from ecosystem restoration, which explicitly is about trying to create a past habitat or assemblage of ecosystems.
The open-ended nature of rewilding is to me one of its great strengths – particularly in a time of climate change when things will likely not stay what they have been for very long. Similarly given how much has changed, and how much will soon change, the idea we can go back, as pure restoration sometimes implies, seems problematic to me. The reason I find it a problem is practical – if we cannot go back naturally then the only way to create a facsimile of a lost habitat will be through constant and ever more difficult intervention. In some cases that may be possible and worth it, in others less so.
That is not to say I am opposed to a bit of restoration. Sometimes it is great and right. Rewilding often has elements of restoration too of course, and indeed it is implicit in it, bringing back lost species, and ‘restoring’ lost ecological processes, or changing the physical environment, for example by blocking drainage ditches to bring back a more natural water level. It is often also inspired by the past – both in terms of abundance, habitat types, culture and stories. But for me there is a difference. I am inspired by the past of the Levels, and will seek to restore elements of it in terms of lost species and so on, but the process by which I would like to form the future of the place is through rewilding. And it is this sense of rewilding as a process, that I find crucial.
I sometimes hear people say that ‘rewilding will not work there’. For the reasons mentioned above I find this odd. Rewilding will ‘work’ anywhere, in the sense that left alone nature will ‘do something’. If you bring back a bunch of species, and leave them to interact they will form something. If you do nothing at all to a piece of land and leave it alone, it will do something. The question will be if that is something that you want or like. It may not create what you expect, but I would bet that given time and space it will do something wonderful.
Even the artificial can become ‘wild’. The top of Green Mountain on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic is covered in invasives and non-natives introduced 150 years ago by Kew Gardens. Abandoned in the tropical sun they have run riot, forming an artificial, but also rather wild and uniquely wonderful rainforest made up of plants from five continents. Whether one approves is another thing. It is obviously bad for some of the native plants, but it is also kind of amazing, and much loved. So viewed this way rewilding is a process, and as such is not in contradiction to restoration, so long as the outcomes are open-ended. You may restore a bunch of conditions and ecological process and species, or remove invasives, and then allow rewilding to unfold (or as best you can, I am aware little is pure in this space).
Some ask why bother with rewilding, but I would perhaps turn that around and ask what is the alternative? Species-specific conservation has a place, but it is robbing Peter to pay Paul, picking winners and losers. It is often for my taste too closely tied to agriculture too – managing for species which do well in farmland margins, and often seem to demand them to be at high numbers. This attachment precludes wider changes (for example return of wild herbivores or carnivores or larger ecosystem changes etc). For its part restoration without rewilding will likely become species-specific or habitat-specific and end up fighting against the evolution of the land, particularly in light of human induced changes like climate change. Maybe that is acceptable, maybe not.
But my main reasons are more positive than that. Partly it is the evidence that ecological interactions are more complex than we understand, and that letting nature ‘do its thing’ allows space for all the stuff we would not predict and for new assemblages to evolve in the changing climate. Partly too it is the examples coming from rewilding projects (and my own eyes). Everywhere I go in the world I observe that in general when humans step back, wildlife thrives. I also have the luxury of knowing that in countries like the UK rewilding will only ever be a minority land-use, so there will always be room for carefully controlled environments and interventions and nature friendly farming with targeted outcomes. As such I am willing to experiment with rewilding in other patches, in the hope that it will unlock something we are missing.
None of this is to say that rewilding is the only thing I like. I recognise there are lots of other good things out there. I like certain kinds of farming (I like food too). I also like gardening, reintroductions and there are certain kinds of species-specific conservation that I understand and support as well. But wild land, rewilded land, is the one thing that is almost completely absent from the picture, and even as we try out best to mitigate further climate change, so many of the certainties we take for granted will already be changing, and we need to create space for that change to happen.
Yet I see that it is this very uncertainty and perhaps vagueness that upsets some in this space. Scientists and academics often like to work within clear parameters, and are suspicious of what can seem political terms or value judgments. I can understand that. I can also understand people being protective of their species and chosen areas of study. I’ve seen that many times (you can’t stop grazing/reintroduce wolves/wild boar, it will harm my flowers/deer/snakes/whatever).
There are other people though who seem uncomfortable with the excitement that rewilding has generated with a vision for a wilder, grander world. This I find harder to understand. If the biggest criticism of rewilding is that it has caught too many people’s imaginations I will take that. I do not buy the idea that it is a distraction – funds and political attention are elastic depending on interest. That same argument has been used against so many things. In the early days of renewable energy, for example, I recall many in the green movement who saw it as a flashy distraction from the serious sober business of energy efficiency (or social revolution). Now efficiency is very very important, but it is only the triumph of renewable energy that has made another future seem possible in the face of climate change. I would argue the same is true of rewilding. Conservation has achieved some wonderful things, and has bequeathed us what we have. Pure restoration may not be possible. It is only rewilding, with a dash of restoration, which for me, has made another future seem possible in the face of biological collapse. It has expanded our horizons, and changed the conversation from one where we try and protect fragments to one where we can begin to imagine the return of wonder.