Take a look at the picture below. Quite an idyllic, picturesque view, isn’t it? It’s the kind of view that most would think of when they picture the English countryside. Well, according to environmentalist and “rewilding” advocate, George Monbiot, it is proof that the Lake District is an “ecological disaster zone”.Embed from Getty Images
The UK is in a “temperate rainforest band”, according to Monbiot. Photograph: Getty Images
Monbiot’s remarks become particularly relevant as Boris Johnson’s government announces a “ten point plan for a green industrial revolution”. In this plan, the government promises to protect areas such as the Lake District (pictured), as well as create new national parks. They also plan to accelerate Landscape Recovery projects that aim to restore wilder landscapes in the UK.
The current state of conservation
No other animal has made a greater mark on Earth than humans: that’s indisputable. We often celebrate this fact. President Trump boasted in a State of the Union address that “Our ancestors braved the unknown, tamed the wilderness, settled the Wild West”. Roman philosopher Lucretius believed that humans were responsible for transforming the world from harshness to domestication, encouraged by Mother Nature herself.
This perspective is has likely influenced our colonial past. It lends itself to the view that any part of the “unknown” or natural world is waiting to be “civilised” by humans.
This mindset is also partly to blame for current environmental damage. We commodify naturally occurring resources and view them simply as tools to expand profit or infrastructure. The World Bank recently came under fire for tweeting that Bhutan were not appropriately looting the country’s abundant forests. Our growing need- and growing desire– to extract ever more resources is causing alarming rates of deforestation and habitat destruction. Species also continue to go extinct. In the 1990s, nearly 70% of deforested areas were converted to agricultural land. Typical pastoral scenes are often actually evidence of our destructive impact.
Even groups who wish to restore or preserve habitats and species tend to take an interventionist approach. Our zoos and nature reserves closely look after endangered animals, providing food and care. The result is a well managed, but curated “nature”, artificially preserving particular species in a very controlled way. Suburban areas are far greener than the inner city, but local councils still regulate every street corner. Trees are placed equal distances apart from each other down streets and grass is kept short. While it might look pretty, biodiversity is limited.
“Rewilding” nature, a term coined in the 1990s, moves away from an anthropocentric view of our environment. It sees man, as anthropologist Layla AbdelRahim puts it, as a predator who has endangered all life on earth. Rewilding is an attempt to remove man’s destructive influence by lessening his involvement in order to increase biodiversity.
So what does this mean in practice? It was first defined as “cores, corridors, and carnivores”. This means reintroducing carnivores back into the wild, as their effects on the food chain drive ecosystems. Animals need core areas to have space to roam and graze, with corridors connecting these cores. This is the basis of rewilding, but the definition has broadened.
There are three main offshoots: pleistocene, which involves reintroducing Ice-Age (pleistocene) era megafauna. This aims to rebalance the ecosystem after the Pleistocene extinction of megafauna. Passive rewilding, the broadest and most common definition, concerns reducing man’s impact and involvement on ecosystems by regenerating land back to a more “wild” state. Translocation involves introducing the descendants of now extinct species in order to replace their role in the ecosystem.
Longhorn cattle at Knepp Castle, West Sussex.
Rewilding’s success across the country and the world
Rewilding has now taken root in many places in the world, including the UK. The organisation Rewilding Britain are launching a network that will rewild 300,000 acres, roughly the size of Greater Manchester, within the next three years. Knepp Castle in Sussex has drawn attention for rewilding its 3,500 farming estate. It has set free konik ponies, longhorn cattle, red deer and Tamworth pigs, replacing the role of extinct aurochs, wild boar and wild horses in the ecosystem. This has also been a profitable venture for Knepp, which gives hope to farms struggling to rely on dwindling revenues from sheep farming. It might also allay post-Brexit fears that EU agricultural subsidies will be lost.
George Monbiot is one of the main proponents in the UK, who makes a visual case. Tweeting in response to a picture of the Lake District like the one first shown in this article, Monbiot argues that, “anywhere else on Earth, we would recognise this scene, in our temperate rainforest band, as an ecological disaster zone.” Monbiot argues for turning our country back into a “British rainforest”, full of forests and swamps. This is more beneficial in terms of biodiversity and sustainability. His concern over the government’s new proposals is that our current national parks, being mainly sheep ranches and deer stalking estates, “make a mockery of the government’s pledge, even before the ink is dry”. He also believes in conservation sites maintained in “the condition in which they were found when they were designated”.
Monbiot tweeted a similar photo as this of Dartmoor forest, as evidence for what the “British rainforest looks like”
But here’s where the debate around rewilding starts to become more complicated. “When they were designated” is one way to define how far back to turn the clock on nature, but the question remains what state is “natural”. Even if it is “natural”, is it good for our environment?
“[It] comes down to what nature should look like, and what we are restoring it to,” says Nick Harvey, a PHD researcher who wrote in his Masters in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management, on the topic of rewilding. “In the Americas, it’s [before] the arrival of the europeans. But what about the Native Americans beforehand?”
Analysing Nature’s status and our relation to it
And so the question returns to this human-animal relationship. Whether we like it or not, we’re a part of our ecosystem, as Harvey explains. “The way in the UK… our ecology has developed in the past two thousand years is in partnership with human activity… [it often depends on human management]”. He notes the chalk grasslands in this country that exist because of grazing livestock as one example.
Rewilding isn’t strictly about going back in time either. “Knepp reintroduced the white stork…it’s mad how controversial that was.” There is a lot of debate over whether they were ever here previously, so some conservationists believe Knepp was wrong to do this. However, Harvey says that “in the face of climate change and rain shifts… I don’t think it’s entirely justifiable” to be concerned with arguments over what is and isn’t native. Much like translocation, the bird helps to play a role in the area’s natural ecosystem. “I don’t think it’s the right question right now in conservation”.
“The way in the UK… our ecology has developed in the past two thousand years is in partnership with human activity…“
A more important question, he argues, is “The question is how to couple ecological restoration with… having thriving rural communities”; another big issue the countryside faces is rural depopulation. He places emphasis on the benefits that the community should get from it too, not letting it be “hijacked by development interests [such as] tourism or industry”. While sheep farming is not very profitable, it has “cultural value”, and some families have practiced it for generations. Many farmers will want to continue practising it. Thus advocates of rewilding will and are coming into conflict with them.Embed from Getty Images
Billionaire Anders Polvsen aims to rewild private Scottish land.
Rewilding vs. the people?
Indeed, rewilding has lent itself to the criticism that it’s elitist: a project for rich landowners. Scotland’s richest man, Anders Povlsen, is buying up large areas of Scottish estates to regenerate the woodlands and wetlands damaged by overgrazing. Questions, however, have to be raised over how much benefit locals will see from the rewilding of this private land. “A lot of the narrative is already in place suggesting [that rewilding] doesn’t”, says Harvey. This will be one of the big challenges facing the rewilding movement going forward: getting local communities not only involved, but on its side, when the “narrative” is that it does not benefit the average local.
Restoring our “lost wonders”
Rewilding could be the revolution that conservation needs. It could be crucial for the government’s environmental policy to have a beneficial effect in the long term. It brings a fresh perspective on the state of conservation, raising important questions about how environmentally-friendly are reserves currently are. But there is no simple solution for how to put it into practice. It also vitally needs the support from local communities for everyone to fully experience the benefits.
It must also reflect the complicated needs of the local ecosystem. In some places, a more managed approach is likely better; there are fears that too much rewilding would ignore the preservation of endangered species. But if done right and on a large enough scale, we could see the mass restoration of “lost wonders” and the preservation of our planet’s raw wildness.