2 comments

  1. I’m afraid this got a bit long….but here goes! First of all, I commend you for going through this so carefully. It’s always worth hearing from the ‘other’ side. Who knows, we might learn something. Your comment about re-branding projects as rewilding seems fair. Definitions are important, or in the end nobody knows what anybody else is talking about.

    This all raises interesting points about what the countryside is and who ‘owns’ it (probably a whole topic in itself). I’m increasingly not a fan of the word countryside, but I don’t really have a better one to suggest. It’s much too politicised a term. Also, some geographers and landscape historians I was speaking to at a conference last year were very keen to stress that there is no such thing as typical countryside. Perhaps one could extend that to say there is no one typical countryside culture or ‘rural way of life’. I would add that the divide between urban and rural is usually more of a gradient or even a seamless continuum, depending on where you look obviously. It all makes the Countryside Alliances self-definition even more confusing, unhelpful and divisive.

    Picking up from “…the British countryside is admired at home and around the world…” I agree with your commentary on this paragraph, and the counterpoint that people may well find they also love the landscapes rewilding could create. But people do get used to things being as they are – I remember walking in the Appalachians in 2007 and complaining of all the trees on the summit ridge that spoilt the views! 10 years on and as a more seasoned traveller to the USA I’d say I was fortunate to explore an upland forest of that sort but people with different interests will certainly perceive things in different ways. I look at landscapes a bit differently now and tend to move through them more slowly, looking for wildlife, but still have a bit of a thing for hiking on bleak treeless wastes every once in a while!

    It seems the height of irony that the CA claims reintroduced carnivores would only be of benefit to local communities with significant government subsidy.

    Overall you’ve done an excellent job of exposing the poverty of some of the CA’s arguments in a fair, measured and non-personalised way. There is too much antagonism and playing of the man, rather than the ball in many public debates – though mostly I’m thinking of social media or perhaps media interviews, rather than face to face discussions which always tend to be more civilized. We need to take on the arguments rather than the people who make them (in most cases).

    One last thought, as promised, on rewilding. I think somebody made a point in the AFON thread about coppicing along the lines of it being a choice to continue this sort of management in order to sustain certain species that we wanted to conserve. Clearly rewilding is also always a matter of choice, since there is (as you point out) no Pleistocene to go back to! What rewilding creates will be new (as at Knepp), although of course guided by what we know about past ecosystems and likely to resemble them in many ways. I do hope the idealistic side of rewilding settles down because this I find its most unhelpful element at the moment. It is sometimes presented as a panacea or the only way to do conservation now.

    Back in June last year we spent a couple of weeks travelling through central Europe, mostly in Switzerland and Austria. Our second base in Switzerland was close to the Swiss national in the SE of the country. It’s a massive area – 170 square kilometres – that was first protected as a park over 100 years ago. Whether one would call it a rewilding project I’m not sure, I don’t think the term was around when it started! It certainly meets some of the criteria. There are no ski resorts, little (possibly no?) active farming or forestry. There’s one road and a single hotel. The treeline is naturally restoring itself up the mountainside, and there were some pretty impressive areas of avalanche, flash flood and rockfall damage where no attempts to clear up are being made and vegetation is being left to naturally regenerate, so we have large scale disturbance. Bearded vultures have been successfully reintroduced; I think ibex were also a reintroduction rather than colonisation. I don’t think any carnivores have been reintroduced, though I believe a single bear was tracked through the park a few years ago and wolves are not far across the Italian border.

    We were in the area only a short time and really only spent one day walking in the park, so my impression is a shallow one, but it was a fantastic place. In a way it reminded me of that forest in New Hampshire, certainly a North American feel to the landscape. It was quiet in the woods, much closer to a wilderness than what I’m used to in Europe and for that reason a quite brilliant experience. We saw plenty of great wildlife – marmots, golden eagle, chamois, many wildflowers. But the best display of wildflowers (and associated insects) on the whole trip was in the next valley over (the Lower Engadine) which is traditionally farmed as alpine pasture and hay meadows. Not a straight comparison as the altitude is slightly different (1900 – 2300m in much of the national park versus 1500– 1750m), but they were certainly displays it would never be possible to see in the National Park with the amount of trees to quite high altitudes. More abundant flowers and a different mix of species. Our previous stop in Switzerland had been in the Bernese alps, where a walk between 1500m and 2000m through a mixture of managed meadows, managed forest and some more natural areas probably provided the best mix of wildlife of any day on the trip.

    Where am I going with this? I suppose the point is that I advocate the creation of more Swiss national park style protected areas or rewilding projects but that there are managed, farmed, biocultural landscapes which I think are more special left roughly as they are. The big difference between the UK and other countries must be that we have so few of those left, let alone wildernesses to protect or rewild! I’m sure we’re not so different to much of western Europe in that, though lowland Germany and France strike me as being richer in wildlife than lowland England, for example (I’ve not looked up any figures on this,so I’m afraid this is speculation at the moment). Alpine Switzerland is surely doing better for wildlife than the British uplands! Certainly what the Countryside Alliance appear to want to preserve bears little relation to landscapes I would say are worth retaining either from an aesthetic or wildlife perspective, or both. But it does, ultimately come down to a choice by society. I think we as conservationists have to do a better job of accepting we’re not the only ones in a position to make that choice, certainly not the most powerful ones at present, that others have a right to be heard and that some of them – often with a much longer connection to a particular place than most conservationists or ecologists have – feel genuinely threatened by rewilding, or at least by what they perceive or have been told rewilding means. Moving forward is going to require dialogue and compromise, but what we can at least do is have good arguments delivered in a respectful, open-minded way. Suffice to say I have lots more thinking to do on this.

  2. Great analysis, Simon. Especially like your response to the charge about rewilding leading to ‘the loss of agricultural land or reduction in productivity of the land’:

    ‘[…] for too long the conservation movement has been too passive in the face of loss. Rewilding is the fight back, a logical reaction to decades and decades of ‘traditional’ methods failing and modern farming failing to do enough to halt the declines.’

    Amen! What gives farmers the right to appropriate all that land in the first place? A major driving force (as well as perhaps the primary underlying cause) of the current extinction & wildlife depletion crisis is the sheer scale of what is described in biology circles as Human Appropriation of Net Primary Productivity (HANPP), basically the amount of energy being photosynthesised by terrestrial plants which gets absorbed into human systems of agriculture, forestry, etc. This is currently measured at around 30% globally, with ‘Croplands and pastures […] now among the largest ecosystems on the planet, rivaling forest cover in extent, and together occupy ≈35% of the ice-free land surface’ – see this link:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1937509/

    Judging by the maps they show the HANNP percentage must be somewhat higher for Britain than the global average. This would be borne out by the higher rate of wildlife loss reported by State of Nature in Britain compared to the rest of the world.

    Anyway, I wondered if you were aware of the somewhat different interpretation of rewilding espoused in the ‘anarcho-primitivist’ circles, especially in the US? Your recognition of a need for a conservation movement which fights back more actively against the losses caused by agriculture fits in with their philosophy quite well, even if only rhetorically. See:

    http://rewild.com/ and:
    http://www.urbanscout.org/rewilding-dispatched

    I find it strange that rewilding advocates in the UK has so far mainly ignored this aspect of rewilding which focuses directly on human societies and their place within the nonhuman world. Monbiot barely touches on it in ‘Feral’ before dismissing it on the grounds that hunter-gathering wouldn’t support the current human population. (Well, obviously, that’s the whole point: we’re meant to be high-end predator/scavengers with an appropriately small population, not kings and rulers demanding tribute and service from the entire ecosystem!)

    Finally, you might be interested to read a piece I wrote in response to Tim Bonner (CEO of the Countryside Alliance) and his recent broadside against all the ‘contradictory nonsense’ he has read about rewilding. We come to a lot of similar conclusions about the organisation, and I touch a little on the divisions between what could be termed Conservation or Landscape Rewilding as distinct from (though not by any means irrelevant to) Human Rewilding:

    http://ondisturbedground.wordpress.com/2016/12/08/tim-bonner-ignorant-unjust-and-bad-for-the-environment/

    Nice to discover this site!

    best,
    Ian

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