The Environmental Audit Committee are currently holding an inquiry into ‘The Future of the Natural Environment after the EU Referendum’. The webpage for this inquiry can be found here. The main focus of the inquiry is agri-environment schemes and how they might be structured once we leave the EU and when the Common Agricultural Policy ceases to apply. There is however, one intriguing area that the inquiry wish to consider:
What are the future risks and opportunities to innovative land practices, such as managed rewilding? What role can rewilding play in conservation and restoration of habitats and wildlife? What evidence is there to support the incentivising of such schemes in any new land management policies?
In setting up this inquiry, the Committee have requested relevant stakeholders and experts submit evidence to them on these questions. A huge range of organisations have submitted evidence and due to the beauty of our democracy you can view and download them all here. The submissions appear to cover the whole breadth of the conservation sector, from Butterfly Conservation and Buglife, to the Ancient Tree Forum, Wessex Water, National Farmers Union (NFU) and the Countryside Alliance.
Upon discovering this library of information, it soon occurred to me that it represented a perfect opportunity to access a wide range of views on rewilding, a topic I have written about before (here and here) and am really interested in. I feel that I am relatively well versed in the ‘pro’ rewilding arguments and I understand the positive vision it puts forth. I wanted to use this opportunity to explore rewilding through the eyes of those that are ‘anti’ rewilding. Who better to do this with than the Countryside Alliance, an organisation that have been relatively outspoken on social media against the idea of rewilding. Their full statement can be found here, I will not be quoting it in full here for obvious reasons, but want to use select parts to examine the ‘other side’ of the rewilding debate. This post is broken down into the same sections used in their submission, for reasons of clarity and ease of comparison.
Whether ‘rewilding’ involves the withdrawal of land management or a change in management such as the reintroduction of extinct flora and wild animals, or managed coastal and river flooding, any departure from existing land management practices should be assessed on a case by case basis.
Shock horror, I agree! Rewilding is not a suitable land management approach to apply to all situations in the UK.
Given that there is no general understanding of ‘rewilding’, a general policy would be deeply misguided and damaging to environmental, economic and social wellbeing of the countryside.
What is meant by ‘general understanding’? I think there is a very good understanding of the main principles of rewilding. I suspect the Countryside Alliance mean definition when they say understanding. They do have a point here, different people define rewilding in different ways. I have noticed a growing trend in the conservation sector to brand things as rewilding, which I think is further muddying the waters. I wonder if part of the reason why there are so many definitions or interpretations of rewilding is because, by its very nature, it is a broad concept. Rewilding is a bit like a continuum, or a spectrum; thus giving it a one-line definition is very difficult. Just because you cannot easily define something, this is not a strong enough reason to not support it. Citing it as a strong criticism of rewilding does not hold with me.
The remainder of the statement will be covered in greater detail in the following sections, so I will not dwell on it here for fear of repetition. I will say though, that it reads as a rather sensationalist and overly dramatic statement. You could be forgiven for thinking that rewilding would spell the end of the countryside after reading that pronouncement!
The Countryside Alliance works for everyone who loves the countryside and the rural way of life. Our aim is to protect and promote life in the countryside and to help it thrive.
I mean to play the ball and not the man, and generally dislike those that focus on criticising the individual or organisation instead of focusing on the points they make. However in this case, I feel it is important to make an exception. I feel that the statement above, when placed within the context of the document that it is included in, could be interpreted as part of the evidence being submitted. It could also be interpreted by the person reading the evidence, biasing or colouring their view of the subsequent points made. In this instance, I view the ball and man inseparable. This might just be a generic Countryside Alliance mission statement, the kind of thing all charities or organisations have, but then again it might not.
The claim of ‘working for everyone who loves the countryside’ is an extremely bold one and one I see little evidence of. Millions of people love the wildlife found in the British countryside, yet I do not see the Countryside Alliance joining forces with conservation charities to help save our declining wildlife. Countryside is a vague term, but ‘rural way of life’ is even vaguer and I wonder if it is so vague as to mean next to nothing. I am not an expert in the work of the Countryside Alliance, although I do follow the publicity they put out via Twitter quite closely, and it seems to me that when they say ‘life in the countryside’ they mean people, not wildlife. I would also suggest that they seem to focus on a certain group of people more than others; that being shooters and hunters. I am happy to be corrected on these assertions, if someone from the Countryside Alliance wants to share with me more on what they do and what their focus is (aside from the pathetically trivial case of trying to get Chris Packham sacked, which obviously occupies much of their time).
The Countryside Alliance welcomes this inquiry and the opportunity to submit evidence on the future of the natural environment after the EU referendum. The questions set out in the terms of reference for this inquiry are extremely broad and include many policy areas that are of interest to our members. At this stage we will limit our written evidence to the questions relating to ‘rewilding’.
I find it extremely intriguing that of all the issues covered by this inquiry, the Countryside Alliance decided to respond solely to the issue of rewilding. Whilst rewilding is obviously an important issue, one which I am very pleased to see the Government considering, a strong case could be put forward that of all the points raised by the inquiry, it is the least pressing. Of a random selection of other organisations’ evidence submissions that I skimmed over, all of them responded to all of the issues in one document. That the Countryside Alliance have only responded on rewilding alone could be interpreted in many ways. Could it be that they are overly concerned about it? Is it a high priority issue for them? What about farming and farming subsidies?
The concept of rewilding
There is no single definition of ‘rewilding’. It can refer to a complete withdrawal of land management practices, but generally it is used to describe a change in management practice involving the ‘proactive restoration’ of land, habitat and wildlife to its uncultivated or unmanaged state. The objective of ‘rewilding’ is equally difficult to define as there is uncertainty about what point in time a given environment was considered to be ‘wild’ and this will vary from area to another.
There can be no single definition of rewilding as it is a continuum, a gradient, a philosophy. It will mean different things to different people and can be used in different ways, depending on the context. I believe that rewilding has a few main components that are in common across all rewilding approaches: minimal intervention by humans, process led (ecological processes, like succession), limited use of targets, moving away from focusing on single species, landscape scale, reinstating lost ecological processes and lost species. In a recent Environmental Audit Committee inquiry into rewilding (which you can watch here), Professor Sue Hartley of the British Ecological Society dealt with this well, explaining that rewilding is a relatively new concept and discourse in ecology and hence could be expected to be lacking in clarity. I would disagree slightly with this, as many of the principles that rewilding puts forward have been known and talked about for many decades, however the point she makes is a good one.
The difficulty in pinning down a succinct definition of rewilding is a very real issue, and not just for those that are against it. I have spoken to many conservationists who work in the sector that struggle to support rewilding, because they are unsure of what it is they would be supporting. There is a tangible reluctance in large parts of the conservation sector to pledge support to rewilding, and a large part of this comes down to its multiple meanings. I feel the rewilding movement is further muddying the waters and complicating the issue by re-branding conservation approaches/projects that have been going on for a long time as rewilding. On the one hand you could say this is just semantics and language, but I think it goes deeper and further clarity is needed. Take the Great Fen Project as an example, it is one of the greatest ecological restoration projects in England and has been going on for over a decade. Yet I have seen it recently called a rewilding project. On the one hand I can see why, it is restoring a large wetland landscape that was lost, but on the other is it not a simple ecological restoration project? It is not bringing beavers back, nor leaving large areas to do as they wish, so why is it rewilding? Perhaps this is just me being pedantic, but clearly others feel there is an issue on this point.
Rewilding Britain, a relatively new environmental charity set up to promote the rewilding cause, says this on their website:
If someone is working to restore habitats, bring back living systems and repair ecological damage, then that’s rewilding.
Surely this includes pretty much all conservation?! I am not highlighting this to be facetious or overly critical of rewilding, I am a big supporter of rewilding, however I want clarity in the way it is being communicated. I called for this in my previous rewilding article because I could see the confusion it was causing, and I am not entirely sure a huge amount of progress has been made on this since. Obviously there is a requirement on individuals/organisations who have a connection to rewilding to make their own investigations and learn about it, however those leading the movement and advocating it also need to take some responsibility for educating people about it.
Returning to the Countryside Alliance paragraph above, the final sentence betrays a slight misunderstanding on their part. Rewilding is not about looking backwards in time, it is about looking forwards. Rewilding seeks to re-vision landscapes, reinstating ecological processes to enable land to morph, change and evolve. It is not seeking to recreate a lost environment or set itself objectives. It is seeking to free the land, to an extent, from human control and human objectives.
Despite what the name suggests, ‘rewilding’ often involves a change, or even intensification, of land management practices rather than a natural transformation.
I am confused by the claim that rewilding can result in an intensification of land management practices. I am struggling to think of where they could have got this idea from. I’d welcome others enlightening me on this as it does not seem clear at all what is meant by that statement.
‘Rewilding’ has been used to describe the reintroduction of extinct flora and wild animals, afforestation on moorlands, managed coastal and river flooding, and the deintensification of farming methods. These land management practices can be successful but they can also be detrimental and have unintended consequences and as such ‘rewilding’ cannot be considered as a single, coherent and consistent approach to land management.
I’ve already dealt with the issue of what rewilding is, and the gradient or cohort of elements that it includes. The first part of this paragraph makes sense, however the conclusion the Countryside Alliance reach does not follow. It is an extremely weak way of reasoning to say that just because something has flaws it should not be used. The answer to that is, make it better, learn from the flaws! To me as well, reading between the lines, there seems to be a bit of the anti-rewilding bias creeping into this, and that it is not the empirical unintended consequences that they are opposed to, but the consequences that compete with their own interests as an organisation. Rewilding, as a restorative ecological approach, can be considered to have a coherent ideology, a guiding set of principles and key components that can be considered. Yes, there is a need for further clarity, but I think there is sufficient knowledge and case studies out there to show that rewilding should be considered as a new ideological paradigm with which to view areas of the UK, particularly the uplands. The elements that it pushes should be ones we move towards and seek to include in our thinking, in order to try and tackle the tide of biodiversity loss we are facing.
‘Rewilding’ therefore cannot be considered as ‘conservation’ in the traditional sense of conserving the environment and is often pursued as an ideological, rather than practical, response to the challenges of managing the natural environment.
This is an intriguing line of text! I agree that rewilding is something different to traditional conservation, but I see this as a good thing. Traditional conservation has its place, it has proven that it can save species like the Otter, Red Kite, Large Blue and Bittern. Rewilders (can I call them that?!) are not seeking to replace traditional conservation methods with rewilding, rather they are seeking to try rewilding in areas where traditional conservation is failing. Despite the successes of the conservation sector in the UK, the majority of wildlife continues to decline and I believe a new vision is needed. Rewilding should be a part of this vision, for the reasons outlined above. Rewilding is, due to its relative infancy, heavily rooted in ideology, but it is an ideology that is progressive and uplifting, restorative and powerful. Rewilding is practical, it has key principles that can be applied to the land and sea and indeed the case studies put forward on the Rewilding Britain website show it in action, so the Countryside Alliance are wrong here. Rewilding has arisen precisely because of the mounting challenges faced by conservationists trying to stem the tide of biodiversity loss.
There is no clear understanding of public attitudes towards ‘rewilding’ nor is there proper understanding about this concept in public consciousness. Given that the British countryside is admired at home and around the world because of the way it is currently managed, there would be concern about any changes that impacted on the existing landscape, habitats and wildlife.
This is a ridiculous paragraph! There are many things that the public don’t have an understanding of or have an ‘attitude’ on, yet we do them because we know them to be needed or right. What is the public attitude on heart transplants? Or farming subsidies? A recent survey by the Countryside Alliance found that the public do not care about grouse shooting at all, does this mean we can do away with it then? One thing I know from the public events I have attended during my career in conservation is that people love the outdoors and wildlife, and love talking about it. Let’s talk to people about rewilding, inspire them with its vision and tell them how we are going to use it to save the wildlife they hold dear. I also suspect that the public (whatever that vague phrase means – a pattern is emerging in this document; lots of vagueness!) know more about rewilding than the Countryside Alliance think. Many people I have spoken to at public events are surprisingly perceptive about conservation, species and restoration.
I’d be interested to see their evidence for asserting that one of the reasons people admire the British countryside (another vague and loaded term – what is meant by ‘countryside’? which part of it?) is for its management. I am guessing (because it is not referenced, like the whole of the submission unfortunately) that by ‘managed’ they mean ‘farmed’, and by ‘countryside’ they mean the farmed bits; lush green cattle pastures, neat hedgerows, bare uplands. What about the kind of habitats rewilding seeks to create? Native woodland, wetlands, meandering rivers, meadows – I imagine people also love these, maybe more so than our agricultural and upland deserts. I really don’t think rewilding poses any threat to tourism or outdoor pursuits, in fact I would suggest the opposite be true. I think it has the potential to give people a more enjoyable, interesting and wildlife-filled experience.
Rather than assess ‘rewilding’ as a concept, individual ‘rewilding’ land management practices should be assessed on their own merit including their environmental, economic, and social impact. This should include consideration of existing land management practices, particularly farming and shooting.
I’ve already said I agree with the Countryside Alliance here, that rewilding projects should be assessed on a case by case basis. I find it interesting that they reveal their true motivations here; farming and shooting. I thought they worked for ‘everyone who loves the countryside and the rural way of life’? What about those rural people that support rewilding? Is it ok as long as you farm/shoot?
The landscape of the British countryside and the habitats and wildlife sustained by it, are the result of existing land management practices which have developed over many centuries. The balance that this existing management has created could be threatened by a withdrawal or change of management practices if ‘rewilding’ was promoted by the Government.
The majority of wildlife found in the British countryside is currently not being sustained; 56% of UK species are in decline. Existing land management has therefore not created ‘balance’ as they assert. Withdrawing management on sensitive sites, like limestone grassland for example, would not be a wise thing to do, but rewilding is not suggesting this. Withdrawing management pressures such as intensive hedgerow cutting, or overgrazing uplands with sheep could restore some balance in the favour of the wildlife we seek for these areas to sustain.
The promotion of ‘rewilding’ land management practices such as the reintroduction of extinct flora and wild animals could lead to a reduction in biodiversity and impact upon non-target species. For example, lynx and wolves are just as likely to prey on ground nesting birds and livestock, as they are on wild deer. This was demonstrated in July this year when a lynx escaped from Dartmoor Zoo, killing four lambs belonging to a local farmer, before being recaptured. Impacts on biodiversity have been shown in areas where the population of wild boar has increased as ground shrubs have been destroyed and serious damage caused to sapling trees, creating monocultures where only the wild boar are thriving.
Wolves eating ground-nesting birds?! A study of wolf diet in Poland found that ‘other food categories as hares, voles and insectivores played a negligible part in the wolf diet’ and birds are not mentioned once in the paper. Another study in Greece found ‘unknown’ birds made up 3.6% of the diet of the wolves examined. The main part of a wolves diet was found to be larger herbivores, like deer and livestock. Claiming that wolves are ‘just as likely’ to prey on ground-nesting birds is ludicrous. Wolves will post a threat to livestock, nobody can deny this and it is something to be borne in mind if a reintroduction is considered.
Studies into lynx diet indicates the same, that hare and deer make up the majority of its diet (see here and here). Again, there is evidence to show that they do predate on livestock, such as sheep, and as above, this should be taken into consideration if a reintroduction is to take place. There is no indication that lynx eat vast numbers of ground-nesting birds. I wonder where the Countryside Alliance got this from (again, frustrating lack of references in their submission); perhaps they simply copied and pasted from their grouse shooting publicity material?! It is also grossly unfair and unscientific to use the example of the Dartmoor Zoo lynx to evidence their diet. This was a domesticated animal, not a wild one and a comparison with wild lynx is unfair.
The lack of referencing and clarity in the sentence on wild boar is frustrating. ‘Impacts on biodiversity’ – what impacts? Are they positive or negative? ‘Areas where the population’ – where do they mean? Forest of Dean? Europe? Studies (here and here) show that wild boar do indeed have significant impacts on the environment they are found in. As with all species, their impacts can be positive and negative and their interactions with the wider ecosystem within which they are found is complex. The Countryside Alliance have picked out one negative impact and chosen to use that as the single basis of their point that wild boar can be bad, which is not a great way of analysing what is a complex issue. It is certainly not fair to blame wild boars for the monoculture condition of many of our woodlands and to say that ‘only wild boar thrive’ in such environments ignores the role they play within the ecosystem. Our woodlands are suffering due to a whole host of reasons: fragmentation, lack of management/disturbance, deer browsing pressure – to name a few.
The conservation work of many farms and shooting estates needs to be considered carefully within this debate as ‘rewilding’ land management practices are likely to be detrimental to this work. There is a large amount of evidence that shows where land is managed for the benefit of game, other species naturally flourish and many shoots undertake conservation work for its own sake.
As I have already explained, rewilding need not exist in conflict with existing conservation work that is being carried out and neither are the two mutually exclusive. Rewilding should be viewed as having the potential to be complimentary to such existing conservation work, whoever carries it out. I am not disputing that there is a ‘large amount of evidence’ supporting the conservation benefits of game management, however it would be nice to know where I can find this body of evidence so I can investigate further (again the lack of referencing harms the point being made).
The withdrawal of management would lead to the transformation of habitats with possible reduction in biodiversity.
I agree with this (shock horror!). In my previous article on rewilding I gave the example of the marsh fritillary butterfly on Dartmoor to illustrate this point. Rewilding the areas of wet grassland that this species favours would result in it being lost, just as rewilding the bracken slopes where other similarly rare fritillary species are found would result in them becoming extinct on Dartmoor. I also pointed out in my previous article that the rewilding movement has suffered from unclear communication. In the rhapsodic rhetoric and clamour to put forward a new vision for the future, consideration for species that depend on early successional habitats (often maintained by conservationists and farmers) seems to have been lost. But as I have explained multiple times already in this article, rewilding proponents are not really (some are, but they are wrong) proposing to rewild areas of high biodiversity value.
The countryside is a living and working environment and ‘rewilding’ land management practices must take account of the economic activity that takes place in the countryside.
This is such a vague and unclarified statement as to be almost completely pointless. Rewilding is not sufficiently radically different to existing land management practises to drastically alter the economic fabric of our ‘living and working’ countryside.
‘Rewilding’ land management practices that involve the reintroduction of extinct flora and wild animals could be harmful to the livelihoods of farmers, shooting estates and rural businesses. The introduction of lynx and wolves creates the possibility for increased risk for predation of livestock but there are also less obvious consequences of ‘rewilding’ such as river dams created by beavers flooding farm land and damaging crops.
I’d love to hear about the examples of extinct flora that could be harmful to the livelihoods of farmers, perhaps someone from the Countryside Alliance could enlighten me? I have not come across anyone bemoaning the return of a once native plant. Perhaps they could tell me which species on this list are so dangerous. The major threat from the botanical world is not from native species but from invasive non-native plant species. As detailed above, lynx and wolf do predate livestock, although they normally make up a minority of their diet. Wolves and lynx are spreading throughout Europe and farmers there are learning to live with them, albeit with tensions still present and issues still to be resolved. It is not impossible, with compensation schemes and other methods helping to make living alongside one another easier. If Europeans can manage it why can’t we? Humans are one of the most adaptable species and surely we can learn to make a living alongside predators, which are an entirely natural part of the ecosystem. The point about beavers is yet another example of the Countryside Alliance betraying their ecological illiteracy, just as they have done numerous times in their evidence submission. Beaver dams do flood land, but they also trap sediment and slow the flow of water, whilst also increasing the water storage capacity of the land, thus reducing flooding downstream of the dam. There are numerous projects going on around the country seeking to reconnect rivers with their catchment, slowing the flow and increasing water storage on the floodplain. Take a look at the Twitter account of Mike Blackmore who works for the Wild Trout Trust and you will see numerous examples of this kind of work. You’ll notice something interesting about many of the photos on his timeline, they feature man-made log dams being inserted into river tributaries. These log dams slow down the flow of streams and rivers, exactly as a beaver’s dam would! Do the Countryside Alliance also object to these projects?
In many cases the economic advantages of ‘rewilding’ do not outweigh the potential loss of income to existing businesses. Lynx and wolves tend to shun contact with humans so it is unlikely that their reintroduction would be a viable means of boosting rural tourism and a significant benefit to local communities without significant government subsidy.
Has there been an economic study of rewilding? I wasn’t aware of one but I could easily have missed it. Again, I have no idea where the Countryside Alliance got this from as they have not referenced their statements! Rewilding Britain mention some economic benefits on their website, such as “in Scotland, the osprey alone is estimated to bring in £3.5 million a year” and “the brown bear is a flagship species used to market Spain’s Somiedo National Park, visitors travelling to Finland to see brown bear and wolverine were linked to an economic boost of €4-5 million in 2012.” I would say that it is impossible, at this stage, to make the claim the Countryside Alliance do; that rewilding would result in a net financial loss. What we can say is that wildlife-based tourism is proven to bring in a lot of money to areas where it is practised (see the white-tailed eagle and Mull) and it can be a vital lifeline to remote communities. We can also say that farming, shooting and other rural land uses create economic activity and are important.
The number of jobs recreated by ‘rewilding’ land management practices and the trickle-down economic benefits are often far less than the traditional land management of farming and shooting.
Again, I am not sure the information is available to make these bold claims. Have the Countryside Alliance interrogated the job figures of rewilding projects in the UK? What about the trickle-down economic benefits of all the economic activity generated by all the people that visit the Cairngorms each year to see its wild Caledonian forests for example?
In many cases, ‘rewilding’ land management practices result in the loss of agricultural land or reduction in productivity of the land. If the UK wants to become more self sufficient in food production as part of measures to improve food security then this must be taken into consideration.
It is true to say that at the heart of the rewilding ideology is a desire to see more land completely given back to nature and farming ceased. I believe that this stems from the huge losses that have taken place (and are still continuing) and a desire to see the conservation movement become more forceful in the way it operates. You could argue that 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.
Much of the focus of the rewilding movement in the UK has been on the uplands. The primary agricultural land-use in the uplands is livestock (mainly sheep) farming. The majority of these farms are operating at a loss and are propped up by farming subsidies. The land is tough to make a living from and already extremely low in terms of productivity. How long can we go on eking an agricultural living from these vast pieces of land? How long can we go on subsidising this uneconomic activity? Are there better ways to use this unproductive land? Can this meat be produced elsewhere, or in a different way? These (and there are much more) are all things to think about when considering rewilding our uplands.
It is essential that the possible introduction of ‘rewilding’ land management practices, are subject to proper consultation to ensure that the impacts, particularly on the local community, are considered. ‘Rewilding’ must not be imposed on local communities against their wishes and as well as consultation it is also essential that there is consent from local people.
I agree with all of this, however I feel it is important to delve a little deeper behind these statements. Consulting the local community and local landowners will of course be vital to any potential future rewilding in the UK, or indeed around the world. Consultation also has to be done properly and not simply as a ‘tick-box’ exercise. This means having face-to-face dialogues with those involved and taking on board their concerns and adapting wherever possible. However, it should be borne in mind that it is impossible to please everyone and sometimes, particularly in the case of conservation and land management, doing the right thing (depending on your definition!) means upsetting some people. A case study of this precise issue is currently being played out in the Lake District in the case of the National Trust and Thorneythwaite Farm. This is a complex case and I would urge you to read into it to find out more, but I feel it illustrates the difficulty faced by a conservation charity that is seeking to potentially change the land use in a part of our uplands.
Existing land management practices such as farming and shooting are vitally important for the social and economic life of many rural communities; this importance increases in the most remote areas. A move towards ‘rewilding’ land management practices would not only affect the landscape, habitats and wildlife but also local communities who depend on existing land management practices for jobs and economic support.
Again, I agree with this, it is clear that rural and remote communities are currently sustained by the livelihoods that the land offers them. However, land-use is rarely static and traditions and communities change through time. There has almost certainly been a decline in the number of people working on the land in recent decades, even centuries, with many people who now live in rural areas commuting into towns and cities, or working from home in office-based jobs. Wildlife and eco-tourism has proven that it can make land valuable in a different way, bringing income into areas through tourism. I am not claiming that tourism will be the silver bullet to revitalise rural communities, but it clearly can play a large part. Painting rewilding as the death of rural communities is unfair and hysterical.
We reach the end! To those that have made it through what is probably my longest ever article, I salute you. I hope that you, as I have, have found this an informative and stimulating read. Writing it has certainly encouraged me to delve deeper into the world of rewilding and has helped me to consider conservation more too. I am always seeking to challenge my own beliefs, and it was therefore a thoroughly worthwhile exercise examining the ‘anti’ side put forward by the Countryside Alliance. I would urge others to do this, and indeed I shall continue to seek out articles and information that challenges me. To sum up what I have taken from this process: