I first wrote about rewilding in February 2014, almost two years ago, contributing an article as a guest writer for Mark Avery’s brilliant blog. There have been many developments in the field of rewilding since I wrote my inaugural article, and my views have become more refined since then. I therefore feel compelled to provide an update, with the dual aim of updating and clarifying my views on this fashionable conservation topic, but also highlighting some of the issues and problems present in the current public discourse surrounding rewilding.
Reading through my original article was an interesting experience, revisiting my self of two years ago, seeing what has changed and what I still believe. It is something that I would recommend to all writers, as it helps you to put your views into context and to understand that even though you believe something strongly now, you might not in the future. I won’t go through every detail of my previous article, but there are a few points that I have to address, least of all because they were highlighted in the comments section by those that read it.
Rewilding the uplands
One of the points I made which attracted a degree of criticism was this:
Why is it that our national parks and large upland areas support so little wildlife?
The criticism levelled at me for this was completely justified and I was clumsy in the way I worded this sentence. Our national parks do not support ‘little’ wildlife (as George Monbiot is so fond of proclaiming), this is clearly not true and an extremely unfair allegation to make. I knew this two years ago, and I certainly know it now, having recently taken up a new job that means I work on Exmoor and Dartmoor. Both of these national parks hold nationally important populations of species that elsewhere around the country are struggling, but are doing well within the parks, such as cuckoo and high brown fritillary. The point that I was trying to make was that the highest upland parts of our national parks do seem, to me at least, to be bereft of wildlife. It was something that I did not fully grasp when I wrote this original statement, hence the clumsy nature of it. A combination of ecological awakening from reading George Monbiot’s Feral and spending more time of late in our uplands has helped me to understand things more. I still believe this point and feel more strongly than ever that it is true.
Over the past 6 months I have spent quite a bit of my time driving across the whole breadth of Dartmoor, visiting farms and nature reserves. I cannot profess to know Dartmoor well, and have by no means explored the whole of the national park, however I do feel like I have been exposed to enough of it to make a reasonably informed judgement as to its natural character. Dartmoor perfectly illustrates the point I and many others make; that the high upland areas of our national parks are relatively poor in terms of ecological diversity. This is detailed well in a recent article by Adrian Colston, former National Trust Ranger for Dartmoor. As you make your way onto the moor, winding your way up through steep-sided valleys cloaked in oak woodland and bursting through onto a barren, bare upland plateau, you are taken through an ecological journey. The valley bottoms are farmed, but wildlife persists in many areas, particularly in patches of wet grassland and wet woodland; species such as marsh fritillary, bog hoverfly and willow tit are all found in these areas. The valley sides are carpeted in rich oak woodland, with an understory of hazel, beneath which woodland flowers bloom. Interspersed within this woodland matrix are open glades full of heather and cow-wheat, as well as bracken, where fritillaries flutter, searching for violets. This brilliant biodiversity is short-lived once you climb onto the upland areas above the valleys, here you enter a bare, open landscape. This is a treeless place, where cropped heather and grass dominate, with gorse similarly stunted in its growth. Isolated hawthorn bushes cling on, looking out of place in this frozen moorland zone. The sad fact about Dartmoor is that it’s majority is given over to this bare moorland, where trees are banished and grazing animals dominate. The wildlife is relegated to the valleys, pushed to the edges of this vast landscape.
This is precisely the kind of species-poor landscape that a rewilding approach could help to restore. Imagine what could happen if a piece of this bare upland plateau was returned to nature? Removing the grazing animals (perhaps not entirely, but at least to a density that mimics natural grazing patterns) would free the hills from the stranglehold we hold them in. Would it not be fascinating to see what happens? Would it not go some way to repairing the broken ecosystem that we have created? It would also offer us the chance to properly (i.e. scientifically) assess how a rewilding approach would work. Species changes could be monitored annually, it would be a tremendously valuable experiment in land management. Would we see the riches of the valleys creeping back onto the moor? Or would we see generalist species dominate? Would it turn into a landscape choked by scrub as some have alleged? Surely we should at least try.
Not a silver bullet
I still stand by my point that rewilding is not the silver bullet to save our declining wildlife populations. It is not an appropriate management technique for many of our most precious habitats and species, such as butterflies and meadows. However, my views have developed and become more refined and sophisticated over the past two years, thanks in large part to reading the seminal Feral, written by George Monbiot. This book helped me to understand in greater depth the ideology of rewilding and lead me to delve deeper into some of its practical applications and current examples from the UK and around the world. There are elements of the rewilding ideology that I can see being of use to lowland nature reserves and habitats. One of these is that of restoring keystone species that can help in the ecological restoration that we all seek to work towards. Species like beaver and lynx could help us in restoring our wetlands and woodlands, something which the lowlands desperately need more of. This is not as new or crazy idea as you might think, the Kent Wildlife Trust have had beavers on one of their wet woodland nature reserves since 2001!
Stop criticising conservation charities
You’ll have noticed that I have mentioned George Monbiot several times already in this article. That is not surprising, as since publishing his book Feral in 2014, he has become one of the main public figures championing this movement. In my original article I took issue with him accusing the conservation movement of lacking ambition and being afraid of nature. Since then he has repeated this mantra and gone further, denouncing conservation charities for being complicit in practices that he sees as holding back ecological succession and destroying the upland landscape. At a recent public event on rewilding (video here) he claimed that there is a lack of vision from our conservation charities. In a recent question and answer session on Facebook he claimed that aspects of butterfly conservation in the UK are “utterly bonkers” and said that conservation of the small pearl-bordered fritillary was based on nothing more than a whimsical notion. He has, at times, been extremely strong, bordering on rude, in the way he has put these points across, which I feel shows disrespect and a serious misunderstanding of the work that conservation charities do. I believe that this drives to the heart of one of my biggest issues with the way the current rewilding movement is being led.
Conservation charities, such as the Wildlife Trusts, Butterfly Conservation and the RSPB, do a phenomenal amount of work in saving species and protecting valuable areas of habitat that are rich in wildlife. Their work covers a broad range of things: conserving wildlife on their nature reserves, working with partners on their land, advising farmers on how to look after the wildlife on their land, engaging with communities, promoting urban wildlife and conservation in our parks and gardens and educating children and inspiring young people. To so aggressively criticise these organisations for their perceived lack of ambition or engagement with the idea of rewilding is a fatal flaw in the current rewilding rhetoric. It is not only George Monbiot who has been so critical; Chris Packham has also rounded on our conservation charities for their lack of action on important conservation issues, such as bird of prey persecution. I understand where these attacks stem from, a feeling of frustration that not enough is being done in the face of such alarming wildlife declines. Lambasting our conservation charities will not solve this problem, it will only make things worse. George Monbiot continues to publicly lament the reticence that conservation charities show towards the idea of rewilding, but surely this is to be expected when he so publicly and unfairly criticises them? Building positive relationships with key partners is one of the keys to the future success of rewilding, and this current approach will not help towards this.
I also still stand by the definition that I gave rewilding in my original article:
To me, rewilding means ‘to create more wild space for wildlife’. It should not mean ‘to leave an area of land to its own devices’.
I believe that rewilding is restoration, giving land back to nature, bringing back wildlife. In one sense I am not sure if it matters how this is done, if it delivers gains for wildlife then why does it matter how these gains occur? However I am also acutely aware of the need for new approaches to conservation, particularly in the face of continued wildlife declines and reduced funding for conservation charities. In recent decades there has been a marked shift towards bigger and more joined-up thinking (often termed ‘landscape scale conservation’), creating ‘Living Landscapes’ as the Wildlife Trust’s call them. This is now moving towards rewilding, and the two sit well together.
What I think many conservationists are less convinced about is which elements of rewilding will work and what will the results be. This is precisely why there is a need for a large-scale rewilding experiment, along the lines of the one I detail above. Would reintroducing lynx really reduce deer populations in such a way as to help restore some of our woodlands? Would wild boar help us to manage many of our valuable early successional open habitats, like bracken slopes? Would wolves solve the red deer problem in the Scottish Highlands? What will happen to species that favour our open upland habitats? The outcomes need to more clearly defined, and the mechanisms explored in greater detail. It is not fear that holds people back from engaging with rewilding, more like caution and a wariness of abandoning conservation techniques that have worked for many years and delivered on saving some of our most special species, like the bittern, otter and high brown fritillary.
Farmers are not evil and subsidies can work
Thinking on these issues a little more, and witnessing how the rewilding movement has developed over the past two years, I think one of the things needed from it is better communication. A more positive approach towards communicating with the conservation sector, that will bring more partners onside and move towards on the ground rewilding being practised. Another area where a new communication approach is needed, from not only the rewilding movement but the whole conservation sector as a whole, is with the farming community. Just as much of the rewilding rhetoric has appeared to be anti the current conservation movement, it has also been strongly pitched against farmers. For rewilding and conservation to make real landscape-scale gains for wildlife, this has to change and a more unifying message adopted.
Examples of this divisive and unfair criticism of farmers are easy to find, with one name cropping up again and again; George Monbiot! Take a look at his website and it’ll not take you long to find him calling farmers rich benefits claimants, portraying them as rich oligarchs and enemies of wildlife. He often makes these claims when talking about rewilding, which I think is a potential fatal flaw in the way rewilding presents itself. This is only something that I have become aware of in the past six months, as I have taken up a new job in the conservation sector that has brought me closer to farmers in some of our upland areas (those that he attacks the most), on areas such as Dartmoor. I have to be clear here, I agree that farming sheep in the uplands causes huge ecological damage to these places and we have to look at ways to change this. However it is wrong, unfair and rude to claim that farmers in these areas are wealthy and enemies of wildlife. Such a sweeping generalisation is not helpful, particularly one so obviously false. Farmers in the uplands work in some of the more unproductive and hostile environments that we have in this country, they are not rich, they are struggling in many instances. The majority of them (or at least the majority I have met and spoken to) care about wildlife, they love these special landscapes, having grown up exploring the valleys and uplands. The way you communicate with someone is important, it dictates how they will respond, it influences whether or not they will listen to you and whether or not they will want to work with you. For something as ambitious as rewilding this is critical, having landowners on side is vital, ostracising them is counter-productive.
Communication is not the only element that needs to change from the rewilding movement with reference to farmers. Some of the ecological claims made by the movement need clarifying and detailing. George Monbiot (that name again – I really need to find some more prominent rewilders) recently claimed that the predicted end of farm subsidies will lead to a wildlife revival across large areas of the uplands that are currently farmed. Again, this is a strong generalisation to make and one which drastically over-simplifies the situation. Take the marsh fritillary butterfly on Dartmoor for example, this is a species that is found predominantly on private farmland, inhabiting species-rich wet grassland in the bottoms of river valleys. The fortunes of this rare and declining species have been turned around on Dartmoor by the work of Butterfly Conservation on its Two Moors Threatened Butterfly Project, with one of the primary tools used being the governments Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) environmental subsidy scheme. As I’ve previously highlighted, funding for conservation has always been lacking and it is diminishing more everyday, especially funds that can be used to pay for conservation works on private farmland. There are many rare species of wildlife that are found on farms, the marsh fritillary being one, and they need help, but who is going to pay for this? It costs money to fence a neglected field where marsh fritillaries fly so that their habitat can be appropriately grazed, to stop it becoming too rank and the species becoming extinct. Can we expect the farmer to pay for this fencing, when it will deliver him not economic benefit? This is where HLS comes in, it fulfils a very real need by providing the farmer with funds to conserve species on their land. If these payments end, what happens then? What will happen to the marsh fritillary on Dartmoor?
I challenged George Monbiot via Twitter on his assertion and he said this:
“In aggregate, I see Pillar 2 (HLS) as doing more harm than good. If it didn’t exist, many bare upland landscapes would recover.“
I agree with him that there are real problems with the subsidy payment system, and they need to deliver more for wildlife. The single farm payment needs to be changed to ensure it delivers more environmental benefits, and I am aware that HLS is not perfect either. The example I gave above of how it has been used to fund works to save the marsh fritillary is one of best practice; not all situations work out like this. I would welcome reform, but I’m not sure that I would welcome and end to these subsidies, because I think it could be disastrous for some species. However, the fact that this example exists, in an upland national park, shows that the above claim is not true, the truth is more nuanced than this. Rewilding needs more clarity on complex issues like this, farm subsidy reform (or them simply ending as George Monbiot welcomes) will deliver benefits for some species and habitats, but could also harm others. Rewilding has to be honest and open about this fact, it must not seek to hide it beneath its tried and tested anti-farmer rhetoric.
One of the most insightful and challenging points raised at the public debate on rewilding was by Colin Tudge, a biologist and writer who has focused a great deal on agriculture. He called for an agrarian renaissance, for us to return to farmings roots, which he feels have been lost. He phrased this by advocating a return to ‘first principles’, reverting back to using long abandoned practices of caring for the ecology of farmland. This means looking after a farmer’s most important asset; soil, unfortunately an asset in Britain which is washing away, quite literally, onto roads and into rivers. Our soils are a precious resource, having built-up over hundreds of years, containing the nutrients required to grow our food and keep us healthy, yet they need care in order to remain in the life-giving state that we need them to be in. There is too much reliance on artificial fertilisers, meaning that farmers can offset the loss of their soils by making what little soil they have left more fertile. In the long-run this is an unsustainable practice and ignores the role played by cover crops, which protect soils from erosion and also fix nitrogen back into the ground, offering a natural source of fertilisation. It’s not just our soils that are neglected by modern agricultural practices; hedgerows have been ripped out over centuries of intensification and expansion, fields have grown in size, farms become bigger, machinery become more powerful and trades turned into industries. The patchwork quilt of small-scale farms has gone from much of our countryside, replaced by a homogeneous swathe of bleak fields, interspersed with tiny oases of life, often in the form of woodland, hedge or rough grassland.
I won’t dwell on this point too much, for the main reason that I feel rather out of my depth when it comes to writing about farming. It is not something I feel very knowledgeable about and it is one of my aims to try and become more informed. Whilst the ‘first principles’ that Colin Tudge advocates are, at their core, inherently simple and easy to understand, the actual practice of putting them into action on a large scale is something I am not familiar with. It is something perhaps all of us should be mindful of when we criticise farmers or expect more from them; farming is a hard profession with a lot of variables that have to be considered. To that end, I am going to try to read more about the Campaign for Real Farming and the fabulous work they do in advocating agroecology and agroforestry, I want to learn from Village Farm UK and the wonderful work they are doing to farm with nature in Devon, and I’ll try to read as many of the comprehensive blogs written by Small Farm Future, who champions the idea of a small farm agragrian renaissance.
Rewilding needs to turn its gaze to our agricultural lowlands. Approximately 70% of all land in the UK is farmland, the majority of which is in the lowlands. It is right for rewilding to focus much of its attention on the uplands, where the land is of low agricultural value and would be of greater value to society were it used for something else. Yet to save many of our declining species our vision has to be bolder, we have to look at how lowland areas can become wilder and richer. I have a feeling that the principles being put forward by those advocating an agrarian renaissance have much in common with those wishing for a rewilding one.
Addressing some of the further comments made on my first article
For now, we have reached the end, if you are still reading then thank you, I am aware that there is a lot to contemplate in this article. I have no doubt that I’ll return to rewilding in the future, it is a topic that has grown into a defined movement and it is here to stay. I feel as though the ideology behind it is sound, but its application is far from clear. It is time for the rewilding debate to go deeper, with less romanticisim and more pragmatic discussions on how it can be put into practice and what the results will be. It is also time for the movement to move beyond criticising the mistakes of the past and focusing on the hope for the future.