Originally published as a guest blog on Mark Avery’s website here.
A few months ago the Linnean Society held a public debate entitled: The British conservation model: unambitious, irrational and afraid of nature? It was pitched as a debate between conservationists and rewilders, aimed at exploring the concept of rewilding and how we might apply this in Britain. Unfortunately I was unable to attend, however the event was filmed and proved to be an extremely worthwhile watch (the link to the video can be found at the end of this post).
George Monbiot was the first to speak and he did so very well, with great enthusiasm and eloquence, putting forth his views as to why conservation should embrace the rewilding model. I already knew of George’s stance on the issue, having read his article on rewilding on the Guardian website (linked at the end of this post); however it was interesting to hear him expand on his, at times, controversial views. I agree with him that, on occasion, the conservation sector is guilty of circular reasoning when it comes to justifying the target species that it chooses to conserve. I do believe that conservation needs to move more towards a stronger evidence-based approach. However, this is already happening; you only have to look at the work of Butterfly Conservation to see how charities are using scientific evidence to support their management work. I also do not think it is as bad as he claims; many species that are the focus of conservation efforts are justifiable due to their rarity and often act as umbrella species, whereby conserving them improves the habitat for many other species.
Much of George Monbiot’s speech focused on uplands, which is clearly where he feels rewilding is needed most. I fully agree with this and I have found it enlightening to hear somebody reveal the mismanagement of these vast areas and put into words something that I have been pondering for a while. I enjoy hill walking in Britain and have always found it strange that in these beautiful vast landscapes I often see very little wildlife. The places where I see the most wildlife are often relatively small, dedicated nature reserves, owned and managed by charities, such as the RSPB or Wildlife Trust’s. Why is it that our national parks and large upland areas support so little wildlife? I think a large part of it is due to overgrazing that George so passionately disagrees with. In this sense, I think rewilding could work; it would seem to me to be a good idea to return some of our upland areas to nature, to allow scrub to recolonise and areas to change naturally.
Rewilding would not work in many of our habitats as it is an ideology that requires natural systems and large areas of land, which we do not have anymore. Take our lowland broadleaved woodlands for example; many of these are small and isolated fragments that if left to rewild would become dark overshaded places, and would consequently lose many of the species that live there. Species such as the Silver-washed fritillary butterfly, which require woodlands that are light and have wide open rides and glades for them to feed and breed in. These represent many of our rare woodland species, which are often not found in the closed canopy areas but in the parts of the woodland where there are no trees. These woodlands are so damaged and altered by human actions that they would not respond well to a return to a more ‘natural’ state.
George Monbiot also feels that the conservation movement in this country is still trapped in the ideological thinking that we have to have dominion over nature. It is afraid, he says, to let things go, to let nature take over. I disagree with this and I am not really sure of the point that he is making. The natural environment as we know it in this country is not truly natural anymore, and it hasn’t been so for a long long time. Humans have had such a pervasive impact on the landscape that all of our habitats and species have been directed by these human pressures. We do not know how wildlife coped before we existed and began our ‘dominion’ over it, so how can we now expect to relinquish this or restore something that we know nothing of and that our wildlife knows nothing of? These natural rules do not apply in their purest ideological form as that system has been broken and changed, in some cases beyond repair.
This leads me nicely onto the issues raised by Miles King, the second person to speak. He raised the apt point that we are coming to the end of an age, the age of the semi-natural. This age appears to be ending and we are entering a time where natural processes are ebbing away. Are we now at a crossroads where we have to decide whether or not to choose nature? As I stated in the above paragraph, our existing habitats have been under the spell of humans for a very long time. Can they now be considered natural? Do they function according to the laws nature put in place to govern them? Or have these laws been replaced by human processes? These are important questions to explore if we are to come to an answer as to how we should conserve our wildlife.
One thing that I imagine all the other speakers at the debate, as well as myself, can agree with is when Miles King states that nature is slowly ebbing away. We are steadily eroding our natural heritage, as shown so starkly in the State of Nature report and in my first article for A Focus On Nature. In the face of such loss, rewilding is most welcome and would surely do more good than harm. Our isolated habitats and beleaguered species need as much space to thrive, so as to halt the declines that seem to be relentlessly marching on. As an optimist I can see these things taking place already, take the Great Fen project managed by the BCN Wildlife Trust in Cambridgeshire. The project is restoring 3,700 hectares of East Anglian fen, giving it back to nature and creating a new wilderness area. Is this not rewilding in action? I would argue it is and we need more of it.
Third on the agenda was Clive Hambler, who, like George Monbiot before him, seemed to wish to criticise the current conservation sector for focusing on the wrong species and mismanaging habitats. I have answered these criticisms above and explained why I do not necessarily accept or agree with them. Clive also suggests that tidiness is bad in nature, and I would generally agree with him. However at times, it is needed to protect sensitive habitats that often contain small and vulnerable populations of species. It all comes down to knowing what we have and what we wish to conserve. Once we know this, we can then examine how best to look after it.
Clive Hambler states that we need to restore our wetlands and woodlands. I agree; it is rare that you get to visit a large area of one of these precious habitats, but when you do it is a special thing. These habitats are always teeming with wildlife and have such a wonderful structural diversity within which to explore, sit and gaze in awe at the diversity of nature. However is this actually rewilding? Is woodland restoration rewilding? As I mentioned above in response to one of George Monbiot’s points, surely rewilding a woodland would be to leave it alone and remove all human influence. Yet this would not restore it, it would be letting it lose a large part of its wildlife value. This is where I feel we need to try to define what rewilding means, as it is a concept which can be misunderstood and misapplied.
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 have already explained above why I believe this to be the case, it is as Miles King explains; our habitats are no longer truly natural and no longer exist within a natural landscape. They exist within a system that has been engineered and created by humans, and they now need our help to allow them to thrive as they once would have when they were large expanses of wilderness, and not as they now are: tiny fragments of degraded habitat existing within the wider desert of our countryside. Rewilding is about restoration, and restoration requires human input, which will often be intensive. But this input should be directed at creating larger areas of habitats, large enough to contain the woodland, grassland and wetland that will allow us to conserve a wide range of species.
Last but not least it was the turn of Aidan Lonegran, from the RSPB, to speak. He spoke well and provided an excellent defence of the conservation sector. It was useful to hear someone with inside knowledge of how the sector functions and to see their perspective on rewilding. His main point was that those of us that care for wildlife face a long-term challenge in reversing the spiral of decline that our wildlife is trapped in. It can often seem to be a daunting task facing conservation charities, which run on relatively small budgets and rely hugely on the commitment of passionate volunteers. Perhaps the most significant point of the whole debate was made by Aidan; we need to focus most on rewilding people, particularly children. There is a terrifying disconnect that exists between the majority of people within UK society and the natural world around them. If this gap is not bridged then how will people ever value what they are losing? Do we need larger wilderness areas to help rewild people?
I was pleased to hear Aidan Lonegran citing recent rewilding success stories, such as the RSPB’s new Lakenheath Fen reserve in Cambridgeshire. Up until 1995 this site was an agricultural desert full of carrots; now it is a wonderful wetland exploding with wildlife, such as bittern, golden oriole, barn owl, marsh harrier, bearded tit and many other exciting wetland specialists. The conservation sector has the ambition and knowledge to save our wildlife, it just needs the backing and resources to do it.
So, to return to the original question, is the British conservation model unambitious, irrational and afraid of nature? I hope that after reading this long article you would agree with me that it most certainly is not. Unambitious: is the Great Fen project or Lakenheath Fen examples of unambitious work? Is it irrational to want to conserve our threatened plants, butterflies and birds? Does bringing back white-tailed eagles, otters and beavers show a fear of nature? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding no.
http://vimeo.com/81154332 – Link to the video of the Linnean Society debate.
http://www.linnean.org/Meetings-and-Events/Past+Events/The+British+conservation+model – Linnean Society debate information page.
http://www.theguardian.com/environment/georgemonbiot/2013/oct/18/uk-carnivores-rewild-wolves-bison-conservation – George Monbiot Guardian rewilding article.