Rewilding….a religion for our times?

Let me begin by saying that “I believe in rewilding”, this implies that I put my faith in this concept, in this case my faith for the future of the planet. Many, many people are thinking and saying the same, to the point where this “faith” is fast becoming a global religion. But like most religions it has denominations, sects, cults, and we see the idea taking hold that my idea of rewilding is better than your version, and the risk that we all argue so much about the “True way”, that we fail to tread any path at all and allow the planet to die by default. So I thought it might be good to take a look at some of these ideas.

Firstly there is a purist version of rewilding. This seems to be an idea of just stopping everything and letting nature take over at it’s own rate. On a small scale this may mean buying a field and just doing nothing with it….perhaps forever. The argument would be that nature will decide what to plant, in what order, what insects and birds will visit, what mammals will be supported, how drainage will function etc. This has a lot of appeal in the long term, as it may well produce a very “natural” (whatever that means) biodiversity, but there are problems. One problem is time….we don’t have much of it and we face an environmental emergency that denies us the luxury of following this route on any grand scale. A second problem is that no field sits in a vacuum, It is influenced by external factors, drainage and water flow, weather, seed carrying (especially from downwind) and the effects of birds and mammals coming in from outside. If you let deer enter the field they will graze off much of what you hope will grow, fence it off from deer and it ceases to be natural and becomes managed, especially as fencing against deer may unintentionally fence against badger or fox for instance.

Another rewilding concept is a guerrilla variant, where well intentioned people plant whatever they choose in whatever (apparently) vacant spot they can identify. This has some attractions: no money comes out of the public purse, people with little means of their own can feel they are doing something, it can be “rewilding on your doorstep” and individuals can look at a tree and think “I did that”. The downside is that poorly planned guerrilla action can be problematic to the important, if less obvious ecology they planted into, wet ground drying out, dangerous tree species overhanging roads, even, potentially introduction of invasive or dominating species in inappropriate settings.

Then there is the approach of planting vast areas with trees, or patches of trees strategically within large areas. This has the advantage of getting a lot of tree cover (or peat regeneration etc) fast, but the cost is often high unless carried out by volunteers (rewilding acolytes we might say). The purist will complain that this is just more man made environment, plantation woodland, and will always be so. I am aware that an expert in forestry can identify a forest as plantation a thousand years after it was planted, so in this they are right…….but does it matter?

One problem with rewilding (and there are several) is that everyone has a different picture of what we are trying to achieve. Commonly we picture it as rolling back nature to some date in the past, some golden age, but when was that? Do we go back to pre WW2 or Pre-industrial revolution, do we go back to the medieval or the bronze age? Well it’s academic because we can’t. Too much has gone forever, too many species lost, some large, some small but all important. So unless we are prepared to wait until nature re-evolves extinct species ( and if you think about evolution that is unlikely because it’s starting from a different place), we must compromise.

We cannot afford to get this wrong, we must regenerate  massive areas of the planet in a more environmentally optimal way. Yes we must let nature steer as much of this as we can, but we need to manage it, we need to introduce some keystone species that will encourage others to follow, we must take nature and press the fast-forward button, we must reintroduce things like lynx and beaver, that we once destroyed because we thought it was a good idea, and we must do it all now.

Rewilding is not a religion and we must stop looking for points of difference and look for points of agreement.

Some would argue that the brand is already tainted, that the name “Rewilding” has become unhelpful, but most people now understand it in vague terms and replacing it with something equally ambiguous would be a waste of time we haven’t got. So lets get behind it and concentrate on defining the points of agreement, and throw ourselves into delivering something better than we have!

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