Guest blog – Looking for the wild in rewilding by Steven Robinson

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Steven writes: I occasionally post comments on Mark’s blog as Apus Apus. This is my second guest blog (the first was “The taming of nature”) and this time I have written about rewilding and what it means to me.

 

If you’re reading this, I hope you’re interested in rewilding and its ability to transform landscapes. But have you ever considered whether some rewilding projects are really wild?

In its broadest sense, rewilding means to be wild again, a place for wild nature, where natural forces can occur. It’s about the ecological restoration of landscapes, although smaller spaces can be rewilded too, as long as human control is removed. This doesn’t mean excluding people – these should be places to experience and enjoy wild nature. But certainly in core areas, where the “highest” quality of wilderness will be evident, there should be minimal impact of human activity or infrastructure and a dominance of natural processes.

In 1998, a clear vision emerged from the USA – a country with a long wilderness ethic, when Michael Soulé and Reed Noss identified rewilding, as the restoration of wild landscapes, based on the regulatory role of large predators. They encapsulated this, by recognising three independent key components – “the three C’s – Cores, Corridors and Carnivores”. This was the need for large, strictly protected core reserves to be connected with each other, so that there will be enough space for keystone species to influence their environment and to move between different areas. Large carnivores were particularly important, as they would provide “top-down” regulation of an ecosystem, either through predation or by modifying the behaviour of herbivores and mesopredators.

 

Returning the wild

Rewilding is trying to find its feet in the UK. It seems to mean different things to different people and it will certainly face more challenges here, as we are an island with no large areas of public land and little experience of true wilderness.  Despite this, some projects are leading the way. Scar Close has rewilded by removing livestock grazing. Others, like Trees for Life’s Rewilding the Highlands or Carrifran Wildwood have had to give nature a helping hand by planting trees and shrubs and using fencing to exclude domestic livestock and deer. To achieve a more dynamic, functioning ecosystem though, lost mammals, particularly carnivores, will need to return to reduce herbivore pressure and enhance trophic diversity.

 

Are cows wild?

Rewilding should be a contrast to traditional nature management and be free from human influence. So if this is the case, why do some rewilding projects use domestic cattle and ponies as proxies for wild animals? Supporters of this approach argue that these animals are functional replacements, but this makes little ecological sense for two important reasons – there are usually no large carnivores to regulate herbivore numbers and behaviour, and migration can be prevented because of fencing, which leads to overgrazing.

Domestic cattle (Bos taurus) are used in these projects in an attempt to replicate the effects of aurochs (Bos primigenius), the extinct wild cow. But domestic cattle are not wild – there are genetic and behavioural differences with their wild ancestors, with aurochs preferring a wetland habitat compared to cattle.

 

European rewilding

The project that is frequently cited as an example of European rewilding is the Oostvaardersplassen (OVP) in the Netherlands, despite there being severe consequences for the land and its large animals.

Frans Vera is the figurehead of the OVP and the project is guided by his hypothesis that large herbivores (such as the introduced heck cattle, konik ponies and red deer) drive ecosystems – which results in open, parkland rather than closed woodland. But as the reserve is enclosed and there is an absence of large carnivores, herbivore numbers soon increased and in 2010 there were 3400 animals using an area of around 2000ha (the dry part of OVP) – a high density compared to other places.

This has led to substantial degradation and animals starving to death in winter (8000 died between 2005-2013) and culling is now in place following significant welfare concern. The excessive grazing pressure has also impacted on the reserve’s wildlife, with a significant decline in breeding birds occurring, in both species and numbers between 1997 and 2012.

 

Natural landscapes

If rewilding is about restoring natural environments, then why create artificial landscapes like this? Europe, including the UK would have been primarily woodland after the last Ice Age. Apart from areas affected by natural disturbance, such as wind, fire and flooding, open habitats were mainly confined to river valleys, fens, lake shores, above the tree-line or on the coast (see Chris D Thomas). Herbivores, apart from the beaver were not capable of creating openings, only maintaining them.

 

Is this rewilding?

Two of the most high profile rewilding projects in the UK are the Knepp Castle Estate’s Wildland Project, which is influenced by Frans Vera’s work and Wild Ennerdale. Even though the former is a farm in Sussex and the latter a valley in Cumbria, they do have a lot in common with each other, as both use cattle (deer, horses and pigs also feature at Knepp) for “natural” disturbance and give domestic animals priority over wild ones by culling roe deer. The Knepp Castle Estate allows the shooting of woodcock and carries out a limited amount of predator control too. These actions exploit wild animals, so how can they be compatible with the ethos of rewilding? Furthermore, can these projects be really wild, when they receive agri-environment subsidies that are paid for farmland conservation?

European bison (Bison bonasus) are also being considered as an addition to the British countryside, even though there is no evidence  that this species was ever native to the UK. Doing this would amplify the existing herbivore pressure and as an introduction, the bison would not even be ‘free living’ animals, as they would have to be fenced, like in the Netherlands, where this idea originated from.

For me, rewilding is about wild animals and wild places – land that is untamed and ideally free from human influence. Using domestic animals as proxies has little connection to Soulé and Noss’s original idea of rewilding and diminishes the wilderness experience. Ecosystems do not become unnatural  if some of the component species are missing – they just accommodate the new circumstances.

The UK has long been shaped by humans. Even in conservation, cultural landscapes are created and maintained with little recognition of naturalness. Rewilding should be an exciting alternative to this, with a return to the natural. Let’s leave it to wild nature.

 

56 Comments

  1. pete says:

    So your saying rewilding is the process of restoring ecological processes, but the first step is to take away grazing, one of the major driving ecological processes?

  2. andrew says:

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    Norfolk
    a complete horn of a Bison priscus from the Pleistocene (circa 30,000 BCE) on fitted stand
    17 in. (43 cm.) wide on stand
    http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/Lot/a-complete-fossil-bison-horn-norfolk-5707096-details.aspx

  3. Apus apus says:

    I’m aware that the extinct Bison priscus used to live in the UK, but I wasn’t referring to that species. I was pointing out that there is no evidence for Bison bonasus.

  4. Ian Carter says:

    Stephen, I agree with much of what you say in this piece, especially the point that ‘rewilding’ means different things to different people. It’s no longer possible to get back to entirely natural habitats but I think we can get close and at least have areas where any signs of human intervention are kept to a minimum. To me the closest we can get to this is what conservationists refer to as ‘neglected’ woodland. Essentially this means that while it might have been mucked around with in the past it has not been subject to human intervention for a long period. The trees (at least the younger ones) grow where they happen to have been able to establish – not where they were planted. It might be difficult to walk through because there are no boardwalks and the tangles of fallen trees and branches have not been cleared away. Admittedly, there may be less wildlife than on woodland nature reserves because it has not been bribed with food and boxes, and little patchwork squares of different aged blocks of woodland have not been created for it. I know its not really natural but it feels natural and I hope we don’t gradually lose it all, either as a result of development or through woodland management in the name of conservation.

  5. Ezra Lucas says:

    I’m more than happy to accept a world with more wildlife, I’m just not entirely sold on the method outlined here. I think it is entirely accurate to say that “if some of the component species are missing – [ecosystems] just accommodate the new circumstances” but I’m not entirely sure that the ecosystems that we would get match the vision for what we want.

    By removing grazing pressure and leaving things alone we would allow habitat to develop to its climax community. In the UK this basically results in woodland, probably with a nice near mono-culture bluebell carpet. For many people this is what “wild” places should look like.

    Unfortunately I don’t think it is quite as simple as that. My vision for the countryside is a rich mosaic of habitats including likes of grasslands, and yes, even some of that heather moorland that we keep hearing is rarer than rainforest. This just won’t be achieved with the methods you have set out here. Disturbance through fire, grazing etc is vital in the maintenance of non-climax habitats. Without migrating herds moving freely through the landscape, and with large carnivores entirely absent, there are some habitats that do require human management.

    There are some easy fixes for this. The first is to aggressively reintroduce large numbers of species, but this is quite challenging in practice. The second is to accept that these habitats won’t exist, though this would result in lower biodiversity even if there is more biomass in our new woodlands. The third and final is to accept that we can’t go back to some idyllic past where humanity leaves nature alone and the UK countryside gets on perfectly well by itself.

    In my opinion rewilding is a very valuable tool for conservation. The prospect of more wildlife for less cost is incredibly appealing. I’m just not sure it should be applied universally yet.

  6. Michael Willett says:

    Carnivores could not be released In the UK without some kind of human intervention somewhere down the line. Either by culling when populations get too large, or to ensure genetic diversity.

    Bearing this in mind, and the authors view that rewilding should be really wild, does he think that ‘true’ rewilding could never happen in the UK?

    • Steven Robinson/Apus apus says:

      Hi Michael

      Rewilding can be a continuum, with any area having the potential to be wilded, but obviously there will be more potential, the bigger the site.

      Rewilding with carnivores is going to be a challenge in the UK, but it is something that should be the ultimate goal, however hard. People in other Western European countries live with carnivores so why can’t we? The current difficulties are – a cultural hegemony that stems from many of the large land owners that is essentially anti-nature, a compliant government that goes along with this and a lack of state owned land.

      Despite this, there are many positives, as I can see a public that has a strong love of wildlife/access to the countryside. You only have to look at what happened with the Devon beavers, the protests about BOP persecution/badger cull, the opposition to hunting, the proposed FC sell off and an increasing awareness that much of our “wild” places are not really wild at all to see that people care and do not share this negative view of wildlife.

  7. john Miles says:

    Here at Geltsdale we have 2 sides one owned and managed by the RSPB the other influenced by High level Stewardship with only access for the RSPB. The RSPB has sheep and is shortly to go out of organic only due to rushes! My side has 6000 acres just with 125 Lings and another 500 acres with sheep. Here the idea in the 6000 acres is to bring back ‘The Kings Forest of Geltsdale’ while the RSPB is trying to keep several habitats.

    The biggest problem on this side is Roe Deer now in much greater numbers now the sheep have been removed. Many young trees have been removed by the deer while the cattle have allowed especially Alder to expand along the river sides. On the RSPB side what would be wild grassland is grazed by the sheep preventing good harrier hunting. The cattle here don’t seem to be doing much at all!

    Exmoor ponies have now been introduced into previous plantings on the RSPB side of management to start the ‘wild wood’ look opening up the ground and preventing any natural regeneration. Both side will be waiting to see what this government will do with payments. Both sides see predators removed by neighbouring estates and now the RSPB on the other side even when 2 pairs of Goshawks need the food for their being.

    Yes this may be hard to follow but so is rewilding in Britain!

  8. Ol says:

    “The UK has long been shaped by humans. Even in conservation, cultural landscapes are created and maintained with little recognition of naturalness. Rewilding should be an exciting alternative to this, with a return to the natural. Let’s leave it to wild nature.”

    That sums up my feelings on the subject. I have no issue with the UK’s cultural landscape, I just think it’s too dominant and shaped too aggressively by a limited number of land uses.

    One of the common responses I’ve noticed to the concept of rewilding is a knee-jerk reaction from its detractors who cry foul at the eradication of our beloved cultural landscape. Rewilding is about altering the balance a touch, letting a bit of wild take over on marginal land in a country that is comprehensively shaped by human influence.

    As much as I love visiting nature reserves and national parks, I can quite shake the feeling that everything I’m looking at it is dictated by the will of man. I think the idea of there being places which are giving an initial kick start and then left to their own devices is incredibly exciting; not fully knowing what is going to happen and which species may appear.

  9. Callum Rankine says:

    Really liked your article. I have worked on many rewilding projects in Russia, Kenya, Carpathians etc. and when I look around Britain I dont see anywhere that we can rewild. The place is too small with too many people and, to echo Ian’s point above, too many people needing to interfere in a habitat to make it ‘better’.
    Many organisations have jumped on the rewilding bandwagon in order to get funds but they really dont understand what rewilding is. My ex-colleagues in other countries would laugh when told of rewilding projects the size of a country park. Or areas of trees being planted and for funding purposes calling it a wild wood when it’s really just a plantation. 🙁

  10. Hugh says:

    This is great stuff. The trouble is the word “biodiversity”. With perhaps a few very small areas, the entire UK landmass has been engineered by humans since the last ice age. This has resulted in a multiplicity of habitats, some small, some larger, which are exploited by a great number of species. Unrestricted rewilding could therefore lead to the loss of habitats and species. While I support rewinding, we have to be very careful about the hows and wheres. For me, the primary target areas could be the wide tree less expanses of our national parks and the forestry commission estate. However, whether we like it or not, fencing will be required, if for no other reason than to protect the public and commercial interests of farmers outwith the rewilding areas. We have to work on educating landowners and others with commercial interests as the current financial system inhibits altruistic / philanthropic behaviour. Also, and perhaps most significantly, I have no confidence in government or government agencies to do the right thing let alone fight for or pursue the priciples and objectives behind rewilding. Some of the NGOS also appear to be less than enthusiastic; maybe there is an element of funding and self interest protection going on?

    • Filbert Cobb says:

      “I support rewinding”

      At the Countryfile Live gig Dearly Beloved Mrs Cobb – who can spot a typo at 100 metres – spotted “Rewinding” Britain on the programme flyer and we decided it was a Happy Typo. Now I’m not so sure. Anyway we didn’t get to listen to the debate because Moonbat was late – hilariously delayed by trafffic – and the Dog was getting restless in the marquee. So we’ll never know.

  11. Mark Fisher says:

    Thank you, Mark, for giving Steven space to articulate what I am sure a number of people feel is a confusion about what “rewilding” means. It is perhaps no surprise that of the 84 that responded to the Environmental Audit Committee call for written evidence on “rewilding”, a quarter noted the confusion arising from the many meanings, so that the Dorset Local Nature Partnership questioned whether it meant “Monbiot rewilding” or “Knepp rewilding”, and the Countryside Alliance saying that there was no single definition of rewilding.

    As an advocate for a wilder nature in Britain, I build a future vision of wild places on the dynamics of natural systems, the free will of ecological interplay being inspiration in itself, and which I convey to others in the hope of enthusing acceptance. If there is an imprecision in this vision, then it is because there is no perfect system that can be described, no guarantee of numbers or individual species, or even a temporal consistency other than the variability inherent in all biological systems. It’s a tough ask to get across. At its simplest, I know from experience that if I can take people to places where they can see for themselves the vitality of nature without interference, suppression, or manipulation, then it is no longer an act of faith for them to commit to a wilder future, but these opportunities to experience such wilding are just not that plentiful yet. So if you think of a continuum from the not-wild of agricultural surroundings to the most wild, it is the most wild that is missing, as it is the missing bit in us – banished from our psyche. We don’t have anywhere, at any meaningful scale, where we are able to have the full and wholesome relationship that we need to have with wild nature, where we can be most wild. Instead, we have to work with the knowledge and concerns that each person has for our natural world and make an offer that holds more than just hope for its future. It is challenging, as any unknown can be, and so I have to be imaginative as well as honest, and be clear in seeking a natural justice for wild nature, but also for the aspiration I believe there is for the long-term protection and thriving of wild nature.

    I don’t now use the term “rewilding” for the reasons that Steven explains. I took the conscious decision to use wilding instead, because I want to look forward to nature-led lands and life, not back, and because “rewilding” has become freighted with so many different meanings, often seemingly to suit the purposes of particular agendas. The distinction may not be obvious, and it may seem that I am swimming against the tide when a certain popularity has now arisen around “rewilding”, but this relates to my need to be honest when these meanings appear to me to be less robust ecologically, as well as unchallenging because of that. I am not advocating wilding for everywhere, to the most wild, but I do see it as true nature conservation – it is wild nature conserving itself.

  12. Harold says:

    I think if you’re never going to “cheat” at rewilding with functional replacements and the occasional human interference, you run the risk of in some cases reducing biodiversity – e.g. overgrown rivers, ponds and fens. And what about invasive species? Perhaps functional replacements could be reframed as temporary replacements. As you already pointed out, Trees for Life are non-wild seed dispersers.

    It’s important for rewilding to guide conservation without becoming a cult.

    Great article, provocative and well-researched.

  13. Helen Crabtree says:

    Steven, what do you think about introducing white storks into the British countryside as part of a re-wilding process?

    • Mark says:

      Helen – good question!

    • Steven Robinson/Apus Apus says:

      Hi Helen.

      Anything that makes the world a wilder place is good for me!

      Certainly the reintroduction of lost native species would help to achieve this, particularly in the UK, since we have such a reduced fauna compared to many countries.

      I would like to see White Storks in the UK and go with the idea of giving them a helping hand to re-establish, as it does seem that they are not going to do it naturally. I think they would be a good species in that they are a big bird, so are an obvious sign of wildness and the only challenge to human tolerance (for some people) is likely to stem from where they choose to nest.

      The animals that I would really like to see in our countryside though, are beaver (for them to be given native status) and lynx, as they are both going to have a big impact on their environment.

      Reintroductions, particularly of predators often catch the eye in rewilding, but the restoration of natural landscapes for me is equally important. In the UK, this is likely to be woodland (there are lots of different types!), as it is a habitat that is severely lacking compared to other European countries.

  14. Jonathan Wallace says:

    Steven adopts a purist line, rejecting projects that involve the hand of man as not being ‘rewilding’ but I think we have to recognise that we are part of nature too. We arrived here naturally and we can’t just wish ourselves out of the picture. We are unique as a species in the profound extent to which we are able to affect the landscape and also unique in the sense that we can decide the extent to which we exert this power – no other species that I am aware of can voluntarily eschew exploiting a habitat so that other species can benefit from it. But our powers do not extend to the point of removing ourselves completely from the map other than at relatively small scales.
    The consequence of this is that no re-wilding project can ever be truly wild (in the sense of utterly without human influence), particularly on an island as small and as densely populated (by humans) as the UK. It will always butt up against boundaries imposed by us. This is especially likely to be the case in the event of any project involving reintroduction of large predators with the need for large home ranges. Whether we like it or not our definition of the boundaries and occasional need to undertake some kind of management will influence the ecological processes within the re-wilded area.
    I don’t think that this is a reason to give up on the idea of re-wilding however. I am very much in favour of anything that can enable wildlife to flourish and see a value in a variety of approaches to achieve this. Some sites and habitats will require a relatively high level of human interference – and I, for one, am happy that management ensures that many nature reserves continue to provide habitats for species that might otherwise disappear. In other areas, where space and conditions are favourable I think it is desirable to adopt a more laissez faire approach and let the habitats develop as they will with minimal intervention but I don’t think we should get too hung up on the purity of this re-wilding. It may sometimes be necessary to permit some artificial measures such as the use of domestic livestock or culling of populations but if we have enabled the development of a rich ecosystem in the process we should not be unduly dismayed. The one thing we cannot do is literally turn the clock back several thousand years to a time prior to human occupation.

    • Steven Robinson/Apus apus says:

      Hi Jonathan

      Just a few points to clarify my position.

      This blog is looking at rewilding projects. I’m not saying that every nature reserve should be rewilded and I laid out a solution to the lack of wildness in the UK in my last blog – the use of untamed, species and agriculture reserves.

      I offer a “purist line” in that I give a clear meaning of what rewilding means to me based on Soule and Noss’s concept – with the ideal being land that is free from human control. This is what wilderness is – essentially no intrusive or extractive human activity. Many people get this in other countries (it is also reflected by the IUCN in its ratings of National Parks), but the concept certainly struggles to be accepted here in the UK. I also don’t reject all “rewilding projects that involve the hand of man” – just see my praise for the work carried out by Trees for Life and Carrifran Wildwood.

      Finally, I’m not advocating turning back the clock. We can take useful lessons from the past, but this is about future wildness.

    • Filbert Cobb says:

      “turn the clock back”

      To make this fantasy worthwhile we would need also to be granted the luxury of recycling hindsight as foresight

  15. Les Wallace says:

    We need to make a start and do what we can, with what we have. Using domesticated animal as proxies for wild ones we’ve lost is not ideal, but better than not having them – we would definitely have aurochs in this country were it not for human intervention. Managing them in the place of having big carnivores is again better than not having them at all. What is happening at Oostvarderplassen is far more akin to the deer stalking estates in Scotland where artificially maintained deer numbers means no trees and lots of starving deer. Oostvarderplassen has been used as a case against rewilding which is extremely unfortunate – I have seen videos of it and have been shocked at how short the grass is. I think careful use of konik and auroch substitutes has its place and emphasies to the public how altered our ecology is.

    • Northern Diver says:

      Where do the Chillingham cattle come in the range between aurochs and old domestic breeds of cattle? Any comparative DNA studies? Is there a surplus that could be used on rewilded areas? How does this enclosed herd function without much human intervention on a very small area?

      • Les Wallace says:

        I know that they are doing DNA studies on old auroch bones, I think our cattle may have been domesticated from North African aurochs and that is why there might be some substantial differences but nothing too drastic. However, not having an auroch proxy where we can have one | think would be more unnatural than putting in domestic cattle. Obviously with no predation and on small reserves a degree of human intervention is required on top of this. Auroch must have been major ecological movers and shakers where they occurred.

  16. Richard Lawrence says:

    I think it might be more complicated than “no evidence” of Bison bonasus being present in the UK. A lack of evidence does not mean a lack of the species… particularly given the identification difficulties of old bones, if the North Sea counts as the UK and hybridisation between the various bovids that were about in the past. (e.g. http://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms13158).

    • Steven Robinson/Apus apus says:

      Hi Richard

      Thanks for the link – it’s very interesting. Obviously, I have no problem with Bison bonasus being in the UK if it is found to be conclusive that they are a native animal. I’m all in favour of seeing a wilder world.

      I am aware that “a lack of evidence does not mean a lack of the species”. The remains of bison in the North Sea close to the Netherlands/Germany/Denmark, which you mention though are red for Clade X (an extinct related group) and blue for Bison priscus. The closest remains for Bison bonasus seem to be in NE France and W Germany.

      • Les Wallace says:

        Good post Steven, my bug bear is how little attention is given to wolverine being here in post glacial UK. Seems very strange that weren’t here.

        • Steven Robinson/Apus Apus says:

          Thanks, Les and for everybody else’s positive comments too. Re wolverine – I’m not aware of any records in The history of British mammals past the Late Glacial. They do appear to prefer cold areas, as there will be snow for denning, hunting large prey and food storage.

  17. peakaboo says:

    I think this blog and its responses neatly sums up the interest (positive and negative) that there is in rewilding (there I said it!) at the moment. Would MPs and the env audit committee be talking about it even 5 years ago? I think what we need is an intelligent assessment of the positives and negatives that this would bring. I recently surveyed some limestone grassland sites which hadn’t been grazed for 10-25yrs, and they were incredibly rich (100spp+ in 1ha!). In fact richer than the moderately grazed limestone grassland adjacent. Yes it was scrubbier, but also full of birds and inverts. So I think there is something in this idea. Of course grazing is a natural process, but the only wild grazers we have now are deer. I see rewilding as a continuum with Self-willed land on the left and industrial farming on the right. As conservationists we should always be striving to push to the left (or is that my politics talking!). We cannot have wilderness again, but we can have a “wilder-ness” As for space, we actually have loads of it in this country. We just aren’t using it right.

  18. Stephen Guy says:

    While I am all for greater wildness in Britain’s uplands any thing has to be better than sheep sick hills, grouse moors and conifer plantations. But I do think cultural landscapes are of great value and interest and beauty in themselves e.g. ancient hedges, wood pastures or even just a pattern of stone walls.
    Will not rewilded areas amount mostly to secondary woodland without the ground flora, invertebrates , fungi, microbes and soils they should have. There is more to rewilding than large mammals.
    Most soils have been changed greatly by man – uplands perhaps poorer – lowland farmland much richer making true rewilding problematic

  19. PETER COOPER says:

    Perhaps we should be more embracing of terms like ‘restoration ecology’ or ‘new nature’ (as they do in the Netherlands) – rewilding as a term seems to be utilised more for it’s marketability (or fear inducing), rather than what it actually means.

    Because in the majority of the UK, dominated by lowland agriculture, rewilding is going to have to be on Knepp-like scales. Yes that means intensive management of the stock (ideally wild-like breeds, and beavers too), but the fruits of their labours, as anyone who’s visited Knepp can attest, is of wildlife the likes of which we’ve not seen for generations. Much has been made of the opportunity Brexit presents for reform of the CAP, and perhaps we can take one of Charlie Burrell’s ideas of ‘pop-up Knepps’ with it – on land where the soil is degraded, take it out of action for 15 years or so, receiving subsidy for doing this instead (as well as the meat from the stock you use to maintain the site). This would require lots of work with surrounding landowning bodies as you’d need to work out how wildlife would ‘shift’ through the landscape once land goes back into production, but as an aspiration for rewilding in an intensive land-use system where wolves and wilderness just don’t cut it, it’s a useful goal.

    Of course I want to see more of our uplands reforested – the challenge is how to meld that into the archaic land use system we have currently, where the millionaires who own it will respond to any proposal to use the land for something other than hill farming, grouse shooting or deer stalking as if you just requested to murder their grandma. The only way I’d see some kind of Monbiot-style rewilding being done up there based on current to near-future situations is, sadly, a South African method of fenced parks containing your wolves, bears and moose – if you let these out loose they’d be in the suburbs of Glasgow within a few years, and until we can work out some way to live with them after deliberately wiping them out because our ancestors thought they were the spawn of Satan, behind a fence they will stay.

    And a note on the bison (B. bonasus) – absence of proof is not necessarily proof of absence, and their remains have been found in the North Sea. And given they function in ecosystems more or less identical to ours, is there reason they couldn’t work here? We’re quite happy to accept new European species of bird or insect that fly over from the continent, so just because something lacks wings shouldn’t make it that different. They’ve been found to establish foraging niches that are unique to them and not necessarily replicable by deer, horses or even cattle, and in Knepp style projects could both be valuable members of the biological community, and secure populations of a recovering species. It would be ideal to have them free, but in this world of the shrinking wild, I think of what I was told by Professor Carl Jones – regardless of how intensively it’s managed, if it’s fulfilling an ecological niche and is (mostly) acted upon by natural selection, it’s still a wild animal.

  20. Steven Robinson/Apus apus says:

    Hi Peter – do you have a link that Bison bonasus remains have been found in the North Sea?

  21. Mark Fisher says:

    “foraging niches that are unique to them”

    ……. but what if that foraging niche was never part of our ecology? Do we tolerate the presence of mink because it is a mustelid of similar size to an otter? Should we give up trying to maintain the presence of red squirrel because we have a perfectly serviceable one from America, albeit that it is a different colour? Are you forever going to see species just as tools in achieving a management aim?

    Peter, your “new nature” at Knepp has come at a hefty price, the result of a heavily subsidised agricultural extensification to bring about a fall in herbivore pressure from replacing three dairy herds with a few beef cattle and pigs, and giving up arable cultivation. The trouble with your track record of hyperbole i.e. “rather brilliant Oostvardesplassen project” and now here “anyone who’s visited Knepp can attest, is of wildlife the likes of which we’ve not seen for generations” is that it is misleading, as it is also fundamentally mechanistic.

    Allegedly “free-roaming” large herbivores behind fences are not agents of change. It is the modification of herbivore pressure in the face of a flux in vegetative biomass that allows woody regeneration, and which in wild systems is spatially driven by predators. This is of course not wilding at Knepp, nor is it wildland, it is still farming, albeit extensified at great cost. How can Knepp emulate wildland other than as a pathetic and incomplete anthropocentric facsimile? Why would we want to waste money on this when what we need are long term real and permanent gains for wild nature that can’t be overthrown when the subsidy runs out after a few years?

    • AlanTwo says:

      I think it’s a bit of a shame that we spend so much time debating exactly what real re-wilding is or isn’t. This seems to me to be an example of where the perfect can be the enemy of the good. Recent talks by Monbiot and Paul Jepson have stressed a pragmatic and experimental approach, in which the degree of wildness aimed for is adjusted to match the size, location and characteristics of each site, and maybe altered depending on outcomes.
      For me, (re)wilding is a process in which the role of man is reduced and the degree to which natural ecological processes are allowed to operate is increased. Even this will not be appropriate for all sites, but many might benefit from some movement in that direction. I just don’t think we should get too purist about it.
      The European Rewilding Network seems to embrace this diversity of ambition – they are even working in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, welcoming both the unaided comeback of some large mammals while actively introducing others.
      By the way, I thought it was a bit rich accusing Peter Cooper of hyperbole, but then following up with “… a pathetic and incomplete anthropocentric facsimile.”

      • Mark Fisher says:

        I just wonder what is experimental about wilding? Who gets to choose the adjustments? What are the criteria? You seem to think it is the dogmatic imposition of Przewalski’s horses (Equus ferus przewalskii) released into the zone in 1998 from the captive population in Askania-Nova Biosphere Reserve, Ukraine. Over the millennia, captivity increased inbreeding and domestic introgression in the horses so that upto 25% of genomes of Przewalski’s horses consist of gene variants inherited from domesticated horses. There is no wild horse now, so what was the purpose?

        I think its in the footnote to page 10 of George Monbiot’s book Feral that he acknowledges that my work had been influential in shaping his book. You may also like to know that I corresponded with Jepson last year after I criticised his proposals for “rewilding” experiments, explaining what a trophic cascade actually meant, and got the admission that he feared he was guilty of ecological illiteracy, and had only been focusing on reassembling the second tier, the herbivores, as part of his “rewilding package”. This is not evidence of the pursuit of purism on my part, but of understanding – if you like, ecological literacy.

  22. Alan Bateman says:

    ‘For me, rewilding is about wild animals and wild places – land that is untamed and ideally free from human influence’

    I agree. However this type of rewilding is never going to happen. The recent grouse shooting debate has highlighted the entrenched positions held by different interest groups. However the greatest obstacle to natural processes being allowed to take place are the views of nature conservationists who are too scared to allow Nature any freedom.

    For rewilding to take place we have to truly let, go but like farming and shooting the conservation industry has too much to loose by actually allowing Nature to take its course.

    Luckily rewilding can exist in our imaginations, so I for one will have to be happy with that.

  23. Julian says:

    I’d just like to say that the first Beaver which has a go at my cricket bat willows (destined for greatness in a foreign land; hopefully Australia!) is going to get a nasty shock.

  24. murray marr says:

    Thanks Steven for this blog and helping with my learning curve on the subject.

    Rewilding; wilding; ecological restoration; re-introductions; self-willed land (great expression, Mark Fisher); ‘wilder-ness’ (nice twist, Peakaboo); wildlife corridors are all exciting and useful ideas for helping to democratise and ‘biomocratise’ British countryside. And it don’t half need some help.
    For those worried about the survival of the historic and cultural landscape, it’s worth reflecting that a lot of it comes down to us from natural acts of rewilding following changes in the rural economy. For example, the Norfolk Broads are formed from abandoned Mediaeval peat workings; the grand old oaks of Sherwood forest emanate from reduced grazing on 13th C heathland. Yes, those trees are old but their age is nothing compared the sites of ancient woodland on the South Downs. Here, there are frequent and visible signs of Iron Age field terraces that are well preserved due to continuous presence of tree cover over the last 2000 years. And then much more recently, some of the best Yew woods in Europe, grow on the Hampshire and Sussex sheep pasture abandoned 300 years ago.
    It’s also worth reflecting that natural rewilding is going on all around us now. The best examples are recently abandoned quarries which, if left alone, always turn into superb wildlife habitats. Nature really gets off on geological nudity – especially when the planners and landscapers, with their prettifying makeovers and tick-box management plans, are prevented from looking on.

  25. Trapit says:

    True rewilding would aim to re-create conditions the day before the first man crossed the land bridge from Europe. It can’t happen. We need a widespread series of minimum intervention projects ,such as Knepp Castle,covering different landscape and soil types. Well managed nature reserves with specific targets in mind will always be necessary,and the wider agricultural and forestry landscape has to take more account of wildlife,but I honestly can’t see where the money is coming from just now.

  26. Giles Bradshaw says:

    People should have a read of this blog Countryside Mismanagement “If the real objective was to minimise the deer population, they would stand aside and let the population resume its normal cyclical pattern of boom in numbers followed by starvation and bust.”

    It seems to me that is precisely what started to happen at Oostvaardersplassen and to a more limited extent at the League’s Baronsdown sanctuary which also became a major wild deer TB hotspot

    The questions I would ask about both these situations are – are they “natural”? are they good for the environment? and are they cruel?

    • Jonathan Wallace says:

      Giles, I don’t know where your first link was supposed to connect to but it actually links with a charming story about the recovery of Cirl Buntings which has nothing to say about the management of deer.
      With regards to your question about whether or not it is is cruel or natural to allow deer populations to boom and then starve and bust I would say that it is precisely on these grounds that many people raise concerns about the Oostvaardersplassen project and also why enthusiasts for re-wilding are generally keen to include the re-introduction of large carnivores. Whilst there are certainly practical issues surrounding the reintroduction of wolves into the British countryside, doing so would keep deer populations under natural control without the welfare issues of widespread starvation you refer to.

      • Giles Bradshaw says:

        Hi Jonathan – apologies for the link – I suffer from ctrl-c ctrl-v issues having recently bought a mac.

        It was meant to go here

        and yes I agree with you and was trying in a way to make that point.

        Developing it further – from what I understand wolves would be impractical in the Oostvaardersplassen (cmd-c cmd-v) situation as they need a bigger range. Also that is arguably also the case in large parts of the UK including the moors where I live (SW England) not because of the range but because of other social and agricultural factors.

        However surely we are forgetting another native British mammalian hunter – humans. Surely hunting by humans could play a key role in any rewilding project?

  27. Giles Bradshaw says:

    The wet woodland in my valley was developing a large patch of Indian Balsam so I took to pulling it up. Now there is hardly any.

    It could be argued this is rewilding in action. We have two natural processes at work. The natural spread of the Balsam an a natural repulsion to it in the mind of a native British mammal – me – driven partly by a naturally occurring territorial instinct.

    The effect of mankind – which came across the land bridge along with much of our other native wildlife – as well as introductions since is as much a part of our natural history.

    True “rewilding” should include not exclude the work of humankind and humankind needs to use it’s natural intelligence to decide what that work should be.

  28. rob yorke says:

    Interesting Steven. As humans are integral to rewilding, we suggest we factor that in at the earliest point. Purists may disagree but rather than react later on, perhaps best to grapple with sharp horns before they skewer you.
    The latest edition of ECOS explores this https://www.banc.org.uk/ecos-37-2-summer-editorial-losing-control-geoffrey-wain/ with detail of feedback from my various conversations with Monbiot, RSPB, Birdlife, welsh hill farmers, walkers, and Hay Festival goers http://robyorke.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/ECOS.whole_.pdf
    Feel free to contact me direct.

    Rob
    http://www.robyorke.co.uk

  29. […] insects, will rewilding provide the places that our nature needs? Though there now appears to be a turf war going on over who has the right to define rewilding, the common ground seems to focus mostly on one or two […]

  30. […] used. As I was finishing this article an interesting blog was published on this precise issue here, which I would recommend reading. Clearly there are issues around the over-use and misapplication […]

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  1. pete says:

    So your saying rewilding is the process of restoring ecological processes, but the first step is to take away grazing, one of the major driving ecological processes?

  2. andrew says:

    A COMPLETE FOSSIL BISON HORN
    Norfolk
    a complete horn of a Bison priscus from the Pleistocene (circa 30,000 BCE) on fitted stand
    17 in. (43 cm.) wide on stand
    http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/Lot/a-complete-fossil-bison-horn-norfolk-5707096-details.aspx

  3. Apus apus says:

    I’m aware that the extinct Bison priscus used to live in the UK, but I wasn’t referring to that species. I was pointing out that there is no evidence for Bison bonasus.

  4. Ian Carter says:

    Stephen, I agree with much of what you say in this piece, especially the point that ‘rewilding’ means different things to different people. It’s no longer possible to get back to entirely natural habitats but I think we can get close and at least have areas where any signs of human intervention are kept to a minimum. To me the closest we can get to this is what conservationists refer to as ‘neglected’ woodland. Essentially this means that while it might have been mucked around with in the past it has not been subject to human intervention for a long period. The trees (at least the younger ones) grow where they happen to have been able to establish – not where they were planted. It might be difficult to walk through because there are no boardwalks and the tangles of fallen trees and branches have not been cleared away. Admittedly, there may be less wildlife than on woodland nature reserves because it has not been bribed with food and boxes, and little patchwork squares of different aged blocks of woodland have not been created for it. I know its not really natural but it feels natural and I hope we don’t gradually lose it all, either as a result of development or through woodland management in the name of conservation.

  5. Ezra Lucas says:

    I’m more than happy to accept a world with more wildlife, I’m just not entirely sold on the method outlined here. I think it is entirely accurate to say that “if some of the component species are missing – [ecosystems] just accommodate the new circumstances” but I’m not entirely sure that the ecosystems that we would get match the vision for what we want.

    By removing grazing pressure and leaving things alone we would allow habitat to develop to its climax community. In the UK this basically results in woodland, probably with a nice near mono-culture bluebell carpet. For many people this is what “wild” places should look like.

    Unfortunately I don’t think it is quite as simple as that. My vision for the countryside is a rich mosaic of habitats including likes of grasslands, and yes, even some of that heather moorland that we keep hearing is rarer than rainforest. This just won’t be achieved with the methods you have set out here. Disturbance through fire, grazing etc is vital in the maintenance of non-climax habitats. Without migrating herds moving freely through the landscape, and with large carnivores entirely absent, there are some habitats that do require human management.

    There are some easy fixes for this. The first is to aggressively reintroduce large numbers of species, but this is quite challenging in practice. The second is to accept that these habitats won’t exist, though this would result in lower biodiversity even if there is more biomass in our new woodlands. The third and final is to accept that we can’t go back to some idyllic past where humanity leaves nature alone and the UK countryside gets on perfectly well by itself.

    In my opinion rewilding is a very valuable tool for conservation. The prospect of more wildlife for less cost is incredibly appealing. I’m just not sure it should be applied universally yet.

  6. Michael Willett says:

    Carnivores could not be released In the UK without some kind of human intervention somewhere down the line. Either by culling when populations get too large, or to ensure genetic diversity.

    Bearing this in mind, and the authors view that rewilding should be really wild, does he think that ‘true’ rewilding could never happen in the UK?

    • Steven Robinson/Apus apus says:

      Hi Michael

      Rewilding can be a continuum, with any area having the potential to be wilded, but obviously there will be more potential, the bigger the site.

      Rewilding with carnivores is going to be a challenge in the UK, but it is something that should be the ultimate goal, however hard. People in other Western European countries live with carnivores so why can’t we? The current difficulties are – a cultural hegemony that stems from many of the large land owners that is essentially anti-nature, a compliant government that goes along with this and a lack of state owned land.

      Despite this, there are many positives, as I can see a public that has a strong love of wildlife/access to the countryside. You only have to look at what happened with the Devon beavers, the protests about BOP persecution/badger cull, the opposition to hunting, the proposed FC sell off and an increasing awareness that much of our “wild” places are not really wild at all to see that people care and do not share this negative view of wildlife.

  7. john Miles says:

    Here at Geltsdale we have 2 sides one owned and managed by the RSPB the other influenced by High level Stewardship with only access for the RSPB. The RSPB has sheep and is shortly to go out of organic only due to rushes! My side has 6000 acres just with 125 Lings and another 500 acres with sheep. Here the idea in the 6000 acres is to bring back ‘The Kings Forest of Geltsdale’ while the RSPB is trying to keep several habitats.

    The biggest problem on this side is Roe Deer now in much greater numbers now the sheep have been removed. Many young trees have been removed by the deer while the cattle have allowed especially Alder to expand along the river sides. On the RSPB side what would be wild grassland is grazed by the sheep preventing good harrier hunting. The cattle here don’t seem to be doing much at all!

    Exmoor ponies have now been introduced into previous plantings on the RSPB side of management to start the ‘wild wood’ look opening up the ground and preventing any natural regeneration. Both side will be waiting to see what this government will do with payments. Both sides see predators removed by neighbouring estates and now the RSPB on the other side even when 2 pairs of Goshawks need the food for their being.

    Yes this may be hard to follow but so is rewilding in Britain!

  8. Ol says:

    “The UK has long been shaped by humans. Even in conservation, cultural landscapes are created and maintained with little recognition of naturalness. Rewilding should be an exciting alternative to this, with a return to the natural. Let’s leave it to wild nature.”

    That sums up my feelings on the subject. I have no issue with the UK’s cultural landscape, I just think it’s too dominant and shaped too aggressively by a limited number of land uses.

    One of the common responses I’ve noticed to the concept of rewilding is a knee-jerk reaction from its detractors who cry foul at the eradication of our beloved cultural landscape. Rewilding is about altering the balance a touch, letting a bit of wild take over on marginal land in a country that is comprehensively shaped by human influence.

    As much as I love visiting nature reserves and national parks, I can quite shake the feeling that everything I’m looking at it is dictated by the will of man. I think the idea of there being places which are giving an initial kick start and then left to their own devices is incredibly exciting; not fully knowing what is going to happen and which species may appear.

  9. Callum Rankine says:

    Really liked your article. I have worked on many rewilding projects in Russia, Kenya, Carpathians etc. and when I look around Britain I dont see anywhere that we can rewild. The place is too small with too many people and, to echo Ian’s point above, too many people needing to interfere in a habitat to make it ‘better’.
    Many organisations have jumped on the rewilding bandwagon in order to get funds but they really dont understand what rewilding is. My ex-colleagues in other countries would laugh when told of rewilding projects the size of a country park. Or areas of trees being planted and for funding purposes calling it a wild wood when it’s really just a plantation. 🙁

  10. Hugh says:

    This is great stuff. The trouble is the word “biodiversity”. With perhaps a few very small areas, the entire UK landmass has been engineered by humans since the last ice age. This has resulted in a multiplicity of habitats, some small, some larger, which are exploited by a great number of species. Unrestricted rewilding could therefore lead to the loss of habitats and species. While I support rewinding, we have to be very careful about the hows and wheres. For me, the primary target areas could be the wide tree less expanses of our national parks and the forestry commission estate. However, whether we like it or not, fencing will be required, if for no other reason than to protect the public and commercial interests of farmers outwith the rewilding areas. We have to work on educating landowners and others with commercial interests as the current financial system inhibits altruistic / philanthropic behaviour. Also, and perhaps most significantly, I have no confidence in government or government agencies to do the right thing let alone fight for or pursue the priciples and objectives behind rewilding. Some of the NGOS also appear to be less than enthusiastic; maybe there is an element of funding and self interest protection going on?

    • Filbert Cobb says:

      “I support rewinding”

      At the Countryfile Live gig Dearly Beloved Mrs Cobb – who can spot a typo at 100 metres – spotted “Rewinding” Britain on the programme flyer and we decided it was a Happy Typo. Now I’m not so sure. Anyway we didn’t get to listen to the debate because Moonbat was late – hilariously delayed by trafffic – and the Dog was getting restless in the marquee. So we’ll never know.

  11. Mark Fisher says:

    Thank you, Mark, for giving Steven space to articulate what I am sure a number of people feel is a confusion about what “rewilding” means. It is perhaps no surprise that of the 84 that responded to the Environmental Audit Committee call for written evidence on “rewilding”, a quarter noted the confusion arising from the many meanings, so that the Dorset Local Nature Partnership questioned whether it meant “Monbiot rewilding” or “Knepp rewilding”, and the Countryside Alliance saying that there was no single definition of rewilding.

    As an advocate for a wilder nature in Britain, I build a future vision of wild places on the dynamics of natural systems, the free will of ecological interplay being inspiration in itself, and which I convey to others in the hope of enthusing acceptance. If there is an imprecision in this vision, then it is because there is no perfect system that can be described, no guarantee of numbers or individual species, or even a temporal consistency other than the variability inherent in all biological systems. It’s a tough ask to get across. At its simplest, I know from experience that if I can take people to places where they can see for themselves the vitality of nature without interference, suppression, or manipulation, then it is no longer an act of faith for them to commit to a wilder future, but these opportunities to experience such wilding are just not that plentiful yet. So if you think of a continuum from the not-wild of agricultural surroundings to the most wild, it is the most wild that is missing, as it is the missing bit in us – banished from our psyche. We don’t have anywhere, at any meaningful scale, where we are able to have the full and wholesome relationship that we need to have with wild nature, where we can be most wild. Instead, we have to work with the knowledge and concerns that each person has for our natural world and make an offer that holds more than just hope for its future. It is challenging, as any unknown can be, and so I have to be imaginative as well as honest, and be clear in seeking a natural justice for wild nature, but also for the aspiration I believe there is for the long-term protection and thriving of wild nature.

    I don’t now use the term “rewilding” for the reasons that Steven explains. I took the conscious decision to use wilding instead, because I want to look forward to nature-led lands and life, not back, and because “rewilding” has become freighted with so many different meanings, often seemingly to suit the purposes of particular agendas. The distinction may not be obvious, and it may seem that I am swimming against the tide when a certain popularity has now arisen around “rewilding”, but this relates to my need to be honest when these meanings appear to me to be less robust ecologically, as well as unchallenging because of that. I am not advocating wilding for everywhere, to the most wild, but I do see it as true nature conservation – it is wild nature conserving itself.

  12. Harold says:

    I think if you’re never going to “cheat” at rewilding with functional replacements and the occasional human interference, you run the risk of in some cases reducing biodiversity – e.g. overgrown rivers, ponds and fens. And what about invasive species? Perhaps functional replacements could be reframed as temporary replacements. As you already pointed out, Trees for Life are non-wild seed dispersers.

    It’s important for rewilding to guide conservation without becoming a cult.

    Great article, provocative and well-researched.

  13. Helen Crabtree says:

    Steven, what do you think about introducing white storks into the British countryside as part of a re-wilding process?

    • Mark says:

      Helen – good question!

    • Steven Robinson/Apus Apus says:

      Hi Helen.

      Anything that makes the world a wilder place is good for me!

      Certainly the reintroduction of lost native species would help to achieve this, particularly in the UK, since we have such a reduced fauna compared to many countries.

      I would like to see White Storks in the UK and go with the idea of giving them a helping hand to re-establish, as it does seem that they are not going to do it naturally. I think they would be a good species in that they are a big bird, so are an obvious sign of wildness and the only challenge to human tolerance (for some people) is likely to stem from where they choose to nest.

      The animals that I would really like to see in our countryside though, are beaver (for them to be given native status) and lynx, as they are both going to have a big impact on their environment.

      Reintroductions, particularly of predators often catch the eye in rewilding, but the restoration of natural landscapes for me is equally important. In the UK, this is likely to be woodland (there are lots of different types!), as it is a habitat that is severely lacking compared to other European countries.

  14. Jonathan Wallace says:

    Steven adopts a purist line, rejecting projects that involve the hand of man as not being ‘rewilding’ but I think we have to recognise that we are part of nature too. We arrived here naturally and we can’t just wish ourselves out of the picture. We are unique as a species in the profound extent to which we are able to affect the landscape and also unique in the sense that we can decide the extent to which we exert this power – no other species that I am aware of can voluntarily eschew exploiting a habitat so that other species can benefit from it. But our powers do not extend to the point of removing ourselves completely from the map other than at relatively small scales.
    The consequence of this is that no re-wilding project can ever be truly wild (in the sense of utterly without human influence), particularly on an island as small and as densely populated (by humans) as the UK. It will always butt up against boundaries imposed by us. This is especially likely to be the case in the event of any project involving reintroduction of large predators with the need for large home ranges. Whether we like it or not our definition of the boundaries and occasional need to undertake some kind of management will influence the ecological processes within the re-wilded area.
    I don’t think that this is a reason to give up on the idea of re-wilding however. I am very much in favour of anything that can enable wildlife to flourish and see a value in a variety of approaches to achieve this. Some sites and habitats will require a relatively high level of human interference – and I, for one, am happy that management ensures that many nature reserves continue to provide habitats for species that might otherwise disappear. In other areas, where space and conditions are favourable I think it is desirable to adopt a more laissez faire approach and let the habitats develop as they will with minimal intervention but I don’t think we should get too hung up on the purity of this re-wilding. It may sometimes be necessary to permit some artificial measures such as the use of domestic livestock or culling of populations but if we have enabled the development of a rich ecosystem in the process we should not be unduly dismayed. The one thing we cannot do is literally turn the clock back several thousand years to a time prior to human occupation.

    • Steven Robinson/Apus apus says:

      Hi Jonathan

      Just a few points to clarify my position.

      This blog is looking at rewilding projects. I’m not saying that every nature reserve should be rewilded and I laid out a solution to the lack of wildness in the UK in my last blog – the use of untamed, species and agriculture reserves.

      I offer a “purist line” in that I give a clear meaning of what rewilding means to me based on Soule and Noss’s concept – with the ideal being land that is free from human control. This is what wilderness is – essentially no intrusive or extractive human activity. Many people get this in other countries (it is also reflected by the IUCN in its ratings of National Parks), but the concept certainly struggles to be accepted here in the UK. I also don’t reject all “rewilding projects that involve the hand of man” – just see my praise for the work carried out by Trees for Life and Carrifran Wildwood.

      Finally, I’m not advocating turning back the clock. We can take useful lessons from the past, but this is about future wildness.

    • Filbert Cobb says:

      “turn the clock back”

      To make this fantasy worthwhile we would need also to be granted the luxury of recycling hindsight as foresight

  15. Les Wallace says:

    We need to make a start and do what we can, with what we have. Using domesticated animal as proxies for wild ones we’ve lost is not ideal, but better than not having them – we would definitely have aurochs in this country were it not for human intervention. Managing them in the place of having big carnivores is again better than not having them at all. What is happening at Oostvarderplassen is far more akin to the deer stalking estates in Scotland where artificially maintained deer numbers means no trees and lots of starving deer. Oostvarderplassen has been used as a case against rewilding which is extremely unfortunate – I have seen videos of it and have been shocked at how short the grass is. I think careful use of konik and auroch substitutes has its place and emphasies to the public how altered our ecology is.

    • Northern Diver says:

      Where do the Chillingham cattle come in the range between aurochs and old domestic breeds of cattle? Any comparative DNA studies? Is there a surplus that could be used on rewilded areas? How does this enclosed herd function without much human intervention on a very small area?

      • Les Wallace says:

        I know that they are doing DNA studies on old auroch bones, I think our cattle may have been domesticated from North African aurochs and that is why there might be some substantial differences but nothing too drastic. However, not having an auroch proxy where we can have one | think would be more unnatural than putting in domestic cattle. Obviously with no predation and on small reserves a degree of human intervention is required on top of this. Auroch must have been major ecological movers and shakers where they occurred.

  16. Richard Lawrence says:

    I think it might be more complicated than “no evidence” of Bison bonasus being present in the UK. A lack of evidence does not mean a lack of the species… particularly given the identification difficulties of old bones, if the North Sea counts as the UK and hybridisation between the various bovids that were about in the past. (e.g. http://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms13158).

    • Steven Robinson/Apus apus says:

      Hi Richard

      Thanks for the link – it’s very interesting. Obviously, I have no problem with Bison bonasus being in the UK if it is found to be conclusive that they are a native animal. I’m all in favour of seeing a wilder world.

      I am aware that “a lack of evidence does not mean a lack of the species”. The remains of bison in the North Sea close to the Netherlands/Germany/Denmark, which you mention though are red for Clade X (an extinct related group) and blue for Bison priscus. The closest remains for Bison bonasus seem to be in NE France and W Germany.

      • Les Wallace says:

        Good post Steven, my bug bear is how little attention is given to wolverine being here in post glacial UK. Seems very strange that weren’t here.

        • Steven Robinson/Apus Apus says:

          Thanks, Les and for everybody else’s positive comments too. Re wolverine – I’m not aware of any records in The history of British mammals past the Late Glacial. They do appear to prefer cold areas, as there will be snow for denning, hunting large prey and food storage.

  17. peakaboo says:

    I think this blog and its responses neatly sums up the interest (positive and negative) that there is in rewilding (there I said it!) at the moment. Would MPs and the env audit committee be talking about it even 5 years ago? I think what we need is an intelligent assessment of the positives and negatives that this would bring. I recently surveyed some limestone grassland sites which hadn’t been grazed for 10-25yrs, and they were incredibly rich (100spp+ in 1ha!). In fact richer than the moderately grazed limestone grassland adjacent. Yes it was scrubbier, but also full of birds and inverts. So I think there is something in this idea. Of course grazing is a natural process, but the only wild grazers we have now are deer. I see rewilding as a continuum with Self-willed land on the left and industrial farming on the right. As conservationists we should always be striving to push to the left (or is that my politics talking!). We cannot have wilderness again, but we can have a “wilder-ness” As for space, we actually have loads of it in this country. We just aren’t using it right.

  18. Stephen Guy says:

    While I am all for greater wildness in Britain’s uplands any thing has to be better than sheep sick hills, grouse moors and conifer plantations. But I do think cultural landscapes are of great value and interest and beauty in themselves e.g. ancient hedges, wood pastures or even just a pattern of stone walls.
    Will not rewilded areas amount mostly to secondary woodland without the ground flora, invertebrates , fungi, microbes and soils they should have. There is more to rewilding than large mammals.
    Most soils have been changed greatly by man – uplands perhaps poorer – lowland farmland much richer making true rewilding problematic

  19. PETER COOPER says:

    Perhaps we should be more embracing of terms like ‘restoration ecology’ or ‘new nature’ (as they do in the Netherlands) – rewilding as a term seems to be utilised more for it’s marketability (or fear inducing), rather than what it actually means.

    Because in the majority of the UK, dominated by lowland agriculture, rewilding is going to have to be on Knepp-like scales. Yes that means intensive management of the stock (ideally wild-like breeds, and beavers too), but the fruits of their labours, as anyone who’s visited Knepp can attest, is of wildlife the likes of which we’ve not seen for generations. Much has been made of the opportunity Brexit presents for reform of the CAP, and perhaps we can take one of Charlie Burrell’s ideas of ‘pop-up Knepps’ with it – on land where the soil is degraded, take it out of action for 15 years or so, receiving subsidy for doing this instead (as well as the meat from the stock you use to maintain the site). This would require lots of work with surrounding landowning bodies as you’d need to work out how wildlife would ‘shift’ through the landscape once land goes back into production, but as an aspiration for rewilding in an intensive land-use system where wolves and wilderness just don’t cut it, it’s a useful goal.

    Of course I want to see more of our uplands reforested – the challenge is how to meld that into the archaic land use system we have currently, where the millionaires who own it will respond to any proposal to use the land for something other than hill farming, grouse shooting or deer stalking as if you just requested to murder their grandma. The only way I’d see some kind of Monbiot-style rewilding being done up there based on current to near-future situations is, sadly, a South African method of fenced parks containing your wolves, bears and moose – if you let these out loose they’d be in the suburbs of Glasgow within a few years, and until we can work out some way to live with them after deliberately wiping them out because our ancestors thought they were the spawn of Satan, behind a fence they will stay.

    And a note on the bison (B. bonasus) – absence of proof is not necessarily proof of absence, and their remains have been found in the North Sea. And given they function in ecosystems more or less identical to ours, is there reason they couldn’t work here? We’re quite happy to accept new European species of bird or insect that fly over from the continent, so just because something lacks wings shouldn’t make it that different. They’ve been found to establish foraging niches that are unique to them and not necessarily replicable by deer, horses or even cattle, and in Knepp style projects could both be valuable members of the biological community, and secure populations of a recovering species. It would be ideal to have them free, but in this world of the shrinking wild, I think of what I was told by Professor Carl Jones – regardless of how intensively it’s managed, if it’s fulfilling an ecological niche and is (mostly) acted upon by natural selection, it’s still a wild animal.

  20. Steven Robinson/Apus apus says:

    Hi Peter – do you have a link that Bison bonasus remains have been found in the North Sea?

  21. Mark Fisher says:

    “foraging niches that are unique to them”

    ……. but what if that foraging niche was never part of our ecology? Do we tolerate the presence of mink because it is a mustelid of similar size to an otter? Should we give up trying to maintain the presence of red squirrel because we have a perfectly serviceable one from America, albeit that it is a different colour? Are you forever going to see species just as tools in achieving a management aim?

    Peter, your “new nature” at Knepp has come at a hefty price, the result of a heavily subsidised agricultural extensification to bring about a fall in herbivore pressure from replacing three dairy herds with a few beef cattle and pigs, and giving up arable cultivation. The trouble with your track record of hyperbole i.e. “rather brilliant Oostvardesplassen project” and now here “anyone who’s visited Knepp can attest, is of wildlife the likes of which we’ve not seen for generations” is that it is misleading, as it is also fundamentally mechanistic.

    Allegedly “free-roaming” large herbivores behind fences are not agents of change. It is the modification of herbivore pressure in the face of a flux in vegetative biomass that allows woody regeneration, and which in wild systems is spatially driven by predators. This is of course not wilding at Knepp, nor is it wildland, it is still farming, albeit extensified at great cost. How can Knepp emulate wildland other than as a pathetic and incomplete anthropocentric facsimile? Why would we want to waste money on this when what we need are long term real and permanent gains for wild nature that can’t be overthrown when the subsidy runs out after a few years?

    • AlanTwo says:

      I think it’s a bit of a shame that we spend so much time debating exactly what real re-wilding is or isn’t. This seems to me to be an example of where the perfect can be the enemy of the good. Recent talks by Monbiot and Paul Jepson have stressed a pragmatic and experimental approach, in which the degree of wildness aimed for is adjusted to match the size, location and characteristics of each site, and maybe altered depending on outcomes.
      For me, (re)wilding is a process in which the role of man is reduced and the degree to which natural ecological processes are allowed to operate is increased. Even this will not be appropriate for all sites, but many might benefit from some movement in that direction. I just don’t think we should get too purist about it.
      The European Rewilding Network seems to embrace this diversity of ambition – they are even working in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, welcoming both the unaided comeback of some large mammals while actively introducing others.
      By the way, I thought it was a bit rich accusing Peter Cooper of hyperbole, but then following up with “… a pathetic and incomplete anthropocentric facsimile.”

      • Mark Fisher says:

        I just wonder what is experimental about wilding? Who gets to choose the adjustments? What are the criteria? You seem to think it is the dogmatic imposition of Przewalski’s horses (Equus ferus przewalskii) released into the zone in 1998 from the captive population in Askania-Nova Biosphere Reserve, Ukraine. Over the millennia, captivity increased inbreeding and domestic introgression in the horses so that upto 25% of genomes of Przewalski’s horses consist of gene variants inherited from domesticated horses. There is no wild horse now, so what was the purpose?

        I think its in the footnote to page 10 of George Monbiot’s book Feral that he acknowledges that my work had been influential in shaping his book. You may also like to know that I corresponded with Jepson last year after I criticised his proposals for “rewilding” experiments, explaining what a trophic cascade actually meant, and got the admission that he feared he was guilty of ecological illiteracy, and had only been focusing on reassembling the second tier, the herbivores, as part of his “rewilding package”. This is not evidence of the pursuit of purism on my part, but of understanding – if you like, ecological literacy.

  22. Alan Bateman says:

    ‘For me, rewilding is about wild animals and wild places – land that is untamed and ideally free from human influence’

    I agree. However this type of rewilding is never going to happen. The recent grouse shooting debate has highlighted the entrenched positions held by different interest groups. However the greatest obstacle to natural processes being allowed to take place are the views of nature conservationists who are too scared to allow Nature any freedom.

    For rewilding to take place we have to truly let, go but like farming and shooting the conservation industry has too much to loose by actually allowing Nature to take its course.

    Luckily rewilding can exist in our imaginations, so I for one will have to be happy with that.

  23. Julian says:

    I’d just like to say that the first Beaver which has a go at my cricket bat willows (destined for greatness in a foreign land; hopefully Australia!) is going to get a nasty shock.

  24. murray marr says:

    Thanks Steven for this blog and helping with my learning curve on the subject.

    Rewilding; wilding; ecological restoration; re-introductions; self-willed land (great expression, Mark Fisher); ‘wilder-ness’ (nice twist, Peakaboo); wildlife corridors are all exciting and useful ideas for helping to democratise and ‘biomocratise’ British countryside. And it don’t half need some help.
    For those worried about the survival of the historic and cultural landscape, it’s worth reflecting that a lot of it comes down to us from natural acts of rewilding following changes in the rural economy. For example, the Norfolk Broads are formed from abandoned Mediaeval peat workings; the grand old oaks of Sherwood forest emanate from reduced grazing on 13th C heathland. Yes, those trees are old but their age is nothing compared the sites of ancient woodland on the South Downs. Here, there are frequent and visible signs of Iron Age field terraces that are well preserved due to continuous presence of tree cover over the last 2000 years. And then much more recently, some of the best Yew woods in Europe, grow on the Hampshire and Sussex sheep pasture abandoned 300 years ago.
    It’s also worth reflecting that natural rewilding is going on all around us now. The best examples are recently abandoned quarries which, if left alone, always turn into superb wildlife habitats. Nature really gets off on geological nudity – especially when the planners and landscapers, with their prettifying makeovers and tick-box management plans, are prevented from looking on.

  25. Trapit says:

    True rewilding would aim to re-create conditions the day before the first man crossed the land bridge from Europe. It can’t happen. We need a widespread series of minimum intervention projects ,such as Knepp Castle,covering different landscape and soil types. Well managed nature reserves with specific targets in mind will always be necessary,and the wider agricultural and forestry landscape has to take more account of wildlife,but I honestly can’t see where the money is coming from just now.

  26. Giles Bradshaw says:

    People should have a read of this blog Countryside Mismanagement “If the real objective was to minimise the deer population, they would stand aside and let the population resume its normal cyclical pattern of boom in numbers followed by starvation and bust.”

    It seems to me that is precisely what started to happen at Oostvaardersplassen and to a more limited extent at the League’s Baronsdown sanctuary which also became a major wild deer TB hotspot

    The questions I would ask about both these situations are – are they “natural”? are they good for the environment? and are they cruel?

    • Jonathan Wallace says:

      Giles, I don’t know where your first link was supposed to connect to but it actually links with a charming story about the recovery of Cirl Buntings which has nothing to say about the management of deer.
      With regards to your question about whether or not it is is cruel or natural to allow deer populations to boom and then starve and bust I would say that it is precisely on these grounds that many people raise concerns about the Oostvaardersplassen project and also why enthusiasts for re-wilding are generally keen to include the re-introduction of large carnivores. Whilst there are certainly practical issues surrounding the reintroduction of wolves into the British countryside, doing so would keep deer populations under natural control without the welfare issues of widespread starvation you refer to.

      • Giles Bradshaw says:

        Hi Jonathan – apologies for the link – I suffer from ctrl-c ctrl-v issues having recently bought a mac.

        It was meant to go here

        and yes I agree with you and was trying in a way to make that point.

        Developing it further – from what I understand wolves would be impractical in the Oostvaardersplassen (cmd-c cmd-v) situation as they need a bigger range. Also that is arguably also the case in large parts of the UK including the moors where I live (SW England) not because of the range but because of other social and agricultural factors.

        However surely we are forgetting another native British mammalian hunter – humans. Surely hunting by humans could play a key role in any rewilding project?

  27. Giles Bradshaw says:

    The wet woodland in my valley was developing a large patch of Indian Balsam so I took to pulling it up. Now there is hardly any.

    It could be argued this is rewilding in action. We have two natural processes at work. The natural spread of the Balsam an a natural repulsion to it in the mind of a native British mammal – me – driven partly by a naturally occurring territorial instinct.

    The effect of mankind – which came across the land bridge along with much of our other native wildlife – as well as introductions since is as much a part of our natural history.

    True “rewilding” should include not exclude the work of humankind and humankind needs to use it’s natural intelligence to decide what that work should be.

  28. rob yorke says:

    Interesting Steven. As humans are integral to rewilding, we suggest we factor that in at the earliest point. Purists may disagree but rather than react later on, perhaps best to grapple with sharp horns before they skewer you.
    The latest edition of ECOS explores this https://www.banc.org.uk/ecos-37-2-summer-editorial-losing-control-geoffrey-wain/ with detail of feedback from my various conversations with Monbiot, RSPB, Birdlife, welsh hill farmers, walkers, and Hay Festival goers http://robyorke.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/ECOS.whole_.pdf
    Feel free to contact me direct.

    Rob
    http://www.robyorke.co.uk

  29. […] insects, will rewilding provide the places that our nature needs? Though there now appears to be a turf war going on over who has the right to define rewilding, the common ground seems to focus mostly on one or two […]

  30. […] used. As I was finishing this article an interesting blog was published on this precise issue here, which I would recommend reading. Clearly there are issues around the over-use and misapplication […]

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