As part of the bachelor’s degree in translation, third year students are required to write four essays on a subject of their choosing (more or less). As avid reader of BBC’s Wildlife Magazine and nature enthusiast, I chose as subject for one of them a topic that has been in the news recently and is still controversial: rewilding
In the August issue of BBC’s Wildlife Magazine, journalist Patrick Barkham describes his alluring visions for a wilder Britain. Rewilding projects have been taking place for some time and they appear to be yielding results. However, this controversial approach to conservation has its critics. Is rewilding a viable option or is it just a wild idea? This essay takes a closer look at the arguments on both sides.
But first, what exactly is rewilding? Rewilding is a form of conservation where nature is literally allowed to run wild and to return to its natural, diverse state. This means letting rivers and plants take their course and it means reintroducing natural species of animals such as beavers, lynx and wolves. The latter is, perhaps not unsurprisingly, controversial with sheep farmers who currently graze their flocks in the areas that qualify for rewilding.
Now for a closer look at the proponents’ views on rewilding. According to Barkham (2014: p.30), the approach is already starting to deliver results. One of the places where rewilding projects in the UK have been started is in Scotland. He names the Glen Feshie estate, located in the Cairngorms national park, as a good example of the success of rewilding. This estate was bought ten years ago by Danish billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen, whose company Wildland manages the estate and the project.
Rewilding is a slow process, Barkham explains. Much of Britain’s natural areas are depleted and overgrazed by deer or sheep. So it was at Glen Feshie. Forests were dying and sheep and deer ate away most of the regrowth, resulting in barren landscapes and mountainsides. According to Barkham, the red deer in Scotland have even adapted to life on these open hillsides by becoming smaller. The lack of predators has greatly increased their numbers.
Therefore, the rewilding project at Glen Feshie began by culling almost 10,000 deer – a controversial decision criticised, interestingly, mainly by the deerstalking industry (Barkham, 2014, p. 32). The reason for culling was to let trees and other plants regenerate naturally. After three years, the first signs of trees appeared. Now the woodland has a variety of vegetation and supports many species including tawny owls, pine martens and black grouse.
A further step in the rewilding process is reintroducing trees. The charity Trees for Life is doing just that in Glen Feshie. The charity has already planted one million trees across the Scottish highlands, and plans to plant a million more. The trees are meant to enlarge Scotland’s receding treeline and to allow scrub to grow back and the soil to rejuvenate, creating a rich ecosystem.
But some advocates of rewilding have bigger ambitions and look for quicker changes. Paul Lister, for example, who bought the Alladale estate ten years ago, plans to return the wolf to Scotland, albeit in an area behind electric fencing (Barkham, 2014, p.30). On his Scottish estate in Sutherland, Lister has already reintroduced red squirrels, boars and his organisation plays a role in the conservation of the Scottish wildcat.
Another champion of rewilding is George Monbiot, author of Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea and Human Life. He also dreams of reintroducing the wolf into the UK, as has been successfully done in Yellowstone Park, USA. He and his supporters believe that reintroducing large animals, predators such as the lynx and the wolf, will help the food-chain (Barkham, 2014, p.37). The lack of predators has allowed red deer to roam unchecked. That, combined with centuries of sheep grazing, has led Britain’s natural areas to become barren landscapes. To summarise, proponents of rewilding have a clear view of what a wild Britain should look like and some argue that introducing lost species is necessary for the success of rewilding.
These points are refuted by rewilding critics and even some conservationists. Tony Whitbread, for example, criticises the artificial certainty of what wild nature should look like. Although in favour of conservation, Whitbread, chief executive of the Sussex Wildlife Trust, disagrees with some rewilding views. In his article ‘False opposites in rewilding’, posted on the Trust’s blog in November 2013, Whitbread condemns George Monbiot’s view of a wild Britain as dense woodland.
He goes on to explain the two often-used ideas of what pre-human wilderness looked like: the closed canopy model and the open savannah model. The first is what most people think of when they hear of wilderness – an area where vegetation is allowed to grow will develop first small, then larger plants. Later, scrubs and trees will grow and ultimately these trees will form a closed canopy, much like that of a tropical rainforest.
The open savannah model, however, takes into account the effect of large grazers. It is envisaged as a cycle of open landscape of grassland with the occasional clumps of trees, which regenerate. Large grazers shelter under these trees and eat the regrowth, thereby continuing the cycle of grassland. Whitbread suggests both models are just extremes, and the fact is, he says, “we do not know what the wild really looks like” (Whitbread, 2013). According to him, rewilding should not be about recreating some supposition of the wild, for example by reintroducing predators. It should be about working to restore natural processes, without knowing what the end result is.
In an article published in the National Farmers’ Union last year, Phil Bicknell argues against rewilding because sheep have been present in the UK for thousands of years and they have sculpted the landscape as we know it today. Furthermore, he believes rewilding ignores the economic impact. The UK sheep industry is important for the British economy, not only in jobs and tourism but also in produce. Sheep farming generates billions of pounds annually and is an important source of income for the country (Bicknell, 2013).
In the debate about the feasibility of rewilding two questions can be distinguished: does it matter what natural areas look like? And is the introduction of long-lost predators necessary? To some in favour of rewilding, such as Monbiot, the answer is yes to both questions. The main reason for rewilding is to create biological diversity in today’s heavily managed British countryside. The National Farmers’ Union, however, see little reason to change the status quo, particularly if change means restrictions on their livelihood, sheep farming. The arguments for the introduction of large predators, however, only seem to cloud the issue.
In convincing landowners who are also farmers, the proponents of rewilding would stand a better chance of success if they take Whitbread’s advice and actually let nature take its course and not try to dictate what the wild should look like. It might also be advisable not to put the cat among the pigeons, or in this case, the wolf among the sheep.
Barkham, Patrick. (2014, August). Visions for a wilder Britain. BBC Wildlife Magazine volume 32, number 9, pp.30-37
Bicknell, Phil (2013, June 3). Idea of rewilding Britain ignores economic impact. National Farmers’ Union website http://www.nfuonline.com/news/staff-blogs/idea-of-rewilding-britain-ignores-economic-impact/
Whitbread, Tony (2013). False opposites in rewilding. Sussex Wildlife Trust http://www.sussexwildlifetrust.org.uk/blog/2013/11/false-opposites-in-rewilding/