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Rewilding: is it the conservation silver bullet we need?

Published: 01st August, 2022 at 04:00
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In mid-July, four bison were released into Kent as part of a rewilding effort to revert our land to its historical state. But is this the best way to boost biodiversity?

Rewilding is hard to avoid. Almost everyone, it seems, is rewilding something, somewhere. Landowners are exhorted to rewild farmland, moorland and mountains, while governments are being asked to commit to rewilding policies. During No-Mow May (a wonderful initiative) people talked of roadside verges being rewilded.

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There’s even a thriving ecosystem of books, blogs and websites urging and supporting homeowners to rewild their gardens, which seems uncannily similar to ‘gardening for wildlife’. In fact, if you break it down, much of what is called rewilding is a rebrand of something we already had. When the Aspinall Foundation hit the headlines with a plan to move elephants from a zoo in Kent to Kenya, the venture wasn’t called translocation, or captive-release or reintroduction. No, these elephants were to be ‘rewilded’.

Rewilding makes intuitive sense if we take a big picture view of it. The basic idea is that humans have converted land that was once “wilderness” into some other form of land-use. Rewilding aims to revert land to the way it would be if we weren’t about. This wild state, it is presumed, supported a more diverse and functionally complex ecosystem.

© Martin Hambleton
Letting fields grow wild flowers can support a more diverse ecosystem © Martin Hambleton

We have converted, de-wilded if you like, great swathes of land across the planet to serve us in various uses. You live in one such land use – residential. Perhaps you visited the shops earlier (commercial land), via a road (transportation) to buy bread (agricultural). Maybe you’re reading this on your phone that requires power (energy generation), materials (mining) and manufacturing (industrial). All of these types of land could be rewilded.

Regardless of what land you rewild there are many fundamental questions to ask. Perhaps most importantly, when are you rewilding to – pre-Industrial Revolution, pre-agricultural, pre-human? If you rewild your patch to emulate this ‘lost’ ecosystem, how will it fit within the broader landscape with all its other land-uses? Are you sure your rewilded patch will actually support more biodiversity? How much management are you willing to do to convert the land to this new state, and maintain it? Will you reintroduce species that have been lost?

It is this last question that tends to attract the most headlines. This is especially the case when the reintroduced species are predators, like wolves or lynx, both of which have been suggested to be reintroduced to the UK. Recently, another species came into the rewilding spotlight, with headlines proclaiming that “Bison are back in the UK”. European bison, nearly went extinct, but thanks to some serious conservation efforts they are recovering well and a small herd has been released in Kent.

“Rewilding bison” conjures up images of huge herbivores roaming across the landscape, but the reality is somewhat different. A handful of animals will be living behind a fence in a woodland where visitors will be able to go to see them. Another fact that detracts somewhat from the rewilding conceit is the fact that the European bison species in Kent never lived in the UK. They aren’t back, and haven’t been rewilded, because they were never here. The species in the UK were the extinct Pleistocene woodland bison and steppe bison.

© Philip Dumas
Many rewilding projects look to bring animals to certain environments © Philip Dumas

Rewilding is undeniably exciting. It taps into the thought that we are a scourge on the planet and that the best way to change that is to remove us, and let nature take its course. Rewilding projects seem grand, and attract headlines, celebrity endorsement and funding. Surely, then, rewilding is good conservation? Well, maybe it is sometimes, but there are more than a few problems. First, most conservation isn’t glamorous, exciting or especially attractive to celebrities, journalists or funders. Rewilding tends to hog the limelight, and that can leave many other ventures, with proven success, woefully overlooked.

A second problem with rewilding is more fundamental. In the developed world, rewilding tends to focus on agricultural or other non-residential land. It is natural for us to look further afield, and to view the wider world in the same way. EO Wilson, for example, suggested putting aside half the world for wildlife, and it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking this would be easy.

I can see plenty of land that could be rewilded from the window of my home, as I eat food produced through intensive agriculture I bought at a supermarket. But in many parts of the world people live very differently. They rely on a closer connection to the land, and sometimes that connection goes back for thousands of years. Land we see as potential rewilded wilderness, they call home.

Rewilding certainly can work, and it is likely to an important part of our planetary recovery toolkit. But we need to make sure rewilding doesn’t become a hammer that makes every conservation problem a nail. If conservation is to work well, then we need more than one tool. That means we need to think much harder about how we can share the land we use to live with the biodiversity we need to survive.

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Authors

Adam Hart is an entomologist and Professor of Science Communication at the University of Gloucestershire. As well as research and teaching, he is a regular broadcaster for BBC Radio 4 and the BBC World Service, presenting documentaries on topics from trophy hunting to tree diseases. He has also presented the weekly science program Science in Action for the BBC World Service. On television, Adam has co-presented several documentary series, most notably BBC4’s Planet Ant and BBC2’s Hive Alive.

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