The term ‘rewilding’ is a new one, only really being used widely in the last five years. Rewilding has two seemingly different meanings, but surprisingly they’ve got a lot in common.
Where I used to farm, we were asked to graze an area of woodland with our Belted Galloway cattle at particular times of the year. The cattle grazed as a management tool for trampling the ground which encouraged a species of plant called touch-me-not balsam. This plant in turn was the perfect plant for the rare netted carpet moth. The whole woodland was managed for one species of moth.
As an environmental conservationist, I was trained to manage habitats in the state that they already are in. When a Site of Scientific Interest is designated, it’s because the geology or wildlife of a habitat or feature is considered ‘special.’ Our job as conservation rangers was to maintain or restore the habitat to the best possible state within this classification.
I’m someone who questions the sense in things to a deep level; when growing up, I objected loudly to ‘silly’ rules, like having to use a knife and fork when my fingers did a better job! So the idea that we should manage a habitat in a way that eliminated some native plants trying to establish in favour of a single species that is considered ‘special’ seemed odd. I can see the logic. 8000 years ago from the last ice age right up to medieval times Britain was predominantly a ‘wildwood,’ as described by the botanist Oliver Rackham. To quote Julius Caesar on Britain: ‘the whole island was one horrible forest.’
Within the British Isles, we now have a mosaic of different habitats, created by different management which brings a diversity of species that you wouldn’t get in a forest. Having nothing but thick, dense forest would do nothing for our tourism industry based on the quintessential English landscape – except perhaps a rise in the number of forest holiday parks – and it would be very problematic growing and producing food in any saleable way. Over time, we’ve domesticated and tamed our landscape, and it draws remarkable parallels with the way we humans are ‘evolving’ or perhaps ‘de-evolving’ as a species. Just as most British habitats allowed to rewild will revert to forest, we too have the genetic hard-wiring to tap into our older wilder selves.
The concept of rewilding a landscape refers to the mass restoration of an ecosystem without human intervention – although there often has to be some initial management to prime the potential for balance. It allows the landscape to find its true natural state, and that makes a lot of sense to me. This video beautifully highlights the incredible value in rewilding an area and restoring the top predators of an ecosystem.
A ‘trophic cascade’ is when predators in a food web suppress the abundance or alter the behaviour of their prey, thereby releasing the next lower trophic level from predation. The introduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park not only reduced the deer numbers but influenced the way the deer grazed – they were alert and no longer spent leisurely hours in and around the valley bottoms and rivers grazing down all their favourite plants. The reduced pressure in grazing allowed the young trees to come back and brought with it a range of animal species that flourished in that habitat. The wolves reduced the coyotes (who eat small mammals) so the small mammal populations could re-establish which provided food for hawks, weasels, and badgers; bears and vultures made good use of the carcass remains of the deer. On the river banks, there was less soil erosion due to the stabilising effect of the vegetation and trees, so the rivers meandered less and changed depth, speed, and course in places. Beavers came back into the rivers which in turn provided pools and created the ideal environment for a wide range of reptiles, amphibians, otters and wild fowl.
Not bad for an animal which ‘kills things!’
I think it’s vital to preserve the corners of the world where we still have precious ‘wild’ habitats and restore the landscapes that lend themselves to effective rewilding, such as remote degraded parts of the uplands. It’s especially critical to protect those which support endangered species and in particular those which are still the natural home to native human populations. I think we’re in an era when our technology will gradually begin to show its inherent limitations, and where nature will offer us more holistic solutions. But as many ecologists are discovering, in the vast areas of the world where the climate is ‘brittle’ (dry or poor distribution of moisture throughout the year) the land actually quickly turns to desert if left rested or un-managed. These landscapes co-evolved with enormous herds of roaming ruminants to help the natural decay of the dry vegetation and without them, it effectively dies – these animals have to be re-instated in order to successfully restore these habitats to the wild.
I’m a huge advocate of the other type of rewilding, which promotes spending time in nature and remembering what’s natural for our human species, often while still trying to navigate a crazy modern world.
“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.” ― John Muir, Our National Parks
Daniel Vitalis, who is probably the most famous modern promoter of the rewilding concept, has a wonderful way of explaining how – like our landscapes – we have become domesticated:
He likens us to domesticated animals living in a factory farm. The ‘farmer’ keeps us safe and feeds us in exchange for production. Our small box-like homes are like tiny pens, our food is manufactured and laced with chemicals, our environment is stale and polluted, and we don’t move or behave in natural ways. We have been born into this captive system so don’t realise there’s another way, but somewhere deep down we inherently know there is more to life than this.
So what if we want to escape and release ourselves back into the wild? Well, you pretty much can’t – it’s nearly all gone; most that try fail – have you seen ‘into the wild‘?
Daniel suggests we think of the next best alternative, in this analogy our factory becomes a zoo. In a zoo, we try and preserve species and allow animals to behave and eat in more natural ways. The animals are healthier and more settled and the system mimics nature where possible.
Just as it’s impossible and impractical for most of us to go and live in the wild, I think it’s impossible and not even desirable to turn most of our non-arable land back to the wild. Today our world has too many people and too little land on which to grow food or live. We need half a ton of food per person per year, and yet our top soil is degrading at a rate of 10 tons per person per year.
If we think of land management in reductionist terms, we will think of it like the wolf being a killer – we should remove this species to protect the ones lower down the food chain. The same thinking made us draw conclusions about the management of cattle and native grazing animals on areas of grassland. Cows and bison eat a lot of grass, so removing these animals will increase the grass and protect the delicate flora. Just like with the wolves, this turns out to be all wrong; nature works in wholes and we can’t apply a car mechanics mentality to managing our planet!
As part of the domestication of man, came the domestication of animals. Once upon a time, vast numbers of mega-fauna lived on the land, as Palaeolithic humans we were part of this food web, hunting these animals to survive. As we settled, we learned to keep herbivores in large pens to milk and kill for meat in a more convenient way as well as cultivate the plant species that provided convenient food. The cows, goats, and sheep were well protected and provided for, so became less wary of a predator attack. This change in management – like the deer in Yellowstone – changed the way they behaved, it allowed the animals to wander about selecting their favourite plants over and over again instead of having to move in defensive herds quickly grazing anything they could get before it got pooped on, then trampled into the ground. The trampling was beneficial to the cycle of decay, and their pooh provided fertility. The land had time to rest and recover, the ruminants’s hooves broke up the soil, helping water infiltration and allowing new plants to seed. Modern grazed land gets nibbled year-round with little respite; this is what’s causing our degraded uplands not simply the number of animals grazing.
It would be wonderful to think that we could afford the land to rewild huge areas of the world, but in a hungry world where half of our meat grows on these areas of land, can we afford to dedicate all this land JUST to wildlife? If we did this it would certainly result in even further cultivation of the arable areas and heavy use of even more chemical ‘solutions.’
Are the only options the factory farm or the wild? Perhaps a zoo-like middle ground could be applied here as well. In some rewilding projects, herds of bison and other native ruminants are managed and the protein harvested – after all ‘native’ man was a predator in this ecosystem once too. It is only right we should take our place again as long as we only harvest the ‘interest’ of the wild system.
There is hope for more commercial farm land too. Out of the ashes of a defective modern farming model, rises a new way of farming where the livestock are part of a healthy ecosystem that restores diversity and topsoil. Regenerative agriculture and holistic management are ways of managing land for soil health and diversity in a way that ALSO produces healthy food, and lots of it.
On a holistically managed farm the land is managed in a way that mimics the wild. It needs no fertilisers and chemicals, resists droughts and floods and is in perfect balance with all broad range of flora and fauna – rare and not. The livestock are safe and comfortable yet are moved to mimic their behaviour in the wild and eating a healthy natural diet – they don’t need medication or intervention. The plants grown on the land for human food are healthy and nourishing, they naturally resist disease without the use of pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides; they are harvested without destructive ploughing practices that kill millions of creatures from snakes, birds, and moles down to the essential microscopic armies. This type of food production system is the only really sustainable model for the future of our planet – and the farmers using it say it can feed a bulging world population.
If we want to see more of these farms we have to drive this change by demanding their produce. It is up to us to shape our world and the future health of this planet. We can ignite a consumer revolution for ‘regenerative’ produce; you can learn more here.
I think the holistically managed farm would make the perfect human rewilding analogy too. On the holistic human farm, we are living in healthy homes, free from toxic chemicals, drinking spring water, and eating food from the wild as well as holistically farmed meats and vegetables. Our work is fulfilling, and we have social support from our local community; we engage with the land and are part of the seasons and cycle of life. Our bodies are strong and fit for purpose, and our health is robust. Best of all we get to experience nature within our farmlands and gardens and access rewilded areas where we can – even if only for a short while – remember who we REALLY are.
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