Children play at Browne's Piece in Cambridgeshire - part of a large scale reforesting project run by the local Wildlife Trust. In 200 years this field will be a mature woodland (photo: Matthew Roberts)
The publication of a new book promoting the idea of rewilding has already stimulated a welcome public debate about why and how land is managed for nature. The author of Feral, George Monbiot, argues that ‘optimising the diversity of the web of life’ can be achieved by humans stepping back from nature – letting it go ‘feral’. He also raises questions about how conservation is practised. Why are trees cut down in the lowlands? Why is land grazed in the uplands? Surely we should just let it all be natural without us?
Many will feel kinship with Monbiot’s love of the wild and would agree that rewilding is an extremely attractive proposition. Indeed, encouraging nature to flourish and working to restore degraded wild places is why The Wildlife Trusts exist. At sea, we have been vocal in campaigning for Marine Conservation Zones, protected areas which would allow our seas to recover and be ‘rewilded’.
The state of nature
The Wildlife Trusts are working hard to repair the damage that has been done so that nature can recover
Humans have had an impact on our landscape in Britain for at least 7000 years. You only have to read the new State of Nature report, compiled by the RSPB, The Wildlife Trusts and many other NGOs to understand that we live on a highly-developed island where nature and wilderness struggles to survive. For a long time, people, for better or worse, have been part of the ecology of our landscape. The Wildlife Trusts are working hard to repair the damage that has been done so that nature can recover, but, even if we are aiming to restore natural processes and re-establish wildness where we can, there are still places where retaining some special habitats and the wildlife they support requires some human intervention.
Around half of our terrestrial species live in open habitats which require some sort of natural disturbance (or management intervention by humans) to exist – and which ultimately would be at risk of extinction with no type of management at all. With humans already culpable for such great losses of species and habitats we have to ask ourselves - with the ability to save and restore wildlife – have we reached the position where are we ready to let go and almost certainly lose much more?
Our natural heritage
Ideally wildlife would not need such active intervention to thrive but the reality is that for now in some places we don’t have that luxury. Nature reserves are named this way for a reason. They are reserves for the future – not the answer in themselves. Our wildlife has retreated into these last strongholds, and to give us a chance of one day expanding them and helping wildlife to disperse and recolonise, we must first of all preserve the diversity within them. This can involve sustaining traditional land management practices to maintain the richness of our wildflower meadows, woodlands or heathlands – places that are part of our natural and cultural heritage. But on some nature reserves this can mean minimal or no management at all, or a mixture of approaches.
Above: A 'realigned' section of the River Chelt where Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust has worked with a local landowner to renaturalise (rewild) the river's course
Meanwhile – and this is the breakthrough that The Wildlife Trusts and others have made – whole new areas of land need to be made more hospitable for wildlife and natural processes restored. Our vision is for Living Landscapes which give so much more space for nature that there would much less need for human intervention to maintain diversity.
With this ambition The Wildlife Trusts are re-naturalising rivers, working with farmers to create wildlife habitats in highly modified landscapes, reintroducing keystone species like the beaver to Scotland and blocking hundreds of kilometres of drainage ditches dug across our uplands to restore their hydrology and wildlife. The restoration of natural processes often involves initial work to reverse damage (e.g. reprofiling a river bank to restore it to its natural state) and then standing back to let nature do the rest. The latter example is also a good example of conservation providing benefits that help nature to show up on the country’s balance sheet – in this case through the value of (drinking) water and carbon storage. We can only hope for diversity to be sustained if we can achieve this type of restoration on a decent scale.
But this is also about the relationship between humans and the rest of the natural world. People need to understand that they are part of, not separate to, nature. Until this happens on a significant scale the odds will always be stacked against us. Our task is to create a rich new ecology for the future and we believe that humans must be part of this. All this takes time, effort and money of course. The support of our members helps us to achieve a massive amount but funding streams such as those that deliver agri-environment schemes are also critical. Just as important is the political will to get behind fantastic restoration ideas like the Great Fen project in the Cambridgeshire fens or the Pumlumon Project in Wales. That same will should reject those proposals – such as the plan to build a new M4 ‘relief’ road across the wetlands of the Gwent Levels – that are out of kilter with saving, let alone improving, nature’s fortunes.
Compiled with the input of staff from The Wildlife Trusts
Local communities and landowners are often involved alongside conservation groups and individuals running projects where natural processes are being restored. The scale and methods differ but all projects have ambitious visions for wilder and more natural landscapes. Find out about more about some of them at http://www.wildlifetrusts.org/rewildingprojects. If you are inspired please follow the links to find out more about each one.
- Tony Whitbread blog - read a blog on rewilding by Tony Whitbread (Chief Executive at Sussex Wildlife Trust)
- Some examples of how Wildlife Trusts look after land for nature - read about some examples of the different ways in which Wildlife Trusts manage land for wildlife
- Reintroducing beavers in Scotland - visit the Scottish Beaver Trial website
- Living Landscapes - Read more about our Living Landscape work
- George Monbiot's blog
- Buy a copy of 'Feral' on Amazon
- Rewilding the sea - read more about our work campaigning for Marine Conservation Zones
- Find your Wildlife Trust