By Hugh Raven, John Ellerman Foundation and EFN, 18th March 2016
Seldom do really new ideas surge into public consciousness in a mature democracy like Britain’s. New issues arise, of course. Diseases, security threats, ways of doing business, technologies – all evolve, and public discourse is refreshed. But occasionally someone suggests a new approach, coins a memorable descriptive term, and – if it’s compelling – we may have a new movement on our hands.
In the world of ecological thought, it’s not that new paradigms are unknown. Natural history, conservation, the environment, sustainable development: all have been the current mot juste to describe a particular period’s understanding of the issues that concern EFN.
A vital subset of those issues – life-and-death matters of ecosystems and biodiversity – has a new kid on the block. It’s not an everyday kitchen-sink topic, that I admit. I’ve yet to hear it raised at the bar of the Dog and Duck.
Nonetheless, such, I believe, is rewilding: a new approach. To be fair we should credit those who’ve brought it to our attention. George Monbiot’s elegant, cheeky book ‘Feral’ has done most in that respect, but though brilliantly readable and provocative, it did omit mention in its case studies of perhaps the UK’s longest-standing practical champions of his new cause. Charlie and Isabella Burrell have pioneered it, in Sussex, for the last fifteen years. If you want to understand the meaning of rewilding amid the constraints of Southern England, you must go to their Knepp Castle Estate.
In the thickly-crowded Home Counties, Knepp gives as good a sense of rewilding as Sussex Wealden clay will allow. But it’s a protean concept. No single exemplar can define it. I’ve become an advocate too, so from time to time need to explain (if only to myself) what it means.
To some, it’s reintroducing missing species. Beavers on the Otter – that lovely Devon stream; red squirrels in North Argyll; pine martens on the Welsh March – all are or soon will be newly released. Wild boar are spreading with no need of help. Lynx are in the news. In the background – seldom mentioned, but on some determined people’s minds – are wolves and bears. When I raised rewilding recently with a group of seasoned greens, large carnivores were assumed to be what I meant (which they were against).
It need not be that. Maybe the essence of rewilding is that humans, with our ineluctable tendency to meddle and fiddle, must just get out of the way: put a fence round it and see what happens. This approach also has a new phrase to describe it: self-willed land. Human intervention not required. Patience is.
Some say it’s not really about either of these. Rather it’s working hard to assist nature to meet specific human needs – through ecosystem services, in the insiders’ jargon, to enrich us by avoiding cost and inconvenience when nature turns nasty and swats us with storms, floods, pestilence and plague. Soaking up both carbon and water in forests and soils is central to these benefits, and the new interest in natural capital means increasingly they’re measured and monitored. The real potential of this version of rewilding is yet barely understood, but anything to help avoid the misery of flooding has got to be worth a try.
I think it’s all of these, and another thing too. To me above all it’s about the human spirit. The gladdening effect, the excitement of exploring nature is what draws me to rewilding. I want to see new species, assemblages, fleeting rare animals and re-established wildflowers. I long to feel the natural world in charge (at least until the next meal). I yearn for seas full of fish and skies alive with varied birds.
In this I know I’m not alone: the wonder and awe inspired by wild country links us back to the natural world. The more vividly we feel it – and the more people who do so – the easier is the work of those of us whose job is to address its plight.
This can help us as funders. I believe rewilding can aid philanthropy by delivering a joined up approach. Want to fund wildlife? Worried about flooding, feel the need to mitigate climate change? Looking to educate and inspire about the wonder of nature? Keen to help endangered species, restore ecological processes, create habitat, regulate animals naturally through predation?
I believe we have an answer – a portmanteau approach, which at its best can offer them all. Rewilding can help.
Hugh Raven chairs the Environmental Funders Network. He’s a trustee of the John Ellerman Foundation, and co-owner of Ardtornish Estate.