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Rewilding Can Help

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.

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  • Peggie Sampson says:

    Very interesting Hugh, especially in the light of previous exchanges re land use, sustainability etc. Our forebears knew all too well that it was better to work WITH and appreciate Nature rather than work against, experience and skills now almost lost, which is where my passion/frustration stems from, if not always articulated very well.

    Therein, I’m afraid, lies the rub.

  • Iain Allcorn says:

    Our forebears didn’t want to work WITH nature, they just didn’t have the tools to work on a large enough scale against it as we have now achieved. As soon as they could dredge the Fens they did, same with the Somerset Levels, same with the clearance of old forest as soon as they could. Romanticising the past doesn’t help anything.

    Is the only reason to do any of this to meet human need as the article alludes to? Might be the easiest way to sell it in terms of ecosystem services but surely the moral position of doing it because it is the right thing to do (clean up again after the mess we have made) has as much merit. Shame the fraudulent economic model dominating our system currently won’t allow for such.

  • Winsome McIntosh says:

    Eloquently written, Hugh. Thanks for that post. I will be enjoying the countryside of England for the next month, meeting with rewilding folks along the way starting in Edinburgh and ending up in London to help Zac’s campaign. All along I will be learning and exchanging rewilding experiences and thoughts with new voices in the field, both funders and advocates. It will be fun and educational!

  • Ben Heald says:

    Love it – well put Hugh. I agree, there’s some really exciting things going on. I haven’t been to Knepp yet, but did visit Ennerdale and Carrifran this summer; both of which are inspiring in different ways. Personally, it feels like there are positive trends for wildlife in and around cities and also many parts of lowland Britain. However, at least in England & Wales, our upland areas are still very sterile; mostly due to politics. I’d like to see a Carrifran style project in Dartmoor or Exmoor or the Pennines.

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