Last weekend I was lucky enough to attend the Cambridge Conservation Forum’s annual symposium, this year on the theme of “Rewilding and its effects on Nature and People”.
It was a fantastic conference, thought-provoking and inspiring in equal measure. What was especially good, however, was the diversity of opinions that were platformed. We heard from the hugely persuasive sheep-farmer Dafydd Morris-Jones (of Feral fame), beef producer David Corrie-Close as well as Cambridge ecologists and, of course, the Prophet himself (George Monbiot).
It certainly didn’t feel like an echo chamber, indeed at points it felt more like a conservation farming convention than a rewilding one. But having one’s viewpoint challenged is always productive. Certainly, I came away with much to ponder and some tough circles to square. I’ve tried to distil my reflections into some concrete conclusions, though I’d welcome pushback from anyone who reads this post.
Rewilding is essential for both climatic and biodiversity targets
In many ways, this was the crucial message to come out of the conference. Whether it was put forward as rewilding’s potential to sequester carbon (Helen Harwatt), improve and preserve soil (Isabella Tree) or end the seemingly unstoppable decline of global and regional biodiversity (Alan Watson Featherstone, Paul Jepson, Ej Milner-Gulland, etc.) the same conclusion came through again and again.
It reached its apogee in Monbiot’s talk ‘Could Rewilding Stop Climate Breakdown’, where a beautiful Lovelock-esque link was drawn between wolf populations in the boreal forest and the carbon sequestration potential of that ecosystem. (SPOILER – more wolves equals greater carbon draw down!)
Given that the one thing almost everyone at this conference surely agrees on is the urgent need to prevent climate breakdown and halt the sixth mass extinction event, this view that rewilding is essential should underpin all other discussions about the topic. There is a primacy to this conclusion that cannot be ignored.
It must no longer be a question of should we rewild? But instead a series of questions about how can we best implement large-scale rewilding initiatives. For there seems to be no alternative approach, which offers such potential to mitigate the two great environmental crises of the 21st century. Once we accept this position, it makes the other sticking points surrounding this issue less daunting to negotiate: they simply must be negotiated.
There are two main barriers to rewilding: Financing large-scale initiatives and the perceived cultural costs of implementing them
Very much the elephant in the room at the conference was financing rewilding. The only organisation that really dealt with this issue in any detail was Rewilding Europe, with head honcho Frans Schepers looking at how nature tourism can boost rural economies in Europe, particularly as the continent’s predator populations continue to grow and shift their ranges west once again. Hele Newell, working for Conservation Capital, also outlined new business models that are being trialled in Finland and Portugal, illustrating how further rewilding initiatives might be financed in the future.
The tension, however, is that for rewilding to be an effective tool in fighting our environmental crises it needs to be rolled out both rapidly and at a landscape scale. Lots of speakers at the conference noted that some aspects of rewilding, like restoring large carnivores or region-wide ecosystems might not happen for 50 or even 100 years. This is far too late! Unless we have addressed climate change in a truly systemic fashion, in 100 years time our ecosystems will be disintegrating as the environmental conditions they evolved in disappear amid a rapidly warming world.
If rewilding cannot break the mould of current conservation, if its initiatives remain piecemeal and isolated, it will not only be a contradiction in terms, it will also fail to fulfil its much needed potential. Rather than hoping the financial incentives for rewilding will change in the future, we need to be operating under the assumption that they have to change now, in whatever fashion is required.
The business models mentioned by Newell hinted at how we can achieve large-scale financing for rewilding. The solution is simple conceptually, but will be extremely challenging to realise. We just need to internalise environmental costs in our financial system.
As soon as we do this, polluters (that’s all of us) and those who degrade habitats will have to pay for the privilege. This money will then flow to the people and places that sequester carbon, absorb pollution and harbour biodiversity. Suddenly, it will make financial as well as moral and environmental sense to restore ecosystems in places like the Highlands of Scotland and the uplands of Wales. Landowners will be able to earn far more money from enhancing the carbon sequestration potential of peat bogs and native forests than from driven grouse shooting. Especially as the carbon released by the latter, from muirburn and bog drainage, coupled with the biodiversity lost due to the extirpation of mountain hares, raptors and mammalian predators would imbue a direct, financial cost on any estates that persisted with the practise.
(Note that sustainable hunting, stalking and other traditional Highland practices could happily co-exist with estates managed for restoration…its just that the quarry species wouldn’t be reared in industrial quantities, to the exclusion of almost all other biodiversity.)
Likewise in the Welsh hills, receiving payments for restoring the landscape wouldn’t spell an end to livestock farming in the region. As Knepp Estate has shown, there is a place for large, domestic herbivores in rewilding initiatives. These animals quicken succession, lead to an explosion of biodiversity through their foraging activities and help improve soil quality and carbon storage in the process. Keeping livestock in low densities would make absolute sense in new scrub and woodland pastures. Their presence would also continue to supply local markets with meat, albeit expensively, and keep farmers in the region doing what they have done best for centuries.
Such a version of rewilding would be financially incentivised, but not prescriptive. It would be less a regime change than a shift in emphasis, elevating the environmental focus of farms to a similar level as their livestock.
Even this, I’m well aware, can seem like “cultural imperialism” of the kind that Dafydd Morris-Jones rightly detests as he made clear in his excellent talk ‘“O’r Mynydd”: Searching for a future on rewilding’s doorstep’.
I completely understand his aversion to the idea that people sat around on laptops, far away from the rugged heartland of Wales he knows and loves so deeply, feel entitled to have a say on his community’s future; on what that community should look like and how it should be. But at the same time, if every community, including those in cities like London and Los Angeles, does not radically alter its behaviour and purpose then we will all, collectively, fail to confront our environmental crises adequately.
Dafydd mentioned that Welsh hill farms already sequester carbon. This is true. But they could sequester much more if the landscape was restored to a more natural mosaic of woodland, moor, bog and grass. We need that extra sequestration. We need more bioabundance, everywhere, including Wales.
I am also not as pessimistic as Dafydd about the cultural costs that this shift of emphasis towards restoration would imbue. To him, the loss of sheep farming seemed certain to doom the Welsh language and the rich culture of his mid-Wales communities. He even noted that the Welsh language had no agreed term for “rewilding”. But will farmers in the region really stop talking Welsh if the nature of their work changes slightly? Why couldn’t they decide to embrace the new needs of a new century and own the fact that by delivering greater environmental services and slightly less lamb, they might better serve the planet and future generations of people, in Wales and elsewhere?
Perhaps more to the point, what does Dafydd think is the alternative? Continue on our current course towards environmental collapse? Leave reforesting and biodiversity to other countries, in the developing world? Countries with fewer resources, who are more likely to suffer from the worst effects of climate change in the coming decades.
There’s an analogy here with activities such as coal mining too. I’m not suggesting that sheep farming is as polluting, damaging for the environment or unsustainable as coal, but the point is that none of us, Dafydd included I’m sure, would argue that continuing to mine and burn coal is a good idea, regardless of the cultural and human costs that will be inflicted on miners and their communities in the short term as this industry is phased out of existence. It is important that those communities are given as much support as possible during the transitional interim, but it is equally important that the end result of ‘no more coal mining’ is achieved as quickly as possible.
Unlike coal, sheep farming doesn’t need to disappear this century. Nor cattle ranching or dairy production. But these industries need to adapt, and quickly, to a degree that is commensurate with both what we expect from the developing world and with our need to live within planetary boundaries.
There will always be a place for cows and sheep in the farms of mid-Wales, but the intensity of their production is something all of us need to consider, even those outside of the communities who farm them. Environmental stewardship is a matter for everyone to think about and weigh in on. It affects all of us and so we will have to work together and reach compromises that balance our various interests with those of the natural world.
Large, domestic herbivores have a place in rewilding
This was the biggest shock of the conference for me. I had always envisaged that our ecosystems would be better off if we took all livestock out of the equation, however unrealistic that might be. But Isabella Tree opened my eyes to the numerous, astonishing benefits of low impact grazing.
At Knepp, her estate in Sussex, they have a mixture of large herbivores; deer, ponies, cows and pigs. The wild animals do what they have always done and the domestics act as proxies for their wild relatives, fulfilling ecological niches that are too often left empty. The rooting of pigs, rutting of deer and complimentary grazing of bovines and equines combines to detonate a biodiversity bomb, which has seen wildlife populations on the farm increase dramatically. Notable successes include turtle doves, nightingales and purple emperor butterflies; 23 species of dung beetle were also discovered living in a single cow pat.
As well as this, the herbivores’ impact has quickened the succession of vegetation in Knepp, with the farmland now rapidly reverting to a mosaic of scrub, marsh and woodland. The soil statistics are similarly mind-blowing, with carbon sequestration through the roof and key nutrients present in double or triple the quantities found before the rewilding initiative began.
Clearly then, any rewilding of Britain’s pastureland must include this mix of grazers, the domestic and, where they can be found, the wild. Numbers must be kept low, to avoid over-grazing, but conceivably, as is the case at Knepp, the surplus animals can be culled annually to provide a supply of organic, free-ranging meat.
If meat consumption in this country drops in tandem, to lower, more sustainable levels, then this alternative to intensive livestock production could be the perfect blend of rewilding and pastoral farming, offering the best bits of both, in a country where space is at a premium.
For rewilding to work humans need to be rewilded, to accept wild animals and their behaviours
The final theme I’m going to touch on in this post also came through strongly in the conference. Alan Watson Featherstone was the most unequivocal in his demands for humans to undergo a “cultural shift”, to rewild ourselves and our attitudes to the natural world.
It is hard to overstate the importance of us humans changing our attitudes towards the nature. Not just in terms of internalising the environmental costs of our activities, but in accepting other species’ equal rights to exist and to be.
Chantal Lyons gave an illuminating presentation on local attitudes to wild boar in the Forest of Dean. In general, people whose lives overlapped with the boar resented their suid neighbours. They resented feeling fear when walking in the woods. They resented the boar uprooting turf in gardens, parks and sports pitches. Essentially, they resented the boar being boar.
Living alongside wild animals often imbues a cost. Whether it is predation on livestock, uprooting of a beloved plant or shrub, damming of streams or overgrazing of trees, much of our most charismatic fauna makes its mark on the places it inhabits. I can understand the tedium of living with these impacts and also the direct financial cost it imposes in some instances. But all of these animals are only behaving naturally. They are forced to co-exist with us because we have taken up so much of the planet’s space. They have just as much right to live as we do.
It is up to the people who live alongside wild animals to decide how they want to frame their relationship with these creatures. The only point I would hammer home is that if we expect other cultures and societies to tolerate their tigers, lions and bears we have to consider doing the same at home. Unless you truly want to live in a world devoid of megafauna, then some people somewhere will have to pay the price of co-existing with the great beasts of the natural world. If not us, then why them?
In many ways, it can also be a privilege to live alongside native fauna. Many of the residents of the Forest of Dean, even those who felt animosity towards the boar, noted that the experience of encountering one in the woods was enriching. That quicken of the pulse. Ancient instincts brought suddenly to the fore. A taste of the wild.
I see the welcome drive for increased inclusion and diversity in many human cultures around the world as a sign of hope that we can redesign our narrative with the natural world. That we can learn to accept the costs of animals’ behaviours and enjoy the pleasure of their presence in return.
Ultimately, rewilding is a human problem. It is up to us, all of us, to decide what we want: what sort of landscape, what sort of world. But we have to face up to these questions now and to challenge ourselves and each other to interrogate our assumptions and behaviours in the process.
There is still time for our environmental trajectory to change. But not much. If rewilding is to perform the service we require of it, we need to blow the scale of this discussion up by an order of magnitude, and then get to work.