Fit for the Future
When I joined Rewilding Britain as Director in Jan 2017 after 34 years in public service, having started as the first Conservation Officer for the Thames Water Authority and finishing as the EA’s national Head of Conservation, I knew I was embarking on a really exciting new chapter in my career, but I had no idea just how rapidly the interest in rewilding was about to escalate. I put this down to the perfect storm of:
I. societal realisation that we really do have both a climate emergency and a biodiversity emergency - not the same, but connected in many ways
II. the government’s commitment to a move away from basic payments for farmers to the public money for public goods approach
III. the publication of the superb “Wilding” by my good friend Isabella Tree which tells the inspirational story of the Knepp rewilding project and
IV. the increasing influence of Rewilding Britain - or so I am told!
Rewilding Britain itself is actually a tiny organisation with just a handful of staff and a few supporting specialists. We were founded about 5 years ago, inspired by George Monbiot’s seminal publication “Feral” and set up by Rebecca Wrigley and Hannah Scrase. Rebecca is now our CEO, I act as Director. There's also a team led by Project Director Melanie Newton, running the on-the-ground project Summit to Sea in mid-west Wales on behalf of the ten partner organisations involved. It is our intention to remain small and agile and to act as a catalyst for “mainstreaming” rewilding. I always say our measure of success should be to do ourselves out of a job – i.e. to get us to the point where all eNGOs, government agencies and landowners etc. “get” rewilding to such an extent that our 1 million hectares in Britain target has been achieved. That’s approx 5% of Britain, but we’re a long way off that yet with less than 1% rewilding so far, so I and my colleagues have still got plenty of work to do!
No-one owns the term “rewilding” and you’ll see many definitions out there, but we at Rewilding Britain summarise it as "The large scale restoration of ecosystems to the point where nature is allowed to take care of itself". I should emphasise here that rewilding is a long-term process – and will involve a spectrum of activity from, for example, my tiny garden wildlife pond through to 100,000 ha blocks of completely unmanaged countryside - which of course we don’t yet have in the UK. In other words it is an activity to which we can all contribute, but we must be bold enough to move along that spectrum significantly further than we have yet done, both in terms of scale and in terms of reduction in management. In mainland Britain to do this effectively, we believe we need to rewild blocks of at least 10,000 ha in England and Wales and 100,000 ha in Scotland.
Having said that, the definition alone is not enough to understand exactly what rewilding is and how it can work. The principles are equally important and as far as Rewilding Britain is concerned these are as follows:
I. People communities and livelihoods are key
II. Natural processes drive outcomes
III. Working at nature’s scale is essential
IV. Benefits are secured for the long term
Above all, we believe that there doesn't need to be an "either / or" choice between rural culture and livelihoods and nature's wellbeing. With new approaches and support from government it should be possible to restore nature and give people who rely on the land for their livelihoods new avenues of opportunity.
We are now pursuing a mix of rewilding initiatives from really large scale 50,000-100,000 ha vision areas, mainly in the uplands, within which there will be core areas of rewilding, buffered by large areas of sustainable farming, and at the other end of the spectrum, large estates or “farm clusters” where part of the land is given over to rewilding (usually over an area of 500-2000 ha) - broadly similar to that at Knepp. We are now seeking to develop the large-scale vision initiatives in the Peak District and Northumbria and we are partners in two similar projects in the Renfrewshire Hills and Southern Uplands in Scotland. As for the estate-scale initiatives, well the list is growing on a weekly basis. Two years ago we were seeking ways in to speak to potentially supportive landowners and now we can’t keep up with the demand. A nice problem to have!
I have worked in UK conservation for 40 years now and I know many eNGOs, landowners and government agencies have done amazing work to conserve our natural heritage for many decades, and goodness knows what state our biodiversity would be in if they hadn’t, but the simple harsh truth is that traditional nature reserve and protected site conservation on its own is not enough to reverse the decline in biodiversity. We need something significantly larger in scale and less intensive in management, to sit alongside the ongoing conservation of our nature reserve hotspots. That something is, in my view, “rewilding” but in a crowded country like ours, it needs people to make it happen.
And so for all those considering a career in environmental conservation or moving around within the sector, these are very exciting times. As I say, rewilding is gathering momentum fast now and a growing number of landowners are going to need expert help and advice. Yes, policy needs to catch up with reality – and that is something I am working on – but we also need experts out there to get on and help to make it happen – and indeed to make sure that rewilding doesn’t end up just being traditional nature conservation. So my advice to those who are interested is: if you haven’t already, read books like Feral, Wilding and Rebirding and get out there and visit places like Knepp, Ennerdale, RSPB Haweswater, Dove Stone, Eastern Moors, Alladale etc. This planet needs people like you and it needs you right now, if it is to be fit for the future.
Find out more at www.rewildingbritain.org.uk
Prof Alastair Driver
Director, Rewilding Britain