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Wild futures

Logo: Rewilding Sussex

Picturing a future to look forward to

Our landscape – what’s there to think about?

How we live and form links to nature is irreversibly and historically tied with the landscape. The role that nature has in our day-to-day lives has been altered by world events, cultural shifts and urbanisation, with each subsequent generation defining wilderness and ‘nature’ based on the memories tied to their youth. This ‘shifting baseline syndrome’ means that each generation comes to expect different things of the countryside, influenced by what we have seen in our lifetime, stories from our parents and grandparents, and visual representations of the outdoors.

Wild futures – picturing a future to look forward to  (Daniel Locke, artist)
Wild futures – picturing a future to look forward to (Daniel Locke, artist)

Romantic-era artists painted rolling green hills and picturesque farmland, and this has become the archetype for the modern British countryside. This is an important part of our cultural heritage and is an invaluable human resource in connecting to the past. However, it does not meet the ecological and climate-related challenges of the present and future.

‘Rewilding’ young people

With our increasing disconnection from a wilder past, accelerated by the rise of urbanisation, there is an urgent need to re-evaluate our current relationship with the landscape and paint a more promising picture for the future. We at Rewilding Sussex believe that listening to and acting on the visions of young people, who will be disproportionately affected by the ecological and climate crises, is an essential part of achieving this.

Youth-led movements, such as the school climate strikes, show a promising cultural shift towards environmental stewardship. However, a large portion of young people remain disconnected from nature. According to a recent survey by master’s students at The University of Sussex, over half of 15-25 year olds felt that their age group didn’t engage with nature. These young people also suggested that apathetic attitudes towards nature might be overcome with ‘more influence from friends and social groups’, suggesting that empowering young people to pass on their knowledge and enthusiasm for wildlife is key.

Exmoor pony at Knepp wildlands (Betsy Gorman)
Exmoor pony at Knepp wildlands (Betsy Gorman)

Our project – ‘Wild Futures’

With this in mind, Rewilding Sussex are developing the ‘Wild Futures’ project, a journey into the wild sites of Sussex where a group of 15 enthusiastic young people (aged 16-25) can better appreciate the diverse potential of the UK landscape and generate new and exciting visions for its future. We will give our diverse group of young people the opportunity to explore nature, consider their own relationship with the land and influence their peers in becoming more involved in their own ecological futures.

We plan to visit sites throughout Sussex with diverse and innovative approaches to land management, ranging from rewilding, to biodynamic farming, to more traditional conservation management, and including places like Knepp Wildlands, Tablehurst Farm, Ashdown Forest and Seven Sisters. The Rewilding Sussex team - Dr Christopher Sandom, Daniel Locke, Dr Rachel White, Izzy Taylor and Betsy Gorman - will accompany the core group of 15 young people in exploring the natural and cultural history of these landscapes. We will engage in local ecology, photography, drawing, camping, and interviewing landowners so that management of the land can be better understood.

Students explore Pagham Harbour, West Sussex  (Izzy Taylor)
Students explore Pagham Harbour, West Sussex (Izzy Taylor)

By keeping a journal of their experiences and documenting how they feel about the habitats they see, we hope to inspire our youth group to develop grand visions for an ecologically sustainable future. We also hope to kick-start meaningful careers in conservation through building skills in ecology, debating, orienteering, giving presentations, and gaining confidence in their own voice in shaping the future.

Our long-term aim is to use what has been learnt about the wild sites to form guides or templates for other interested landowners. By combining their intrinsic knowledge of the land with the fresh vision of younger ecologists, there is a real chance to form more diverse landscapes that benefit both people and nature across Sussex and the rest of the UK.

Picturing a future to look forward to – bringing it all together

From a previous project ‘Through the Bush Backwards’ illustrated by artist Daniel Locke, we have found graphic art to be a highly successful medium in sharing scientific concepts with young audiences. By combining the input of the youth group with the efforts of our artistic team we are hoping to create a graphic novel showcasing our experiences on this wild journey. Images will depict personal journeys and reasons for working in ecology, the current landscape based on our own explorations, and, crucially, a ‘blueprint’ of what Sussex could look like based on the visions of our young people. This story will also be shared online and in Brighton-based art galleries to spark conversations in the wider public about what nature means to them.

Panel from ‘through the bush backwards’ a journey through time highlighting the changing fauna and flora of Britain  (Daniel Locke, artist)
Panel from ‘through the bush backwards’ a journey through time highlighting the changing fauna and flora of Britain (Daniel Locke, artist)

Supporting the project

This project is dependent on us securing funding and we are looking for people to help us on this exciting journey into our wild future. If you share Rewilding Sussex’s key principles of acting locally to bring communities together, inspiring others through rewilding, taking youth-led approaches, and incorporating wild visions to inspire narratives of hope, then please contact us at: rewildingsussex@gmail.com. If you are based in Sussex, you can help us in the following ways:

Become one of our 15 young people who want to boost their skills, experience wild landscapes, and lend their voice to shaping future habitats

Be an inspiring landowner and begin talks on how you can adapt your land to benefit nature and future generations

Act as a stakeholder for the project and lend your support to our funding application so we can make this wild future a reality.

Rewilding Sussex Website: https://rewildingsussex.org/

Authors:

Betsy Gorman (linkedin.com/in/betsyjbrown/)

Izzy Taylor (linkedin.com/in/isobel-taylor/)

First published in CJS Focus on the Next Generation in association with Action for Conservation on 2 December 2019. Read the full issue here