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The case for rewilding Britain

Across the world, successful rewilding projects are flourishing. Forests are being restored, once lost animals are moving back into their native habitats, and nature is being left to care for itself. One environmental charity, Rewilding Britain, is setting out to restore British ecosystems on a grand scale.

The organisation sees itself as a catalyst, bringing together the expertise that will help set up projects.

For co-founder Rebecca Wrigley, it all started with a book. George Monbiot’s Feral brought the topic of rewilding to the forefront, opening up a conversation about how Britain could be. Prominently on the Rewilding Britain website, are Monbiot’s words: “Rewilding holds out hope of a richer living planet that can once more fill our lives with wonder and enchantment.”

Rewilding has a been a lifelong passion for Rebecca Wrigley, having worked in conservation for more than 20 years. In other countries, she saw wild landscapes and forested uplands with an abundance of nature. Inspired, she began to imagine a different vision for the British countryside: “I started questioning my perception and then seeing the potential and imagining a Britain where natural places return.”

Why do we need rewilding?

Biodiversity in the UK is in trouble, with more nature lost than the global average, according to a new measure detailed in the State of Nature report. The study from a collaboration of over 50 wildlife organisations said: “We are among the most nature-depleted countries in the world.”

With the study showing that 56% of species are in decline, it suggests that conservation projects could help turn things around.

The practice of rewilding gives power back to nature, setting the wheels in motion for the wilderness to grow without human intervention. Natural areas are restored, native animals and plants are reintroduced and protected.

Rewilding Britain says that the benefits for nature are huge, with biodiversity, water security, and flood mitigation all results of rewilding. The social benefits are also proven, with evidence strongly supporting the theory that health and wellbeing can be improved through connection with nature.

The reintroduction of beavers

One poster child of the rewilding world is the beaver. The natural engineers will receive legal protection, now that they have successfully been reintroduced to Scotland. Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, the Scottish Wildlife Trust and Forestry Commission Scotland managed the five-year trial.

Research shows that beavers significantly alter ecosystems. In addition to building the dams that help prevent flooding and improve water quality, they create wetlands and restore woodland. In turn, this encourages species such as dragonflies and fish to thrive.

Other parts of the UK are looking to follow Scotland’s lead, where beavers are now recognised as a native species. Devon Wildlife Trust is crowdfunding for a trial to support a breeding population of beavers, which has been found on the River Otter. The trial would allow time for the impact of the animals to be monitored, in order to make an informed decision about whether they should be allowed to keep calling Devon their home, or whether they will instead be evicted.

The Knepp Estate

On the other side of England, a once unprofitable arable and dairy farm is reaping the rewards of rewilding, both ecologically and financially. The Knepp Estate in Sussex, supported by the Natural England Higher Level Stewardship Scheme, now focuses primarily on regeneration and restoration projects.

Cattle, ponies, pigs are deer roam free across the land, their grazing encouraging new habitats to evolve. Rather than forcing nature’s hand, the estate encompasses the very heart of rewilding, by allowing nature to take its own course with no specific intended outcome.

After a decade of an approach focused on wildlife conservation and land regeneration, a wild landscape flourishes, brimming with mammals, reptiles, birds, and butterflies. The estate is also home to two percent of the UK’s population of nightingales.

By offering a campsite, wildlife tours, and by producing high quality meat, the 3,500 acre estate has become economically viable.

The River Wandle

Rewilding is not just limited to vast areas of countryside. The River Wandle in South London, once contaminated with dyes and bleach, is one such urban project.

The Wandle Trust is working to restore the river to a chalk stream, which in turn will play host to wildlife. Through litter picking; recreating features that allow eels to migrate upstream; and re-stocking the river with trout, a return to nature could be on the horizon.

Aside from bringing the wild back into this urban landscape, there has been an added benefit from the project. Children have been encouraged to get close to nature, through their involvement in the project and by playing in the river.

The future for rewilding

Rewilding Britain is now considering projects in between three and five areas in England, Wales and Scotland. For the first time, this could be achieved at scale.

Success hangs in a fine balance, as a relationship where both humans and nature can thrive is a difficult one to manage. According to the group, the availability of land, willingness of landowners to engage, and policy can all prove difficult obstacles to overcome. Concerns about rewilding projects are felt by some landowners, from the impact of beavers felling trees, to wolves and lynx preying on livestock.

According to the organisation, rewilding can provide economic opportunities in rural areas, providing a benefit to people as well as nature. However, they acknowledge that not everyone will want to be involved: “We want to develop innovative approaches to engaging communities and we want to work in areas where those communities are interested.”

As for the future, they said: “There is a lot of hope. It’s about finding a new balance between people and nature in a way that allows both to thrive.”

Join co-founders of Rewilding Britain, Derek Gow and Rebecca Wrigley, when they talk to Chris Packham at the Lush Summit 2017.

Photograph courtesy of Knepp Estate

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