Rewilding – what, why and how?

I first learned about rewilding in depth at university, where we explored it as a means of conservation, in contrast to ex-situ conservation programmes, such as zoos. When we think about conservation, often we think about large mammals – tigers, elephants or pandas, perhaps – and not entire ecosystems, from fungi to ancient trees and everything in between. With 2021 – 2030 labelled the ‘decade of ecosystem restoration, now seems like as good a time as ever to talk about how rewilding could fit into our sustainability goals and increase biodiversity.

Rewilding means returning a non-wild area back to the wild. The term originated in North America around 25 years ago during projects to help with the reintroduction of large mammals, such as wolves to Yellowstone (I would thoroughly recommend giving this short YouTube clip a watch!). Due to the relative recency of the field, scientific studies are relatively limited, and projects are instead often privately funded, limiting research into efficacy. Anecdotally, however, the changes rewilding induce can be vastly beneficial.

In Europe and North America (rewilding’s biggest proponents), rewilding often takes different forms, with the latter focusing on wildlife corridors for large mammals, and the former decentralising large mammals, focussing instead on habitats, not individual species. Either way, rewilding is essentially recreating habitats more similar to those that existed before human intervention, to the benefit of the natural ecosystem.

The impact of rewilding on the Knepp Estate

Why rewilding?

  • Helps nature recover

With 41% of UK species in decline and 15% threatened with extinction, it is evident that nature needs all the help it can get. Habitat loss and degradation have meant that the ecosystems in which many animals live are changing at a rate that they can’t adapt to. While woodland cover had actually increased, more unique habitats such as wetlands are vital for so many of the UK’s native species. Rewilding is not the only option for improving species outcomes, but it had the potential to significantly help, when done in the right way. More complex and robust ecosystems will be better able to withstand future environmental pressures.

  • Reintroduce missing species

Of 8,431 species assessed in the UK, 15% were classified as threatened with extinction from Great Britain, and 2% are already extinct. Rewilding habitats has helped with many conservation cases, both here in the UK and globally. Here is a great list of some of those success stories. Reintroduction of species cannot happen without significant amount of their native habitat being available, so rewilding could play a major part in global conservation efforts.

Wolves have been returning to mainland Europe for many years now thanks to information campaigns and conservation projects, after being persecuted for millennia.
  • Revitalise communities and bring economic benefits

While an entirely anthropocentric view, ignoring the economic benefits of rewilding would be foolish, as often this is the key way of getting these projects funded and facilitated. In the UK National Parks and nature are seen as a national treasure, but even abroad, many governments are starting to see the economic benefits of protecting, rather than exploiting nature. E.g. North American countries favoring wilderness showed faster growth in their employment and income level than counties in which the economy is mainly based on resource extraction.

“From an analysis of turnover, employment and county-level productivity data, it is estimated that England’s National Parks generate £4.1 to 6.3 billion of Gross Value Added (GVA) in 2012″.

National Park England Report
  • Ecosystem services and other environmental risk management

Ecosystem services‘ are the benefits humans gain from nature, including climate regulation, flood management, maintenance of nutrient cycles and, of course, improvement of quality of life. For example, trees lock water into the soil, preventing flooding after lots of rain. There are plenty of examples of how disrupting nature had led to far worse outcomes for humans too – this is just one example. Forest growth also promotes carbon sequestration (absorption of CO2 from the atmosphere), improving air quality. Natural regeneration allows soil recovery and nutrient availability and improved water quality, as forests regulate hydrological cycles too. Essentially, without nature and the services it provides as a byproduct of its existence, we’d really struggle.

  • Keep us healthy

I’ve spoken a lot about the mental health benefits of spending time in nature, and when you combine that with the benefits of exercise, walking, running or cycling through a rewilded forest is so good for you! Mind charity also released a report in 2018 on the benefits of nature for mental health. Nature is good for your physical health too, and the benefits of avoiding pollution where possible are multifold.

  • Restore for future generations

I believe that young people nowadays feel resentful at the way nature has been left, in a way that means they have to pick up the pieces. Rewilding is an opportunity to reverse that, and leave our ecosystems in a better position than when we inherited it. A legacy for future generations.

Rewilding and intersectionality – a note

I think it is important to note that the only reason we have to rewild, is because we have de-wilded. Europe did so so long ago that it is difficult to imagine how habitats looked before they were destroyed. North America, however, still maintains some indigenous lands, looked after by indigenous people, nature’s best custodians. It is important not to look at the rewilding movement as one of ‘saving’ habitats (that we destroyed), and instead look to learn from the indigenous philosophies, without marginalising these groups of people.

Historically, much of the (public) environmental movement has been vastly white, not taking into account both the viewpoints and vast experiences of indigenous people and those outside the white middle-class. This is counterproductive on so many levels, and, especially in the United States, where much land is still protected by its Native inhabitants, ignoring this threatens the strength of the environmental movement in its entirety. By its nature, the rewilding movement bases many of its principles on indigenous practises and beliefs, such as reconnecting to nature and respecting the Earth. It is important not to forget that we are late coming to this realisation, and we cannot afford to ignore local knowledge where it exists.

How can we help?

Donate

It is important to support charities and projects working to save and restore our natural ecosystems. This doesn’t have to always be monetarily – commenting, sharing and engaging on social media is also valuable. I have listed some great charities both in the UK and abroad below – please do support their work if you can!

Global

  • Amazon Watch – Since 1996, Amazon Watch has protected the rainforest and advanced the rights of Indigenous peoples in the Amazon Basin. They partner with Indigenous and environmental organisations in campaigns for human rights, corporate accountability, and the preservation of the Amazon’s ecological systems. DONATE.
  • Rios to Rivers – This organisation’s aim is “to inspire the protection of rivers through youth-focused experiential and educational cross-culture exchange programs, where underserved students are empowered to become informed stewards and ambassadors for their rivers and the communities who depend on them. DONATE.
  • National Parks Conservation Association – The NPCA works to protect and enhance the US’s national parks. The charity has been going for over 100 years, protecting both habitats and policy changes that would put the national parks and their inhabitants at risk. DONATE.

UK

  • Woodland Trust – Specifically a charity for UK’s woodlands, this trust works to restore and protect ancient woodlands, and campaign for policy changes where they are needed. DONATE.
  • Rewilding Britain – Launched in 2015, Rewilding Britain seeks to tackle the climate emergency and species extinction by restoring ecosystems to their ‘natural’ state, providing jobs in the process. DONATE.
  • Heal Rewilding – A new nationwide charity which looks to buy up low-grade, non productive land and passively return it to its wild state. The sites will be in easy reach of cities for the most benefit. DONATE.
  • National Parks UK – There are 15 national parks in the UK, and this organisation works to manage the maintenance and restoration of these spaces, while also benefitting local communities.
  • London Wildlife Trust – London’s wildlife has been under threat for its whole history, but the LWT helps to manage and expand natural spaces through the work of volunteers and members. It has been particularly hard-hit by COVID. DONATE.

Educate

  • Educate yourself. Join charities, work with NGOs, volunteer, read. I am still learning so much everyday, because I choose to research and look up topics that are important to me.
  • Share articles, educational social media pages, new studies and more with friends and family. Until nature moves to the forefront of our minds, it’s easy to forget how vital it is, and how much we can help or harm it with our actions.
  • Remember intersectionality in your activism. I have been guilty of viewing environmentalism from a purely white, UK-centric viewpoint, but this ignores a huge number of people who are both fighting for, and impacted by nature and natural ecosystems.

In your backyard

According to the Royal Horticultural Society, the number of front gardens totally paved over tripled between 2005 and 2015. With fewer and fewer green spaces in towns and cities, niches for insects and birds are declining. Check out this piece for ways we can increase biodiversity from home, and read this for some of my favourite plant shops.

There are a million things we could all be doing to decrease our footprint on the planet and increase the number of wild spaces, both here in the UK and all around the world. I’ll be the first to put my hand up and say I’m not doing enough, but I hope articles like these help you realise some of the many ways we can have an impact. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below or over on Instagram.

If you enjoyed this article, please consider making a small contribution. Feel free to make any article suggestions while you’re at it!

Many thanks to Hattie for helping me research this topic! If you’re into sustainability (why else would you be here?), give her a follow on Instagram.

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