ROUTLEDGE HANDBOOK OF REWILDING
Sally Hawkins, Ian Convery, Steve Carver, and Rene Byers (Eds)
Routledge, Taylor and Francis, London and New York, 2022, 420 Pages
Hardback: £190 | ISBN 9780367564483
Review by Edward Grierson
Rewilding has entered public consciousness astonishingly fast. The concept had been gathering momentum for decades, gradually spawning organisations and conflicting schools of thought. But in the years since ECOS released the seminal book, Beyond Conservation, a Wildland Strategy, rewilding went from a niche sub-sect of conservation to a driving force. Conservation groups and even governments cite ‘rewilding’ in their environmental plans.
But with rewilding being such a loosely defined concept, it becomes open to misuse. Can a shooting estate call releasing pheasants ‘rewilding’ just because they planted some trees? Is a landowner grazing cows ‘rewilding’ just because their fields aren’t ploughed? In the twenty-first century, what exactly constitutes rewilding? This is what The Handbook of Rewilding sets out to answer.
It begins by offering the IUCN definition of rewilding: “Rebuilding, following major human disturbance, a natural ecosystem by restoring natural processes and the complete or near complete food web at all trophic levels as a self-sustaining and resilient ecosystem”.
Essentially, rewilding is all about letting nature, rather than humans, take charge of ecosystems. But even this doesn’t cover all rewilding movements. Pleistocene rewilding- the restoration of ecosystems as they were at the last Ice Age- is only briefly mentioned, with no attempt to reconcile it with other movements that use more recent reference points.
But that’s probably a different book. Moreover, Sally Hawkins, Ian Convery, Steve Carver, Rene Byers, and all the contributors emphasise that rewilding isn’t about looking back to past ecosystems at all. Instead, it’s about how ecosystems can develop and change without our intervention. Some might see a contradiction between this ethos and the passion for reintroductions. If rewilding is about thinking ahead, why do we want to put back species that haven’t existed somewhere for millennia? The answer provided is that these missing elements are needed for an ecosystem to be self-sustaining. But as we explore the history of rewilding, we see differing approaches even within this framework.
We begin with American pioneers Michael Soule and Reed Noss, founders of the Wildland Network and Earth First! Magazine, where ‘rewilding’ was coined in 1991. To them, rewilding was about the ‘Three Cs’- cores, corridors, and carnivores. Essentially, the pre-existing tracts of self-willed, uninhabited land in North America needed connecting, so their wildlife can spread. It was inspired by earlier concepts of ecological restoration, and the re-establishment of predators across the continent in the 80s and 90s.
Rewilding concepts and practice then reached Europe through ecologists like Frans Vera, and here the authors highlight some changes in approach. Firstly, the increased focus on herbivores in European rewilding. Two of Europe’s main grazers, the wild horse and the aurochs, are now extinct, while the European bison was extirpated across most of its range. In response, projects sponsored by Rewilding Europe have reintroduced deer, bison, cattle, and horses to ecosystems from Iberian oak woodland to the Danube delta.
This embodies the goal of European rewilding: a focus on semi-traditional agricultural landscapes, of which humans are a part, rather than protecting uninhabited wilderness. But it is understandable how this different approach came to be. Europe is much more densely populated, with fewer uninhabited areas. Moreover, in the absence of large grazers, humans have become Europe’s main agents of disturbance. Many species thrive on traditional farmland, and the mix of habitats it provides. But then, isn’t reintroducing keystone species a way of putting that self-sustaining element back into Europe’s ecosystems?
From here, the book takes us on a tour of rewilding on every continent. We see the restoration of Argentina’s Ibera wetlands – complete with jaguars – and community forests in Nepal’s Terai Arc. Many of these involve human settlements as well, suggesting the North American approach is the exception rather than the norm.
We also see more differences in approach. One chapter praises the restoration of Gelderse Poort’s floodplains, which managed to preserve the historic architecture in the area. But a chapter about Scotland shows how policy there defines the ‘wildest’ land based on its distance from human settlement. This variation could be due to distinct geography and population distribution between the two countries. But if the Netherlands can bring wildness to working agricultural land, why shouldn’t Scotland aim for this too?
But the most common argument amongst rewilding practitioners is the extent of human interference in ecosystems. When indigenous communities enter the picture, this question becomes unavoidable. We learn about Aboriginal Australians’ history of managing grassland with bushfires. When the Mutawa and Kurrara-Kurrara areas came under indigenous protection, the Martu people reintroduced controlled burning. Is there a potential conflict between indigenous rewilding movements, and Western rewilders that oppose any sort of management?
Indeed, racism and colonialism still cast long shadows over Western conservation. The wildernesses extolled by American rewilders, such as Yosemite and Yellowstone, owe their wildness to the eviction of Native Americans. These began a long history of forced removals across the world, to maintain ‘untouched nature’. It’s a process that is ongoing in many countries.
Happily, The Rewilding Handbook acknowledges this. It knows that rewilding can become the hobby of land barons and technocrats and discusses how rewilding can be about restoring human livelihoods alongside nature. This is where that the book really shines.
Julia Aglionby and Hannah Field explore how to incorporate agriculture into large-scale rewilding. They propose a minimum threshold for soil and water health and a three-tiered system of low yield arable, semi-natural livestock grazing, and letting unproductive land go wild. This may be at odds with rewilders that want nature for its own sake. But many farmers want to help nature and could be brought over to rewilding if we consider how they could contribute to it.
Traditional Indigenous Knowledge is delved into in detail, showing how indigenous communities are in fact an invaluable part of preserving wild land. But traditional indigenous knowledge isn’t just about supplying the West with plants for new medicine. It’s equally about the psychological aspect of an ecosystem: a psychological space that parallels the physical place. We see how science and technology have been used to implement rewilding: the early use of email in the Wildland Network, Geographical Information Systems used to map potential rewilding areas, and revelations about the importance of fungi in forest ecosystems. But we’re also shown the importance of engaging with landscapes on an emotional level, letting them engage our mind, and letting that influence how we interact with landscapes.
Other chapters go further, proposing that rewilding can radically rethink how we see nature. There is now a growing movement to grant animals, plants, and ecosystems legal rights. In an ‘ecodemocracy’, they could all be granted legal representatives and a court, becoming equal citizens to us.
The Handbook of Rewilding may not provide answers to every question about rewilding. But it does provide an excellent overview of the subject and give readers enough information to come to their own conclusions. If key books like Beyond Conservation, Feral, Wilding, or Rebirding sparked something in you, and you want to delve deeper into rewilding theory, I can certainly recommend this book. And perhaps the defining feature of rewilding is how broad a concept it has become amongst the interpretations. A diversity of ecosystems, with differing histories of human interaction, will require a range of approaches. But perhaps they can all be accommodated within the framework of complete, self-sustaining ecosystems.