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REWILDING: ECOS writing on wildland and conservation values
Peter Taylor (Ed)
ECOS/BANC, 2011, 494 pages
Hbk £25 ISBN 13 978-0954706425
Review by Andrew Irving
Rewilding is a word that inspires an array of reactions from individuals and groups with all manner of interests. Even some people who seldom step foot outside a city will have some understanding of the word. This topical subject has even begun dividing opinions in the rural community of Ambridge, in a rewilding story line on BBC Radio 4’s The Archers. Often when faced with this term, our reactions do not fit neatly into our expectations. Not every naturalist is filled with awe by the prospect, and not every farmer abhors the thought. In a subject of speculation and predictions, the rewilding concept can be polarising. There are few other topics that cause such disagreement between individuals who sit in typically concurring circles. The uncertain nature of the subject has much to answer for here, with high promises and often radical conclusions put forward by both sides.
Despite being a strong advocate for reducing our impacts on the natural world, something that is engrained in the concept of rewilding, I have always held my pragmatic reservations on whether it is achievable on any meaningful scale in the UK. I was hopeful that immersing myself in this collection of articles on the matter would help me decide which side of the fence I would fall on, or at the very least lean towards. Whilst I am not sure that has been achieved, I can say without reservation that this book sparked genuine emotion. Journalistic articles can often be dry and formal, but the depth and nature of this subject inspires such passion in the authors that the pages bleed emotion. There were moments where I had to stop reading just to dwell on and appreciate the eloquence of the text, and the feeling of connection to the landscape they inspired.
As well as being divisive, rewilding is a multifaceted term. In its most practical form, it discusses species introductions and re-introductions, and landscape-scale change, naturally gravitating to the empirical mindset needed to show the feasibility of the concept. But it also includes the topic of our intrinsic relationship with nature, predators and our land. Outlining how we rewild our souls is something that cannot be quantified. This collection of articles tackles these opposing contexts well, the spread of subjects across the book is vast. I would urge the land managers and scientists to read the articles written by the artists, and vice versa. There is much to be gained for both parties in understanding and appreciating the intertwining of academic complexity and raw emotion embedded in the rewilding concept.
Where are we now?
This compendium was published in 2011, but many of the component articles pre-date this by several years. At that point in time the rewilding movement had already gained some serious momentum in Britain: eagles, boar and beaver had all been reintroduced in various ways, many estates were trialling their own rewilding projects, with much conservation success. Couple the growing evidence base with the generally increased public awareness and motivation to enhance the natural world and it would not be unreasonable to expect great progress to have been made. Sadly, despite almost a decade passing, we have not moved far at all. We are yet to see the reintroduction of any former predatory mammals, while remaining populations of species that have persevered and their ranges are stagnating or dwindling. A recent blow was dealt by Natural England denying an application to trial lynx releases in Kielder Forest, but it is hopeful to see other prospective projects for this species taking shape.
What I find most frustrating is that the same arguments made for decades are still being regurgitated in the modern day: potential threats to farming and potential threats to public safety. Many articles in this book give some much needed perspective on these matters. As a wealthy nation we put the onus of conserving the globe’s remaining large fauna on largely economically challenged countries, with the front-line naturalists being struggling subsistence farmers. Dan Puplett’s article ‘Our Once and Future Fauna’ in ECOS 29 raises a point that is as apt as it is laughable: Our community of often affluent land-owners descended in to affray at the thought of mere beavers being reintroduced because of the potential threat to agriculture. Would these questionably authoritative individuals hold ground on their argument if sat across a table from impoverished Saharan farmers facing lions daily? At the prospect of losing face, I think not. This may be an extreme example, however Geoffrey Wain in ‘Scary or What?’ ECOS 27 adds another valid point: our much closer continental neighbours live side by side with wolves, lynx and bear in an accepting “fact of life matter” and agriculture hasn’t collapsed, and communities are still safe.
The conservation industry, especially sections working on rewilding are represented by some of the most passionate and dedicated people I have ever come in to contact with. They are professionals who work for the sheer love of their subject. Why then, are we so hesitant to make leaps and take risks? Surely we didn’t choose to dedicate our lives to the natural world to be timid? To once more reference Dan Puplett, we could learn a lot from more business orientated sectors who more commonly take a risk in the pursuit of just getting on with it.
Reviving the pull of the wild
A point that is reiterated many times across several articles is that for rewilding to be successful, it must be wanted by the people of our lands. The evidence base, endless scientific data and cost-benefit analysis are enabling factors, not the key to success. A quote here from Tony Whitbread’s article ‘Thinking Big’ in ECOS 31 captures this idea well, putting an economic value on nature could be considered unethical, to put a price on something we simply couldn’t and shouldn’t live without “is a poor approximation of infinity”.
As a naturalist I am familiar with the pull of the wild, the feeling of connection to the landscape, of being part of a greater whole whilst looking out across a mountain range or walking through a forest. But this is not the case for much of the public. Alongside rewilding the landscape we need to rewild our souls and a large portion of the book addresses this matter. The problem is that when developing a project, it is hard to quantify the public’s sense of wonder, or make a revived connection to the natural world a SMART target. We must achieve this aim if we are to see any meaningful rewilding in the UK. Making the empirical and the theoretical mesh together is no mean feat. We may need to take a risk and become less timid in the pursuit of making it happen.