As a geographer I am fascinated by issues of spatial scale and what that means for the patterns we see in our landscapes. What we see depends very much on the lens and filters through which we look at the world – whether that’s through a microscope or from a satellite will either show incredible detail or a broad-brush picture. A recent project by a fellow geographer used European satellite data to create an online atlas of land cover across the whole of Britain. By typing in your postcode you can retrieve a map for your local area together with statistics showing how much of your area can be classified as built up, urban greenspace, farmed or natural. The latter is made up of woodland, plantation forest, grouse moors, and all manner of other non-urban/agricultural land uses. What the eye-in-the-sky doesn’t tell you, however, is the degree of human modification and management that makes up this “natural” land category. For that you need at least an NVC survey and/or a field visit with a trained ecologist.
The Green New Deal report, authored by another geography colleague of mine, proclaims with a broad sweep of the pen that Britain must rewild 25% of its land area if it is to effectively respond to the challenges posed by urbanisation, climate change and biodiversity declines. The detail isn’t made clear but the questions as to how and where immediately spring to mind since the animated maps associated with the report are deliberately vague. Nevertheless, the implication is that marginal and under-utilised Grade 4 grazing lands might form the focus of rewilding efforts through restoration to native woodlands which, together with ecological corridors, floodplain restoration, coastal realignment and hedgerow improvement, could add up to the 25% target.
Despite the conclusions of the Land Cover Atlas, 35% of the country isn’t actually “natural” but is, as highlighted by the RSPBs State of Nature, in dire need of some high-level conservation measures. This might mean more wildlife friendly farming, but wherever possible ought to include some serious rewilding. Whether that amounts to the 25% proposed in the Green New Deal will depend very much on what you mean by “rewilding” and the opportunities afforded by the geography of these islands, acknowledging current demands on land for food, water, timber and places to live and work.
A small island?
The very fact that we are a (relatively) small island has some important implications for how we view and plan our landscapes. There’s a widely held myth among the land-owning and land management lobby that we are just too small and too densely populated for rewilding at any scale to be much more than a localised phenomenon. Again, this depends on the scale at which you view the country and your willingness to see opportunities in protecting and creating spaces for wild nature in an otherwise modified landscape. Critically, we need to see beyond just protecting small patches of natural habitat and connect these wild spaces up with green and blue wildlife corridors, stepping stone refugia and ecologically permeable landscapes. Contrary to the view of Britain as a densely populated country, we are a largely rural nation but with a highly urbanised population. Maps and statistics show us that about 81% of the population live in cities occupying around 6% of the land area. This leaves the remaining 94% of land occupied by just 19% of the population. Indeed, nearly half (~48%) of the country has less than 1persons/km2. I may have just criticised the Land Cover Atlas’ classification of “natural”, but what this category may actually highlight is “opportunities for rewilding” suggesting these are the areas we look closely at if we are to meet the 25% target set out in the Green New Deal?
Fortress conservation vs rewilding
Traditional models of conservation have tended to focus on species and habitats. We identify rare or threatened species and habitats, draw lines around them and designate them as protected areas accompanied by laws and regulations to keep them in the condition for which they were originally designated. While the number of such areas has increased over the years, the quality and success of the protection afforded biodiversity at the broader scale has declined. There have undoubtedly been successes along the way and many of our rare and valued species and habitats would no longer exist within these isles had it not been for the efforts of the nature agencies and NGOs. Nonetheless, it ought to be clear looking across the country (and the rest of the world) that “fortress conservation” is failing and we are at the beginning of the 6th great extinction. This is not a cheery vision.
Rewilding is an alternative model of nature conservation that shifts nature conservation from the defensive back foot to a more proactive forward-looking stance. It does this by making more space available for wildlife and in trusting wild nature and natural processes to look after itself. Rewilding is therefore a more optimistic approach to conservation which says that we can reverse the decline if only we are prepared to relinquish some of the land we have appropriated back to nature and with it our control over it. In doing so we allow nature to determine its own trajectory in those parts of the country where we can afford to step away from more direct measures of control necessary to protect our rarer species and habitats. What rewilding ‘produces’ by way of species assemblages, habitats and ecosystems might not necessarily be what we expect and there will be both winners and losers among the species concerned, but the outcome will be based on natural processes and the trophic interactions involved. Provided that the rewilding target areas are large and well-connected within the wider landscape mosaic then the resulting patterns of succession and disturbance ought to lead to more diverse, exciting and resilient ecosystems.
Rewilding has its origins in North America where the landscape and spaces for nature are wilder to begin with and so much larger than here in Britain or, indeed, most of Europe. Early writings on rewilding across the Atlantic gave rise to the concept of the 3Cs (Cores, Corridors and Carnivores). This model developed by Michael Soule and Reed Noss in 1998, emphasises the role of large core wilderness habitat areas preserved exclusively for wildlife, connected by a network of landscape corridors and stepping stones of smaller protected areas that is large enough and extensive enough to maintain wild and natural ecosystems symbolised by the presence of a healthy population of top-level predators and other keystone species. Despite the much lauded “wildlife comeback” across continental Europe the fact remains that Britain is separated from the continent not only by politics but also by the physical barrier of the English Channel. This makes the possibility of the return of wolves and other large predators to these shores seem remote, unless of course we decide to do it ourselves. Meanwhile, the wolves and rewilding projects in mainland Europe are highly dispersed and low in number limiting their overall effect.
Perhaps the differences across Britain (and to some extent those highly developed parts of Europe) are too great to fully adopt the North American 3Cs model? What is needed is a modified version that better suits our modified landscapes? As part of our work for the IUCN Commission on Ecological Management (CEM) Rewilding Task Force (RTF) we suggest an alternative 3Cs model based around the idea of Cores, Connectivity and Co-existence. In this model, the Cores fulfil essentially the same function as in the Soule and Noss model, while Connectivity expands the concept to include, not just physical/ecological connections between core areas, but also the social and cultural connections between people and nature. We have dropped the reference to carnivores entirely, for whilst they are still important, this broader model acknowledges a wider need for people to accept, value and live alongside wild nature in a manner that we have long since lost or avoided through our reliance on technology, centralised modes of production and increasingly urban lifestyles.
A rewilding continuum
In previous articles I have argued that rewilding is not necessarily an either/or approach, but that there is a continuum of levels that can be applied across a continuum of landscapes at a continuum of scales. This not to say that the term “rewilding” can applied to any conservation practice that moves the land a little further towards the wilder end of the landscape modification spectrum. On the contrary, many small-scale projects that do not involve landscape scale thinking or restoring trophic interactions across species and habitats, or the role of keystone species and natural processes, are perhaps best described using other terms such as restoration, remediation or rehabilitation. An example I often use with students is the restoration of wild flower meadows. This is not rewilding because it has a specified outcome, is limited in scope to agri-landscapes and requires human intervention and management. Rather it is better described as restoration and High Nature Value farming. However, planting native woodland at a landscape scale and encouraging wild flora and fauna together with enhanced connectivity with other core areas could be described as rewilding if the intention is to create the right conditions for nature to become self-willed once the woodland has been established. As John Davis suggests in his article in this volume, “rewilding” behind fences using domestic surrogates in place of wild species without sufficient scale and connectivity to allow the introduction of trophic predator controls and in/out migration of keystone species, really isn’t rewilding and is perhaps best described as “reviving”.
Defining where restoration ends, and rewilding begins is always going to be tricky. There is likely to be a significant degree of overlap and the boundary is almost certainly fuzzy depending on the degree of human intervention and the freedom of nature and natural processes to determine trajectories and outcomes.
The future of rewilding in Britain?
Where does this leaves us here in Britain? There’s no denying our island status and our relatively small size. These are indisputable geographical facts. There are however opportunities for more landscape-scale rewilding if we can see past the barriers and small-island mentality. There have been encouraging noises from the establishment with the Lawton Report (Bigger, Better, More joined) and the 25-year plan. More recently the Glover Report acknowledges the role of wilder cores and rewilding in its review of England’s National Parks. Meanwhile in Scotland flagship projects such as Cairngorm Connect and the partnership between Carrifran Wildwood and the Borders Forest Trust are beginning to take shape and bear fruit. It is essential that we expand these across the country if we are to have any hope of improving the resilience of our landscapes (both wild and human) to the growing urgency in the associated global climate and extinction crises. Meanwhile, the other integrated partnership rewilding project in the guise of the Summit to Sea project in Wales has run into seemingly intractable difficulties arising from accusations of eco-colonialism and a breakdown in communications with local community interests. This serves to further underline the importance of careful governance, consultation and community involvement.
It is easy to say all this, yet harder to do anything concrete about it. The starting point must be appropriate government legislation, providing enlightened and well-informed top-down policy mechanisms and support to enable local community level buy-in that promotes integrated and joined-up thinking across the wider spectrum of society, economy, culture and environment. As far as the landscape is concerned, we need to start with food and agriculture wherein much of the land is currently committed. Getting the balance right between production, consumption of meat and dairy products, use of pesticides and other chemicals, distribution and markets with public tastes, habits and demand is a key challenge. What remains either as marginal, low capability landscapes wherein production is wholly dependent on public subsidy is perhaps where we start looking at options for rewilding. These would be funded, not by subsidies, but by payment for ecosystem services that include regulating, supporting and cultural services along with such provisioning services that do not rely on extractive uses like forestry and agriculture.
The medium to long-term gains from such a model will more than pay for themselves in terms of climate resilience and impacts foregone, if only we can get the equation right and move beyond the short-termism that pervades much of political and economic thinking. And herein lies the problem. It is, at the end of the day, all about scale and rewilding operates at fundamentally different scales to our political and economic systems. There can be no shortcuts to ecological succession so we must therefore change our political and fiscal systems. Our collective futures depend on it.
 Alistair Rae’s “A Land Cover Atlas of the United Kingdom” https://figshare.com/articles/A_Land_Cover_Atlas_of_the_United_Kingdom_Document_/5266495
 Ref to Lawton
 Ref to FCS here and the suppression of succession and disturbance, and habitats dependent on agriculture.
 The State of Nature Report 2016 concluded that the UK is one of the most nature depleted countries in the world and ranks us 189th in the world out of 218 countries assessed https://www.rspb.org.uk/globalassets/downloads/documents/conservation-projects/state-of-nature/state-of-nature-uk-report-2016.pdf
 Soule, Michael, and Reed Noss. “Rewilding and biodiversity: complementary goals for continental conservation.” Wild Earth 8 (1998): 18-28.
 Lawton, J. (2010) Making Space for Nature: A review of England’s Wildlife Sites and Ecological Network https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20130402170324/http://archive.defra.gov.uk/environment/biodiversity/documents/201009space-for-nature.pdf
 A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment (2018) https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/25-year-environment-plan