ECOS 40(6): Principles of rewilding – from the heart

This article discusses the challenge of maintaining a social movement for rewilding in the face of the preoccupation with academic definitions, conservation’s corporate interest, and the fomentation of conflict by the media.

In the last few years, rewilding has entered new and rather tricky territory. New players have moved into what was partly a grass-roots movement, partly networked by BANC as a broad church of interests and variety of approaches, without formal definitions, and in my view, highly successful in generating interest, inspiring some refinements to conservation practice, and helping get projects on the ground.

In many ways, BANC has been a midwife to a wave of shifting consciousness in conservation – through setting up the Wildland Network, which itself arose from the challenge to conservation thinking commissioned by BANC in Beyond Conservation; ECOS pulled together articles from many of those engaged (see Rewilding, ECOS writings on wildland values); and Steve Carver and associates set up the Wildland Research Institute (WRI) at Leeds University. Three things have happened since that auspicious beginning:

  • rewilding has attracted academic interest – for example the conferences at Sheffield Hallam organised by Ian Rotherham and numerous papers in conservation journals, with students studying the phenomenon for MSc and PhD theses. Many other academic and institutional conferences and events have occurred but the Sheffield gatherings maintain an interest in the grass-roots essence of rewilding;
  • the movement has attracted a lot of media attention and this is accompanied by significant financial and corporate players willing to make investments including for land purchase;
  • major conservation organisations, including the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, have incorporated rewilding into their fields of operation.

These recent trends have introduced some problematic elements, all of which interact: the academics seek to define and study the evolution of the concept – but are limited in terms of published material for reference purposes. Several students of the field have produced interesting interview surveys of the range of ideas and practices, and the conferences at Sheffield in particular, have enabled traditional conservationists to better understand the recent evolution; with regard to media attention, the downside is that the mass media feed off conflict and if they can’t find it, they either contrive it, or in some cases foment it – conflict sells. With regard to conservation bodies, they seek to incorporate rewilding to rejuvenate their support-base, which as I shall argue with the example of the IUCN, conservation and rewilding are a contradiction not easily resolved.

A community tree nursery at the former Dartmoor based project, Moor Trees
Photo: Peter Taylor

Some offered principles   

Some time ago, I was asked by Alison Parfitt, a colleague at WRI, to put down some principles of rewilding in advance of an IUCN meeting in London which I attended earlier this year. These principles are set out below:

1. Rewilding begins in the heart as an impulse to restore the wildness of Nature, including human nature; the wild human has an indigenous soul, does not fear nature nor try to dominate or suppress its powers – this is the fundamental impulse of rewilding, a restoration of respect and a healing of past relationships.

2. Science and the human soul: Rewilding is informed by science, by ecological knowledge – for example, in terms of what is missing and how it can be restored, but science cannot derive values which ultimately reside in the heart, and should not therefore seek to impose the interests of scientists, which can be narrow and self-serving.

3. With respect to 1) and 2), rewilding needs to be seen as a social movement. This is particularly the case in Britain, with many grass-roots initiatives and a variety of collaborative schemes and models for restoration of the connection with the natural world; there is a tendency of the media to ignore this and focus upon conflicts – rewilding is essentially collaborative.

4. A community ethos: The movement in Britain is distinct from top-down schemes in Europe or America – it involves communities attached to particular landscapes and places; an enhanced connection with nature, for example, in buying land, collecting seeds and tree planting; working with schools and with mental health professionals. This movement seeks cooperation not conflict.

5. Rewilding needs to be wary of definitions and prescription for supposed scientific or academic purposes – there are many ways of ‘rewilding’ and many differing values, according to the communities involved. To work without definitions is wilder.

6. Rewilding can occur at large or small scales. On a large scale, for example, rewilding may involve core areas and connecting corridors, to allow natural forces to operate – such as wildfire, wind-throw and flooding; but it can also be small scale, including gardens, parks, sections of rivers etc.

7. Rewilding is broader than conservation thinking or restoration ecology – it embraces risk, honouring and the potential to learn from nature as a teacher; unlike ‘wilderness’ zones, wildland can include humans as ‘modern-indigenous’ communities living in harmony with the natural world.

8. Given the pre-eminence of scientific thinking within conservation circles, there needs to develop an awareness of other value systems closer to the heart of grassroots initiatives – for example, in relation to alien species; in the landscapes of scale and beauty; or in the shamanic perceptions of nature and the power of charismatic animals and medicine plants.

9. With respect to 8), IUCN ‘conservation’ guidelines will seldom be appropriate for wildland initiatives which are more creative, with an understanding that most European landscapes are already heavily populated by ‘alien’ species – in Britain, for example, a large proportion of the food chain is ‘alien’ – pheasant, red legged partridge, hare, rabbit and rat, thus additional aliens could enhance the mixture – for example, Spanish lynx is a rabbit predator.

10. Rewilding needs to be wary of an ‘ecosystem services’ mentality and the utility arguments regarding human benefits, including economic models – they are valid, but should not detract from the basic impulse of restoration in terms of a connection to nature, community, learning, health and spirituality.

As an indication of the uphill task with regard to conservation thinking, I annotated below the IUCN briefing document for a recent meeting on rewilding in London and which drew on a range of international expertise. Much of this was well debated at the meeting:

From the Task Force Leaders Ian Convery, Cumbria University, and Steve Carver at Leeds, WRI, with my own comments in italics :

“The concept of rewilding is relatively new, and whilst it offers great potential for reinvigorating conservation, it is currently defined and approached in a number of different ways. This is limiting the application of rewilding for ecological conservation and functional restoration.”

The danger of this kind of thinking is that rewilding becomes a branch of conservation thinking. That is a contradiction of principles – rewilding is NOT conservation, it does not conserve. It is instead a creative process. It is focussed upon increase but in a co-creation with Nature – it births a new reality, hence it is in line with Nature’s most fundamental power – that which gives birth, and actually, that is the Latin meaning of Natura. Conservation has acquired a bureaucratic and scientific dead hand.

Of course a plethora of different ways in rewilding limits its application for conservation – it has already gone beyond conservation. And what is ‘ecological conservation’? It is that form of management and application of science that has begun to fail us in the late 20th century: despite huge funds and public sympathy for conservation, the UK has lost a substantial proportion of its birds, bees, butterflies, moths, amphibians and reptiles. This fact has motivated conservationists, myself included, to seek a new paradigm.

“In recognition of this, the Commission on Ecosystem Management (CEM) has tasked this group with developing a conceptual and methodological framework for rewilding, within a framework of other ecosystem management concepts, including Cultural Practices, Nature-based Solutions, Ecosystem-based Adaptation, Ecosystem Governance, Ecosystem Resilience and Protected Areas Management.”

Rewilding ‘within a framework of other ecosystem management concepts’ – no thanks! Rewilding has its own framework and it works best from the heart, from local groups who love and care for the land, and who dream of wholeness. Rewilding is, was and will hopefully always be outside the framework of ecosystem management concepts.

“The task force’s goal is to synthesise and streamline the theory and practice of rewilding through a sharing of experience within the wider (and growing) rewilding community.”

My guess is that those in the rewilding community on the ground who espouse vague dreams not targets, not ecosystem functionality and management control, and who see their work bringing them ever closer to their indigenous soul – the ultimate in rewilding – that these will be left out, in favour of academically supported, computer trialled, heavily monitored, very scientific jobsworths who will agree to be brought within the funded fold of a fully functional ecosystem manager.

“The aim is to develop a more unified and cohesive rewilding approach that is both science-based and community-focused.”

How about community based and science focussed. Or is that too wild to be manageable?

“The task force will explore ecological restoration in terms of a wildness continuum approach with an outcome of becoming increasingly ‘nature-led’. It will move beyond a simple structural biodiversity approach to ecosystems and instead recognise the dynamic nature of the biodiversity of biological processes.”

What is ‘simple’ structural biodiversity? And ’recognising the dynamic nature of the biodiversity of biological processes’. I know what is trying to be said – let Nature do its thing, preferably on a big scale.

“The task force comprises a core expert group that will act as the task-based delivery team. Ian Convery of the University of Cumbria was appointed Chair of the task force at its establishment meeting. The composition of this team is being finalised to ensure balance. One of our first tasks is to establish an expert panel, comprising academics, commentators and practitioners all of whom are pioneers in the rewilding movement. This is an important first step in terms of better understanding the history and trajectory of rewilding, but we are also keen to tap into ‘youthful enthusiasm’ for rewilding; we have seen this first hand with our work on various conservation projects, and for many young people rewilding will have always have been part of their terminology. We will work with our network of universities, colleges and schools to explore this in greater detail.”

That’s great. It is important to listen to young people – what turns them on, what they understand by the wild, and most especially those young people who have gone furthest into the wild nature of themselves. They are the people of the future. Wild people respect and care for wild Nature. It is obvious in every ecosystem occupied by indigenous tribal people. These are the kids who have gone on Vision Quest, taken Ayahuasca, danced to African drums – they long to see wolf, bison, and bear. They can be educated in the science of it – and need to be, but science has to be in their service.

“The Task Force will begin a systematic literature review on rewilding that on completion will be used to identify gaps in knowledge. Based on this analysis, a working definition of rewilding will be established, and the task force will invite submissions of evidence from where it believes the gaps in knowledge are held. The task force will be looking for citizen science where this is available, especially where there may be evidence that is not formally published. A systematic Review paper on the concept of rewilding will be produced, and which will form the basis of a Workshop event to review progress.”

The greatest gems of rewilding are not in the literature, especially not the academic literature.

‘Rewilding the human’ at Cae Mabon, in Snowdonia
Photo: Peter Taylor

Coming to pass

I am trustee of a small rewilding initiative in mid-Wales (Coetir Anian, Cambrian Wildwood), led by Simon Ayres and based near Aberystwith. For more than a decade now, we have held the dream of acquiring land for rewilding across the North Cambrians. The group is active in the local community and schools. Recently, in collaboration with the Woodland Trust, about 350 acres was acquired in a relatively remote valley of the Cambrians for planting. It is part of a larger zone of (non)commercial plantation and rough grazing extending to the summit of the highest point in the Cambrians, an ideal area for future land purchase and extending native woodlands.

At some point last year, a group including Rewilding Britain accessed significant funding for a major initiative in the North Cambrians which would involve the main conservation bodies, such as the county Wildlife Trusts – the project to be called ‘Summit to Sea’. An initial liaison began with the farmers along the lines of traditional conservation practices that the Trusts are well-used-to. However, adverse publicity relating to talk of ‘sheep-wrecked’ hills and broadscale rewilding, including re-introduction of predators, brought the farming unions into play – the alarm was raised, and meetings boycotted. Rewilding had become toxic. Our own small trust decided to drop the word in favour of traditional ‘conservation’ – for now.

Here we have a microcosm of the issues – corporate insensitivity, media publicity, conflict and the ignoring of the grass-roots social dimension. Summit to Sea has a lot of work to do to improve the situation – and is busy trying to reassure farmers that there is no plan for large scale land purchase, predator release, etc. This necessarily impacts the future land acquisition of our small community group. It is annoying because large tracts of land – about 700 acres, are available for purchase and are currently marginal to farming, but now there is a growing mistrust and aversion to selling land for wilder uses. The rewilding ethos has been badly affected by popular support from largely urban classes with little connection to community and precious little knowledge or understanding of rewilding history in Britain. There is an uncaring attitude toward farming communities – even to the point of looking upon the potential future removal of subsidies and cessation of farming as a great opportunity for large-scale rewilding of former agricultural land. It is sad, because this may well happen, but could, with appropriate sensitivity to a new generation of former farming land-owners, contribute to further social evolution in the uplands involving nature-based enterprises.

There are major lessons to be learned – and BANC members are at the centre of initiatives aiming to bring people together. It is rather odd that BANC and ECOS seldom get a mention – in academia, or the media, or popular books on rewilding. But then, we have always worked in the broader realms of social movements that lie beyond the mainstream conservation realm and perhaps also, beyond mainstream media interest.

There are now challenges to be faced. Will anything helpful emerge from these corporate and broader political interests? The danger in my view is that the ‘purists’ who would like to see large swathes of abandoned land purchased by foundations or wealthy individuals, will gain little contact with community interests, play to a largely urban public gallery and hence create further conflict, especially with the farming communities. The academics will focus too narrowly upon scientific definitions and published papers, missing nascent elements of a social movement. And the grass-roots will then revert to a ‘conservation’ mind-set intent upon maintaining good relations with their neighbours, rather than pressing the boundaries of conservation thinking by the steady outreach and education that has the hallmark of progress so far.


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Cite:

Taylor, Peter “ECOS 40(6): Principles of rewilding – from the heart” ECOS vol. 40(6), 2019, British Association of Nature Conservationists, www.ecos.org.uk/ecos-406-principles-of-rewilding-from-the-heart/.

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