What is rewilding?

Definition of rewilding

There are many definitions of rewilding. We believe rewilding is a ‘hands-off’ conservation effort, at any scale, to restore and maintain biodiversity. At its best, it provides a haven for wildlife by allowing natural ecosystems to re-establish. The Oxford dictionary might define it as “restoring an area of land to a natural and uncultivated state”.

Why rewilding is so important

Humans have dramatically disturbed the natural environment

All over the world, habitats and ecosystems have been changed dramatically by the actions of humans. As hunter gatherers, we impacted our environment since the dawn of our species. Since becoming agriculturalists, and particularly since the recent industrialisation and mechanisation of farming, that impact has dramatically increased.

Bulldozer removing hedges in field
Tractor spraying intensively farmed crop

Food production has sacrificed natural habitats

As farmers, we have completely changed much of our surrounding ecosystem; removing predators which threaten domestic livestock, draining marshes, clearing woodland, ‘improving’ land with fertilisers and straitening river courses, to name just a few.

While these changes were made to increase yields of agricultural produce to feed growing populations, increase food security and reduce reliance on imports, it has led to the unbalancing of natural habitats and, in many cases, the tragic loss of natural habitats, wildlife and biodiversity.

Intensive agriculture was necessary following World War Two

The agricultural improvement of British farmland was a slow process over hundreds of years.

Then, in the first half of the 20th Century the pursuit of food security during and immediately after the Second World War drove more land into production and a drive to maximize food production to feed a starving country.

It were these efforts which, for example, led to even larger portions of East Anglia, once dominated by fen and marsh, being drained to be repurposed as arable land (though the process was first started long ago by Vermuyden in the 1600s).

Across the country hedges were removed, wildflower meadows ploughed and woodland felled to create larger fields to accommodate the ever-growing size of farm machinery

The result were amazing increases in agricultural productivity.

Tractor ploughing grass meadow
Yellowhammer bird in foliage

Post-war agriculture led the startling decline of several of our most-loved species

Unfortunately, intensive farming has negatively impacted numerous species. Perhaps most notable are birds, which are particularly sensitive to environmental changes and habitat loss. Grey partridges have suffered a decline of 91% since 1967 and this decline has been mirrored across the whole of their European range.

Other species which have suffered similar declines include yellow hammers, tree sparrows, Dartford warblers, nightingales, skylarks and turtle doves to name just a few.

Unfortunately, declining bird populations often indicate other species are suffering, including plants, insects and mammals.

Reducing the number of a single species often has unpredictable damage to the ecosystem as a whole

The removal, or extinction, of any species can have a profound and unpredictable ripple effect throughout an ecosystem.

For example, beavers are known to be an incredibly important species, acting as architects of the landscape. They naturally coppice trees and scrub, creating rich wetlands which in turn harbour all manner of bird and mammal life.

Their loss, not just in the British Isles but all over the globe, has changed landscapes and dramatically impacted the habitats of numerous other species.

Beaver dams filter water and create new habitats
Keystones are essential for supporting entire systems. Removing them has a destructive effect

Beavers are a classic example of a "keystone species"

Beavers provide a visible example of how one species impacts others.

We are only just understanding the complex relationships and interdependency of the natural world.

It is likely that the health of every species in an ecosystem, no matter how small, impacts the existence of others.

Reducing the number of any species has an unpredictable effect on the ecosystem as a whole.

Each species interacts with others, the more species the richer the biodiversity

Even the humble dung beetle has a profound effect on ecosystems. They enrich the earth by burrowing manure into soils, enabling lush new pasture, anthills and an even richer ecosystem.

Dung beetles are a keystone species
New water lilly buds

Rewilding Aims to Combat Loss of Biodiversity

With all the losses that nature has suffered, rewilding seeks to redress the balance and restore natural ecosystems.

There have been schemes to promote more environmentally friendly farming for many years, and other projects for the restoration of upland areas which have been degraded by overgrazing, deforestation and erosion due to heavy traffic by visitors.

Rewilding goes beyond just limiting further damage: the objective is to restore what we have lost and give nature a chance to thrive in a changing climate.

Even small scale rewilding can have a dramatic impact

That restoration might start with very small measures which have a meaningful effect. Allowing lawns in domestic gardens to ‘go wild’ can have a remarkable effect on the population of insects, butterflies and even hedgehogs.

The re-establishment of species rich hedgerows provides valuable wildlife corridors and habitats for birds and mammals.

The planting of cover crops, which may never be harvested for sale, provide pollen and nectar for insects and seed and shelter for birds.

Remnants of ancient woodland can be restored to provide a suitable habitat to all manner of threated and declining species.

While these small efforts are positive, and accessible to almost every home and landowner, the real value of rewilding comes when it is attempted on a larger scale.

 

Overgrown garden with lush vegetation

Take a more relaxed approach to gardening. Let your lawn grow wild, relax about weeding and connect with your neighbours

Royal Horticultural SocietyIn partnership with BBC Springwatch

To truly rebuild our ecosystems, we need to think bigger

Larger scale rewilding can have profound benefits to ecosystems and biodiversity

Introduction of wolves to Yellowstone national park demonstrates importance of keystone species
Presence of wolves near Yellowstone rivers have transformed riparian habitats

Case study: Wolves in Yellowstone National Park

The reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park is a classic example of a rewilding project that had completely unexpected benefits for the ecosystem.

The wolf reintroduction was carried out for a number of reasons, partly in response to federal legislation requiring efforts be made to re-establish populations of endangered species and partly in an effort to reduce elk populations.

The elk population did decline after the successful introduction due to the combined impact of the wolves and other predators.

Interestingly, the elk started to spend less time in the river valleys to avoid being predated by wolves. The consequence was that trees, scrub and birds to started to recolonise the river areas.

Beavers were attracted to the new lush vegetation along the rivers, which in turn, through felling trees, slowed the flow of water and created new habitats for insects and fish.

These new insect-rich habitats drove an increase in the number of birds. Remarkably, even the course of the rivers was changed – all due to the introduction of a small number of wolves.

Introduction of herbivores into rewilded land in the Netherlands created an ideal habitat for white-tailed eagles

Similar unexpected benefits have occurred at other rewilding sites. The Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands is a nature reserve created from reclaimed land under the direction of visionary ecologist Franz Vera. The reserve was stocked with a selection of herbivores which grazed the newly drained land creating a network of marsh, reedbeds and patchy woodland.

Wetland birds are thriving here. Against all expectations white tailed eagles even started nesting in the area. No-one would have expected eagles to colonise lowland reedbed habitat; the habitats they are normally associated with are the wild rocky coasts of Scotland and Scandinavia.

white tailed sea eagle re-introduction had significant economic impact on the Isle of Mull

These sorts of surprises are common in rewilding projects and is transforming our knowledge of how such animals behave without pressure from human co-habitation.

Low density longhorn cattle interact with the environment to stimulate species restoration

A pioneering rewilding project in southern England is now home to numerous endangered species

At the Knepp estate in Sussex, southern UK, intensive commercial farming was failing to provide a consistent economic return. The owners decided to stop farming in 2001, sold equipment and initiated the UK’s flagship rewilding program.

Learning from Oostvaardersplassen, they introduced free ranging deer, ponies, longhorn cattle and tamworth pigs in small numbers to shape the land, plant-life and soil.

Native plants and grasses are now thriving where for years they had been absent. Soil microbes are blooming and insects are thriving. Scrub has colonised the land, with blackthorn and hawthorn protecting young trees from grazing which in turn provide new habitats for numerous species.

Plants commonly considered weeds are allowed to thrive, providing food for rare butterflies and moths that depend on them.

Rewilding at Knepp transformed how we think about conservation and has unleashed a new rewilding movement

The result is an extraordinary increase in biodiversity in a relatively short period of time. Knepp is now home to the largest colony of purple emperor butterflies in the British Isles. Turtle Doves are breeding and nightingales and other birds, threatened for decades by the intensification of agriculture, seem to be thriving.

While this might not be comparable to some of the landscape scale projects in wilderness areas of the United States, it has returned a patch of Sussex to a wilder more natural and sustainable condition, providing hope that the decline of many of the UK’s most loved species could be reversed.

Moreover, while the commercial farm and dairy is long gone, the income from free-range venison and beef and the diversification into tourism have stabilized the estate’s profitability.

It’s time to build on these successes and repeat the Knepp example in every county of the United Kingdom.

Purple emperor butterflies are thriving on rewilded land in the United Kingdom
Nightingales are flourishing on rewilded land in the United Kingdom

These early successes provide hope that nature, and our endangered species, can be restored through rewilding

The benefits realised by the projects at Knepp and Oostvaardersplassen, while controversial in some regards, raise the exciting possibility that we can reverse the tragic decline of insects, birds, and mammals that make up our natural world.