‘Rewilding’ is a word that’s become increasingly popular among those interested in discovering a more seasonal, wilder way of living. But what does it really mean?
Rewilding is a radical mode of conservation, which requires human beings to rescind control, step back and allow an ecosystem to restore its own balance. It means stopping practices such as burning heathland (known as ‘swaling’ in the west country), damming rivers, or allowing unnatural numbers of sheep, deer or ponies to graze. All these practices, while sometimes traditional, are intended not to help ecosystems thrive, but to give farmers more opportunities to feed their animals or till the soil.
Unfortunately, in Britain, many of our well-known landscapes have been over-grazed and ‘managed’ to within an inch of their lives, resulting in upland zones that lack any significant diversity of wildlife and are dominated by monocultures of bracken, heather and poor-quality grass. In most European nations with similar topography to Britain, however, these uplands are only lightly farmed and therefore mostly forested, which is the best environment for biodiversity.
Rewilding is, in essence, about bringing this diversity back to our landscapes. Life, we find, is not simply a linear chain of events, but networked, complex and – undeniably – beautiful. When nature is given a vote of confidence and allowed to pursue its own ends, the results can be spectacular. Rewilded places have the potential to captivate us. Fascinating lichens, fungi, butterflies, birds, rodents, reptiles and amphibians all have a chance to find a home again. Rewilded places offer something new with every visit, every change in season. In the biggest projects, we might have the chance to encounter a wild boar or a beaver, maybe even one day to spot a wolf on a distant ridge.
Not only would all this be thrilling, it would help us to live more wildly. Nowhere shows the changing seasons better than a wood. Seeing those tiny interactions between tree creeper and insect, frog and leaf-shade, weasel and burrow, would make us more mindful of our own connections to the living, breathing world around us. It would be ours for the looking, as well as its own to do as it liked.
I think rewilding would benefit both people and the planet – and I think we both need defending. A more reciprocal, sensitive form of conservation is only going to come out of conversation. We need to kick-start the debate. There are already a number of fantastic projects happening on a big scale – Summit to Sea in West Wales, for example, and the Alladale Wilderness Reserve in Scotland. Some of the big conservation charities have also got on board, albeit often quite cautiously. But there is still a long way to go – especially as rewilding can and should only happen with the full, informed consent of local communities.
There are misconceptions to overcome too. The idea of reintroducing wolves, for example, delights some people and terrifies others. But while species introduction is an element of rewilding, wolves would not be appropriate for most landscapes and would only ever be introduced to very sparsely populated environments. Mostly we’re talking about pine-martens and missing birds.
Moreover, many people who live in towns, or even in agricultural parts of the countryside, think rewilding isn’t relevant to them because it could only happen somewhere far off. But I hope that the distinction between urban and rural can be collapsed here, and that we can reintroduce wilder ways of living for all. Urban biodiversity is fascinating in its own right, and even the smallest plots in ‘rural’ areas can be seeded with wildflowers, or incorporate wildlife corridors.
As a curator and writer, I hope to bring people together to debate these issues and to work across the boundaries of disciplines and locations to find new solutions to the rewilding question.
There is a way of living more wildly, co-existing peacefully both with the natural world and with other people. But we need to collaborate to find it.