What is rewilding?

Rewilding is the restoration of ecosystems by implementing interventions to the point at which nature can take care of itself. Richard Bunting presents a comprehensive picture of rewilding in his podcast episode.

rewilding landscapes

What is the difference between conservation and rewilding?

Conservation is the protection and preservation of natural landscapes, ecosystems and species.  It traditionally focuses on a species or habitat, involves management and is covered by legislation.  Legislation protects many wild species and their habitats in the UK, such as wild birds, badgers and bats.

Rewilding is a lens-out, systems-based approach focussing on the large-scale restoration of ecosystems.  Although human interventions can occur, change is ultimately driven by natural processes.  It can include the translocation of species, to restore an ecosystem to a time in history.  The current reintroduction of beavers into Britain would be an example of this.

Rewilding Britain sees conservation and rewilding as complementary activities (see here for further details).

Why do we need rewilding?

We are currently experiencing biodiversity and climate emergencies – rewilding can help this.  The process of rewilding enables species to recover and flourish; restored plant life can act as a carbon sink, a helping hand in mitigating climate change.  Rewilding in urban areas can also aid adaption to our changing climate by protecting us from higher temperatures.  Rewilding Britain says that “Rewilding is hope for the future”.

Human life is part of an ecosystem, and if other parts of the ecosystem are not doing so well, we too are impacted.  A healthy ecosystem is essential as it provides us with the water we drink, the food we eat and the air we breathe.  It’s vital then that we look after it; it’s effectively self-help.  The process of rewilding can bring communities together and offer employment.  The outcome provides us with a place to relax, be active and rejuvenate our minds. 

What does rewilding involve?

Rewilding is a mix of stepping in and stepping back, depending on where the land is and how degraded it is. Here are some examples of what it might entail:

wild boar, rewilding
  • Removing management – this might be at the start of the process to assess land earmarked for rewilding and find out what natural processes are still in existence, or once processes are up and running and nature can take its course.
  • Reducing upland grazing of sheep, enabling the recovery of rare, precious plant life.
  • Including large mammals, such as pigs and cattle, to mimic grazing and predator natural processes previously held by animals such as wild boar.
  • Planting trees, particularly native trees, in areas where they are most likely to thrive.
  • Returning native animals into areas where they have become extinct through hunting, such as the Eurasian lynx and beaver. Beavers are known as ecosystem engineers and are being translocated across Britain, enabling other plants and animals to flourish and provide useful flood protection.
  • Removing obstacles, such as dams and dykes, allows rivers to re-meander, reducing the flow rate and subsequent flood risk.

Rewilding without human intervention

Where land is left unmanaged in the vicinity of already rich flora and fauna, nature can do its thing and rewild without intervention.  In Cambridgeshire, the Monks Wood Nature Reserve serves as a valuable example of this.  Sixty years ago, 4 acres of arable-farmed land adjacent to the reserve, was left to its own devices, becoming a wilderness project.  After initially developing into shrubland, predominating in hawthorn and bramble, it transformed into a complex woodland rich in biodiversity (see this article by Dr Broughton for more details).  Where land requires restoration but is not in proximity to a seedbed or species that would aid its progress, then human help can be a great advantage.

The tragedy in the UK, is nature-rich areas are much depleted, with forest cover in the UK standing at just 13%, compared to the EU average of 38%.  There is much scope then for rewilding.

Rewilding across the world

Rewilding is being embraced across the world.  Both Rewilding Britain and Rewilding Europe are part of a Global Alliance, covering every continent except Antarctica (the only continent with no human population).  It seems rewilding is being seen as a worthwhile nature-based solution, and it is heartening to know nature depletion is on so many people’s radar.   A future where land and seascapes are replenished with plants and animals is something to look forward to.