Rewilding was not a familiar term ten years ago. Though it was first coined in 1992, it remained a rather niche idea in conservation circles. It has risen up the agenda in the UK, propelled by debates around the re-introduction of beavers, and books such as George Monbiot’s Feral or Isabella Tree’s Wilding.
Those two books are an activist polemic and a personal story respectively. Both excellent in their own ways, but neither offering an introduction to the science behind rewilding, the history of the idea and its implications. For that we have Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe’s book Rewilding: The radical new science of ecological recovery.
The news stories involving rewilding tend to focus on re-introductions, especially contentious ones. The scientific logic of rewilding is less concerned with individual species, and more interested in the relationships between them. It takes a systems approach, looking at how ecosystems function. Rather than trying to focus on saving and increasing the populations of a particular species, the end goal is to nurture a self-organising ecosytem that doesn’t need human intervention.
Large herbivores play an important role in these ecosystems. Europe, Asia and the Americas all once had their own versions of the elephants, hippos and buffalo that we consider African animals today. These creatures naturally disrupt plant life with their trampling and crushing. They move significant amounts of nutrients around in their dung, which also serves for seed dispersal. If these animals were present again, the landscape would revert to a dynamic mosaic of forest and grassland, rich in wildlife.
When we think about rewilding then, resist the immediate connotation of wolves. Think free-roaming cattle. Think wild horses, like in England’s New Forest National Park (declared a forest reserve in 1079 and still called ‘new’ 950 years later).
The book explores the four best examples of large scale rewilding, which are the Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands; Yellowstone in the USA; Pleistocene Park, which seeks to restore the ‘mammoth steppe’ of Siberian Russia; and the islands rewilded around the giant tortoise in Mauritius. The authors draw lessons from each of them, looking at the thinking behind them, how it has worked out, what has gone well and what hasn’t.
A lot of the lessons are to do with politics, as well as science. The book looks at when and why controversy has arisen around rewilding, and some of the difficult questions it poses to established conservation organisations. It looks at the new narratives that are emerging around rewilding, some of the major obstacles, and the potential for larger projects that would help to tackle climate change.
Personally, it is the new narratives that I feel most excited about. Conservation, as the name suggests, is fundamentally about protecting what you already have. But what if you’re already in a nature-depleted place? The established mechanisms of conservation can end up scratching lines in the sand, each generation of conservationists left protecting less than the one before. Defending what we have is not enough. We need to be more proactive.
That’s the opportunity of rewilding – to turn towards would could be, towards restoring what has been lost. Rewilding, say Jepson and Blythe, is a visionary new approach that is “imbuing the conservation movement with new purpose, ambition and confidence, and the prospect of positive 21st century environmentalism that acts to recover our planet’s biosphere for the benefit of all life – human and non-human.”