The R Word: what’s in a name?

I was listening to Radio 2 a couple of months ago—quite by accident, I must add—when I heard that they were going to have a piece on rewilding. I noticed that it was said in that way in which there is a very subtle, but pronounced, pause before the word, as if to imply that it isn’t something real or serious. So, despite that misgiving, and being someone who is involved in the world of rewilding, I texted in offering to contribute. To my surprise they called asking me to be on standby in about a half hour.
Dutifully I waited, and in the end they didn’t call back, and on listening to the show I was delighted they hadn’t. The ‘chairing’ came across as confrontational and divisive. He pitted a Welsh sheep farmer against the well-known environmental writer and activist George Monbiot in a polarised debate that, if I remember, focused on wolves. There was little room for nuance—just an implication that rewilding was either good or bad. This is such a shame as the act of rewilding is all about nuance, it is about a spectrum of approaches based on one fundamental principle… which I will come to below.
On this occasion, and indeed in many others, the negative connotations of the word rewilding put a taint of disapproval onto the concept, as if the very act of trying to restore nature was a bad thing. Rewilding—the word—has been perceived like this by some people, buoyed by the misinformation that accompanies it. Reports in the media, such as the famous “royal family’s corgis risk being eaten by wolves or bears” and opinions about rewilding leading to insufficient food production are all too common, and without any basis in truth. Even some of our major conservation bodies have railed against using it, referring to it as the ‘R-word’, or ‘process that must not be named’; actually, I made the last one up, but you get my point.
Despite what some might have you believe, the word is, in my opinion, really no more than a brand. I see it as a banner or flag behind which a whole range of people—including landowners and farmers as well as conservationists—rally behind to help slow and reverse the ongoing erosion on the diversity and abundance of nature in this country. It is a word that represents a big tent, or yurt if you prefer, full of approaches to help biodiversity return, reduce soil erosion and improve its quality, capture carbon quickly and mitigate flooding.
If the Radio 2 discussion had been billed as a discussion on “natural-process led ecosystem restoration”, which is what rewilding basically is, then well, to be honest I don’t think they would have had the debate, let alone bring in George and his nemesis! But the fundamental principle behind rewilding is just that; of allowing, as best we can, nature to take the lead and make the decisions in its own conservation. This is not to the exclusion of people. People are a part of nature and we have to work with it, but rewilding is about letting go of control and saying, actually, we don’t really know how nature can recover best, but we do know what conditions we need to give nature the best chance So let’s do that and see what happens! In places where this has happened the results have been outstanding, but I will save that for another occasion.
Despite the use of the word ‘wild’ in rewilding, the concept as we see it in the UK is not about creating a truly wild space, that is impossible in our small and overcrowded Island. It is about creating spaces for nature to flood back in. It is not land abandonment, nor is it trying to replicate past times, but rewilding is about using what we know about nature from the past—before we systematically took it apart—and also using what we know from other places in the world where nature is doing better.
In practice, what does this mean? It might mean leaving ‘marginal’ farmland alone for a few years, letting the scrub take hold, then putting on some large grazing animals to ‘engineer’ an ecosystem. It might involve reintroducing beavers into our rivers to make wetlands, improve water quality and reduce flooding downstream, and now that beavers have just been made a protected ‘native species’ again after being wiped out over 400 years ago, this has a real chance of happening. It might involve allowing straightened (canalised) rivers, to ‘re-wiggle’ out into the floodplain, reducing flooding, creating new ecosystems and bringing life back to our rivers. It might, at some point in the future, when the time is right and people want it, mean bringing back the top predators such as lynx or wolf to selected parts of the UK, finally bringing some balance back to our natural ecosystem, but that is a way off.
Understandably people have concerns about the concept. Will it impact on food production? No, and anyway, we waste 40% of our food in the UK, so let’s work on that first. Is it messy? Yes, but so what, nature is messy, it tends not to do straight lines, that way more nature comes back! Will beavers eat all the fish in the rivers? No, beavers are vegetarian. My firm belief is that if people understand more about what’s inside the rewilding tent, then they will see that it is not black and white, and that there is nothing to fear and everything to embrace. If it is good for nature, it is good for us, a subject that warrants another whole article.
So where does that leave us? Rewilding—the word, and the approaches that fall under it—is here to stay. It can be interpreted in different ways, but the fundamental principle underlying it is that of allowing natural processes to act to help biodiversity recover, with an outcome that is not planned or prescribed. This means that we are no longer in full control, something that human beings are not particularly keen on. For me, that is the source of the dislike of the word. The whole idea of ‘just leaving it’ and trusting nature to know what to do is alien to us, but if we are serious about nature recovery in this country, we really need to get over ourselves and give nature that trust.