“Rewilding holds out hope of a richer living planet that can once more fill our lives with wonder and enchantment.”George Monbiot, author and campaigner
Rewilding your local area
Rewilding is the name given to efforts to restore the natural environment in places where it has been damaged by human activity, for example through farming and urban development.
Some people regard it as controversial because rewilding could in some cases involve returning large and potentially dangerous animals to places where they have long been absent.
However, to others rewilding simply means helping to restore the natural environment of their local area, by planting trees or digging a pond.
It is worth noting that the UK as a whole is one of the most nature-depleted areas of the world, a result of being a small overcrowded island with a long history of farming. Many islands have lower biodiversity than the nearby mainland, because small populations of animals and plants are more vulnerable to going extinct than larger ones. Thus in comparison to mainland Europe, and North America, fewer animal and plant species are present in the UK.
The UK has also been affected by the Ice Age…
What is missing?
The UK normally has a temperate climate and would naturally be forested, with animal and plant species similar to those found across Eurasia and North America.
However, over the last million years or so, the UK has experienced an Ice Age where glaciers and ice sheets repeatedly covered the land. Although there were occasional warmer periods, at others it was so cold that the land was barren and few animals or plants could survive (like areas of the Arctic today). The ice sheets thus swept away the animals and plants that would normally be found here.
About 11,000 years ago, the world entered the current warm period (an ‘interglacial’ period). Trees recolonised the land, creating a vast ancient ‘wildwood’. Forest animals returned, including wolves, bears, lynx, moose, red deer, wild cattle, wild boar and beaver. The rivers teemed with salmon, trout, eels and lampreys, and extensive wetlands gave refuge to abundant flocks of birds, while eagles and kites soared above.
Humans arrived too. They had been present during the cold glacial period, but only in very small numbers. Now that the climate had improved, their numbers increased and in particular they began to use fire to change the landscape to suit them.
Next came the spread of farming from the Middle East. As populations increased and farming technology improved, the effect on the natural environment became more severe. Eventually our typical landscape of towns, villages, fields and hedgerows replaced the ancient forests and wetlands, and squeezed out the animals that previously lived there.
By about 1500-1600 AD, wolves, bears, wild boar, wild cattle, lynx and beaver had all disappeared, some long before this.
Other animals such as red kites hung on in remote areas.
Later in the 20th Century, the situation worsened with the arrival of intensive farming using machines, fertilisers and pesticides. This caused collapses in populations of smaller animals including birds, fish and insects.
However, at the same time, some animals were successfully reintroduced to many areas, for example red kites. There are now calls to reintroduce others. Some rivers, previously polluted, have been cleaned up so that otters and other river animals have returned.
Many animals that we think of as only living in ‘wild’ areas can exist quite happily in and around urban areas, just as long as they have a bit of habitat set aside. We should think of rewilding as applying just as much to cities and towns as to ‘wilderness’ areas.
Does it matter?
Animals and plants form complicated communities – an ‘ecosytem’ that acts to provide many benefits for humans – food, materials, and less obvious benefits such as clean water, healthy soils and waste disposal.
Humans are fully part of the ecosystem and all aspects of life depend on it. The human ‘economy’ is a sub-set of the ‘ecosystem’. Therefore, any economy that destroys the ecosystem will destroy itself.
Removing key animal species and changing the landscape by cutting down trees stops the ecosystem functioning properly, and now that we are threatened by global climate change, it is widely recognised that restoring ecosystems to good health will be vital for the survival of communities. In 100 years’ time the only prosperous communities will be the ones that properly cared for their local ecosystems, starting right now.
Benefits of rewilding for humans:
It is well known that insects pollinate many of our food crops, and that we are thus dependent on them. However, across the world insects are in trouble. Restoring habitats such as hedgerows, wildflower meadows and ponds, and providing habitat protected from harmful chemicals used on farmland will do much to protect our food supply in the long term.
Due to the impact of flooding in recent years, there are growing calls to plant trees in upland areas, widen the tree corridors along riverbanks, and restore ponds and wetlands, all of which actions soak up and slow down flood waters, protecting people’s homes and livelihoods.
Restoring the natural environment by planting trees and improving soil health enables more greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide to be drawn out of the atmosphere, helping to tackle climate change which is driven by increases in greenhouse gases as a result of human activity.
Research has shown that human health improves when people are surrounded by a more natural environment. Providing areas of healthy green space around towns and cities is particularly important to help tackle the growing problem of mental ill-health caused by the challenges of modern living.
The great thing about rewilding is that it can operate at the smallest of scales (in a back garden) up to landscape scale, and thus everyone can play a part.
In addition, each benefit adds to the next. So planting trees helps capture carbon at the same time as reducing flooding, providing habitat, restoring soils, providing useful resources and improving people’s wellbeing.
In this project, the idea is to engage the whole of the local community in rewilding an area of farmland by planting trees in the first instance, and once that is done, caring for the land as it is slowly restored to a more natural state. Everyone will play a part, everyone will have access, and everyone will have the opportunity to learn about how important this is for our future. Taking positive action to protect and restore the natural environment will strengthen our local community.