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Conservation perspectives; Is the rewilding movement suffering from plant blindness?

Updated: Feb 17, 2021

For the last few years I’ve been opening my conference talks with the question; "what do you see in this photo"?

A bird perching in a tree
What do you see? Credit; Jan Wiltshire

So what’s your first thought?

A male redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus)? You would be correct, it’s a rarity in most of the UK but a widespread species globally. But what about the endemic species in this photo, the Lancashire whitebeam (Sorbus lancastriensis)? There are many species of Sorbus in the UK, at least thirty of which are globally threatened.

If the first thing you thought of was a redstart (or bird!) that's okay, in fact it's pretty normal! Plants are often seen as the backdrop to the animal’s stage, which may be because plants do suffer the disadvantage that they move very little and for many people, can be hard to tell apart. This does mean however that unfortunately, the majority of people (especially in the global North) suffer from a critical case of plant blindness.

But how does this problem impact rewilding? We first have to evaluate our individual perceptions of the term ‘wildlife’ before we apply it to re'wild'ing.

Are plants wildlife?

Twinflower (Linnaea borealis), a native species found in Caledonian forests suffered declines in the UK during a period of deforestation in the 1930's. Credit; Alastair Rae/Flickr

I still remember the lesson. I was nine-years and our teacher, Mr Douglas, was asking us the question; ‘what makes anything alive?’ This fascinated me as I had never thought about it before. For example, we all know plants are living, but probably rarely stop to think about their ‘aliveness’ (for want of a real word!).

As a conservationist and a biologist (with an admittedly ’uncool’ love with mammals), it has always frustrated me that so many people discount plants as wildlife. This frustration became an annoyance when I came to understand that this misconception is not limited to the general public; even scientists and practitioners think this way! To me, if it’s living and wild, its wildlife. This is opposed to simply being called ‘nature’ which can be living or un-living (for example forces and weather). So in short, I’ve always loved the flexibility and accuracy of the term ‘wildlife’.

This brings me to the rewilding movement. This blog isn’t about the controversy of ‘rewilding’ as a word itself or its definition. ‘Rewilding’ is most commonly used to describe conservation of whole landscapes, seascapes or mammal reintroductions. But interpreting rewilding as just one of these three things is a generalisation (a concise review of rewilding approaches is nicely reviewed in this book). Rewilding is not exclusive to these three groups and rewilding can (and does) include plants.

A row of pollarded willow trees and black popular trees bordering a pond in the countyside.
The black popular (right) a species associated with floodplain woodland has become a rarity. The decline of this species is implicated in the decline of large tortoiseshell butterflies. Credit; David Evans/Flickr

“Rewilding can’t help wildflowers”

Given these views, last year I was listening to breakfast radio and I was really shocked to hear a conservationist state that “rewilding doesn’t help" wildflowers.* I’d argue rewilding is ALL about plants.

It’s true that rewilding manages vegetation at scale but mammal reintroductions are conducted to achieve desired impacts of herbivory and dispersal (etc) on plant communities. So primary vegetation (and thus plants) are the foundation of all rewilding projects. But it’s also true that general management actions don’t work for every species and some species have specialist needs. This is true of both plants and animals, so I see no reason why we can’t reintroduce and/or manage key plant species, just as we do mammals.

Plantlife’s (the charity dedicated to the conservation of plants) position statement on rewilding states that rewilding doesn’t serve all plant species all of the time, suggesting that land abandonment may disadvantage rarer plants which cannot compete with the aggressive species that will take over in the years following abandonment (think thistles). Certainly in the first few decades this would be true, but there’s no reason why we can’t these approaches in parallel with active species management.

Fly orchid (Ophrys insectifera) a species that declined as woodland canopies closed and open scrub cleared. Grows in habitats that are undergoing ecological succession from open habitats to woodland. Credit; Charlie Jackson/Flickr


I do understand that some plant conservationists are concerned, but I think we need to try and move away from divisive talk about what we are not, and think about how we can include ourselves.

Plant blindness does mean that people perceive plant and animal conservation differently. I’ve dedicated most of my career to species conservation, what surprises people that the species I’m talking about are not animals, but plants. I oversaw projects that focused on saving some of the World’s most endangered tree species and often, approaches would replicate animal approaches, mirroring approaches such as ex-situ breeding, reintroduction and habitat management.

Perhaps the focus on trees is why plant conservationists are speaking out. Much of the emphasis on rewilding in the UK has been on woodland-dependent species for example red squirrel, beaver and red deer. Groups are also making the case for lynx, European bison and wildcat – (allegedly) species of the 'wildwood'. But woodlands do not define the boundaries of rewilding, and human-influenced landscapes ought not to be excluded from the rewilding vision.

The wilderness ideal that inspired the rewilding movement does not define it, and rewilding is not land abandonment alone. Land abandonment is an approach but isn’t appropriate in all circumstances; there are other approaches to rewilding so and there’s no reason why we can’t protect plant and animal species in a variety of habitats. One key thing we may need to set aside is that human-influenced landscapes aren’t ‘rewilding’. They are.

The road ahead

Aspen (Populus tremula) do not regenerate is heavily grazed areas but fenced trails show that low density grazing does allow regeneration. Credit; Trond Hynne/Flickr

Plantlife are right to draw attention to how we manage key plant species and to remind us that the focus on woodlands does mean that Britain’s rarest plants are at risk of being overlooked because most of them occur in open landscapes like grassland and heath. But, it’s critical to remember that managed reintroductions complement rewilding projects – the ultimate goal of which is complex, multi-use landscape for people and wildlife.

Why botany and zoology became so siloed in the 21st century remains a mystery to me – there was a passion for both in Victorian times. We have to change this mindset. Botanists have to include themselves in rewilding and rewilders have to let them in. Rewilding is so much more than megafaunal reintroductions, its plants and places too.

So the real issue here is that we are still all suffering from plant blindness. Even botanists may regard rewilding as something ‘for animals’. I’d argue that its not. We need to put plants front and centre. They are the wild.

*Note; the argument in this article is the role of plants in rewilding, not specifically wildflowers (which is what this quote refers to). Wildflowers in the UK are largely found in grassland and heathland habitats.

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At Moors for the Future, my priority was to try and re-establish Sphagnum in areas where it had been lost through air pollution. It seems to me that keystone species don't have to be animals, when sphagnum is what formed the bog in the first place, re-establishing it is a re-wilding initiative.

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