Updated: Jan 22
Way back in 2010, I had the good luck to be involved in a report focused on European wildlife populations. At the time however, I was secretly a bit gutted, I’d missed out on collecting data on all the exciting tropical species! That didn’t last long.
I was a young conservationist with a big ambition to see the World’s natural wonders, but through working on this project I realised many of these were right on my doorstep! I was inspired and intrigued by a new vision for Europe; a European landscape which had all the beauty and complexity of the plains of Africa (a continent very close to my heart). I fell in love with the idea of roaming European bison, tenacious wolverines, soaring imperial eagles and lightly stepping lynx.
As an early-career researcher, I was excited, but cautious; “no one will buy in to this” I thought. Based on what I knew and had heard, people don’t like change, and I thought the rewilders would be treated as radicals; ultimately receiving the cold shoulder.
To some degree this was true; academics were cautious, NGO's sought different terminology and some land managers were outraged at the prospect (in some cases rightly so). Already there's some been some botched attempts at conservation management (branded as rewilding) which have somewhat tarnished those that are demonstrating good practice.
Meanwhile, the determined, pragmatic and transparent approach of leading organisations such as Rewilding Europe have set a fantastic example, following best-practice approaches in international conservation. And this is what stands out about Rewilding Europe - they very much resemble the blueprint of other international conservation NGOs; selecting priority landscapes and species and seeking to make wildlife conservation a sound economic option for local communities.
So my initial caution over the reception to rewilding was unfounded and I have never been so happy to be proved wrong! You can imagine my delight seven years on from working on that report, I began to see beavers being released in Britain. I honestly never thought it could be possible. Which begs the question, could things be changing?
When I started working in conservation more than 10 years ago, things had been different. Many (not all) nature reserves in the UK were small and isolated. The surrounding land-owners existed; and sometimes engaged with site managers, but sometimes didn't. Volunteers got involved, mostly retired folk, but not always.
Nature reserve managers took a site-specific approach and conservation effort was largely confined to the boundaries of the nature reserve, maximising the habitats for specific species; often by managing habitats to maintain in a certain desired state (e.g. coppiced woodland or heathland). Aside from the occasional reintroduction projects, this seemed to be how largely how conservation worked in the UK, especially in England and Wales.
Such approaches were challenged in Professor Sir John Lawton's groundbreaking report which called for conservation practitioners to be more ambitious; he had a vision for "bigger, better and more joined up" habitats. Since then, the rewilding movement has caught fire in the UK. There is an interest in less intensive habitat management and restoring landscapes by connecting larger areas of habitat and linking through greener cityscapes.
This means that today there are more exciting opportunities arising for UK conservationists but most do require landscape scale thinking within - and beyond - our protected areas. Much like the rest of the World...
All in a name
As a professional, I can vouch for the fact that conservationists do occasionally tire of chasing the latest trend in conservation; think of the ecosystem services movement, natural capital, sustainable development or offsetting. Rewilding is the next in the chain but, I'd argue all of these 'trends' are conservation repackaged for new audiences, each building upon the ideas of the former.
What makes rewilding exciting is it's apparent potential to make a change and its focus on the future. The shared vision is powerful and 'other' people outside of conservation are starting to pay attention this time.
Can rewilding work?
The current UK government advice to MP's is that there is "limited evidence" that rewilding works and that the greatest biggest risk to backing it as a strategy is the "unpredictable outcomes". However, I don't believe this is true, because we in the international conservation community have been undertaking 'rewilding' projects for decades.
These projects often focus on vast landscapes and sustainable solutions, including reducing reliance on intensive management. This relies on natural processes, big picture thinking and deriving benefits to society. And, there are multiple examples of success from FFI, WWF and Durrell (just to name a few).
I truly believe that practices in the UK and international conservation sector aren’t, and shouldn’t be, different. After all both are trying to achieve the same things.
Further, international conservation organisations are obsessed with sharing learning and demonstrating clear outcomes of their work. So perhaps they UK government, and UK conservationists aren't casting their net wide enough to find examples of successful 'rewilding' approaches that can be replicated in the UK and Europe.
There are some key approaches rewilders can borrow from international conservation practice, to prevent us from reinventing the wheel. international NGOs also routinely publish case studies, manuals and action plans to inform the work of others.
So yes, I believe (and have seen) that rewilding can work but we have to be willing to collaborate with our peers to learn from the vast experience of conservationists already working across the globe.
That European report I worked on all those years ago can be found here.
Making Space for Nature: A Review of England's Wildlife Sites and Ecological Network can be found here.