Rewilding is a long-term ambition for radical changes in how we work with nature in Britain. Of course it has its challenges

To us rewilding is a no brainer. Why would we not want to start repairing ecological damage as soon as possible? Why would we not want to help nature thrive in the future? 

images/challenges/illo_boar.png But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Ecological destruction has been playing out over centuries. Many of us have got used to the lack of native forests, the abundance of bare hills and dearth of bird song. And most of us aren’t ecologists or wildlife experts.

In the 1940s, the great American environmentalist, Aldo Leopold, wrote in his book A Sand County Almanac: ‘One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen’.

But we need to learn. And we need to address the challenges and work on solutions that starts to repair the damage. 

Barriers to reintroducing missing species

In most cases, there are few ecological or geographical barriers to the re-establishment of missing species. There is plenty of suitable habitat and food even for lynx and wolves. The barriers tend to be legal, social and political. 

We respect the concerns of those who oppose reintroductions. We believe that missing species should not be re-established unless there is widespread public consent and support. In some cases this has already shown itself (for the beaver, for example). When it hasn’t, we should not proceed until it is clear that they would be widely welcomed. We should also continue to work with people who oppose rewilding, even if there is majority support.

Legal constraints to reintroductions are the trickiest to overcome. There are three key legal constraints in Britain

1. Designated sites

A highly prescriptive set of rules governs the management of conservation sites in Britain. These rules define the ‘interest features’ and ‘favourable condition’ of the sites. These often demand a fierce regime of cutting, burning and grazing to maintain an arbitrary assemblage of living creatures. They maintain degraded ecosystems, where important top predators are absent.

Elsewhere in the world – the Amazon rainforest, for example – conservationists work to prevent the cutting, burning and grazing of ecosystems. We believe that in some sites in Britain, especially in the uplands, these rules are long overdue for challenge and review.

2. Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976

This Act insists that certain species are released only into enclosures. Taken in conjunction with the UK’s zoo legislation, which forbids the release of predators and herbivores into the same enclosure, it makes reintroductions almost impossible.

3. The Infrastructure Act 2015

This Act defines species that have recently become extinct in the UK as non-native and potentially subject to control and destruction.

Other arguments are often made against reintroductions. For example:

Rewilding poses a danger to livestock

Wolves and lynx would be a danger to livestock in some places, although they tend to prefer deer to farm animals. Farmers would have to be compensated for any losses. This happens in Europe where licence fees from hunting provide the necessary funds. In France, sheep farming is more viable in regions that have wolves than in those that don’t.

The impact of wolves on livestock is small. In the United States, wolves kill less than 0.1 per cent of sheep in the areas they live. In Italy, that figure is 0.35 per cent. Sheep do have to be managed in ways that kept them safe – for example, by using guard dogs or protection collars. Sheep farmers would need to make changes to the way they farm. Some could even be paid to restore ecosystems as an alternative business model.

We’re a small over-crowded country

Some people say that Britain is too small and crowded to have flourishing nature and wildlife. The Highlands of Scotland alone are actually bigger than Slovenia. We can live right alongside forests and birds and wolves and lynx as they do in other countries.

The population density of several parts of Europe (such as eastern Germany and the Apennines) is much higher than that of many parts of Britain. Yet populations of beavers, wolves and lynx are thriving. Belgium and the Netherlands have far less uncultivable land than we do, and hardly any places with low population density, but the return there of wolves, boar, beavers and other species is widely welcomed.

The cost is too great

Cost is sometimes used to argue against reintroductions. Some people have claimed that Britain cannot afford to restore missing species. But the cost has not stopped much poorer nations in Europe, such as Romania, Bulgaria and Ukraine. 

We see the reintroduction of keystone species as supporting the wider health of ecosystems and natural processes. We believe that some of the current expenditure on conservation should be directed towards rewilding. After all, keystone species would drive ecological processes for nothing.

Having dangerous animals roam free is crazy

Many people are understandably afraid of the idea of having lynx, wolves and even wild boar in the British countryside. They perceive them to be a danger to people. But these animals pose little risk to humans and are a natural part of our heritage.

That doesn’t mean there’s no risk, though it’s a very small one. The balance between danger and joy is subject to constant public negotiation, and the outcomes vary. For example, fewer people would die in traffic accidents if there were no trees beside our roads. But no one is proposing to cut them all down in the name of public safety. We allow roads and cars to be part of our everyday lives, despite the thousands of deaths they cause every year.

There is, quite rightly, a strong public desire for safety and protection. But there is also widespread rejection of the idea that health and safety should override all other values. A world in which the only recognised public good was security would be a world with little freedom or delight.

Other challenges to rewilding

Sport shooting

Huge swathes of land in Britain are managed for exclusive sporting interests. Grouse shooting and deer stalking keep the land in a degraded state. Grouse moor managers burn heather to create a habitat that favours grouse. This damages the soils, prevents tree growth and keeps away other species.

Deer estates tend to keep deer populations high. Deer numbers are so high in Scotland that half the country's native woodlands are dying because of deer over grazing.

Sport shooting is an obstacle to rewilding because it places a value on continued degradation and not on nature. Some landowners have successfully combined sport with rewilding actions. They have shown it can be done but they are in the minority.

Public perception

People often fear change. And some people like bare hills and treeless landscapes, not noticing the lack of wildlife or broken ecosystems. Most of us don’t realise that many of the trees we are enjoying now will not be around for our grandchildren. And there is sometimes a perception that the soils in our upland areas are so poor that nothing can grow anyway.

Most of us are not taught ecology in schools. We don’t learn about the loss of our rainforests or the persecution of our wildlife over centuries. We don’t realise what amazing animals could live in Britain again, given the chance. We have to learn about it elsewhere. One of our aims is to help people understand a little more about the living world that surrounds us, and the difference between what it is and what it could be.

Farm subsidy system

The current subsidy system is both unfair and highly damaging to the natural world.

Every year, taxpayers give farmers in this country over £3 billion. Most of this money takes the form of payments per hectare. The more land you own, the bigger your subsidy cheque. Some people are paid millions.

Wildlife habitats are listed as ‘permanent ineligible features’. This disqualifies the land from subsidies. So the system provides a powerful incentive to clear these habitats and keep the land bare, even if no food is produced.

In conclusion

Much of Europe has reconciled itself with rewilding issues. However, there is still conflict with large carnivores in some countries, and there is still a job for ecological restoration in others (see  Rewilding Europe, for example). There are also issues concerning the protection of valuable habitats (the old-growth forests in the Carpathian mountains of Romania, for example). 

But resistance in Britain to almost any restoration of wild nature is baffling for many people elsewhere. They're amazed by how little wildlife we have, and by the fear and concern we display over species that, to them, are familiar and rarely controversial.

We believe that rewilding is essential to stop the decline in nature. We think it offers a positive vision of nature for parts of Britain’s land and seas. There’s a place for sheep farming and for sporting activities, but we also need space for nature. It has been in decline for too long. We seek to improve the public understanding of the living world and our place in it, and to keep putting across the rewilding message of hope for a better future.