It took roughly 20 years for the penny to drop.
As a young man, I worked in south-east Asia and Brazil, often with conservationists seeking to protect the rainforests. We knew that cutting, burning and grazing reduced rich and complex living systems to wastelands of grass or low wiry scrub. It was only much later, when I moved to mid-Wales, that the obvious lesson hit me.
On one side of the valley where I lived were the mountains of Snowdonia; on the other, the Cambrian plateau. At first, I felt almost overwhelmed by choice: I could walk in almost any direction for hours without encountering roads or even houses. But soon my excitement gave way to puzzlement, my puzzlement to disappointment, disappointment to despair. Wherever I went, it was not just people who were missing from the landscape, but wildlife as well.
Trees were almost absent. The same applied to birds: sometimes I would walk all day and see no more than a couple of crows. There were no butterflies, seldom even a bee. The land, nearly everywhere, was sheepwrecked.
So I sought out the nature reserves, and discovered to my horror that they were scarcely richer in life than the surrounding wet deserts. For reasons no one could cogently explain, they had been set aside to protect grass and the low wiry scrub we call heather moorland. These habitats were maintained, as the management plans boasted, by a strict regime of cutting, burning and grazing.
In other countries, conservationists seek to prevent the rainforests from being destroyed by ranching. Here they prevent ranches from being re-colonised by rainforest. This revelation, late as it was, struck me with tremendous force.
Our national parks, too, are ecologically almost identical to the land that surrounds them. The International Union for Conservation of Nature had to invent a new category to accommodate them. Category 5 describes a landscape that is slightly better for wildlife than a multi-storey car park, but not a lot. Yet we celebrate these places as the nation’s wildernesses.
Almost everywhere in Britain, the dynamism of the living world is cauterised; it is kept in a state of arrested development. But living systems are not museums, in which species are trapped in glass cases. They are subject to constant changes of state, as creatures interact with each other and the physical environment. An ecosystem is not just a place; it is also a process.
Farming, shooting estates, industrial fishing and conservation shut out the many species that need trees or physical structures on the seabed to survive. They exclude almost all the animals at the top of the food chain that, we now know, drive natural processes and maintain the health of ecosystems.
My belated revelation encouraged me to begin work on my book Feral, in which I sought to express my desire for a rawer and richer relationship with the natural world. It was only after I started my research that I stumbled across the word that was to change my life: rewilding. Suddenly I knew what it was that I was missing. I had a word for the change I wanted to see.
As I explored the remarkable palaeo-ecology of these islands, I began to understand just how broken our wild places are, and how catastrophic our ecological management has been. I also began to see the rough outline of something else, something thrilling and unexpected: hope. I started to understand how we could enrich our living systems, our encounters with them and, just as importantly, our lives.
The principles of rewilding infected my writing. While my previous books were, I now feel, over-organised, to the point at which some of the spirit was crushed out of them, Feral led me wherever it chose. It kept surprising me, opening recesses in the mind I never knew existed. Researching and writing it was a magnificent adventure. It felt at times like stepping through the back of the wardrobe.
To my surprise, the book took off: it turned out that I wasn’t the only one who felt this way! It seemed to ignite in people’s minds a spark of both recognition and excitement: as if I had put into words what many were thinking but few had expressed. Everywhere I went, I was asked the same question: how can we make this happen?
While there were several wonderful local initiatives in Britain, generally on quite a small scale, rewilding here had no national voice. It appeared to have no means of achieving the scale required for a real transformation of the state of nature in Britain. There was no organisation to inspire and explain at the national level, to change the debate and raise the ambition. The green investor Ben Goldsmith approached me with a specific proposal, and we assembled a small group of experts and enthusiasts to start to make it happen.
I have none of the requisite skills, so all the work of turning Rewilding Britain into a reality has been done, brilliantly, by others. It has taken quite a long time — I’m told these things always do – but we have used it well, to develop a strong coalition of interests and to generate support, sometimes in the most unlikely places.
We will, I hope, help to change the face of Britain. One day, if we succeed, you will be able to enjoy in this country magnificent encounters with wildlife of the kind for which people now travel halfway round the world. Returning animals will bring life to both land and sea, as they catalyse the dynamic changes that create room for other species.
Where traditional industries have failed to sustain income and employment, where landscapes have lost their people as well as their wildlife, communities could be revitalised by a new economy built around the living world. And we hope, above all, to show that destruction is not the inexorable fate of living systems. With a little help they can recover and flourish once more.
Photo: George Monbiot © Dominick Tyler