Rewilding Britain was launched officially two years ago. How has it gone?
Two years ago we wanted to start a conversation and see what people thought about rewilding. We wanted to question and challenge existing conservation practices. These practices clearly aren’t working — despite the efforts of many dedicated people and organisations. Species are declining and have been doing so consistently over decades.
One of the goals of rewilding is to find a different model that works. One that reverses the declines and restores the abundance of Britain’s nature and wildlife. That was a role people wanted us to play.
When we launched a lot of the attention focussed on the potential for reintroducing top predators such as wolves and lynx. Over the past two years, we have shifted our focus to putting rewilding into practice — and to making it work for both people and nature. We want to build on existing conservation practices to piece together and establish large-scale rewilding pilot projects where this makes sense ecologically and economically.
If we can create great, iconic destinations through rewilding we can start to provide alternative economic opportunities for rural communities. The enthusiasm for programmes such as Wild Alaska Live shows that people here have a great thirst to see and experience wilder places. Rewilding areas in Britain could sustain a range of productive enterprises of high nature value. Perhaps becoming one of the first truly nature-based rural economies in Britain.
How have people reacted?
Overall people have shown great enthusiasm for the possibility of restoring the abundance of Britain’s nature and wildlife. At times we’ve even been slightly overwhelmed by people’s offers of help and support!
We thought we’d get more contesting views on rewilding; more people challenging us and being cautious of rewilding. Actually, there seems to be broad recognition that existing conservation methods aren’t working. There’s also a recognition that many rural areas are facing economic crises and uncertainty, particularly post-Brexit.
So the combination of the ecological and economic potential of rewilding has brought cautious interest even in upland areas that might be perceived as being more resistant. Obviously there are people who oppose rewilding but there seem to be fewer than we thought.
What about the wolves?
Introducing missing species, especially top predators, is always going to stir up opinion. We still want to talk openly about the potential for introducing top predators but our emphasis is on having living healthy functioning ecosystems. The decision to bring back wolves is still a long way off – and probably for our children or their children to make. In the meantime we can draw together experience to forge locally led partnerships that start working to restore nature.
There’s been renewed interest in lynx reintroduction. Where do you sit with that?
We’re fully supportive of reintroducing lynx in to the UK and it could happen in our lifetime in habitats with the right scale to sustain a viable population. The two regions that currently have this scale are the Scottish Highlands and Southern Uplands/Kielder Forest.
But their reintroduction needs to be a decision taken in partnership with communities. And if, for example, we create rewilding destinations that people want to visit then lynx reintroduction might be viewed as adding value to the ecosystem as well as the local economy.
Where are the projects that you’re working on?
There are a number of places where we’re talking to existing conservation organisations, landowners and community groups, as well as public bodies, businesses and other organisations who would need to be part of a partnership to make rewilding happen.
We’re working on a project in Wales, which we’re hoping to give more detail on in the coming months. But we’re also looking at potential pilot projects in Scotland and in England.
We see it as important to be working in areas where the decline in nature has been accompanied by a decline in opportunities for rural communities. People in the uplands are often on low incomes and reliant on subsidies. At the moment, there are few alternatives to these subsidies. We think rewilding can open up sustainable economic alternatives.
What’s your role In Rewilding Britain? Who else is involved?
I helped set up the charity and was one of the founding directors. I’m now covering the director role while Helen Meech is on maternity leave. My colleague, Alastair Driver, is focusing on partnerships in England to find the first rewilding pilot project there. He’s also supporting the project in Wales.
Alastair has many years of fantastic experience with the Environment Agency. And our Chair, Charlie Burrell, has gained years of knowledge and skills from putting a pioneering approach to rewilding into practice at his Knepp Estate in Sussex. Between us, and the rest of our board of trustees, we have a great range of skills to move rewilding forward.
What’s going on in Scotland?
We had the support of David Balharry as Scotland Director for 18 months. He helped to build interest and support among some key stakeholders, and did some great work scoping out potential rewilding projects on the ground in Scotland. We hope to build on that work.
How will Rewilding Britain grow and develop?
We want to stay small and agile. We want to try and make things happen rather than have big teams on the ground. There’s a lot of people and organisations out there with the knowledge and skills to make rewilding happen so there’s no point in replicating that expertise. If we can stay small and minimise our core costs then we can maximise the revenue we get to bring people together and work in ways that currently aren’t happening.
And your plans for the next few months?
We’re focusing on getting pilot projects established. When we have a solid basis for them, and agreements in place, we’ll be talking about them and sharing more information. It’s exciting times! Watch this space…