Should businesses take a walk on the rewilding side?

Rewilding may be good for the soul but there is growing evidence it could also be good for the bottom line

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By James Murray, editor of BusinessGreen

At first glance, rewilding initiatives and the business community do not make for natural bedfellows. Not only is the conservation movement predicated on a removal of land from agricultural or extractive production and characterised by a managed retreat from the kind of human-imposed order that defines the corporate world, its most high-profile champion is renowned for his vocal attacks on modern capitalism. It is easy to see how the relationship between the business community and rewilding initiatives could easily end up being about as friendly as that between a reintroduced wolf and an unfortunate lamb.

But contrary to first impressions there is mounting evidence rewilding could deliver a host of economic and commercial benefits for a wide range of businesses — benefits that could help to justify the investments in biodiversity and the re-assignment of land that will be needed to make the rewilding vision a reality.

Interest in the concept of rewilding had been quietly ticking along for several years with a handful of fascinating pilot projects demonstrating how minimising human intervention in habitats and returning keystone species to a landscape can deliver a raft of environmental benefits. However, it was in 2013 that the idea suddenly caught the attention of many environmentalists with the publication of George Monbiot’s book on the subject, Feral. It is a wonderful book, which combines Monbiot’s peerless levels of research with an enthusiasm for the natural world and rewilding’s environmental promise that springs off every page. As the campaigner and writer admitted in a recent Guardian column, my involvement with rewilding, to my own amazement, has made me much happier and more optimistic than I was before. I feel an almost evangelical sense of excitement about the prospects for change. I want other people to experience it too”.

Monbiot was writing to mark the official launch earlier this month of Rewilding Britain, a new campaign group formed to promote the UK’s existing rewilding projects and make the case for the re-introduction of the big iconic species — the beavers, the lynx, perhaps even the wolves — that would serve as the poster animals for true rewilding and would help revive the UK’s battered biodiversity. The group is still in its early stages, but there are already big hopes it could revitalise the conservation movement in the UK as it strives to meet its goal of rewilding a million hectares of land.

The focus of the campaign is unsurprisingly on the sense of wonder that would result from discovering a wolf track or stumbling across a beaver’s lodge in the wilds of the UK. As such it builds on the central message of Monbiot’s book, namely that there is a soul-enriching, almost quasi-spiritual value to be found in our interaction with the natural world — a value that is all too often denied us by our urbanised environment and our excessive management of rural landscape.

But could there be a role for business within this vision, beyond the obvious opposition already being voiced by some farmers and gamekeepers?

A number of experts are convinced that there could be. In Feral, Monbiot hints at the potential for business involvement in rewilding initiatives, exploring the wildlife tourism benefits that come with effective rewilding projects and offering an intriguing mention of how insurance companies have looked at minimising flooding costs by funding upland reforestation projects. Chris Sandom, an adviser to Rewilding Britain and co-founder of consultancy Wild Business, goes further still suggesting a wide range of businesses have a huge amount to gain from rewilding, not least because the concept offers them a way to strengthen their existing environmental initiatives.

Growing numbers of big businesses support the concept of ecosystem services and natural capital,” he tells BusinessGreen, referring to the crucial economic services provided by clean water, air, and soils and the value firms draw from the natural world. But translating that into something on the ground and thinking about how to deliver it is a challenge. If you ask most businesses how do you invest in natural capital they will struggle to put that into words. Rewilding is a way of providing those ecosystem services. It is a way of establishing an ecological system that is going to work for you, provide for nature, and provide ecosystem services.”

It is a far cry from the vision of rewilding projects as a source of quasi-spiritual wonder, but the human and the economic benefits that can result from restoring natural forests or wetlands are not mutually exclusive. Just because a rewilding project delivers ecosystem services in the form of carbon sequestration, flood regulation, improved water quality, enhanced air quality, and healthier soils, does not make it any less inspiring to visitors.

It is these ecosystem services that could trigger business interest in rewilding projects, according to Rewilding Britain trustee Toby Aykroyd. Businesses are waking up to the value of ecosystem services,” he says. There is a growing realisation among progressive business leaders and bigger businesses with strategic planning departments that ecosystem services are directly or indirectly essential to their long-term existence. That leads to the realisation there is a lot to be gained from participating in supporting ecosystem services. That can range from water companies buying up land to protect water tables or contributing to water shed management to insurance firms looking to address flood risk. Then you also have the CSR and the PR agenda, where you get the pretty photos of a restored landscape and figures on carbon tonnage saved. It makes [supporting rewilding] an investment, rather than a grant.”

Related to the business benefits rewilding can provide through ecosystem services is the potential for rewilding projects to play a role in fledgling biodiversity offsetting schemes. Biodiversity offsetting, the practice of a developer funding a habitat project to offset” the environmental impact of a construction project undertaken elsewhere, remains hugely controversial, with Monbiot a vocal critic of a practice he once accused of unleashing a new spirit of destruction”. However, while acknowledging there are considerable risks attached Sandom reckons biodiversity offsetting could help fund effective rewilding projects.

Offsets are a tool that can be used incredibly badly, but they can also be used positively and that could be through creating larger rewilding areas where we can have a really big positive impact on biodiversity,” he says. It is a fine line to walk, but done properly it can be beneficial.”

Wild Business advocates an approach dubbed net positive impact” whereby businesses only offset biodiversity impacts once they have been through a mitigation hierarchy” to reduce the direct impact of their new development. It is about doing everything we can to look at the negative impacts, avoid any impacts we can, minimise those that we can’t, restore onsite any temporary impacts, and offset anything that cannot be avoided,” Sandom explains. It does not prevent development, but it also says let’s prioritise and say we are at our lowest point for biodiversity now and everything else will be positive.”

Ecosystem services and biodiversity offsets are not the only business benefits that can arise from rewilding projects. There are also direct gains to be had for parts of the business community from wildlife tourism with evidence suggesting rewilding projects around the world have typically delivered a revenue boost for neighbouring businesses. After wolves were re-introduced to Yellowstone National Park it increased spending in the local area by $35m a year because people wanted to come and see the wolves,” says Sandom. In the UK beavers could be worth $2m a year to the south west, the osprey market is said to be worth up to $5m to Scotland. We are a nation of wildlife lovers who don’t have much wildlife to look at. Rewilding offers huge tourism potential.”

And finally, there are the socio-economic or so-called soft benefits that come with rewilding, the wide array of benefits that come from the sense of wonder that Monbiot explored in Feral. There is a strong social element to rewilding that is often completely overlooked,” says Aykroyd. For example, growing numbers of studies have shown more frequent interactions with nature lead to better health, lower blood pressure, and generally higher levels of well-being, which in a business context invariably translate into better productivity.

Aykroyd also points to the successful use of wilderness programmes in tackling youth offending and even supporting conflict resolution programmes. There was a programme in Northern Ireland that used wilderness areas to strip people of their preconceived labels and help them relate to each other as individuals,” he recalls. That enabled a dialogue to ripple out that has helped contribute to the reformulation of the attitudes of 200 community leaders who went back into their areas and helped to cement the peace process.”

Inevitably these numerous business benefits have to be set against some not inconsiderable costs. The concept of rewilding has already faced fierce criticism from some farmers and other rural businesses who fear projects threaten to eat into productive land and undermine their revenues. There is, as Aykroyd acknowledges, an opportunity cost whenever you do something with land”.

Everyone involved with Rewilding Britain is keen to address these concerns and they stress rewilding projects should only go ahead with the involvement and support of local communities. It is about finding a balance,” says Sandom. We do not want to get rid of all farming or all shooting estates. It is about finding some areas and local communities that are enthusiastic about the idea where we can do more… There are winners and losers in all these things. If we bring a big predator back in the forestry industry gets benefits, but we may lose some lambs. You have to compensate appropriately and make sure we address those issues — don’t ignore them, which has been a criticism of re-introduction programmes in the past. There is a risk you over-sell. We need to avoid that, deal with issues head on and find out how the benefits and costs can balance out.”

However, there is also evidence to suggest that in some areas the benefits of rewilding can outweigh the benefits that come from farming or shooting. If you put the ecosystem service and tourism benefits and apply it to the more remote and marginal agricultural land where the opportunity cost of not using it for what is regarded as non-productive activity — ie non agriculture, non-timber — is much lower, then things get really interesting,” says Aykroyd. There are areas of agriculture where if you were to strip away just one layer of the many layers of subsidy it would become completely uneconomic.”

How can those businesses convinced, or at least intrigued, by the case for rewilding get involved? Larger firms with existing natural capital strategies can look to integrate rewilding into their thinking and there is obvious potential for water, forestry and some manufacturing and consumer goods companies to fund their own projects. Aykroyd says Rewilding Britain is keen to explore ways of working with businesses on new projects and stresses there is a compelling economic case for firms to get involved.

However, businesses of any size can still experiment with rewilding at a local scale, simply by managing their properties in a way that better supports biodiversity. Engaging with this debate on a local scale whether it is your back garden or your office site is important,” says Sandom. For example, not mowing the lawn on 10 or 15 per cent of your land, that can let wild flowers establish and help get the bees and pollinators back. There are all sorts of challenges our environment is facing that people can easily help with.”

With a campaign underway in London to make the capital a National Park City and the Crown Estate working on plans to create a biodiversity corridor along Regent Street it is clear a form of rewilding may be possible even if you do not have access to a wilderness. Sometimes people complain about an untidy site,” admits Sandom. But if you embrace it and let people know you are doing wildflower meadow management you can get over that criticism and embrace the fact you end up with a beautiful environment that is something to treasure.”

Whether the goal is to bring bumble bees back to a corporate campus or bring wolves back to the Scottish Highlands, there is a potential role for the business community in supporting re-wilding and in the process restoring some of the UK’s under threat ecosystem services. In many ways, the most exciting thing for those businesses intrigued by the concept is the fact their role is not yet full defined. We are in an innovation phase with this concept,” admits Sandom. We are finding new ways of rewilding and there will be a lot more people and ideas out there that can help… It is a positive agenda and one that gets away from the doom and gloom narrative the conservation sector sometimes gets accused of.”

This article was first published in Business Green