Step forward the future of rewilding

A new generation of young, keen conservationists are waiting in the wings to get stuck in says Peter Cooper of the movement, A Focus on Nature

If we are to take rewilding, or restoration ecology, or new nature, whatever you want to call it, forward then we need people who will be best placed to progress its ambitions in the future. They need to be open to new ideas and bold plans, while taking on board what we’ve achieved in the past. These people are the next generation of conservationists.

Contrary to popular belief our future conservationists are out there, and in large numbers. They’re simply scattered across the country. But if you join all those dots of enthusiasm, you can create a powerful, progressive movement for conservation. That’s what we’re trying to do with a A Focus on Nature, the UK’s youth nature network. I’m proud to sit on the steering committee of this organisation, which has been running for just over three years and has already connected hundreds of young people with a keen interest in nature and a strong passion to protect it.

In April this year, we made our first foray into rewilding. The topic has a remarkable ability to invigorate a love of nature in young people that may otherwise be subdued or dormant. I can link my current enthusiasm for the subject back to a single day when I was five years old.

It was a visit to the New Forest Wildlife Park, where rounding a corner in the footpath through the woods, I suddenly (through a fence) came face to face with a lynx, his tawny-spotted form slinking spirit-like through the bracken and brambles. And not long after this, a hulking great wild boar appeared, squealing and grunting in a mucky thicket of conifers.

These animals were magical in themselves, as if they had lunged straight from the pages of a fairy tale. And then the keeper told me that they used to live in woods like the ones I would spend hours playing in behind my home. And maybe one day, they could be back there again.

From then on, I was hooked with the idea of reintroductions and bringing back the wild. And as I got older, learning about concepts like trophic cascades and ecological engineers only made it more magic. I’m sure there are thousands of future conservationists across the country waiting to discover that for themselves.

So we decided to host the first rewilding workshop tailor-made for young people at the start of or hoping to pursue conservation careers. The Wildwood Trust, a charity dedicated to practicing and engaging the public with rewilding, kindly supplied the venue and we hosted a day of inspiring and informative talks from practiced and proven rewilders such as Alan Featherstone (Trees for Life) and Kate Carver (The Great Fen).

The venue also gave us the opportunity to see some of the key candidate species for rewilding up close, and debate how we should take rewilding forward. It was a great success and we agreed on two key messages:

  • First, that rewilding is nowhere near as scary as its detractors sometimes make it out to be.
  • And second, it’s not exclusively about planting wild woods with wolves in the hills and leaving it there. Rewilding can be practiced anywhere in varying degrees, from our farmland to our city centres. It is simply about giving nature the chance to flourish as much as it possibly can.

In a sense, the day was a microcosm of what the next generation of conservationists need to discuss with different people to bring this practice into the mainstream. Our towns are suffering floods linked to treeless uplands, our wildlife continues to make staggering declines, and the opportunities for children to build a love for nature-based hands-on experiences are becoming rarer. Now is the time to start rewilding.

We know that huge challenges lie ahead. But there is a new generation of conservationists, more inspired than ever before, ready to tackle them head on. If you’re on of them, please join us. Check out our website A Focus on Nature and get in touch.

About the author

Peter Cooper is a third-year zoology student at the University of Exeter Penryn Campus, and a committee member for A Focus on Nature. A keen amateur naturalist with a particular interest in mammal ecology, Peter hopes to practise and communicate rewilding methods in a future conservation career. He keeps a regularly updated nature blog, Peter Cooper Wildlife.