12 steps to rewilding

If you want to start rewilding, or you’re just interested in a rewilding approach, then take yourself down our 12 steps…

12steps Squirrel Neil Mc Intrye SBP

Rewilding is a journey with no fixed end point. The goal is to help nature help itself so it can thrive into the future. There’s not a defined set of actions to take. What you do will depend on your finances, your ambition, the size of your land, the state of your soils and water, the features in your landscape, your neighbour’s activities and so much more.

If you follow our five principles of rewilding you won’t go far wrong: engage people and communities as much as possible, let nature lead, look to create opportunities for resilient new nature-based economies, work at nature’s scale to rewild whole systems and not just fragments, and work to ensure that your rewilding project is for the long-term, for the benefit of future generations. 

While we can’t tell you exactly what to do, our 12 steps can guide you down the right path. Follow these, where and when you can, and you’ll be on your way to rewilding…

12 steps to rewilding

Don’t dive in head first with a chainsaw/bunch of tree saplings or compendium of deer/cattle/sheep/pigs/horses (delete as appropriate). If you’ve just purchased land, or you’ve been managing it in a particular way, then leave it be while you work out what you want to do. This is true whether it’s arable land, woodland, a thicket of thorns and brambles or a collection of fields. You will learn something about your land simply from waiting and watching, and while you’re waiting you can move on to step 2…

Now is the time to find out what you have on your land. Is your woodland ancient? Is that special species-rich grassland growing over there? Why’s that field flooding? A proper inventory of what you have, and what’s going on, will reveal important habitats and wildlife features, the state of your soils, important geological and hydrological features, seed sources and more. There are two good reasons for doing this: 1. To inform your decision-making and planning, and 2. To ensure you’re not destroying anything valuable.

Information may already exist – for example, biodiversity data and information related to ecosystem services such as carbon storage, flood risk, water quality and soil condition. You need to find out where it is, who owns it and whether you can access it. You can start doing this yourself (see Gathering information about your land). But if it’s too far out your comfort zone, or you just don't have the time, then you’re ready for step 3…

You need to find someone with expertise and knowledge – especially for large-scale rewilding projects. Ecologists can help you understand what’s on your land and can help you navigate publicly available resources – such as regional biodiversity records and DEFRA’s MAGIC mapping of the natural environment. You can enlist help and expertise from a local rewilding group. Check out our Rewilding Network to see who’s in your area. Other local conservation groups, including Wildlife Trusts, are also buzzing with enthusiasts able and willing to help nature-boosting projects like yours.

Then it’s time to look beyond your own boundaries and go to step 4.

Look at the land outside of your site to see what’s there. Talk to your neighbours about what they’re doing and what you want to do. Find out if they share your rewilding ambitions or might with a bit of encouragement. Consider some specifics. Can you connect those disparate pieces of woodland? Could you give access to a neighbour’s grazing animals? If you’re bordering a nature reserve or a designated site, can you help create a larger space for wildlife?

Connectivity and scale is crucial in nature. Connecting up rewilding areas gives wildlife the best chance to thrive. It’s good for people too – you can support each other while supporting the rebuilding of ecosystems (so remember to join our Rewilding Network). The larger the area you’re rewilding, the less management is required and the more you can relax and let natural processes lead the way.

You need a plan. It can be in your head, or it can be a beautifully constructed document with the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed. But try to have an idea of what actions you want to take. Rewilding is not about having a hard and fast endpoint in mind. It’s about helping nature do its thing and go its own way as much as possible. But you need to determine and plan the interventions that will help to kick-start the rewilding process. Think of it as a marathon with a sprint start. Rewilding is a long-term thing but you want to do as much as you can to get things going.

You might want to go back to step 3 and get that expert to help you. And keep in mind that the next step lies at the heart of rewilding…

This is absolutely the key to rewilding. You need to understand what natural processes are and which natural processes may re-establish on your land – with or without a helping hand. This includes tree regeneration, natural river processes and flooding regimes and natural grazing levels.

Human actions have suppressed natural processes across most of Britain over the centuries. If hundreds of sheep have grazed your land for decades, if rivers have been straightened or wetlands drained, or if woodlands have been felled, then nature has been altered and constrained and natural processes no longer prevail. Rewilding is about unleashing the power of nature and helping it when needed.

How can you help? You can read about Restoring natural processes and then take inspiration from step 7.

Rewilding lets nature drive its own recovery. But we’ve lost our large herbivores, such as elk, wild boar and bison, and key predators, such as wolf and lynx. Grazing and predation, two important natural processes, are therefore limited. However, pigs and cattle can act as proxies for wild boar and the extinct aurochs. Harvesting the large herbivores can emulate the impact of large predators.

On small sites, imagine it as part of a magnificent species-rich landscape. You could scythe grass to mimic the grazing of aurochs as they pass through, or hoe up ground to mimic a boar’s rootling. Nature is complex and complicated, though. It’s not possible to perfectly replicate natural functioning ecosystems without the full complement of key native carnivores and herbivores being present. Still, we can move a long way up the rewilding spectrum if we seek to mimic natural processes in this way.

Then get ready to go for the real thing with step 8.

Simply restoring habitats and natural processes will bring back many species that have disappeared from your land. For example, the creation and restoration of wetland habitats has led to the remarkable recovery of bird species, insects, fish and mammals. Reducing grazing pressure in upland rewilding sites has seen the amazing recovery of rare and precious plant communities, including the Caledonian pinewood.

Restoring populations of native species near the top of the food chain will still be a priority in many rewilding sites, especially the large-scale projects. We’ve hunted species to extinction, including wolf, lynx, beaver, bear, wild boar and elk. And we’ve pushed others to the brink – the wildcat, white-tailed eagle and hen harrier, for example.

Reintroductions can bring some species back. Beavers, red kites and white-tailed eagles have been reintroduced in Scotland and England in recent years. Water voles, red squirrels and pine martens have been translocated to help spread their populations more widely.

If you have land that’s suitable for a reintroduction, it’s certainly something to consider. However, keep in mind that reintroductions require licenses and adherence to careful procedures, so you’ll need expert help.

For more context on reintroductions, read Reintroductions and bringing back species.

Rewilding is about helping nature to work on its own terms. It’s a journey of learning and unlearning, of embracing change and surprise, of delight and sometimes disappointment. Some species of wildflower may disappear from an area where you have known them to be for years, but when changes in grazing regimes take hold, they may pop up elsewhere. Other species, which you have never seen on your site nor ever expected, may suddenly appear and start to flourish.

Of course, if you have something really special on your site – such as an area of unimproved chalk grassland covered in rare wildflowers – you should strive to protect it. You can expect that over time these plant communities will appear elsewhere in your site. When they do, you can be more relaxed about conserving them at their original location.

A good motto to remember here is ‘conserve the very best and rewild the rest’. Rewilding embraces the complexity of nature so don’t be afraid of change, and do be prepared to adapt your thinking over time. And as the story of your land begins to unfold and surprise you might want to record what happens, which leads us nicely to step 10.

Rewilding is not about targets – this many trees by 2050 or this many nightingales by 2030. It’s a continuous journey of letting nature ebb and flow while intervening as minimally as possible. But you should absolutely record what’s happening on your land. It enables you to understand what’s happening and share stories of what’s happening. That helps all of us learn. We’ve lost so much knowledge, as Isabella Tree highlights in her book ‘Wilding’ about rewilding Knepp, a 3,500-acre arable farm in Sussex.

You can enlist expert or volunteer help with your monitoring or get stuck in yourself. Our Measuring and monitoring can help keep you right.

Rewilding shouldn’t be a solitary pursuit, although it’s okay if you want it to be. But there are rewards to be had for reaching out and working in collaboration with others. For one thing, the bigger the rewilding area the better it is for nature. That’s why at Rewilding Britain we’ve been calling for future government payment schemes (such as the proposed Environmental Land Management scheme – ELM) to reward large-scale rewilding activities. This can be through single owner or farm-cluster collaboration. Additionally, the bigger you are, the easier it is to get help, advice and grants from other official bodies.

You might not want to talk widely about your rewilding plans and progress. That’s okay. But wherever possible we would encourage you to communicate widely – with your neighbours, your local community and others around you. Try to take them with you on your journey by sharing your experiences and your ambitions for nature. Create a conversation in your local community, and further afield if the chance arises. Get help and support from your local rewilding group if you have one (see The Rewilding Network).

Not everyone will like what you’re planning or doing. Some will be sceptical and a few may be strongly opposed. Don’t let this put you off. Be prepared to take some flack along the way, but remain polite and rational. Follow our core rewilding principles and you’ll steadily win people over. Then you’re not only restoring a healthy environment for wildlife and your local community, you’re inspiring others to start down their own path to rewilding.

Authors: Susan Wright, Alastair Driver

Main Image: Squirrel jumping — Neil McIntyre/scotlandbigpicture.com

You may also be interested in...

Restoring natural processes

Restoring natural processes

Restoring natural processes is an essential part of rewilding. We explain what that means to rewilders across Britain

Defining rewilding SBP Peter Cairns

Defining rewilding

Rewilding takes a big picture, holistic approach to helping nature recover and flourish. Here’s our definition