Rewilding: What ‘wild’ are we talking about?

The European bee-eater, a colourful bird sat on a bare branch looking intensely ahead.
The European bee-eater (Merops apiaster), which normally lives and breeds in Southern Europe, Western Asia and Norther Africa, has sometimes been observed in Britain, a development that has been linked to climate change. Picture credit: Elgollimoh, shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Rewilding has been proposed as a new way of tackling the current biodiversity crisis, but mainstreaming this concept in environmental law and policy has been held back by a lack of consensus on what rewilding means. Henrike Schulte to Bühne, a postgraduate research student on the Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet DTP at Imperial College London and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), discusses why a shared rewilding definition remains elusive, and how a consensus may be reached. Henrike carried out the research on which this blog is based during an internship at ZSL’s Conservation & Policy department, supported by the Grantham Institute.

Chances are that you have heard about rewilding recently. Across the UK, rewilding projects are replanting trees and reintroducing animals, while local governments are integrating rewilding approaches into their environmental policies. The concept has become a focal point for often heated debates about our responses to the biodiversity crisis of the twentyfirst century.  

Sign saying 'free roaming animals!' with metal fencing and a cattle grid in the background.
Sign warning visitors to Knepp Wildlands (one of the most famous rewilding sites in the UK) of the large herbivores that roam the estate. Picture credit: Henrike Schulte to Bühne

Despite increasing activities on the ground, policy frameworks for rewilding remain sparse compared to other conservation approaches (such as species translocation or ecosystem restoration) that are already integrated into environmental laws and policies. In the United Kingdom, Brexit has created an unprecedented situation, untethering national law from the European Union’s nature directives. This means that now is a unique opportunity to make rewilding part of the conservation toolbox.  

So what is rewilding, and what challenges would rewilding laws, policies and standards need to address? Surprisingly, after decades of debate, there is no consensus about what rewilding is, hampering the development of an appropriate policy framework. In a recent publication, my co-authors and I argue that disagreement about the meaning of ‘wild’ is at the root of this lack of consensus. There are three questions that highlight the differences in values at the heart of the rewilding debates:  

1. To what extent can people and wild nature co-exist in the same place? 

Some people believe that people and wild nature cannot share the same space. They argue that the impact of people is typically so strong that it strips nature of any ‘wildness’. This has been the mainstream view in Western conservation movements and is enshrined in conservation policies, for instance as the spatial separation of people from nature via protected areas. Humans have indeed dramatically reshaped ecosystems with their activities, e.g. by transforming habitats via intensive agriculture or by altering the climate, and separating people from nature often benefits biodiversity.

Photo taken behind a Toyota pickup truck. There is a large sign over the road ahead with the words 'Parc National de la Pendjari' on it.
Entry to Pendjari National Park, Benin, a classic example of a protected area that limits human access and activities to protect wildlife. Picture credit: Henrike Schulte to Bühne

However, others argue that people are not in and of themselves incompatible with wild nature – it all depends on how they interact with their environment. Biodiversity can thrive in areas where people live, as shown by Indigenous-led conservation areas. Similarly, in the UK, a much wider range of species thrived alongside people until widespread agricultural intensification led to a reorganisation of the landscape, especially after World War II. In many cultures, the concept of ‘wild’ nature is in fact absent or not placed in opposition to people, but instead the relationship between people and their environment is perceived as one of manifold and mutual connections.

2. Does ’wildness’ have a minimum size? 

One answer to this question contends that wild nature can only be present in large sites (at least hundreds of square kilometres). Re-establishing wild nature in large, connected sites was one of the cornerstones of the earliest rewilding concept. Overall, the argument goes, self-sustaining, complex ecosystems can only exist in large sites. These will often have a more diverse array of species, carrying out a wider range of ecological functions (such as pollination or nutrient cycling), and their species populations are often larger, making them more robust to environmental stressors such as extreme weather.  

However, there are observations that suggest wild nature can be present in smaller sites. Species such as plants, insects and birds can find refuge in small sites, even where they are surrounded by cities. Such small sites can also allow wild species to move around the landscape, freely choosing where to grow or forage. Finally, these smaller sites are often closer to the places where people live, and thus more accessible. Ruling out small sites for rewilding could limit the benefits that people could get from such rewilding efforts, such as the benefits to mental health of having access to nature. 

Google Earth screenshot of Bushwood, Epping Forest. The area has been outlined with a black line.
Google Earth screenshot of Bushwood, Epping Forest, an ancient woodland site surrounded by the urban buzz of East London. Picture credit: Google Earth

3. How much should we be guided by the ecological history of a place to create a wild future for it? 

Conservation has a long tradition of restoring ecosystems by identifying a (range of) past ecosystem states and dynamics that existed in a place before human intervention and aiming to move the ecosystem closer to that state. Ecosystem restoration includes not only the restoration of plant and animal communities but can also entail the restoration of disturbance regimes such as fire. To some people, successful rewilding will look very similar to successful restoration. The fundamental argument behind this is that an (appropriate) wild past is the best blueprint for a wild future.  

However, recreating a wild past is not possible in many places. Species that have gone globally extinct cannot be reintroduced into their former ranges; and in many places, climate change will alter what ecosystems can persist. Some people argue that this means it is time to embrace ecological novelty: new species establishing in places and rewiring the ecological network. They argue that change is itself an attribute of wild, constantly evolving nature. However, embracing ecological novelty could present a threat to established species, or lead to otherwise unexpected outcomes. In addition, the reorganisation of an ecosystem is itself often shaped by humans – for instance, when a change in land-use limits access for new species – raising questions about how wild this reorganisation can be.  

Converging on a rewilding consensus 

How can we reach a consensus on what ’wild’ is and move rewilding policies forward in the face of these disagreements? The answers to each of these three questions will vary widely between stakeholders (including farmers, environmental policy makers, conservationists and private citizens), so it will be important to identify shared ground. To formulate rewilding policies, project stakeholders will have to agree on the following: 

  • What people can and cannot do in rewilded sites without compromising the ability of other species to thrive.
  • The limits that space constraints impose on wild nature in a given place (and whether those limits can be expanded.
  • What the past of a place can tell us about how it could look like in the future, and how this will be shaped by future climate and the arrival of new species.

Settling these questions in a way that is agreeable to all interest groups will require facilitating an active debate. Ultimately, what rewilding will mean for the UK should be shaped by the values of everyone who lives in and interacts with its ecosystems. 

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