The writer finds himself bemused by ideas around ‘Re-Wilding’. What does it mean? How can we accommodate it within the landscape – in ecological, economic, and social senses – and in any case, aren’t the outcomes most uncertain?
You are invited to imagine this scene:
Somewhere in England, an ice-cream van is parked in a layby. Behind is a tall curtain of vegetation, very still on a baking hot day. Two children have spent their pocket money on ice cream, and before returning to the family car, they compare notes on purchases as their mum reminds them to lick the cone before the ice cream melts.
There is a rustle in the bushes behind the van…and the beak of a large dinosaur appears, followed by two beady eyes that stare directly at the children. One freezes, the other shouts in delight ‘A dinosaur!’ Even more unbelievably, it speaks:
‘Watchya kids! Don’t be scared, I’m not a meat-eater. An’ don’t believe everythfin’ you see in that dreadful ‘Jurassic Park’ film.
The little girl finds her voice, asking anxiously:
‘Then, Mr Dinosaur, what do you eat?’
The boy pitches in, fearing he may lose his purchase:
‘Is it ice cream?’, ‘I just spent my pocket money!’
‘Nah! Don’t worry kids, oi’m a vegan dinosaur. Of the genus ‘Geezersaurus’. My teef are large only so that I can eat green stuff.’
Using its forelimbs to demonstrate, the dinosaur rips up an oak tree, chews it and swallows in three enormous gulps.
‘B-b-but you are all extinct?’ says the girl inquisitorially.
‘Listen darlin’, 66 million years ago, I was skateboarding and wearin’ a crash ‘at, so that fatal meteorite just bounced orf me.’ Got a bit of an ‘eadache though!’
The boy frowned: ‘You’re OK now Mr Geezersaurus?’
‘Yesssss son’ he said quietly, ‘an’ fanks for askin’, but sadly ‘all me friends are well-gone.’ He looks sad, then perks up:
‘Now listen, we dinos get blamed for a lot though’, an’ more than just eating lawyers in That Film.’ He loftily continues:
‘Did you know back in the Mesozoic period, the Erf had a greenhouse climate? A lot ‘otter than today. No polar icecaps for one fing. Because we (well some of us) eat only plants, they now say it was our farting that raised the temperature o’ the atmosphere by increasing methane loading in the atmosphere causing greater radiative forcing. This ‘appens when you eat a lot of trees.’
The children laugh cagily, although armed with this knowledge, rapidly retreat to their car. The dinosaur departs flatulently to his re-wilded park, in search of another tasty tree.
One hopes that the broader re-wilding narrative is more sophisticated than the above sketch, although this may not be the case. For one thing, re-establishing ‘nature’ represents a major development in land use change. For another, the definitions are poor and terminology confusing. ‘Re-wilding’ implies a reversion to some previously existing landscape condition. For example, simple questions remain about the nature of the supposed pre-agricultural wildwood. We ask what is the role of large grazing animals and pre-agricultural humans in determining the form of woodland? Without clear knowledge, ‘wilding’ is surely a better term that avoids presumption?
Passing over cultural cues that may reference notions of an Arcadian wilderness, or recalling the Romantic period in art, we must confront issues of wilding purpose, food security, sustainable development, rural economy, and community. It is too easy to yield to a distraction from preventing species extinction by other means, or pressing for greenhouse gas emission reduction. ‘Fly on holiday, plant a tree’ is an easy conscience soother!
In an era of ‘cancel culture’ there is the danger of falling into a slanging match. The well-known campaigner George Monbiot can say with conviction ‘I hate sheep’. This grabs attention but is unhelpful and does not endear him to the farming community. Others can reply with conviction that they hate spiders, snakes or even traffic wardens.
Post-Brexit efforts to address the problem of agricultural support in delivering environmental goods seem to be unspecific and up-in-the-air. For example, the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) is replete with headline grabbing statements, but poor on specifics about where and how environmental objectives (such as protection of specific habitats) may be achieved. Indeed, explicitly ‘wilding’ seems to be absent.
Few would argue for wilding sans frontiers and to be fair, neither does George Monbiot, who opposes the abandonment of high-quality agricultural land. Wheat may well continue to be planted in fertile ground in East Anglia, the Midlands and Wessex, while our river valleys and fertile grazing marshes will continue to supply dairy and meat products – and sheep?
A major question arises regarding boundaries. Drawing these on a map is central to any form of policy and planning. Agricultural land capability with food production in mind is established, as is vulnerability to soil degradation, groundwater pollution, and the desirability of buffer zones along rivers and around lakes. These are essentially physical properties and decades of survey and research can tell us a lot about what the land may be used for, and potentially where habitats may be restored. This is nothing new.
Another perspective on ‘targeting’ land use change comes from people and their economy, from farmers, the communities of which they are a part, and how these might be sustained. ‘Re-wilding’ at the Knepp Estate in West Sussex occurred only after a brave effort to farm conventionally proved unsuccessful. While nobody would advocate farm enterprise failure as a sole means of targeting for land use change, maybe some form of warning could be generated from farm business information?
And no science is perfect. On the one hand we can be confident that restoring bogs and fenland is helpful in carbon sequestration (so important is absorbing atmospheric carbon dioxide), for flood alleviation, bird and fish population and more. Other ‘re-wilding’ projects can be problematic where not properly managed. A laissez faire approach created an animal welfare disaster at Oostvaardersplassen nature reserve in the Netherlands, where a more managed approach has since been adopted.
A careful empirical approach is always welcome. If the Knepp project came right in the end, it is producing agricultural product in the form of sale of sausages, steaks, and burgers from ‘free-roaming, pasture-fed, organic Old English longhorn cattle, Tamworth pigs, and red and fallow deer.’ This remains an intervention, in fact an aspect of something called ‘extensification’, that is de-intensification of agriculture. Elsewhere, the controversial but careful introduction of the European bison into Blean woods near Canterbury is underway.
On the sustainable agriculture side of the discourse, gardening guru Monty Don champions the invaluable work of the Soil Association in working towards sustainable soil management. This approach is essential in the Real World where soil degradation is a problem and food security essential.
Take away points from this outline would seem to be:
There is credible evidence that we do not know to what we are ‘restoring nature’ where attempting wilding.
To what extent do we manage this transition, or for what species? Imagine the outcry from farmers if wolves were re-introduced to Britain!
Where and how do we draw boundaries for policy makers? These boundaries may be geographical where based in ecological potential, geology, soils or hydrology, or based in economic considerations of farms and community need.
What about food security? In the UK only some 60% of food supply is home produced. Should we import more?
In the humble opinion of the author, what is lacking is joined-up thinking, full use of information, imagination and genuine dialogue.
Dino quiz for kids. The Geezersaurus asks:
Q: ‘What’s the difference between a buffalo and a bison?
A: Yer can’t wash yer ‘ands in a buffalo’
Email your comments to [email protected]
Read the latest from West England Bylines here >>>