Photo: Ptarmigan cock, Cairngorms National Park, Scotland.

JULY 28, 2015

This morning I caught up on a few articles that have great relevance for the importance of rewilding in helping to halt the decimation of the natural world and the ‘Sixth Extinction’ that is currently taking place.

The question is whether rewilding makes a difference within a short enough timespan. If rewilding helps to restore the numbers of endangered faunal and floral species in a century, that may be good – but rather academic, because we don’t have a century in which to halt the tremendous loss of species diversity occurring around the globe.

The first article that caught my attention is one from the 15th July in National Geographic, by Isabella Tree, titled ‘Can Rewilding Bring Nature Back to Modern Britain?’ Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell(the chairman of the Beaver Advisory Committee for England, and long a campaigner for the reintroduction of beavers into English rivers) own and operate a 3,500 acre rewilding project in West Sussex – at Knepp Castle – which hardly springs to mind as a place one would expect to find wild nature, or where we might see the slide towards extinction of iconic species reversed.

Yet wild nature – rewilding nature – is certainly making a comeback, less than two decades after Isabella and Charlie’s 2001 decision to abandon conventional farming at Knepp and allow the land to return to a wilder state. As Isabella Tree mentions in her article, the U.K. has lost 44 million birds since 1966; what I find absolutely wonderful is that one of the bird species hardest-hit, the turtle-dove (which has declined by 96% in those same years) is to be found breeding on the Knepp estate. 

What would the world be like without the turtle-dove? Diminished in so many ways it hardly bears thinking about. 

Isabella Tree and Charlie Burrell’s experiment with ceasing farming and instead embracing a wilder landscape is not an isolated case, even though part of the great rewilding that is sweeping across Europe has not been the result of a conscious decision as in their case. The great opportunity for rewilding that is happening right now – certainly in Europe – is partly to do with the effects of urbanisation that have resulted in farmers abandoning their lands or placing lesser demands on their farmlands, especially if they find themselves increasingly remote from a vibrant urban area. That demographic and economic fact, coupled with the concurrent and growing public demand for wilder experiences with nature, has allowed the establishment and flourishing of organisations such as Rewilding Europe and now the fledgelingRewilding Britain

It’s a matter of economics. As Rewilding Europe suggests on their website, the state of the world economy dictates that nature conservation in the future will have to cost less and deliver more economic value – and rewilding fits that bill just perfectly. 

Another article I read this morning, also pertinent to species extinction, was in Matter magazine: 'It’s not climate change – it’s everything change’ by Margaret Atwood, long one of my favourite authors and thinkers. In her article she mentions a piece written for The Guardian by the British author Piers Torday, ‘Why writing stories about climate change isn’t fantasy or sci-fi’. Torday’s article reminds the reader that the2014 WWF Living Planet Report revealed that over the past forty years, the Earth’s vertebrate population has halved. Halved! If ever there is a sign that conventional conservation measures have been failing the natural world over the past four decades, surely this is it. 

Charles Harper Webb’s disturbing poem, ‘The Animals are Leaving’ comes to mind. I shall quote just its first stanza, but it is well worth reading all of it.

“One by one, like guests at a late party.
They shake our hands and step into the dark:
Arabian ostrich; Long-eared kit fox; Mysterious starling.”

We don’t want the animals to leave. It is mortifying thinking that they would step into the dark. The world – and we – should not permit it. 

If the rapid results at Knepp are anything to go by, and likewise the astounding success of rewilding in Europe, it is high time to give rewilding a chance not just in Britain, not just in Europe, but everywhere.