Photo: A black rhino in the Karoo National Park, July 2015.

AUGUST 13, 2015

Conservation in Africa has been in the news lately – what with the deplorable death of Cecil the lion, and the Zimbabwe government’s almost immediate banning of the hunting of lions – and then almost as immediately removing their own ban. On a recent trip to South Africa, I was struck by how much of what had been farmland perhaps a dozen years ago has been allowed to regenerate into wildlife conservation areas. Particularly heartening was to see that wildlife corridors are being created between some of the bigger national parks, so that African animals are able to move more freely between the parks and improve the genetic base of various species.

And it was good for the soul to encounter close up some black rhino – a species brought back from the very brink of extinction. It got me to thinking about what is happening in Britain and in Europe with the growing rewilding movement, and what can be done to accelerate the preservation of threatened species in Britain and Europe, and the restoration of trophic diversity that goes hand in hand with reintroducing keystone species.

This morning I was listening to a podcast, which is an interview on rewilding with George Monbiot, conducted by Transition Network’s Rob Hopkins – an interview after Monbiot’s book Feral had been published but before the recent launch of the Rewilding Britain charity.

It’s an excellent interview, and in it George Monbiot says something rather profound, I think – or certainly something that resonated as being true in my own life. When asked what had started him on Feral, and writing something purely to do with the environment, Monbiot said that it was actually a return to his first love, his first interest. The important change for him was to reject explanations of the need to preserve or restore the natural world because of its economic or even scientific value, but to admit what all environmentalists know in their deepest selves: that the natural world holds a fascination for humans firstly because we love being in it. At our deepest cores, the less the natural environment that we experience has been modified by man, the more our souls are replenished or restored.  

And Monbiot also says in this interview that in Europe, Britain is alone in treating the great national parks no differently from the areas surrounding them – real wildness and real wilderness is not protected or encouraged.

It was useful that I was listening to the podcast with the hindsight of the launch of Rewilding Britain, and also of the increasing momentum of the rewilding movement. As Monbiot mentions, a number of conservation agencies and organisations who were either cold or indifferent to the concept of rewilding have become converts, or are at the very least warming to the idea. As I have said in a previous post, I think that rewilding is a concept and an idea whose time has come, and Monbiot’s book has helped to fuel the tremendous public interest in what we can do to restore a wilder landscape and widen the diversity of species across Britain. That includes reintroducing those we have lost, like the beaver and the lynx and the wolf, and also stemming and preventing further loss of those birds and animals which have seen terrible decline, and bolstering their recovery.

Having just listened to this podcast and then another on ‘What happened to the soul?’ by Iain McGilchriston RSA Events Audio – another superb interview and talk, by the way, I then read an article posted on the website of the organisation Rewilding Europe, who are making great strides in the rewilding of large tracts of landscape across Europe, and who are constantly breaking new ground – metaphorically speaking. In terms of the goals of the rewilding movement, the literal objective is a little like that of the permaculture movement within agriculture – embracing natural processes as far as possible that will achieve the objectives of increasing diversity and enriching the landscape as well as our experience of it, without literally breaking ground or modifying natural systems.

The Rewilding Europe article was on the reintroduction – in fact, the re-creation by the Tauros Project, as far as possible – of the aurochs, the species of wild cattle which roamed Europe for thousands of years and which was hunted to extinction by man, with the last individual of the species dying in captivity in Poland in 1627. The new, re-created version of the aurochs is to be called the tauros, and its creation by selective breeding is the goal of the Taurus Foundation. As stated in the article on Rewilding Europe’s website, ‘The final goal of the [Tauros] programme, to be met in some 20 years, is the presence of the Tauros as a self-sufficient wild bovine grazer in herds of at least 150 animals each in several rewilding areas in Europe.’ Rewilding Europe, and the Taurus Foundation also, believe that a ‘wilder Europe’ requires herds of wild bovines to ‘prevent further loss of the biodiversity of the open areas’. 

George Monbiot’s opinion differs markedly from this with regard to Britain – in contrast to Europe’s landscape, which has seen so much farmland and pastures abandoned, the UK landscape is heavily overgrazed, by both sheep and deer, neither of which animal allows saplings to survive long enough to become trees and then woodland. During the course of the next year, I shall visit the rewilding areas of Europe and also those (far fewer) areas in Britain, as well as the national parks and woodlands, so that I can see what progress is being made in Britain and Europe towards a wilder environment – one which rejuvenates and inspires the human soul while simultaneously helping species and landscapes to recover from human depredation. 

I look forward to meeting those people who have had the foresight and the courage to begin working on the reforestation and rewilding of Europe and Britain long before the movement to rewild ourselves and our landscapes began to gather the momentum that it now has.