Photo: Stags squaring up at a fence in the Scottish Highlands near Loch Ness.

Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem ‘Inversnaid’ (probably written in 1881) has always been one of my favourites, and I realised this morning that its fourth stanza is particularly apt to rewilding, and could be a rallying cry for the movement gathering such enthusiasm among the British (and world) public:

“What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.”

Hopkins knew that the weeds and the wilderness of the natural world were and are key components to the wholeness of the human spirit, and that a reduced wildlife diminishes all of human society. The rewilding movement aims to create conditions of landscape which enable the natural world to repair itself and to enrich human experience. 

If you aren’t up to speed yet with what ‘rewilding’ is, Wikipedia’s broad definition of rewilding is as workable as any: ‘Rewilding is large-scale conservation aimed at restoring and protecting natural processes and core wilderness areas, providing connectivity between such areas, and protecting or reintroducing apex predators and keystone species.’

In practice, this involves finding large areas of landscape which have been degraded ecologically over decades or centuries, giving those areas a nudge to re-establish a greater range of floral and arboreal species than they have had while degraded, and then either allowing or facilitating the re-introduction of keystone faunal species. By ‘keystone’ is meant that their presence actively promotes trophic cascades which increase plant and animal diversity and ecological health. The rewilding ideal is that each of these restored and rewilded regions is connected by a corridor to another, allowing the animals greater range in which to roam, and that the landscape becomes increasingly ‘self-willed’ or allowed to operate according to natural processes, without much or any interference from Man.

I believe that rewilding is our last chance, our last hope, of rescuing vulnerable wildlife species from mass extinction. Rewilding’s wildness and wet, and weeds, are elements of a conservation strategy which kindles public passion for conservation such as no strategy hitherto.

In the Independent on Monday 20th July 2015, there is a wonderful piece by Michael McCarthy, a rejoinder to Boyd Tonkin’s earlier article suggesting that rewilding in Britain would be largely theatre, that rewilded areas would be little better than ‘theme parks’. McCarthy rightly points out that Tonkin ‘has completely missed the biggest point about [rewilding], which is that it seeks to restore and to repair a wildlife which in Britain (as in much of the rest of the world) is catastrophically damaged’. 

Amen to that. Something has to be done, and seventy years of post-WW2 conservation policies haven’t prevented the populations of iconic British wildlife species spiralling down towards extinction. Rewilding offers the best shot yet at reversing the trend, and it has the benefit that it has sparked massive public interest and support. 

Talk of rewilding is especially pertinent right now, with the launch in mid-July of the conservation charity Rewilding Britain, spearheaded by George Monbiot and riding the wave of enthusiasm generated by his superb book Feral. The launch of Rewilding Britain comes at the perfect time: Chris Foote in STV news on the 27th April 2015 writes that in an online survey of 9000 people in the UK, 91% backed the reintroduction of the lynx, made extinct in Britain about 1300 years ago, and a staggering84% of those surveyed suggested that they would like the reintroduction to take place within the next 12 months. This is an astounding level of public support for the rewilding movement in Britain, and it bodes well for Hopkins’ plea for the preservation of wilderness and wildness. 

Not everyone is keen; in an article in The Scotsman on Saturday 25th July 2015, Alistair Munro reports that the National Farmers Union (NFU) is concerned about potential reintroductions of species: whether those are beaver, lynx or wolf. Munro quotes NFU vice-president Andrew McCornick that ‘Farmers are justifiably concerned at what the introduction of predators could mean for their livestock’. It seems that various bodies are posturing for a potential battle, but no such battle needs to be fought. Farmers and rewilders can work together with minimal antipathy, and I predict that these same farmers will at some point in the next decade bless the rise of the rewilding movement. Successful rewilding in places such as Scotland will bring record numbers of eco-tourists to areas which have not seen the economic benefit of eco-tourism before – and those who will benefit most will be the farmers and the local communities around the great rewilded landscapes. 

There is abundant evidence from Europe that people and wild nature can live together to the benefit of both. Carolyn Leckie in an article in The National on 20th July 2015 writes that Italy’s Abruzzo National Park – about a tenth of the size of Scotland’s Cairngorms National Park – is ‘home to a multitude of species, including lynx, wolves and brown bears’. The Park is also far from being an isolated wilderness; it houses five towns and villages. Farming, forestry, wild nature, and a thriving woodcraft industry exist peacefully alongside a resurgent tourist sector. 

This is what I hope for, but also foresee, for those areas of Britain which take up the challenge and rewards of rewilding.