When the Chelsea flower show bestowed its top award this year on a scruffy patch of wet woodland complete with beaver dam, pool and lodge, it was a symbolic moment. Rewilding may still excite or antagonise but here was a radically new way of managing land for nature being embraced by the mainstream – and by the British establishment.
Five years ago, European rewilders were bemused by Britain’s debate over whether beavers should be allowed back on to rivers. Today, hundreds, possibly thousands, of beavers are at large – and legal – across the country. Where one English landowner, the Knepp estate in Sussex, first trod the lonely path to abandon conventional farming for free-ranging herbivores and allowing more natural processes to unfurl, scores of landowners of all sizes are now following.
Familiar debates over the value of rewilding still rage but the British iteration seems to have eschewed talk of reviving wolves and lynx to cross new frontiers. Rewilding’s terrain is changing, most dramatically with the arrival of private finance and a new focus on bringing benefits to people – as well as sea-wilding.
Rebecca Wrigley, chief executive of Rewilding Britain, the charity established with the support of George Monbiot in 2015 after his book, Feral, galvanised British rewilding, recently found herself at a House of Lords dinner for nature-based solutions to the country’s legally binding net zero and nature recovery targets, alongside asset managers and investment funds. Suddenly, big money is eager to invest in rewilding with hitherto unprofitable land now seen as valuable in an era of carbon credits and laws requiring new developments to bring about “biodiversity net gain”, and ensure no additional nutrients are added to rivers in certain English catchments.
“In some senses it’s like the wild west,” says Wrigley. “There are very few brokers for the money that’s interested in investing in biodiversity and carbon, and the providers of that land. How do rewilders know which carbon schemes are legitimate or whether these funds are backed by fossil fuels or palm oil estates?”
Rewilding Britain wants to provide advice for the landowners joining its “peer learning” rewilding network, while other schemes such as the Gold Standard develop certification schemes for legitimate offsetting.
This influx of money is “both an opportunity and a threat”, says Wrigley. “The right kind of funding for rewilding could be really positive but we need to make sure it is done in a way that brings benefit to local communities and economies. Yes, we want to see large-scale restoration of naturally functioning ecosystems and natural processes but we also want to see communities play a real part in that. We see people very much as part of nature. Otherwise it’s another massive corporate land-grab.”
These comments reveal another new frontier for British rewilding – one that was much less visible five years ago: instead of discussing wolves and bears, today’s rewilders are quick to emphasise people and prosperity. This might be dismissed as rhetoric were it not for new facts on the ground.
A Rewilding Britain study of 32 projects in England found they brought a 54% increase in jobs. In Scotland, for example, when Trees for Life bought Dundreggan, the former shooting estate employed one person. Now, this Highland rewilding project employs eight people, plus a further 15 jobs when its education centre opens.
“The argument over rewilding benefiting the local community has yet to be won, to be honest,” says Steve Micklewright, chief executive of Trees for Life and convener of the Scottish Rewilding Alliance. “There’s a very strong narrative that the existing jobs go and it’s another Highland clearance. I would say the Highlands are already cleared and we have residual jobs associated with sports shooting estates.
“But there are too many deer in the Highlands and, as we aren’t going to see wolves back in Scotland any time soon, we need more deer stalkers not fewer if we do rewilding [to enable natural regeneration of trees]. There are a lot more land management jobs in rewilding before nature can take over. Once it does, regenerative businesses can develop.”
Community-led rewilding is also under way, most notably at Langholm, a small town in southern Scotland where local charity the Langholm Initiative has sought to regenerate the former textiles town since the 1990s, successfully raising £3.8m in just six months to buy 2,100 hectares (5,200 acres) of moorland and valley from the Buccleuch estate in 2021. Now the community has been awarded £1m by the Scottish Land Fund, taking them a step closer to meeting their goal of raising £2.2m by the end of July to buy another 2,140 hectares (5,300 acres). “It’s incredibly exciting,” says Jenny Barlow, estate manager for the Langholm Initiative. “We’re really hopeful we’ll get it over the line but it will be a tense few weeks.
“As well as restoring the land for nature and climate, there will also be a really big benefit for the town and the people who live here,” says Barlow. She tends to talk about restoration but says she has no hangups about the “rewilding” word. “It’s just easier to explain that we’re putting the building blocks of nature back in the landscape. It’s very transparent and very clear what we’re trying to do,” she says.
There is no rash talk of beavers or bison. Stage one for Langholm is to develop a five-year plan with the community. The ecological idea is to restore blanket bog, allow valley-bottom woodland to recover, and create a mosaic with free-roaming grazing animals to help retain patches of open moorland for the local star species, the hen harrier. “We’re starting to get golden eagles visiting the valley and other species returning,” says Barlow.
But the key is economic sustainability. “If we don’t get that right we can’t get the rest,” she says.
As rewilding projects multiply, not all of them can be sustained by glamping but Langholm’s proximity to the Lake District should ensure successful ecotourism. “Local businesses are really excited to see an increase in people coming here but we need to make sure it’s sustainable, ethical and people are paid well,” says Barlow. Langholm is starting a community-run tree nursery, looking at renewable energy, as well as some commercial forestry. Sustainable carbon credits will help too. Most important, the land is a boon for outdoor education. “We’re getting all the local kids out so they will grow up and say, ‘this is ours’,” says Barlow. “Success will be when these children are leaving school and see loads of different economic opportunities for them through this land.”
Another way to link people with similar projects is being pioneered by Heal Rewilding, a charity offering the landless majority in England a chance to buy a stake in rewilded land with an ingenious fundraising model based on individuals purchasing 3 metre by 3 metre squares. These can be identified by the what3words app, so while donors can’t dig up or sleep on their square, a drone can be programmed to hover over it and take a photograph.
Heal Rewilding has raised funds to buy two 160- to 240-hectare sites in southern England. Its rewilding will follow the Knepp model, and half will be publicly accessible with half closed for wildlife. Co-founder Jan Stannard is determined to connect with local people. “We’d love to give communities a place where they can grow food, we want to establish forest gardens and no-dig allotments,” she says. “Each site will be different.”
The final new frontier for British rewilders is the sea – increasingly disrupted by energy production as well as fishing, as explored in Rewilding the Sea, a new book by Charles Clover.
“Rewilding the sea in many ways seems a lot simpler,” says Micklewright. “You just leave it to do its own thing, although there may be some intervention like restoring sea-grass beds or oyster beds. How do we get sea wilding to happen politically? It’s on the agenda. It’s just that there are very deep concerns about livelihoods. I’d argue these livelihoods are residual and if we want more jobs we need to give the seas a chance to recover.”
Once again, rewilders’ best hope for sea-wilding may lie with communities. When islanders on Arran successfully established Britain’s first community-led no-take zone at Lamlash Bay in 2008, rewilding wasn’t in their vocabulary. “We can see the no-take zone as a form of marine rewilding but it’s not excluding people – it’s helping them benefit from a healthy marine ecosystem,” says Jenny Crockett of the Community of Arran Seabed Trust (Coast). “If you let nature be nature, it’s amazing what can reappear and that’s what’s happening in Lamlash Bay.”
These waters were described as a marine desert, decimated by years of trawling and scallop dredging, but the no-take zone has proved to be a nursery for juvenile fish, home to four times more lobsters than in surrounding areas and with four times higher king scallop density. There’s also a “spillover” effect as local fishers catch larger lobsters in the surrounding waters. “That’s when the fishermen start to benefit, because these larger, healthier animals are spilling over to areas where they are allowed to be caught and there are still enough in the no-take zone to be seeding future stocks,” says Crockett. Crucially, this rewilding is supported by local creel fishers.
Coast is “looking at the bigger picture now rather than keeping it local”, says Crockett. It is a member of the Our Seas coalition, which includes the Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation, which is calling for a reinstatement of a three-mile limit (abandoned in 1984) to prevent trawling and dredging in inshore waters. Too many of Scotland’s Marine Protected Areas are “paper parks”, says Crockett. Just 4.5% of Scottish waters are safeguarded from damaging dredging and trawling, methods which are, in effect, ploughing the seabed.
Politically, rewilding currently enjoys support within the Conservative government in England – thanks to the influence of Lord Goldsmith and his rewilding brother, Ben – and a bolder Scottish government, due to the Greens power-sharing with the traditionally rewilding-sceptic SNP. But political support may fade amid concerns about food security caused by the war in Ukraine and the cost of living crisis. Here’s the new line of attack on rewilding: it’s an indulgence when we should be digging for Britain.
“Many other land uses haven’t had the same level of criticism,” says Stannard, pointing to farmland given over to solar farms, golf courses and horse paddocks, as well as food-waste and other inefficiencies in the global food system.
“It raises the question of the vast grouse shooting and deer stalking estates that make no contribution to food production,” says Wrigley. Then there’s arable land used to grow biofuels and livestock feed. Rewilding Britain wants at least 5% of the 30% of land and sea for nature target to be core rewilding areas but Wrigley also argues that there must be a holistic look at land use across Britain and a strategy for the future. There is, at least, a nascent land-use strategy in Scotland.
“Change is coming, there’s no doubt about that,” she says. “It’s whether we embrace it and discuss what we’re asking of the land and the sea; how we can shift the balance and increase resilience and find out where it makes most sense to rewild.”
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