How bringing back the wilderness can save the planet

2 Nov 2018 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 2 Nov 2018

The lynx: Picture Wiki Commons

There was widespread shock at a World Wildlife Fund report published this week that revealed that mankind had wiped out 60% of all the animals on the planet since 1970.


All too often reports about the imminent extinction of species are treated as sad but somehow inevitable and certainly irrelevant beside more pressing human concerns. How many of us, for example had even heard of the wormword moonshine beatle, the ocean qhahog bivalve or the marsh grasshopper? If they did not impinge on us when they were thriving, why should we really care when they are on the brink? The importance of this report is that it spells out why this mass extermination matters.

It suggests that the destruction of other life forms is accelerating, adding further evidence to the claim now being made by some scientists that we are in the midst of the earth’s sixth mass extinction  and the first to be caused by a single species, homo sapiens.

The irony is that whilst much of this destruction is caused by industrialised farming the net result is to endanger human life as well because it destroys the complex ecosystems which dictate that all forms of life are interdependent.

Other research published in 2016 suggests that the UK and Ireland are amongst the most nature-depleted nations on the planet – the UK ranked 189th out of 218 nations surveyed for its biodiversity.

The damage is primarily caused by intensive farming, over-fishing, urbanisation and deforestation. Ireland is the second most deforested nation in Europe, after Iceland.

So these are not distant, abstract issues, they are here, around us, and we need to tackle them.

One of the most radical solutions is proposed by the rewilding movement. Rewilding Britain, which was formed in 2013, is dedicated to returning swathes of the UK to their natural state. Strategies are in place for Scotland, Wales and England. It also plans one for Northern Ireland which is still in development.

The concept is simple. George Monbiot who co-founded Rewilding Britain says it “should involve reintroducing missing animals and plants, taking down the fences, blocking the drainage ditches, culling a few particularly invasive exotic species but otherwise standing back. It’s about abandoning the biblical doctrine of dominion which has governed our relationship with the natural world.”

So you take a track of land, reintroduce native plants and animals and let nature do the rest.

One example is the 3,500 acre Knepp estate in Sussex. It has heavy clay soil and was proving unprofitable to run for conventional farming. So what its owners did was to introduce native species of cattle, pigs, ponies and deer, stopped maintaining the land, fences and ditches and just let the animals graze.

A decade later an astonishing number of species have repopulated the land including purple emperor butterflies and turtle doves. The Knepp estate is now home to 2% of the UK’s nightingale population.

Because the animals are just left to graze on what is already there , Knepp is run at minimal cost and the organic meat it produces sells for premium prices. The owners also have a lucrative side business running “safari” trips for people wanting to visit the unspoilt landscape. An unprofitable intensively farmed estate has been transformed into a profitable wilderness. It is an exciting project that suggests that running a farm and improving biodiversity need not be mutually exclusive.

Ireland has one of Europe’s most exciting rewilding projects at Nephin Bog, a mountain range in Co Mayo where 27,000 acres of bogland, mountain and forest plantations were designated as a wilderness in 2013.

The forest has been thinned out to create more clearings, the bogs restored and native plants re-introduced. Forest roads have been converted into trails, and nature left to do the rest. Wild Nephin is now promoted as a “primitive wilderness experience” for visitors.

Rewilding Britain is currently working on a massive project in mid Wales called Summit to Sea which runs from the Pumlumon massif down through wooded valleys to the Dyfi estuary and out into Cardigan Bay. Within five years it will comprise at least 10,000 hectares of land and 28,400 hectares of sea. More than £3 million has been secured to date to fund it.

The movement is gaining traction and the group is lobbying furiously at Westminster to build support amongst politicians, landowners, communities, farmers and the fishing industry.

So far, so uncontroversial. But this is only part of the story. The rewilding movement has attracted global headlines and ferocious opposition because of its support for reintroducing species driven out in earlier times. Few would object to moose grazing the land and beavers repopulating river banks. However the same cannot be said about two other candidates.

The first is the wolf, hunted to extinction in Britain and Ireland in the 18th Century. Rewilding Britain has this to say:   “Wolves can turn grassland into forest and create habitats that hundreds of species can use, by keeping deer on the move so that they can’t overgraze fragile tree seedlings. Wolves are likely to reduce the loss of arable crops.”

It says that risks to humans are low and that where they have been reintroduced in other European countries they have proved popular with tourists.

Persuading farmers, landowners and the general public of this will be an interesting challenge.

The second is the lynx, a wood dwelling large wild cat, not seen in Britain for more than 1,000 years. It could help tackle a problem common to both Ireland and Britain – the proliferation of deer which have no natural predators. Rewilding Britain says: “Lynx help woodlands regenerate by controlling roe deer and invasive species such as sika deer. They can also reduce fox numbers.”

Lynx are very shy creatures and pose no threat to humans, but they can hunt sheep, and so a compensation package would need to be in place if they were reintroduced. A recent opinion poll showed overwhelming public support for the return of the lynx.

There is a clamour to bring the lynx to Ireland as well – but as The Irish Times has pointed out there is little evidence to suggest it was ever here in the first place.

Rewilding may or may not be the answer to the biodiversity crisis, but the rapid growth of the movement and its popularity mean that it will prompt an urgent debate about how to balance the demands of a growing human population with its technologies and developments with what was there before.

It suggests that there is a cure for the ruination of the planet, and that the essence of it is as easy as it sounds: leaving nature to repair itself. But it is not that simple. We will still be left with having to feed a rapidly growing population at reasonable cost, to solve the housing crisis, to have a decent transport system. The challenge is how to do this without destroying other living beings, and ultimately ourselves.

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