Thoughts on nature’s own solution to the climate and biodiversity crises.

Rewilding, defined by Rewilding Britain as “the large-scale restoration of ecosystems and the reinstatement of natural processes”, is a potential solution to the climate and biodiversity crises that has gained notoriety in recent years due to the successes of projects such as the Knepp Estate in England, the Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands and, most notably, Yellowstone National Park in America.

But rewilding is not synonymous with conservation. Millie Kerr explains how the theories differ in the inside cover of her new book Wilder: “If conservation seeks to preserve what remains and stave off further decline, rewilding goes further, seeking to restore entire ecosystems”.

By emphasising natural processes, instead of traditional ‘management’ techniques, rewilding wills humans to take a step back. In that sense, rewilding takes the view that the natural resources we rely upon can be readily available if we accept that nature’s millions of years of experience on the subject make her better qualified to steer us in the right direction.

“Animals don’t just live in landscapes, they shape the landscapes.”

One way we can aid nature in restoring her natural processes is by returning some of her stewards. A newly accepted reading of ecological history shows that animals and nature evolved together, not independently. We now know that animals don’t just live in landscapes, they shape the landscapes.

Yellowstone exemplifies just how these animals keep ecosystems alive. Before wolves were reintroduced, the number of deer in the park built up to levels where culling efforts couldn’t stop them from increasing. The unnaturally large population of deer meant that they had reduced the vegetation to almost nothing; there was little food for insects and invertebrates and all the other animals at the very bottom of the food chain. The lack of life at the bottom of the chain, predictably, meant that there was a lack of life at the top too.

When the wolves were reintroduced, as well as reducing deer numbers, they radically changed their behaviour. They started avoiding open spaces where they could be easily spotted or places they could be trapped, such as valleys or riverbeds. Their dispersal immediately allowed for the succession of vegetation and the return of grassland, shrubland and forests of aspen and willow. The newly formed diversity of habitats meant that birds returned, as did beavers. Beavers created dams and provided habitats for fish, for reptiles and for amphibians. Bears fed on cherries that were now growing on regenerating shrubs and, when they wanted something heartier, they joined the eagles and the ravens to eat the carrion left by the wolves.

The wolves provided evidence for the existence of trophic cascades within food chains and gave credence to the idea that removing any one species can have monumental consequences for the ecosystem it is part of. Unfortunately, humans have been removing these species for at least 22,000 years, since the great megafauna extinctions of the late Palaeolithic era (Blythe & Jepson, Rewilding).

The reintroduction of keystone species (those species that have a disproportionately large impact relative to their abundance e.g., wolves, beavers and lynx) is a key aspect of rewilding and one that allows us to at least attempt to speed up the natural recovery of ecosystems. However, as well as drastically increasing levels of biodiversity, creating more truly beautiful landscapes and creating more resilient ecosystems, rewilding also has the potential to sequester staggering amounts of carbon.

Specifically in Britain, we have an extra special incentive to sequester carbon through rewilding because we are home to 13% of the world’s blanket peat bog. Globally, peatlands sequester more carbon than rainforests, and yet the majority of them have lost this superpower of theirs because of overgrazing, burning and drainage.

Consider the current situation. 51% of land in the UK is managed for livestock where animals roam in unnaturally high densities and destroy the health of the soil. These soils become compacted, devoid of invertebrate life and highly susceptible to erosion. 8% of land is used for grouse shooting where heather is burnt, to provide older heather for nesting and newer heather for feeding, and predators are removed, to maximise the bag for wealthy hunters.

Imagine instead if we rewilded our lands; if we allowed our dead ecosystems to recover. We would be able to sequester carbon from the atmosphere and store it in the newly grown forests, the wetted peatlands, the mosaic of grasslands and shrubs and in the soil – not to mention the carbon stored in the biomass of the returning animals. This would be favourable to the current situation in which we allow such vast quantities of land to remain as mismanaged, agricultural sprawl.

For the most part, the benefit rewilding has, in terms of carbon sequestration, is in the fact that we are allowing nature to decide how land is best put to use. Nature was able to keep the carbon cycle in balance before the Industrial Revolution, when we began belching out CO2, and by restoring some of our land to that same state of nature, we will be able to restore that balance.

“Nature moves on, it changes, and it evolves, and it will do just fine without us.”

Some argue that rewilding is playing God; that when we reintroduce lost species we are doing so at our peril and that it’s best if we just leave things how they are. But the fact is, whenever a decision is made about how a section of land is used, we are very much playing God; it’s just that currently, we opt for a land of tame, bland depletion.

Given that we do play God, rewilding asks us to do so with slightly more open-mindedness and more respect for our planet’s history. Nature moves on, it changes, and it evolves, and it will do just fine without us. In fact, if we continue with the fallacy that we are somehow superior, nature will snuff us out and excel without us. If our species is to persist, we must rewild our lands and we must rewild ourselves.