Rewilding is a simple concept: giving land back to wildlife and wildlife back to the land.
To rewild is to restore natural processes, revive degraded habitats, reintroduce species either missing or depleted, and then step back and watch as the ecosystem becomes self-willed and self-regulating once again in an alchemy of flux, dynamism and unpredictability.
Nature is comprised of an intricate web of interactions that enrich our lives and give our planet a greater capacity to breathe and protect itself from forces such as climate breakdown, farming intensification and rapid urbanisation. The need to redress the balance in favour of nature has never been so pressing. That’s rewilding.
Rewilding can be as simple or as complicated to grasp as you want it to be, with more interpretations than a dream diary. But it is a word firmly rooted in science and fact, and the carrier of an inspiring vision.
This vision is of vast, protected wilderness areas connected by a network of habitat corridors, reinvigorated by trophic function and a fully intact food chain that connects the soil and the smallest insect with the largest of carnivores.
Rewilded seas would contain an interlinked web of No Take Zones, enabling recovery from centuries of take, take and take some more. It’s a moral obligation to right a wrong, to repair what we’ve damaged. It could just be the most noble thing we can do as a human species this century.
The movement is spreading from the mysterious to the mainstream, extending beyond its academic confines and into the consciousness of the masses – masses yearning for change, and hope.
Disagreement over what 'counts' as rewilding is healthy at this precise and precarious moment in our ecological timeline. Such exchanges of ideas possess the collective power to change the world when combined with action. They also help to maintain our focus.
If we all take different routes – some more circuitous than others – but all eventually arrive at the same destination, is there a right and wrong journey to take?
It's a philosophical question for a movement and an ethic that’s as much about philosophy as it is about ecology – particularly in the United Kingdom where tradition and a stubborn island mentality have shaped our land use for centuries.
The barriers to regeneration are often mental, not physical. So how do we overcome them? How do we find a long-lasting meaning – and therefore value – in rewilding?
We do this by giving ourselves an ecological education, and helping to educate others on the countless benefits of living more closely with nature. By not thinking of nature's value in monetary terms or as a form of 'capital'.
Instead, try and recall the last time you spent a prolonged period surrounded by nature and how it made you feel. Now imagine that being a daily occurrence and ponder, what could it do for your heart, your brain, your mind and society as a whole?
Healthy ecosystems are our life support systems. There is no limit to what rewilding can achieve, from giving us a cerebral lift when we’re down and providing us with an insight into how interconnected all species are, to keeping our planet cool and instilling in us all a deeper sense of wonder with the natural world.
We need to relinquish control and our deeply embedded need to ‘manage’ the land and have dominion over wildlife.
To have the healthiest and most resilient of ecosystems you need wholeness. That means not being singular or homogeneous when thinking about species that we want and don’t want in a given area.
The most biodiverse ecosystems on Earth also happen to be the healthiest for all life - a self-sustaining, self-renewing cycle that worked very well for aeons before we came along and began to meddle with it. We think we know best – we don’t.
Our oversized brains have given us arrogance. An arrogance that leads to greed and destruction and the misguided notion that we understand the natural world, when in fact, we’ve only scratched the surface.
For instance, we’re only just beginning to appreciate the profound, disproportionate effect that top predators have on an ecosystem. Remove them and you remove their top-down regulatory role that often keeps all other ecological interactions in balance further down the food chain.
Think of everything below them as the components in your car engine. Now think of top predators as the oil in that engine. Remove the oil and the engine will run for a wee while; but inside it’s self-destructing. Eventually it will seize and cease to function. A planet without predators is a seized engine, and we can’t buy another planet.
Rewilding is also about championing highly interactive species such as the beaver. Ecosystem engineers that create niches of habitat for a multitude of creatures and act as a catalyst for the creation of more life.
We need more interactions. More natural processes. They take us to a better place. A place of fascination, of tangled, layered intrigue, of ‘I wonder what will happen next’, of new discoveries and a raising of the ecological bar.
How high does that bar go – who knows? But we owe it to ourselves to find out before it’s too late, and maybe, just maybe, in doing so, we’ll improve the quality of our lives in ways we can’t even imagine yet and extend the lifespan of all life on our planet – including the countless species awaiting discovery.
It’s about facilitating variety and ultimately going beyond restoration.
You will find much progress on the ground, if you can get past the fluidity of the term rewilding, and if you can filter out the noise created by the misinformed or downright ignorant. The original American definition and its bold, far-sighted vision is what we should be aiming for in the long-term.
Rewilding is not an unrealised, fanciful concept; its influence can be seen, smelt and touched across the world through a growing number of projects of all shapes and sizes on land and sea.
Vegetation is returning quicker than we thought possible, reintroduced species are giving us a glimpse of a richer ecological past when we held our ear close to the land and lived in tune with nature instead of against it.
We just need to give nature a chance, to show us what it can do without intervention and restriction.
Rewilding simply seeks to make the natural world a better place at a time when it’s under attack – from us.
We have a responsibility to repair the damage we’ve inflicted, and in doing so, we’ll be helping ourselves and future generations.
Action, not words is what we need right now. Let’s not be held back by meanings, let’s get things done.
Gordon Eaglesham is a freelance nature journalist and content editor for Scotland: The Big Picture.