Rewilding: transforming conservation methods

We can transform the British landscape, and the longevity of our economy, if we let nature take the driving seat.

If you open up the box and give species a wider scope to express themselves, the benefits are limitless

The UK is amongst the most nature depleted countries in the world, ranking 29th lowest of 218 countries. We’ve already hunted all of our top predators to extinction.

Read Sophie's blog.

England has the smallest amount of land protected as nature reserves in Europe, and the majority of land in its National Parks is farmed.

Native woodlands cover a mere 2.5 percent of all of our land today. Few Brits have not downed a pint in the Royal Oak pub – Oaks support more lifeforms than any other native tree, including over 300 species of lichen, insects, birds, and mammals. The loss of Oak trees from Britain is a catastrophe.

We are living in a desert compared to our gloriously wild past. Where did we go wrong?

  1. It all started with the war…

The War utterly transformed the nation’s mentality. Never again, the government declared, would Britain be threatened with starvation and suffer through food rationing. 

Fallow land became viewed as wasted land, and by the late 1960s, the trend for large, specialized farms obliterated grasses, wildflowers and trees from the landscape. 

Sheep graze at Weston Park Farms in Hertfordshire. Credits: David Levene/The Guardian
Sheep graze at Weston Park Farms in Hertfordshire. Credits: David Levene/The Guardian

 

  1. Declining knowledge of nature

Lack of empathy and knowledge of nature seems to be at the route of many ecological crises we face in the world today.

In 2007, Oxford Junior dictionary replaced ‘blackberry’ and ‘crocus’ with ‘block graph’ and ‘celebrity’.

In 2012, the edition continued to write nature out of young minds, replacing ‘conker’ and ‘acorn’ with ‘chat room’ and ‘attachment’. Heron, kingfisher, lark, leopard, lobster, magpie, mussel, otter and panther have all been deleted. 

Only a generation ago, 40 percent children still regularly played in natural areas. Now this has dropped to 10 percent, with a whopping 40 percent children never playing outdoors at all. 

A child’s experience with nature has a direct bearing on attitudes to the environment in later life.

Like me, children that spent time in green spaces between the ages of 7-12, are more attached to nature. Those who didn’t will more likely regard nature as irrelevant and are indifferent to its loss. 

  1. Using conservation methods led by isolation and control

Conventional conservation in Britain tends to be about targets and control, maintaining the overall look of the landscape or micro managing a particular habitat for the perceived benefit of specific species, rather than for the benefit of all. 

The problem with this is that almost every nature site in England is in effect an island.

Generally the smaller and more remote the island, the fewer the species and the more vulnerable its ecosystem. Climate change is wreaking havoc for species unable to move due to isolation.

What is Rewilding and how will it benefit the UK?

  1. Background

Rewilding is about letting nature take care of itself, enabling natural processes to shape land and sea, repair damaged ecosystems and restore degraded landscapes. 

Grazing animals prevent our post-agricultural fields from turning into closed-canopy woodland, which is a poor habitat for most wildlife. Credits: Knepp wildland
Grazing animals prevent our post-agricultural fields from turning into closed-canopy woodland, which is a poor habitat for most wildlife. Credits: Knepp wildland

If you open up the box and give species a wider scope to express themselves, the benefits are limitless:

  • restore degraded landscapes
  • increase biodiversity
  • improve water systems
  • increase soil fertility for farming
  • protect wildlife from extinction
  • lower carbon emissions
  • reintroduce some of our much loved species such as the elk and beaver

So, if the benefits are clear, why hasn’t it taken off yet? The problem is it isn’t everybody’s cup of tea.

Most landowners, even those who are conservation minded, rarely have the time, drive or resources to devote to conservation measures like rewilding.

Many also think the increased scrubland in the process makes our countryside look ‘a mess’, when in medieval times, scrubland was highly valued. 

Most farmers see rewilding as a very unproductive use of land, but in actual fact, we now need less land for food, not more.

  1. Benefit 1 – Curbing the food waste scandal 

With the global population set to rise from 7-10 billion by 2050, a message driven by food producers and retailers, agri-businesses and farmers’ unions is to increase global food production by 70-100%. 

In actual fact, the world already produces enough food to feed 10 billion people – we just waste it. 

The stats on food waste are shocking:

  • ⅓ of perfectly edible food produced globally is wasted
  • In rich countries today, consumers throw away 222 million tonnes of food each year, very nearly the net food production of sub-saharan africa
  • In the UK, levels of waste cost around £12.5 billion, emits some 20 million tonnes of CO2 and uses around 5,400 million cubic metres of water (2.5x the annual water discharge of the Thames each year)
  • Over the last 15 years, 5.5 million hectares of land has been ploughed up in Europe, a process which released twice the amount of greenhouse gases emitted in the UK ever, in a single year.
The decomposition of solid waste in landfills results in the release of methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Credit: Getty Images/Guardian
The decomposition of solid waste in landfills results in the release of methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Credit: Getty Images/Guardian

This is without taking into consideration our switch to a meat-centred diet, which consumes far more grain than if we eat grain ourselves.

With so much land used to grow grain, a third of which is fed to livestock across the planet, we are now encouraged to eat more meat than ever.

Also, new varieties of crops, GPS guided precision sowing, fertilizing and hi-tech farm machinery have all contributed to enormously higher yields.

With increased efficiency, we now need less land for food production, not more. This mindset of ‘fallow land is wasted land’ needs to shift.

  1. Benefit 2 – Removes artificial fertilizers, which are costly and inefficient

Artificial fertilizers are huge contributors to global warming. Fertilisers are causing the loss of Nitrogen from soil in the form of nitrous oxide which is 300x more powerful than CO2 in global warming.

Pollution from nitrogen is costing the EU €70-320 billion a year, from effect on people’s lungs to the depletion of the ozone layer to polluted drinking water.

The declining nutritional value of food from fertilizers is also shocking.

We need to eat eight oranges today to receive the same amount of vitamin A as our grandparents did from eating one orange.

US government figures also suggest a correlation between declining magnesium in foods like spinach, cabbage, tomato and lettuce and increasing deficiency conditions such as asthma, cardiovascular diseases and orthopaedic deformities.

In addition, the greatest concerns of our time – climate change, natural resources, food production, water control and conservation all boil down to the condition of the soil.

If organic matter was increased in the world’s farmed soils by as little as 1.6 percent, we could drastically curb climate change.

  1. Benefit 3 – Creates jobs and benefits the global economy

As the global market expands, farmers across Europe are competing with cheap cereals from Asia, Russia, Australia, and the Americas. Virtually all farmers on marginal land in the UK are making unsustainable losses and heading towards bankruptcy. 

If sustainable land management was rolled out across the world, over £50 trillion could be added to the global economy through jobs and agricultural output. 

  1. Benefit 4 – health, both physical and mental 

Evidence shows people are mentally healthier, physically fitter, and children’s behaviour and school work improve if they have access to the countryside and gardens. 

One in six people in the UK suffer from anxiety, depression, panic attacks or OCD – sometimes a deadly combination.

In 2007, Natural England and RSPB compiled studies from the UK, Europe and the USA in a report called ‘Natural Thinking’.

Studies showed that symptoms of all of the above were alleviated with time spent in nature through decreased blood pressure, pulse rates and levels of cortisol. 

In a more recent 2019 study published in Nature, spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature was associated with good health and wellbeing.

Rewilding case study: Knepp estate

I wanted to find out more about Rewilding and its success stories to date, and so became engrossed in the book, ‘Wilding’ telling the story a pioneering rewilding project in West Sussex, using free-roaming grazing animals to create new habitats for wildlife. 

Just 44 miles from central London, Knepp wilding project is the first of its kind in Britain.

It presents an alternative, cheaper approach to conservation – dynamic and self-sustaining, increasing opportunities for species to migrate, adapt and survive. It is an experiment with no specific goal other than restoring natural processes and improving biodiversity.

The land at Knepp is not conducive to modern intensive farming, with soil like concrete in summer and porridge in winter. For seventeen years, owner Charlie Burrell did his utmost to make Knepp Home Farm profitable, but it proved impossible to compete with larger, industrialised farms on better soils.

In February 2000 the decision was made to sell the dairy herds and farm machinery. This is where the wilding project began and the speed at which it has transformed nature is magnificent. 

The abundance of wildlife at Knepp is extraordinary – turtle doves, woodpeckers, sparrowhawks, barbastelle bats, slow-worms, grass snakes and butterflies have all become residents.

Exmoor ponies arrived in 2003, an animal rarer than the tiger due to being hunted for food or used as target practice in the second world war.  

Earthworms are also saving Knepp’s soil, mixing organic matter into the soil, improving structure, water infiltration, and productivity. These mysterious, blind, toothless creatures can bring about microscopic level changes that utterly transform life above ground. 

The owners of Knepp, Charlie Burrell & Isabella Tree had no idea how influential and multi-faceted the project would become, attracting policy makers, farmers, landowners and NGOs, both British and foreign. 

Knepp’s free-roaming long horn cattle amongst scrub. Credits: Knepp wildland
Knepp’s free-roaming long horn cattle amongst scrub. Credits: Knepp wildland

Over a period of 50 years, Knepp wildland will have stored an additional £14 million worth of carbon, an extraordinary figure for one area!

Knepp is a small step on the road to a wilder, richer country, and is proof that rewilding can work. It’s not only bringing multiple benefits to land, but also generating economic activity and employment.

What does the future hold?

By 2030, Rewilding Europe estimates there will be 30 million hectares of abandoned farmland in Europe. If we can overcome our current perspective on what our land should look like, this is an unprecedented opportunity for nature in modern history.

Rewilding Britain aims to have returned natural ecological processes and key species to 300,000 hectares of core land by 2030 – the equivalent of a large country.

It’s aim is not to re-wild everywhere – some agricultural land will naturally always be needed, and much land will still be needed for housing – but restore parts of British Isles to wild nature and allow lost creatures like beavers, elk and maybe even wolves to live here once more. 

We are already seeing the benefits of beaver re-introductions in England. In August, the government hailed the success of a five-year beaver trial on the River Otter in Devon, recognising its benefits to the local area and ecology, enhancing the environment at a local wildlife site, creating wetland habitat and reducing flood risk for housing downstream.

They will now be allowed to remain there permanently and continue to expand their range naturally, finding new areas to settle as they need.

We need to give nature an economical value

Making the moral case for protecting nature for its beauty and importance has demonstrably failed. When nature is valued as nothing, invisible to the economic system, it gets tossed aside. 

Therefore, we’ve got to provide a price tag for ignoring nature, without reducing the overarching sense that nature is ultimately priceless.

This is already happening – hospitals and health services already estimate how improvements in air quality and access to green space reduce the health bill.

Councils and insurance companies calculate what re-naturalising rivers and restoring floodplains and watersheds can save them in terms of flood-damage costs. 

The National Capital committee has suggested that planting 250,000 hectares of woodland close to urban centres in Britain would deliver a net economic benefit of nearly £550 million in recreation and carbon sequestration. 

Brexit…

Amidst COVID-19, Brexit has taken a bit of a back seat. The UK still has big decisions to make on environmental protection.

It’s safe to say UK policy does not have a good track record – in the 1970s, Britain was widely derided as the ‘Dirty Man of Europe’ when it came to environmental matters. 

However, EU membership gradually transformed the UK into an important player in the environmental sphere.

It was the EU’s legislation that cleaned our rivers, beaches and bathing waters, the EU’s air quality framework that reduced our emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxide, and in 2015, fined the UK government for continuing to fail air pollution standards in London and other major cities. 

Leaving the EU has the potential to free the UK from common agricultural policy farming subsidies and a chance to look at farming and conservation together, on the same side of the coin.

Farming and conservation should not be fighting for resources. Reversing land degradation, securing water resources and providing insects for crop pollination, rewilding provides vital services to the long term sustainability of agriculture and food production. 

Knepp’s Tamworth pigs root through soil, creating food sources for turtle doves, the UK’s fastest declining species of bird. Credits: Knepp wildland
Knepp’s Tamworth pigs root through soil, creating food sources for turtle doves, the UK’s fastest declining species of bird. Credits: Knepp wildland

Financial support to farmers should be introduced on the success of multiple services rather than one e.g. food production.

For example, a system that is good at producing food but bad at water management with high pollution output would score poorly; and a system that scores well for water storage, flood mitigation, wildlife, carbon sequestration, nutrient cycling, pollination and pollution amelioration would receive most support. 

Whilst the technological world we now live in has brought us more than enough food to feed the world from less land than ever, we must shift our current assumption that technology has the answer to all our problems. 

Let nature take the driving seat once more, and we could transform not only the British landscape, but also the longevity of our economy, for the better.

This Author

Sophie Johnson is a Zoology graduate and passionate conservation blogger from the UK. 

References

  1. Tree, Isabella. Wilding: The return of nature to a British farm. Pan Macmillan, 2018.
  2. https://www.rewildingbritain.org.uk/ 
  3. https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/beavers-reintroduced-uk-rivers-devon-otter-study-flooding-wildlife-nature-a9655486.html 
  4. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-44097-3

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