‘Rewilding’ at different spatial scales

(A suggestion of a variety of small steps we could all take to achieve a complex goal – reducing homogenous landscapes)

The biodiversity crisis is real, and we require serious action to avert a mass extinction and the deterioration of our self regulating planet. “Rewilding” is often posed as a solution, yet there is now much confusion about what it actually means, and, rather than slapping meaningless labels onto things, we need a clear plan to restore nature at speed and scale.

So here is my vision of how we can restore nature in the UK, my “rewilding manifesto” if you like.

At the smallest scale, we can let more nature into our gardens. Allowing patches to grow into scrub, planting flowers, creating a pond, and growing vegetables could create a variety of microhabitats for insects and small birds. This isn’t going to save the planet, but we might as well allow a bit more wildness to live alongside us.

At a slightly larger scale, we can allow more wildlife to persist in our parks, verges, and the margins of farmland (hedges, field margins, and ditches). At these scales, we’re reliant on mimicking ecological processes through human management rather than allowing nature to truly take over. Cutting vegetation sporadically to maintain a patchwork of vegetation heights, mimicking wild herbivores; tilling the soil and sowing wildflower mixes to mimic wild boar; culling herbivores to mimic top down apex predator control.

Within farmland itself, harnessing our ecological understanding will be vital for producing nutritious food with the smallest possible environmental impact. Minimising the disturbance of soil and ensuring a constant covering of vegetation can increase its fertility and minimise the erosion of this precious resource. Integrating trees into arable systems may be able to increase the yields of crops by restoring soil mycorrhizal networks, and also producing fruit or nuts – more nutritional diversity – as a bonus. Providing hedge habitat for songbirds may be able to reduce the impact of insect pests through predation. Since we have so little agroecological farming in the UK, there are likely to be many ways in which we can make farmland better for wildlife without reducing yields.
However, neither should we entirely abandon conventional modern agriculture or oppose new developments such as genetic modification; we should be wary of romanticising the farming practices of the past or having an irrational fear of modern technology, when what we need is a combination of both high tech and low tech approaches to farm using the smallest possible amount of land and water, and emitting as little greenhouse gases and nutrient and soil runoff as
possible.

Across the wider farmland landscape we should restore corridors of greater ecological complexity. The obvious way to do this is along our river valleys. Creating a 20m buffer either side of rivers and streams, allowing scrub to regenerate, and releasing vast numbers of beavers, would create mosaics of wetland, woodland, dead wood, and rough grassland habitats. Focusing our efforts along river valleys not only ensures that these habitats are joined up at a landscape scale, but also helps to attenuate flooding, and minimise the effects of agricultural runoff on our aquatic ecosystems.

Corridors should also be created to link up tiny, isolated nature reserves to allow species to move to track climate change, and enable the use of large herbivores roaming over large areas to create a diverse mosaic of habitats, rather than prescriptive management of individual sites. The margins of urban areas should also be a priority for nature restoration. “Green belts” are often little better for wildlife than the surrounding countryside; a commitment to a “wild belt” around every city could make a real contribution both to nature recovery and improving people’s connection to nature and mental health.

Into these corridors we could reintroduce lost species to restore the complex web of trophic interactions which characterises a healthy ecosystem. Wildcats, pine martens, water voles, red backed shrikes, and storks could all be reintroduced, or come back of their own accord, and, whilst they may not have the ecosystem engineering capabilities of wolves or beavers, they would certainly add a lot more magic into our natural world.

At the largest scale, we should have huge areas, each of many thousands of acres, devoted toambitious nature restoration, where ecosystem engineers and natural processes are the primary engines of biodiversity. We should prioritise this strategy in areas which are already fairly good for nature and retain substantial fragments which we can join up by filling in the intervening farmland. In the south of England, we might have a 15,000 acre heathland and wetland stewarded by bison and beavers at Minsmere; a continuous swath of chalk grassland, woodland and scrub along the south downs and the chilterns, grazed by feral horses, cattle, and wild boar; a mega wetland in the Somerset Levels 10x the size of what we have now, and a few more. As well as these, we should create new nature areas from scratch: the famous Knepp estate has become a truly fantastic wildlife hotspot, starting from ecologically barren farmland, in just 20 years. In places such as the lake district, smaller, slightly-less-wild areas could involve aspects of traditional farming to preserve cultures, rare breeds, and rural economies.

Within the massive wildlands we should bring back many more of our lost species. White tailed eagles already soar over the south coast and will soon be thriving in the marshlands of East Anglia and Somerset; perhaps one day truly epic dalmatian pelicans, one of the world’s largest living birds, will join them. In the coming decades, we should reintroduce lynx and wolves. The latter could live here already, we only need to change mindsets and design mitigation for farmers.

So how can we achieve this vision? I think there are two main requirements: a shift in mindset, and a restructuring of food production and farm subsidies.

In our sanitised, efficiency-obsessed modern world, we seem to have developed what one ecologist calls “ecological tidiness disorder”. We have an obsession with “cleaning up” messy corners, yet these are the places where wildlife can thrive. We need to appreciate the creatures living around us, and allow them a little more space to thrive. We would also do well to temper our fear of large animals: in mainland Europe, wild boar live in landscapes as densely populated as southern England. They are not without problems – raiding dustbins, rotavating football pitches, and terrorising nudists – but that is part of the point: we need to accept that other species impact the landscape as well, and we shouldn’t always be in control. How can we expect poorer nations to coexist with tigers, lions, or elephants – species which pose a genuine threat to human lives and livelihoods – if we can’t live alongside wild boar or beavers?

Secondly, we need to rethink the relationship between food production and nature. Due to the infamous shifting baseline syndrome, as well as our cultural romanticisation of farmed landscapes, we have mistakenly believed that we can solve our ecological crisis by farming differently. Yes, we can allow a bit more wildlife to live in farmland, but when scientists have measured the population sizes of wild species in different kinds of farmland, they have found, universally, that farmland of any kind is a poor habitat for most creatures. When we abandon our preconceptions, this is unsurprising: part of the reason why there are so many species on the planet is because most are specialists, occupying a particular niche which, moreover, is often created by other species – the huge complexity of intact ecosystems creates the conditions for new species to evolve, which promotes further complexity. Therefore, it’s inevitable that many of these species will disappear, and many others decline dramatically, whenever intact, complex ecosystems are replaced with simplified, farmed ones, regardless of the kind of farming practices we use. Or in other words, creating a genuinely rich ecosystem requires the reduction of farmyields to such an extent that it becomes impossible to produce any meaningful quantity of food, regardless of whether we might choose to label this as “regenerative”, “in harmony with nature”, or “traditional farming”. Furthermore, if we farm more land to produce a given amount of food, it is intuitive that the impacts on soils, carbon emissions, and water use are likely to be greater.

Farming is a necessity for our survival but it is, fundamentally, an environmentally damaging activity. To reduce its impacts on the other species with which we share the planet, our key goal should be to reduce the amount of land that we farm.

In terms of a national plan for biodiversity, then, we should restructure farm subsidies to create large areas primarily devoted to ambitious ecological restoration, and, by necessity, separate areas devoted to highly productive food production. Not only is this our best option for large scale nature recovery, but it is also one of the best options for reducing farming’s climatic impact.

As consumers, we should dramatically reduce the quantity of animal products which we consume. Getting a higher proportion of our nutrition from plants would enable us to substantially decrease the land area required to feed each person. We should reduce food waste as much as possible. It is outrageous that 30-40% of food is wasted, and we might as well eat all the food we buy. If we could implement measures to prevent the spread of disease, we could feed any remaining food waste, as well as some crop residues, to pigs and chickens, but the amount of meat which could be produced in this way would be much lower than what we consume today.

In general we should shift to a paradigm of “land for food and land for nature”. As the excellent book Rebirding suggests, Britain is uniquely weird in the extent to which we perceive farmland as our core wildlife habitat, and have no real ecosystems. If we are to address the truly cataclysmic biodiversity crisis, we need to be much more ambitious than simply making our farmland a bit better for wildlife.

So there you have it, my vision for rewilding Britain. Perhaps I have talked too much about farming, but I think this is the key issue – how can we restore Britain’s wildlife without simply destroying more of the natural world in other countries (which often hold more of the earth’s biological diversity) to feed ourselves.

So, going back through the scales. At the top, we have massive areas of truly incredible ecosystems, governed by herds of megafauna, flooding, vegetation succession, predation, and death and decay, built up from our existing remnants which still hold substantial wildlife. At the next level down, we have smaller areas of nature recovery where low densities of semi-wild herbivores create habitat diversity. At a smaller scale, we have corridors along our rivers thronged with ecosystem-engineering and flood-mitigating beavers, small mammals such as wildcats, pine martens, and water voles, and returning birds such as red backed shrikes, storks, and willow tits, which move between the larger nature areas and spill out into the surrounding landscape. And finally at the micro scale, we allow a bit more mess and wildness to grow, sustaining insects which may not save the world but nevertheless enrich our lives. Combined with a parallel effort to feed ourselves sustainably on less land, ambitious nature recovery could conceivably occupy half of Britain, and we would do our bit to once again make this a genuinely living planet.

By Josh Harris – Organising member

Twitter/Insta: @joshharriswild

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