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Rewilding our Isles

Unearthing controversies, future directions and your role in Britain’s rewilding movement

Hi, I'm Alice, a final-year undergraduate studying geography at the University of Cambridge! I'm particularly interested in climate policy and have recently been researching policy responses to sea level rise in the Netherlands for my dissertation.

In recent years, the term rewilding has become ubiquitous in the academic, policy and media spheres of the UK, and indeed, across the globe. Pioneered by the likes of British conservationist and critic George Monbiot, rewilding diverts from traditional methods of conservation in its focus on restoring world ecosystems to their natural state, allowing for the function and processes to return to how they would once have been in the past (Forsyth, 2016).

In this blog post, I will discuss the ongoing controversies surrounding the concept of rewilding as it burgeons in attention across the world, highlight future opportunities and directions, as well as the small, but important, things that you can do yourself to take action.

Rewilding and its benefits for the UK

Rewilding is deemed to be a key way in which we can return our landscapes to their natural state before human intervention, allowing for the recovery of native species and increased biodiversity. Taking Knepp Castle Estate in West Sussex as an example – with its rising populations of endangered stork, collared doves and other important dwindling species, has shown that rewilding can truly work. Only a few weeks ago, I experienced the arrival of a group of storks to roost on a late September evening at Knepp – creatures that are found few and far between elsewhere in the UK. Indeed, rewilding has shown that nature can ‘bounce back’ at rapid rates (Barkham, 2017), with the potential to sequester carbon and also provide a small but still vital path towards net carbon neutrality (Myers, nd). Rewilding not only makes obvious contributions to the dual crises of biodiversity and climate, but also is a way for ecotourism to provide economic gains, and allow citizens to reconnect to a nature that often seems so far from the urban, technology-ridden reality in which so many of us live. Indeed, the constantly shifting, mosaic-like landscapes of open glades and wooded groves emulated in the Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands are evidence of landscape diversity, even in Europe, and the need to foster these dynamic areas (Barkham, 2017).

Rewilding does not solely occur on land, though. The oceans have great potential for rewilding, covering 71% of the world’s surface. While often considered out of sight and hence out of mind, the oceans and their kelp forests, seabeds and seaweeds are great nurseries for fish species, and no-take zones and protected areas are increasingly helping to reestablish species vital for trophic cascades to continue in the oceans. Their potential to sequester carbon, as with terrestrial biomass, is extremely great, exceeding possible land uptake in vast quantities. While rewilding has often focused solely on land, we therefore must consider the role of these incredible ecosystems.


However, one must remain cautious of simplistic narratives when it comes to rewilding. Indeed, the very binary of humans versus nature is often cited to be a part of a misguided Manichean view that nature is beautiful and that humans are simply, perhaps inevitably, a brutal force on it (Spectator, 2022). However, we should question this inherent narrative and ensure that rewilding does not become part of a greater discourse of humans and nature considered as separate entities. There are also arguments that rewilding can pose health risks, such as a recent study which stated that illegally introduced wild boar in Scotland may be carriers of the CC398 strain of the MRSA superbug to which most antibiotics are resistant (Barkham, 2017). In the light of the COVID pandemic, the risk of zoonoses is a threat with which the world is all too aware of, and must be considered when it comes to species (re)introductions in particular.

There are also concerns that rewilding could push out the space for traditional species-focused conservation efforts on small nature reserves, with consequences for species that are particularly vulnerable and require targeted efforts to recuperate their numbers (ibid). Indeed, when it comes to species that are especially at risk of extinction, large-scale rewilding projects may be unsuitable in isolation, rather, joint efforts for conservation and rewilding are perhaps a better route. Given that even with rewilding, unless on a national scale, habitat fragmentation and species isolation continue to exist, one must consider the necessity of continued protection of small and isolated populations of certain species.

Another important factor to consider is that the definition of rewilding itself is often unclear, causing confusion in regard to what it truly envisions.

Future directions

  • Rewilding must create a more clear and universally accepted definition

  • Governance must be cooperative, especially when it comes to ocean rewilding wherein large areas exist outside of national jurisdictions creating geopolitical issues

  • Rewilding must define a sustainable economic model when it comes to ecotourism and subsidies – other options for land use must be considered

  • Stakeholder investment is key and should be consulted at every stage of rewilding processes

  • More research and education is needed to understand the challenges and issues of rewilding, both on land and at sea

  • Public education is also crucial for building support and understanding of rewilding efforts

What you can do

While you may not be able to initiate rewilding projects on your own, there are several steps you can take to support rewilding efforts:

  • Liberate your lawn – you can sow native wildflowers like yellow rattle and clover. Allowing grass to grow longer can benefit butterfly caterpillars of native species like spotted wood and meadow brown.

  • Consider volunteering with organizations like Rewilding Britain to contribute to rewilding initiatives.

  • Enhance your understanding of rewilding by reading books like "Wilding" by Isabella Tree and "Feral" by George Monbiot.

  • Start a conversation with friends!

  • Write to your local MP about rewilding – go online and you can find lots of template letters.

Rewilding offers a promising path toward restoring ecosystems, mitigating climate change, and fostering a deeper connection with nature. By understanding its benefits and challenges, supporting cooperative governance, and participating in small-scale initiatives, you can contribute to a brighter, more sustainable future for Britain and the world. Rewilding is not just a conservation strategy; it is a call to action for individuals, communities, and nations to work together, a hope for a future far different from the path on which we continue at present.


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