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From a well-meaning conservation tool to a panacea: how 'rewilding' has lost its meaning

Rewilding is, at its heart, a noble cause and no one can doubt the success that Charlie Burrell and Isabella Tree have had at Knepp, however it is in danger of being hijacked.

It is rapidly turning from an interesting conservation tool with benefits in certain circumstances, if managed properly, to a panacea.

Its appeal is, in part, because it seems to remove any responsibility, any need to plan or even think, and any need to do things that sensitive souls might not like. It is becoming a cult for people with all sorts of personal agendas, ranging from the acquisition of a steady income, to land appropriation and suppression of entire rural communities.

This is tragic, because it is something with a long history that has potential value, but it is being devalued in the eyes of many of the knowledgeable and practical people who manage most of rural Britain, as it turns from a useful tool into a weapon.

An interesting example popped up last week with a small but ambitious group called Wild Card persuading a range of minor celebs and minor academics, numbering over 100 to sign a letter asking that the Royal Estates be rewilded. It includes the usual suspects led by dear old Chris Packham again.

Wild Card was perhaps best summarised by former International Development Secretary and MP for Penrith when he described their proposals as: "Insane arrogance towards an ancient and deeply treasured historical landscape and towards traditional farming communities, and indeed to thoughtful programs that seek biodiversity and food productions. It is thoughtless, damaging and inappropriate."

One of the people quoted, a 'famous' academic, called Dr Lees from Manchester Metropolitan University (a rewilding hot spot, if ever there was one) sees the letter, with commendable honesty as “targeting one landowner” and giving them an opportunity to be seen as “not dragging their feet”.

I'm sure we can all be grateful that Dr Lees' commitment to saving the planet extends to targeting a landowner from the wilderness that is Manchester, but if anyone cares to look there a few problemettes in their plan to get cheap publicity by targeting these well run estates.

The first, is just that, the estates are already extremely well run. They have very high conservation value now and are constantly striving to use the best science and emerging best practice to improve.

They also integrate areas which any reasonable and informed person would see as wild within landscapes that produce food, clean water, absorb CO2 and provide recreation for millions.

The fact that an academic from Manchester, who no one has heard of, says that they are intensively managed, is simply an assertion, not a fact.

The second, is that much of the land in question is leased to tenant farmers, who would obviously have to go if it was decided to rewild. Whilst this never seems to bother the true believers, it might bother the farmers and their families and the wider community that depend upon them.

The extreme rewilders, who seek to impose their beliefs on others, as this lot appear to do, are often very relaxed about the people who live and work the land, treating them as relatively unimportant collateral damage, who can either bugger off or turn to running a B&B.

There is previous in this. The indigenous populations of many wildlife reserves in the US and Africa were simply got rid of in colonial times and that gung-ho colonial spirit is alive and well in the hearts of many latter day rewilders.

It is perhaps not surprising that the largest landscape scale rewilding project in the 20th century was planned along the German/Polish border by Hermann Goering, an avid rewilder. Obviously measures were put in hand to remove the local population but happily history took a different turn.

The third, is also related to farming, the founder of Wildcard is very clear that the ambitions of most rewilders are pretty pathetic. His stated view is that we must rewild 50% of Great Britain. Yes, you read that correctly, FIFTY PERCENT.

At the moment we produce about 60% of the food we eat and according to Wildcard we have virtually no rewilded land. The places we thought were wild, like Dartmoor, are definitely not in their book. Thus when you get to the crazy target of 50% it is not unreasonable to assume that we will not be producing 60% of our food but only 30%.

That is enough to feed about 30 million out of our population of 67 million. The remainder will presumably be fed by importing food from countries that lack the extraordinary wisdom of Wildcard and continue to grow food to feed their own population and have enough to spare to sell us enough to feed 47 million people.

That this will be done by trashing these nations environments will be something beyond our control and, when it happens, we will be able to comfort ourselves by walking through the scrub and undergrowth that used to be the wildlife rich farmland of Devon or Norfolk. We will be counting the wildfires, fly tipped rubbish and little bags of dog poo, as obviously you will no longer have farmers or gamekeepers to keep things under some form of control.

You only need to see the devastation at what has happened Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands to see how badly wrong rewilding can go.

The basic problem with much of the proposed rewilding as a concept is that it is hypocritical nonsense. Attacking a large landowner, as Dr Lees has done, with very high conservation credentials on the basis of a false premise for no better reason than to get a bit of free publicity.

Hypocritical, how so? Well let's look at some of the other signatories. Kate Humble, the BBC presenter, lives on a farm, if she feels that tenant farmers should be got rid of so that their hay meadows can revert to woodland, she will presumably be doing the same herself, won't she?

Then you have the former Archbishop of Canterbury of England. He clearly agrees that the Royal Estates should be abandoned to nature and that 50% of Britain should follow it into a life affirming state wilderness. Otherwise he would hardly have signed the letter. That would be the same Church of England that owns vast swathes of land across the English countryside, would it? That would be the same Church of England that has far less wilderness on its efficiently farmed land holdings than can be found on the Estates the Archbishop is happy to attack, as dragging their feet, would it?

But there is hope of an amusing coda to the sorry saga. The founder of this business Wild Card made it clear that he has other major landowners in his sights. Next on the list are the Oxbridge Colleges and the Church of England. We will all be watching to see how the noble Archbishop deals with this interesting development. Having supported an intemperate attack on an estate that is outperforming his own organisation by a considerable margin, it will be fascinating to see how he gets out of this little mess.


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