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The problem with the politicisation of the rewilding movement

Some people are turning away from the word ‘rewilding’ and the vast amount of baggage it now brings with it. The National Trust, for example, recently came under fire from the organisation Rewilding Britain for “hiding away” from the term rewilding. Their director, Professor Alastair Driver, complained that by not using the term ‘rewilding’ and not allowing Rewilding Britain to include one of the Trust’s schemes on their list of rewilding projects, the Trust were “holding back the development of nature conservation”. In reality, it sounds like a case of sour grapes from Rewilding Britain; if they wanted to include the Trust’s work on their website, then the Trust are obviously working towards similar aims as Rewilding Britain.

The problem, really, is with the term “rewilding”. Like many other terms that are fashionable these days, the word itself has become politicised. You can’t simply do ‘some’ rewilding: you’re either all in, or all out. That’s pretty much what the National Trust said in their response: “We are aware that people tend to think of rewilding as the reintroduction of species to our landscapes such as lynx, wolves or wildcats for example — and not wider landscape management and interventions. We instead prefer to talk about our projects individually and to describe what we are doing in more detail, so that communities, our neighbours and stakeholders can be confident that they understand the need for the conservation work that we are undertaking.”

Rewilding then has become something of a toxic term for many people; including lots of people who are actively restoring and improving habitats for wildlife, whether that’s through rewetting bogs and wetlands, planting trees or managing moorlands for the benefit of red and amber listed species. In fact, some of the places which are excellent examples of what rewilding might hope to achieve are on grouse moors; something which the rewilding fanatics would, of course, never admit.

The idea behind rewilding is to restore natural ecosystems so that nature can, as they put it, “take care of itself”. The problem here is that when nature is left to its own devices, very few species thrive. Just look for example at the RSPB’s Lake Vyrnwy in Wales, where a lack of management has led to the wildlife and biodiversity which existed before the RSPB took over declining dramatically – something which even the RSPB admit to. The same situation occurs on unmanaged moors, where the only bird to be seen are crows and gulls, who have decimated any waders and ground-nesting birds. Even in Holland at the famous rewilding experiment of Oostvaardersplassen, the starving deer, horses and cattle have shown that animals struggle to fend for themselves when the land is left unmanaged.

A sorry sight from Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands

Contrast this with the managed moorlands where ground-nesting birds thrive, predators exist in regulated numbers, and the plantlife biodiversity is excellent. Huge numbers of birds of prey choose to make their homes in and around grouse moors; but so do the likes of golden plover, ring ouzel and curlew – and their fledging rates are far higher than average.

The problem is that so many people who talk of ‘rewilding’ conflate the term with ecosystem restoration; something which is happening in many places and projects who choose not to affiliate themselves with the rewilding movement. For the rewilders, anyone who refuses to join in with their brandname is dismissed, like the National Trust were, for being anti-conservation. This, however, is far from the truth.


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