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Rewilding: what is it all about?

Updated: Jan 22, 2020

Rewilding has become quite an emotive term, a bit of a clarion call to some, to others a thing to be dreaded, and opposed at every turn. We, as mountain leaders and mountaineering instructors, need to have some knowledge of the topic as we are at the forefront of taking people into many of the areas that could be considered ripe for rewilding.

The first problem is with the term rewilding; rewild to what? Rewild to when I was a kid? To when you were a kid? To a time before intensive agriculture? Before the Industrial Revolution, or Iron age times, or Stone Age times, or even pre-people times? When? It is a question with no answer; just varying opinions.

The best book to read is Feral by George Monbiot. It is easy to read as it is beautifully written, it is passionate, well-researched and referenced; it makes a lot of sense. You will come away from the book with a slightly different view of our ‘sheep wrecked’ uplands. They are bare, over-grazed and denuded of nature. The blame for this should not be laid solely at the door of upland farmers. They responded to a political system which encouraged increasing numbers of livestock into areas where these numbers were not sustainable. This policy has changed now and sheep numbers, in the uplands, are greatly down. Continued grazing by sheep, provocatively called ‘woolly maggots’ by some, does restrict recovery of the areas, but simply removing sheep would not bring the return of nature we may wish to see. It would also make some places really difficult to walk through!

Next, you must read The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks. I recommend following Monbiot and Rebanks on Twitter too. Rebanks will help you to understand the cultural history that is tied up in the hill farming world. The generations of knowledge, the sense of place, the purpose of being for a family who have farmed in these challenging environments for generations.

So, is rewilding about introducing wolves and bears? This is a common retort I receive from people when I mention the word. “Wolves and bears; don’t be silly Mike, we could never have them here”. Well, those who watched the recent Attenborough Seven Worlds, One Planet series will have seen wolves hunting in a village in the Alps, the hunt even stopped to let a car go past and the commentary informed us that the inhabitants were ignorant of the existence of wolves on their patch. But I agree, bringing back wolves to the UK is a long way off, if a possibility at all. Many of you may have , or heard of, the Yellowstone Film

which suggests wolves manage the ecosystem. In terms of animal numbers, they do, but the landscape is managed by herbivores, large herbivores in particular.

Your next book to read should be Wilding by Isabella Tree. The title Wilding is deliberate to move away from the ‘rewild to when’ debate. The Tree family farm a large estate in Sussex, the Knepp Estate. Their story is fascinating. The estate was struggling to break even as output barely kept pace with input. So, they stopped inputting. The book is the story of the return to nature at Knepp, it’s a fascinating story with all sorts of twists, turns and challenges. One of the realisations is that it is the herbivores that create the landscape. Try this little link to whet your appetite

. Humans take the place of wolves and ‘harvest’ the herbivores for top quality food.

Once we have moved the debate away from wolves and bears and begun to understand that the British landscape (like many others in the world today) was managed by herbivores, we can start to see a way forward. But first; Rewilding for Birds. I didn’t at first pick this book up, by Benedict Macdonald, as I was interested in the bigger rewilding conversation rather than limiting it to birds. It does, however, help us enormously to fit the pieces together. It is another lovely read. I was actually lent a copy (Thanks Al) You should buy it and read it. A central premise that stuck with me was a line of thought about garden birds. Garden birds didn’t evolve to live in gardens, gardens haven’t been around long enough for a bird to evolve to that environment. Garden birds have adapted to living in gardens. They need a landscape of woodland, of bushes and of open spaces and this is the landscape those large herbivores of elk, aurochs and boar would have produced. A patchwork quilt of woodland and bushes and pasture. Another conundrum is solved. We’ve often been told the UK would have been woodland from Land’s End to John O’Groats. It wasn’t. There would have been large herbivore species to manage clearings within the woodland. This is the landscape in which our garden birds evolved to nest in trees and bushes and feed on pasture, or lawn.

So, rather than simply attacking sheep farming we need to be encouraging a more varied grazing regime. Lower numbers will be important, fencing off some areas will be necessary, but introducing the descendants of auroch, the cattle we know today, to the landscape would be an essential part of wilding or ‘farming for nature’. The breeds are there, they were the mainstay of farming before the woollen industry grew and demanded never ending supplies of fleece. We are returning Welsh Black cattle, Belted Galloways and Highland cattle to our uplands; ponies too are being used for conservation grazing along with older breeds of sheep such as Soay. Our push should now be for nature friendly farming (this is a thing you can follow on Twitter too) and for our remaining wild bits to be connected. Look out for double fences which allow regeneration of hedging, look out for tree planting, look out for cattle on the hill. These things are the beginning of a story, a story not of rewilding, but a story of wilding, of nature friendly farming. This working with farmers will be a pathway to restoring our insects, our birds and our mammals to the landscape. A by-product will be some excellent quality, grass fed, naturally produced meat as humans retain the place vacated by the large carnivores. For now.

All views purely personal.

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