To Rewild or Not to Rewild, that is the Question

4th October 2019

by Lydia Neave, Marketing Assistant

Rewilding is a form of conservation aimed at letting nature return to its once very wild state. It is based on the assumption that if we left the natural world alone to look after itself, it could repair the damage to ecosystems and enable natural processes to restore and shape landscapes into the biodiverse habitats they once were.

Rewilding can include reintroduction. Some believe we can give nature a little help by reintroducing species of animals that have been driven out or exterminated. This might be the reintroduction of insects which disappeared as a result of pesticide use in agriculture. The role these small creatures play in nature is crucial for biodiversity; they are vital for both pollination and decomposition. On a larger scale, the reintroduction of top predators, such as wolves or lynxes, who disappeared as a result of hunting or habitat destruction, could be key to restore the health of the ecosystem, through a process called trophic cascade. Wolves could control the enormous numbers of deer in Britain, which are currently preventing our forests from regenerating. We have this problem at Bank Woods, where acorns and other tree seeds often germinate in our ancient woodland, but the little oak trees never grow beyond a few centimetres tall, before being eaten by deer. (Our solution is a deer fence. We think the neighbours might object to wolves!)

TV presenter and naturalist Chris Packham, an expert on British wildlife, who is passionate about conservation and the environment, is a hero of the Make It Wild team. Intensive farming and deforestation both drastically reduce biodiversity and Packham believes rewilding is the answer to bring it back. Only recently did the news reveal that one quarter of the UK’s mammals are at risk of extinction; we must do something about it, now. “Britain remains in a state of extreme depletion” says George Monbiot, another rewilding advocate. Packham suggests we can learn from other parts of the world where rewilding has been successful.

One fantastic example of a pioneering rewilding project is Knepp, a 3500-acre estate in West Sussex, UK. The land was once intensely farmed but since 2001 has been devoted to rewilding; extraordinary increases in wildlife have been seen. It now hosts some of Britain’s highest populations of nightingales, purple emperor butterflies and turtle doves. Knepp’s driving principle was to establish a functioning ecosystem where nature is given as much freedom as possible. Their approach has inspired what we do at Make it Wild.

Rewilding and natural regeneration of Britain’s wildlife sound like the ideal solutions to raising biodiversity. But for us, the impending climate crisis presents a conundrum. We know that the lungs of the planet are trees and forests, and that tree planting and reforestation would capture carbon and slow down the rising global temperatures. But tree-planting goes against the unwritten rules of rewilding as it interferes with natural regeneration. Rewilding involves no planting; if trees should naturally be present, then their seedlings will start to grow. Without control of the deer population, however, seedlings are likely to be eaten before growing into mature trees, as we see at Bank Woods.

We think the answer to the question ‘to Rewild or not to Rewild’ depends on the goal. Is the main aim to increase biodiversity or to address climate change? If climate change reversal is the priority, then tree-planting should have a much more rapid effect on carbon capture than letting nature do its thing. At the same time rewilding allows a natural recovery of the health of the ecosystem.

So, what’s our answer?

At Make It Wild, we have compromised. We have done some (relatively small scale) rewilding and planted lots of trees, with plans to plant many thousands more. Our Yorkshire nature reserves, Sylvan and Bank Woods have become havens for wildlife and humans alike! We hope that Dougill Grange will soon follow. We have planted 25,000 British deciduous native trees, sowed 8 acres of wildflower meadow and dug several ponds. We have also left a lot of our land to nature. The increase in biodiversity since the beginning of our conservation project in 2011 has been astonishing to see, and it was tree planting that kick-started it. We hope it can be an inspiration for people to follow in our footsteps.

What can you do to help? If you have a lawn, it may look neat and tidy but it is a monoculture of grass that offers little scope for biodiversity. You could turn a section of your lawn into a wildflower garden. Let the grass and weeds grow as much as they can and scatter some wildflower seeds, like Make It Wild’s FlowerBurst. It won’t take long for bees, butterflies, birds and small mammals to move in and enjoy the habitat you have created. No wolves required!