Why is rewilding so controversial in the UK?

Sustainable Leaders | Europe

By George Blake, Kingfisher Writer

Published April 21st, 2023

A hit new BBC documentary ‘Wild Isles’ about UK wildlife has been caught up in a row over rewilding, with reports suggesting an episode was pulled over fears of a political and press backlash. But what is rewilding? And why is it such a controversial topic in the UK?

The fifth episode of the BBC’s new flagship nature series Wild Isles—which offers new perspectives on the majestic wild flora and fauna found across the UK and Ireland— recently aired. The series received lavish praise, not just for its pioneering cinematography and powerful narratives, but also for showcasing that the UK (and Ireland) still just about possess wild spaces that deserve to be nurtured and protected.

An iconic species included in the Wild Isles series is the affable puffin. Photographed here on Skomer Island off the West Wales coast. | Sue Cro / Flickr

However, before the first episode was aired, there was some controversy around a supposed ‘too-hot-to-broadcast’ sixth episode’ (available now on BBC iPlayer only). Some suggested the episode was pulled fearing a backlash from Tory MPs and right-wing press outlets over ideas around rewilding (in the end the episode did not advocate for any particularly radical rewilding).

Rewilding Britain defines rewilding as the ‘large-scale restoration of ecosystems to the point where nature is allowed to take care of itself.’ It focuses on the idea of removing the fingerprint of human activity from an ecosystem as much as possible and moving towards restoring natural processes, in some cases, this includes reintroducing species previously present in the environment.

The word rewilding can conjure up evocative images of previously extinct carnivores such as wolves, bears, and lynx returning to the UK. There are calls to release wolves or lynx in parts of the Scottish Highlands, a region subject to significant overgrazing by deer and large enough areas to support viable populations. Although in reality, rewilding projects currently revolve around reintroducing more modest (but no less important) herbivorous species such as wild ponies, wild pigs (a proxy for wild boar), beavers and bison.

‘The episode was pulled fearing a backlash from Tory MPs and right-wing press outlets.’

Unsurprisingly the potential reintroduction of apex predators (wolves and bears) that pose a risk to livestock is controversial (even though compensation schemes would be easy to roll out). However, there appears to be equally stubborn and fervent resistance to the wider principle from some quarters.

Opponents of rewilding schemes argue it leaves no place for humans within the environment, undermines UK farming culture (reducing the available land area for food production), and would fundamentally change some iconic UK landscapes.

The most vocal opposition comes from livestock farmers, a powerful political lobby group across the UK—especially in rural areas. For most farmers, their sole focus is productivity (despite rhetoric about being custodians of the environment), especially for those struggling with their finances. Any gain in ecosystem function as a result of rewilding is outweighed by any loss in agricultural productivity and profit.

Reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone National Park has been a rewilding success. There are calls to do the same in isolated parts of the Scottish Highlands | Pedrik / Flickr

They also denounce the idea of replacing food-producing land with wilderness, arguing this is irresponsible in the midst of rising global food demand and calls for the UK to become more food self-sufficient. Insisting that we should not reduce our ‘utilised agricultural area’ from 70%, despite continued use of astonishingly unproductive upland areas for livestock grazing.

Further controversies around rewilding stem from the idealised view of what the UK countryside represents. Many believe that green rolling hills dotted with livestock are the way UK landscapes are meant to look and that they are nature-rich landscapes.

Even areas that are famed for their beauty and (incorrectly) thought to be truly ‘wild’ or ‘natural’, such as the Dartmoor, Lake District, Yorkshire Dales, and Snowdonia National Parks—where farmers are heavily reliant on substantial state subsidies—are extensively grazed. These regions do not in any way represent healthy thriving ecosystems, they are overgrazed wildlife deserts that are remarkably nature-poor.

‘Supporting extensive agricultural grazing and defending ecosystems are not compatible.’

Supporting extensive agricultural grazing and defending ecosystems are not compatible. We see industrialism as malign and destructive, but see agriculture as benign and harmonious. Farming has done more damage to wildlife and nature than all the industrial factories ever constructed.

Rewilding will change the visual aesthetics of some of our iconic landscapes and counter our ingrained view of the UK countryside. Truly wild areas can be messy, they can be overrun with long grasses, thistles, and heath. Not only could these make some areas more inaccessible, but they may also be less visually pleasing than a patchwork of grazed fields.

However, over time more visually appealing vegetation such as pioneer tree species may become established. This process can be helped if indigenous grazing species are also present (in an ideal world alongside their predators), as they will prevent areas from becoming overrun and will create various ecological niches that support other species.

Grassland-based agriculture accounts for roughly 30% of UK land use. | Andy Morffew / Flickr

‘Rewilding will change the visual aesthetics of some of our iconic landscapes and counter our ingrained view of the UK countryside.’

Although I defined rewilding above, in reality, it is an ill-defined concept. To some, simply allowing hedgerows to grow taller and wilder, and leaving small parts of a farm uncultivated is rewilding. They view rewilding as a move towards a mosaic of nature-friendly farming methods, where there is more space for wild creatures to expand into.

To others, it is the idea of removing anthropogenic involvement from a landscape as much as feasibly possible. This is not to say that the idea of moving towards more nature-friendly farming should be discounted, but rather that it should be the default, and unproductive areas (especially uplands) should be left to go truly wild.

A patchwork of small semi-wild areas in the midst of traditional farming perpetuates the idea that agricultural activity and truly healthy natural ecosystems can coexist, and would not be sufficient to support keystone species (golden eagles, harrier hens, wolves and lynx) that need vast largely undisturbed wildernesses to thrive.

‘To others, it is the idea of removing anthropogenic involvement from a landscape as much as feasibly possible.’

Disagreements around rewilding are likely to remain a thorny issue in the future of our environment, but there is hope to alleviate many of its detractors' concerns.

Concerns that rewilding vast areas will by definition necessitate that other areas are farmed more intensively can be avoided if rewilding is initially focused on particularly inefficient farmland.

Fears around income loss can be addressed through government subsidies that support abandoning land and/or facilitating a transition towards a more eco-tourism-based business model, as has been done at the Knepp estate in West Sussex.

The districts of Richmondshire and Craven, which cover a large part of the Yorkshire Dales National Park (pictured) have just 6% tree cover. Far less than urban London boroughs. Following the end of the last glacial period, these regions would likely have had 80-90% tree cover. | Robert J Heath / Flickr

Outreach and educational initiatives that can enhance local people’s understanding of what rewilding is, why it is important, and what it would mean for them. If local stakeholders are brought in early and are given a role in the management of wild spaces, they are far more likely to be supportive.

There are also great opportunities for radical changes to our food system to free up vast swathes of previously agricultural land, whether that is driven by a move away from a meat-heavy diet or a move towards GM crops and meat-identical protein grown by bacteria.

While loud opposition remains, the global popularity of rewilding is growing, and if nature-depleted countries such as the UK are going to play their part in the biodiversity crisis, rewilding will be crucial.

Featured Image: Charlie Marshall | Flickr

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