What is Rewilding? (extended version)

The text below is based on a talk called What is #Rewilding? A Diversity of Online Interpretations

What is rewilding? Where is rewilding happening? Can you rewild a garden, or a farm? Is there a proper rewilding? Is pure wilderness a myth?

This text explores these questions. It also explains some of the more unconventional ways people interpret rewilding, adjusting and redefining the term to their situations.

My name is Harold Stone and in my spare time I run a blog and Twitter feed called Rewilding News. Twitter is essentially a news website which blurs the line between reader and writer. Scientists, journalists and politicians seem to like using it. It can be a vice and it can create echo chambers, but it can also be a good way of reaching people and learning. I use Rewilding News to share content in a way that people (mostly those interested in rewilding) find valuable.

I’ve spent the last three years absorbing all the different ways people are using the word rewilding, and these are my observations.

 

This map shows who is tweeting about #rewilding and where they are. It suggests that rewilding (or at least tweeting about it) is a bit of a British obsession.

Within Britain, rewilding tweets are relatively evenly spread. A bit London-centric perhaps (but then so is the human population), with a fair amount of tweets coming out of Wales and Scotland (positive or negative). There are also some presumably from the Lake District, which might be people complaining about sheep, or might be people complaining about rewilding.

On the left here, are some of the ‘types’ of rewilding you might already be familiar with, described by scientists, academics, institutions, policymakers and others. On the right are five less established ‘types’ of rewilding that I am going to explore.

To be clearI’m not saying that any of these are or are not rewilding. I am presenting the ways that different people are interpreting and using the term.  

Mini Rewilding

Each scene here has been celebrated as rewilding. People are proudly rewilding lawns, gardens, allotments, public parks and other small parcels of land. Some are even rewilding window boxes and beholding the rewilding of pavements.

I chose these particular mini rewilding scenes for a reason. Each of them comes from someone you might call an influencer – someone with a large following and an authoritative voice on nature. We have chief executives and comms directors of wildlife organisations, campaign groups, landowners, conservationists and right in the middle there, Rewilding Britain.

The idea of Mini Rewilding is not on the fringes.

A few years ago Rewilding Britain collaborated with Chris Packham to produce a video promoting the rewilding of gardens and public parks. Frans Schepers, the Managing Director of Rewilding Europe said yesterday (at the 2019 CCF Symposium) that he is rewilding his garden.

 

Cores, Corridors and Carnivores

In terms of scale, at the other end of the spectrum is what might best be described today as Trophic Rewilding. This is where the word originated, encapsulated in the 1998 paper Rewilding and Biodiversity: Complementary Goals for Continental Conservation. Emerging within the North American context of national parks and with the explicit aim of “restoring big wilderness based on the regulatory roles of large predators”, three principles were established:

Cores – Large, strictly protected, core reserves (the wild)

Corridors – Connecting the large wilderness zones

Carnivores – i.e. Wolves regulating elk populations

This definition of rewilding drew its scientific inspiration from the return of wolves to Yellowstone National Park, the dramatic ecological effect of which has been well documented. By chasing and killing elk, the wolf’s return caused a trophic cascade, indirectly boosting populations of grizzly bears, beavers and other species.

This cascade is the centrepiece of rewilding narrative. The story has been celebrated in countless science papers, articles, documentaries, viral videos and books (notably George Monbiot’s Feral).

The original ‘3 Cs’ definition of rewilding is narrower than the definition of rewilding today. And some people don’t see this as a positive change.

 

There is a vocal group of people who consider ‘3 Cs’ rewilding to be ‘proper’ rewilding, and deviation from this as false, incomplete or inadequate. The Knepp experiment is often characterised as ‘rewilding lite’, and rewilding organisations as ‘refarming’ organisations.

This contrasts with the approach taken by these established rewilding organisations, demonstrated here by Alastair Driver, specialist advisor to Rewilding Britain:

 

 

“Real-wilding vs Rewilding Lite”

“Pure Rewilding vs A Difference on the Ground”

 

This spectrum approach is less about creating wilderness, and more about making places wilder (closer to wilderness). Landscapes and ecosystems can move from managed and depleted, to wilder and restored, without necessarily becoming rewilded.

This European understanding of rewilding is broader and more adaptable than the Cores, Corridors and Carnivores understanding coined by North Americans in the 90s.

Rewilding Europe‘s three guiding principles are:

  • Planet (ecological sustainability)
  • People (social sustainability)
  • Prosperity (economic sustainability)

Rewilding Britain‘s four key principles are:

  • People, communities and livelihoods are key
  • Natural processes drive outcomes
  • Working at nature’s scale is essential
  • Benefits are secured for the long-term
Rewilding Britain and Rewilding Europe agree on a shared vision of rewilding

Within this spectrum approach in Europe, there are rewilding sites which subsequently do not have carnivores. That is, they do not have apex predators such as wolves regulating the trophic structure of ecosystems and landscapes.

Here are three examples of such sites.

The Oostvaardersplassen is a 56 km² rewilding experiment just outside Amsterdam, where herbivores roam and graze in herds with essentially unregulated densities. This experiment makes the news when horses, cattle and deer starve to death over winter. Scenes of emaciated horses are condemned by animal rights activists, but also by the small number of vocal ‘real rewilders’ mentioned earlier, who condemn it for having fences, focusing on herbivores and/or lacking carnivores.

However, perhaps these starvation events are themselves an expression of rewilding. Are animal rights activists and conservationists just desensitised to such wild processes?

Frans Vera is the ecological architect behind Oostvaardersplassen, famous for his research into grazing ecology. Interviewed in Isabella Tree’s book Wilding he argues that,

“In Africa you have vast herds of ungulates grazing together in the landscape. There are predators, of course, but population density itself is not regulated by predation.”

He goes on to say,

“Starvation is the determining factor. It is a fundamental process in nature.”

The Forest of Dean is a 110 km² woodland in England, where wild boar were illegally released in 2006. There are now at least 1,600 unpredated wild boar and this unofficial rewilding experiment throws up a complex mishmash of opinions.

Many oppose culling – animal rights activists, but also those who fear it would be the beginning of the boar’s re-extinction. While culls to date in the Forest of Dean have largely failed to dent population growth, 1000 miles eastwards the Polish government have recently announced plans to eradicate the vast majority of their country’s population.

Perhaps, looking at Oostvaardersplassen, the boar should be left to self regulate their population densities. Perhaps a bio-abundance of wild boar would transform the Forest of Dean in ways unforeseeable and ecologically exciting?

Or perhaps humans have an ecological duty to cull. Without natural predation, boar numbers may grow exponentially and unnaturally, potentially overgrazing the landscape – analogous perhaps to elk in Yellowstone without wolves. Paul Jepson worries that,

“Should boar numbers get out of hand and they start behaving badly, this ‘candidate for rewilding’ could damage the reputation of the UK’s incipient rewilding movement.”

He goes on to suggest we consider hunting them as a way of suppressing numbers and generating nature-based economies. Which brings us to the third example of rewilding without carnivores.

The Knepp estate is 3,500 acres (14 km²) of Sussex lowland. It is almost exactly 1/4 the size of Oostvaardersplassen and roughly 1/8 the Forest of Dean. You could fit 642 Knepps into Yellowstone National Park.

There are no carnivores or ‘culls’ as such at Knepp. The cattle, pigs and deer are instead predated by butchers and sold as wild meat.

These three sites complicate rewilding. Some rewilders side with animal rights activists, other rewilders side with conservative land managers. Ecologists disagree, and multiple interpretations of rewilding clash.

While there is plenty of nuance to these discussions, collectively they point towards a gentle tension within the rewilding movement.

Overgrazed or Undergrazed?

 

The above picture shows just two tweets, pulled from of hundreds. Some people look at a landscape and describe it as overgrazed and in need of rewilding, while others look at a landscape and say it is undergrazed and in need of rewilding.

A landscape might be simultaneously overgrazed by Mesopotamian livestock (sheep) while undergrazed by wisent, but as a newcomer to rewilding conversations, the language here is probably confusing. Are grazing animals the antithesis of rewilding, or the drivers of rewilding?

In the UK at least, this confusion is partially explained by disagreements over ecological baselines.

Which wilderness are we rewilding towards?

 

 

Was the British Isles once covered in primeval closed-canopy forest? Was it possible for a red squirrel to travel from John O’Groats to Land’s End without touching the ground? Was the landscape similar to the Białowieża Forest or what remains of the Caledonian Rainforest in Scotland?

Or was there never a closed-canopy forest across the Isles and Europe? Was it instead more like savannah, a rich grassland peppered with trees and scrub? Was the land shaped by herds of wisent and aurochs? Was the landscape similar to Transylvanian wood pasture or even the Oostvaardersplassen?

 

The answer is almost certainly a bit of both. The British Isles was once a rich mosaic of closed-canopy forests, grasslands and countless other habitats. To complicate a reading of the past, this mosaic would have been shifting, the habitats never static and perpetually shaped by migrating herds, wallowing beasts, unrestrained floods and other stochastic disturbances. If the wild past was unbalanced and discordant, what does this mean for ecosystem restoration?

Within academia there is also disagreement over the appropriate depth of baselines – some aim for the Pleistocene and others the mid-Holocene, while others are less fussy. Indeed, some rewilders are not interested in baselines. For land to be be truly wild, in the sense of self-willed and free, perhaps we should not impose any expectations. The flipside to this of course, is that abandoning restoration targets creates a dangerous political situation. Without restoration targets or baselines, protections could be weakened and authorities could be less accountable. Hypothetically, ecological degradation could be framed as unpredictable self-willed transformation.

The broader point about baselines is that even the most scientifically informed ones are educated guesses. This is not to dismiss their scientific rigour, accuracy or resolution, but emphasise that proper science never explains everything. Ecological baselines are the closest thing we have to the truth, but to be scientific, they cannot be more than highly informed self-critical estimations.

And this, clumsily perhaps, brings us to the next question…

Is wilderness a myth?

There are two ways of defining a myth. The first is as a scam or a widely held but false idea. The second is as a powerful traditional story. Rewilding narratives are often mythical in the latter sense, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps wildlife conservation needs powerful storytelling to explain the science and vision of ecological restoration.

An important group of people who think wildnerness is a myth, are those who do not like wilderness and do not want more of it. This is well summarised by Calum MacLeod, who captures popular opposition when he says ‘Scotland needs more people not more wilderness myth’.

The word wilderness has a colonial history, as well as baggage of being anti-human and anti-civilisation. This is something I’m going to return to later, but first, can you identify this wilderness?

 

This is Yellowstone National Park, stage of the grand narrative of rewilding. The wild wolves here have inspired the rewilding movement for decades. This is probably the original ‘core’ behind Cores, Corridors and Carnivores.

But is it wilderness?

It has trophic cascades, bison, beavers, forests and grasslands – but it also has 4 million visitors a year, traffic jams and hotels.

The above video receives about 8 million views a year. Factoring in all the other representations of Yellowstone in books, films, online videos, articles and science papers, it seems likely that more people are familiar with the rewilding story of Yellowstone than with its human story.

Wilderness vs Wildness

This brings us to what could be the most important issue for rewilding – the difference between wilderness and wildness.

The word wilderness might be Scottish. According to Jay Hansford Vest the word will comes from ancient Celtic notions of will and will-force. The wild-deor-ness might roughly translate as willed-beast-place or self-willed-land.

William Cronon is an environmental historian who wrote a provocative essay in 1995 called The Trouble With Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature. Exploring the North American colonial-frontier history of the word, he describes wilderness as an ‘especially cruel’ myth in the context of the land’s native peoples. His main qualm is that by imaging wilderness as a place without humans and their civilisation,

“…wilderness offers us the illusion that we can escape the cares and troubles of the world in which our past has ensnared us.”

On page 153 of Wilding, Isabella Tree echoes this as she describes the context of Knepp:

“Our landscape in Sussex is so heavily influenced by human beings, so altered by its history and the prevailing conditions of the present, we could only ever hope to create something for the future out of the ingredients remaining to us. Should we, perhaps, just call it ‘wilding’?”

If wilderness is uninhabited, uncultivated and unspoilt, what does this mean for rewilding? Does the pursuit of wilderness require removing people from landscapes? Does the mythical purity of wilderness distract us from transforming our impure surroundings? Is wildness more useful than wilderness?

^ Wilderness definitions from Wiktionary, Mirriam-Webster, Google, Cambridge Dictionary

Most people consider wolves recolonising Europe to be rewilding.

Less people think that wolves recolonising the outskirts of Europe’s capital cities qualifies as rewilding.

Why does a wolf seem less wild in the suburbs? Perhaps because the suburbs are an incomplete ecosystem, and the wolves are unable to enact a trophic cascade. Perhaps it is because they are just passing through. Or is it because we have a bias? Perhaps it is unproductively dualistic to imagine ‘human landscapes’ as unsuitable for wolves, and ‘wild landscapes’ as their suitable place.

Cores, Corridors and Carnivores

In the late 1990s ecologists studied a resurgent wolf population in Minnesota’s Red River Valley. They found that the wolves spent around 40% of their time in agricultural land. From this and other studies we can conclude that wolf populations are not entirely dependent on wilderness. But is this rewilding?

The return of beavers to parts of the UK (Tayside, Devon, Cornwall, Essex) in the last few years has been heralded as ‘rewilding in action‘, despite the landscapes being predominantly agricultural. Beavers will also happily build dams and lodges within cities. They even turn up in car parks. Like wolves, they don’t depend on wilderness.

The beavers of Seattle were the subject of an recent academic paper titled Reintegrating the North American beaver ( Castor canadensis ) in the urban landscape. Why is it ‘reintegrating’ in an urban landscape but ‘rewilding’ in other landscapes?

 

Urban Rewilding

 

My assessment is that, despite their similarities, the idea of urban rewilding is notably less popular than mini rewilding. What does it mean to have corridors and carnivores, but no cores? Can we rewild without restoring large wilderness? Can urban and suburban landscapes be wilder? Or should we just call this something else?

 

Lifestyle Rewilding

 

Many influential rewilders have promoted the idea of rewilding ourselves. Simon BarnesMarc Bekoff and Nick Baker have written books about it.

Others have called for the rewilding of vocabularies, weekendssouls, childhood and gut biomes. There are even workshops for rewilding our sexual stories.

Perhaps these diverse uses of the word can be categorised as ‘lifestyle rewilding’. In many cases the word is used more playfully than seriously, tongue-in-cheek perhaps. Perhaps it is a useful way of segueing to related issues. More seriously, rewilding ourselves might be the only antidote to shifting baseline syndrome.

However, the main criticism of this approach is that by stretching the word so thinly, rewilding risks becoming a plastic word. In Rethinking rewilding, Dolly Jørgensen describes plastic words as ‘words developed in scientific language for discrete ideas that then move into daily use and take on different meanings according to the context’. Examples might include ‘sustainable’ or ‘development’, or ‘sustainable development’.

This sentiment is echoed by zoology professor Anthony Sinclair, who is sceptical of what he calls ‘qualitative approaches’ to rewilding,

“In the end if a term – restoration or rewilding – applies to everything, it also means nothing.”

 

Misanthropic Rewilding

While some focus on rewilding people, others consider people to be the antithesis of rewilding. Chapter 4 of Beyond Environmentalism: A Philosophy of Nature opens with the following quote:

“Humanity is the cancer of nature…. The optimum human population on Earth is zero…. Human suffering resulting from drought and famine in Ethiopia is tragic, yes, but the destruction there of other creatures and habitat is even more tragic…. [T]he worst thing we could do in Ethiopia is give aid – the best thing would be to just let nature seek its own balance, to let the people there just starve.”

These are the words of Dave Foreman, the man widely credited with coining the word rewilding in 1992. He has close links with the architects of Cores, Corridors and Carnivores, and he founded the Rewilding Institute in 1992.

The explicitly misanthropic language used here links back to our earlier discussion of wilderness as a myth. For rural communities living on the doorstep of potential rewilding projects, the idea of human erasure is obviously intimidating and clearly counterproductive. For indigenous peoples, this language is ominously familiar. As Luther Standing Bear is credited with saying,

“We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills, and winding streams with tangled growth as ‘wild’. Only to the white man was nature a ‘wilderness’ infested with ‘wild’ animals and ‘savage’ people. To us it was home. Earth was bountiful and and we were surrounded with the blessings of the Great Mystery.”

Dave Foreman’s pursuit of uninhabited wilderness and focus on overpopulation has morphed into anti-immigration politics. In his 2011 book Man Swarm he describes the United States as ‘an overflow pond for reckless overbreeding in Central America and Mexico (and for the Philippines and Africa…)‘. The Rewilding Institute reiterates this attitude today on its website,

“Conservationists, speaking as conservationists, should not debate immigration from social, cultural, economic, or justice standpoints.”

I find the logic of blaming the poor ecological status of a country on new arrivals very questionable. It seems lazy and cowardly to blame immigrants for historical extirpations and habitat loss.

But even if attitudes to immigration are put aside, the deeper point here is that the Rewilding Institute does not think wildlife conservationists should concern themselves with justice. Can rewilding be unethical? Should human suffering be relevant to rewilding?

The Rewilding Institute goes on to describe countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Ethiopia as ‘hellhole countries‘ illustrative of the perception that ‘hellish ecological and social conditions go together’. This in my opinion, overlooks something very obvious. These countries have retained megafauna and biodiversity (forest elephants, bush elephants, gorillas, lions, wolves) that countries in Europe and the Global North can only dream of. For example – Tamil Nadu is the same size as England but has about 15 million more people living alongside leopards, elephants, tigers and sloth bears.

This is not to excuse conservation failures in these parts of our world, but put them in context. On balance, the Global South is probably more a source of rewilding inspiration than despair.

The Rewilding Institute might claim to have created the rewilding movement, but it appears to have little influence on the expansion of the rewilding movement. And perhaps that’s a good thing.

Rewilding with People

Instead of uninhabited wilderness, perhaps we should strive for inhabited wildness. William Cronon again:

“If wildness can start being as humane as it is natural, then perhaps we can get on with the unending task of struggling to live rightly in the world – not just in the garden, not just in the wilderness, but in the home that encompasses them both.”

The resounding takeaway message from rewilding conferences such as this is that rewilding should not and cannot happen without people. Whether the Eastern Shoshone people around Yellowstone, the Maasai around the Serengeti, Scottish farmers around the Cairngorms or Dutch residents around the Oostvaardersplassen – rewilding projects have a duty to work with local communities.

This duty is not just an ethical one. Like them or not, local people can end rewilding projects. Pressured by animal rights activists and other vocal critics, authorities look set to terminate Frans Vera’s experiment of self regulating herds. A committee has recommended a permanent cap of herbivore numbers at Oostvaardersplassen and the creation of ‘shelter’ habitat for those that remain. Ironically for the animal rights crowd, hundreds of deer will be shot as a result of their campaigning. The future of the Oostvaardersplassen is probably one of land management.

Summary

Rewilding originated in the Yellowstone setting, guided by principles of Cores, Corridors and Carnivores. Is this real rewilding? Is the restoration of unspoiled, pristine wilderness the most important objective, or is such pureness a myth? Does wilderness restoration demand population and immigration policies? Does this make rewilding misanthropic? Are parks like Yellowstone and the Serengeti, with their megafauna and trophic cascades, more safari parks than ‘real’ wildernesses? What qualifies as wilderness? Does it exist today? What might it look like when it is restored?

Are places like the Oostvaardersplassen and Knepp more realistic than ‘real’ rewilding? Perhaps it is more important to be pragmatic than purist. Can you rewild without carnivores? Can you rewild with fences? Can you rewild a farm? Is rehabilitation a prerequisite for restoration and rewilding? Does it matter what we call it? Is ‘wilding’ the new rewilding?

Can you rewild a garden? Are suburban carnivores wild? Does rewilding need large wilderness zones? Can you rewild a town? Are these deviations distracting from the ambitious vision of rewilding? Do we need to rewild ourselves? Are we diluting rewilding or democratising it? Real rewilding might be misanthropic, but is lifestyle rewilding too anthropocentric (too much about people)?

Is wildness more valuable than wilderness?

If this is over-complicating rewilding, then the next image might be over-simplifying it.

Sometimes, this is how I visualise rewilding. Let me know what you think, especially if you see some problems. Rewilding Europe, John LawtonSteve Carver and Lorimer et al. have also imagined rewilding scales.

I visualise traditional conservation as applying brakes to the mighty dewilding arrow, halting or at least slowing the depletion of landscapes and ecosystems. Rewilding goes the other way, rebelling against extinction. Rewilding is resurrecting ecosystems destroyed by previous generations, returning extant species and restoring the dynamic, volatile, unpredictable ecological processes that we’re not familiar with.

Perhaps (emphasis on perhaps) the diversity of rewildings, as expressed and defined online and offline, officially and unofficially, can fit into this visualisation. Some beavers seem wilder than others. When wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone national park it was rewilding. If you remove the plastic astroturf from your garden, dig a pond and stop mowing the grass and weeds, perhaps that journey is also rewilding. Perhaps resurrecting ghost ponds is a form of rewilding. Perhaps by moving from intensive agriculture to what it is today, Knepp has been on a rewilding journey.

Baselines are important, especially shifting ones, but it might be more useful to base rewilding on principles and processes, such as de-management and bio-abundance, than on semi mythical visions of lost worlds. As George Monbiot points out, there is a difference between what was, could and should be. Perhaps we can never arrive at rewilded, because pure wilderness is an unhelpful myth.

Or perhaps I’m wrong. Please disagree with me in the comments below, and share this article.

Further Reading