Wednesday 29 April 2020

Rewilding: More Thoughts

Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve

Rewilding has become an emotive and controversial word in recent years. To some it is wonderfully positive, a call for the restoration of glory to wild places. To others it smacks of elitism, exclusion, a threat to countryside access and ways of life. What though does rewilding actually mean when applied to Britain and disentangled from overblown desires and overblown fears. In the mass media it’s often used to mean the reintroduction of big predators such as wolves and bears – nothing like a story about these to send a frisson of fear through people and provoke a strong reaction. This comes in part from its origins in the USA where it was first used by conservationist Dave Foreman, one of the founders of the interesting Wildlands Network, to mean the conservation and expansion of ecosystems big enough to support large predators. 

In the USA, though, there are still large wilderness areas, many already with bears, wolves and mountain lions. The situation is very different here, on a small quite heavily populated island with no real wilderness and only remnants of natural forest. For comparison California is over twice the size of mainland Britain but has only two-thirds the population, Alaska is over eight times the size with just 750,000 people. We have to think differently.

In Britain rewilding can only mean the restoration of natural processes to wild places, small and large. It is, I think, the final part of a conservation strategy. This begins with preservation – stopping the continuing destruction or degradation of an area – and continues with restoration – repairing damage. Then the renewal of the land can begin, which is really what rewilding means, allowing nature to restore itself. 

The result of rewilding should be a healthier environment with greater biodiversity, which benefits everybody. An increasing number of studies show how important nature is to people’s mental and physical health. Rewilding is not just for an elite, it’s for everyone. Indeed, we are part of nature, not apart from it, and the health of nature is our health.

In the Cascade Mountains

Sadly though, what many people regard as a healthy natural environment is actually quite damaged and degraded. The concept of shifting baseline syndrome explains this. Each generation tends to assume that the state of the natural world they grew up with is the norm. This can result in keeping places in a poor condition or even trying to return them to that condition. This is a natural reaction. I remember first visiting the Lake District as a boy and thinking of it as a huge natural wilderness, pristine and perfect. Then I discovered the Scottish Highlands and thought I’d found paradise (I sometimes still feel that!). Only after returning from half a year spent walking through the magnificent wild forests and mountains along the Pacific Crest Trail in the Western USA did I notice how bare the hills and glens were, how few trees grew in the British hills. Why weren’t they there? I’d read about the Caledonian forest in the writings of Frank Fraser Darling but only when I’d seen the glorious forests in the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountains did I start to understand what we have lost. 

In the Sierra Nevada
Knowing how damaged much of our wild land is could be dispiriting. The great American conservationist Aldo Leopold in The Sand County Almanac, an important book published in 1949, decades before the term rewilding had been invented, said ‘ one of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen’. Today I think we have more cause to hope than back in the 1940s. More people do understand the damage that has been done. Educating the others is a key task though. To support rewilding people need to understand why it’s necessary. Shifting baseline syndrome again. If you think the land is as it should be you’re not going to support moves to change it.

Glen Affric

In Britain I think rewilding starts with forest restoration. In this sense it’s only a new name for something that started many years ago. One of the key figures in this was the late Dick Balharry, former John Muir Trust Chair, when he was warden at Beinn Eighe, Britain’s first national nature reserve, in the 1960s (see Beinn Eighe: The Mountain Above The Wood). He continued this work in the 1980s at the Creag Meagaidh National Nature Reserve. In both places healthy regenerating forests can now be seen, which is very heartening. Since then forest restoration has increased in many areas such as the John Muir Trust’s Li and Coire Dhorrcail on Ladhar Bheinn in Knoydart, which won a Scotland’s Finest Woods Award in 2015, and other JMT estates like Ben Nevis, Quinag, and East Schiehallion.

Glen nevis
Elsewhere the  RSPB at places like Abernethy Forest in the Cairngorms, many Woodland Trust estates throughout the UK, and Wild Land Ltd's Glen Feshie all have flourishing forest regeneration. Then there’s the work of Trees for Life in places like GlenAffric and the Borders Forest Trust with the Carrifran Wildwood. Forest and Land Scotland (formerly the Forestry Commission), once a main cause of the destruction of natural forests, is now allowing some forests to recover such as Glenmore in the Cairngorms. Perhaps most encouraging of all is when organisations work together to the same ends. Cairngorms Connect is an encouraging exampled with its “bold and ambitious 200-year vision to enhance habitats, species and ecological processes across a vast area within the Cairngorms National Park.”

Glen Feshie

In the Lake District the Wild Ennerdale project is particularly interesting with its vision ‘to allow the evolution of Ennerdale as a wild valley for the benefit of people, relying more on natural processes to shape its landscape and ecology’. That last phrase could be a definition of rewilding. Like Cairngorms Connect Wild Ennerdale is also a partnership of different bodies, public and private, and local people. This is important. Rewilding needs the support of communities and a wide range of organisations. It should grow out of places rather than be imposed from outside. That means rewilding may be a slow process in some areas, but local support is essential if it’s to be successful in the long run so if it takes time to gain that we just have to be patient. 

Once forests start to regenerate and spread the richness of the fauna and flora rapidly increases. Walk through a new forest and see the wide variety of undergrowth and the number of birds then compare this with the bareness and silence of a treeless valley.  This was the case at Creag Meagaidh where sheep and deer had led to a bare degraded landscape. Since it became a nature reserve in 1986 and the over-grazing was ended the change has been startling as a healthy new forest emerges.  

Creag Meagaidh National Nature Reserve

With regeneration wildlife moves in, previously over-grazed vegetation flourishes. There is a problem in Britain though. And that is being an island. Animals already here -pine martens, red squirrels, badgers and more – will move into new forests. Birds can arrive from overseas, mammals can’t. On mainland Europe predators like wolves, bears and lynx are slowly increasing their territories. They can’t reach Britain though. Apex predators like these are not just important for directly controlling the numbers of grazing animals by hunting them but also by the effect they have on their behaviour, keeping them moving so they don’t over-graze an area, keeping them out of areas that could be seen as traps. This concept is known as a trophic cascade and was first described by Aldo Leopold when he noted overgrazing by deer after wolves were exterminated. 

Ryvoan Pass
We don’t have wolves, but we can mimic their behaviour. In popular areas this happens by accident. The paths through Glenmore Forest to the Ryvoan Pass are walked regularly, often by large numbers of people. I’ve never seen any deer or even signs of deer here. Forest regeneration is extensive. In the woods round my home there are roe deer. Until a decade or so ago our neighbours had dogs that often roamed free. Seeing deer was very rare and I never saw them outside the forest. Since the dogs went the deer have become bold and I often see them out in the fields far from the nearest trees even in the middle of the day. They’ve learnt it’s safe to do so.

Trees for Life has an interesting scheme at their Dundreggan Estate in the Scottish Highlands called Project Wolf. In this teams of volunteers walk through the woods in the evening, night and early morning to disturb the deer and give seedlings a better chance of survival. I think this is a fascinating idea that could be used elsewhere. 

Until the climate is right for the return of wolves, which I think is a long time in the future, culling deer, removal or reduction of sheep numbers, fencing woods, and schemes like Project Wolf are the only ways to ensure forest regeneration. This in Britain is rewilding. 

This is an edited version of a piece originally written for the John Muir Trust.


  1. Summed up perfectly Chris. I've got lots of opinions about this subject, but will spare you & others as you've already stated them. I well remember walking through wild flower meadows that reached up to my chest in the Julian Alps in Slovenia, swarms of butterflies, aware that brown bears were in the vicinity.. Marvellous. The last time I was in the Lake District, I stood still and heard and saw no sight or sound of wildness; no insects, not a bird in the sky. I did a 360° and could not see a single tree. It was a desert. I sadly compare that to my walks in the Boreal forests where farmers in their pony-drawn carts would pull up alongside me to warn me of a hungry female bear that had come out of hibernation early. George Monbiot's book Feral is required reading IMHO. Great article Chris, thanks, and thanks to the JMT and other conservation organisations.

  2. A thought provoking a and well argued piece. Thank you, Chris