Illustration by Jessye Phillips
The UN has warned that the world faces a climate abyss. In an overlapping nature emergency where climate change, loss of biodiversity and other planetary problems complicate our environment, ecosystems are being shredded and more than half of the globe’s mammals, birds, amphibians, fish and reptiles have been wiped out in living memory. This broken relationship with nature is contributing to a worldwide health crisis, helping viruses like SARS-CoV-2 to leap more easily from other species to humans. If we continue to intrude on natural ecosystems, disrupting species to the extent we begin to exploit and come into greater contact with them on a day-to-day basis, we are increasing the risk of virus transmission between ourselves and other species. By unravelling the web of life, impeding and changing the natural cycles of ecosystems, we’re undermining the very things civilisation depends on: clean air, clean water and fertile soils for growing food.
The UK Government has a huge responsibility and a golden opportunity to lead the way in rallying the world’s governments to set net zero goals in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement that global temperature rises are to be limited to no more than 1.5 degrees centigrade. Politicians from COP26 need to step up. Key actions must include significantly reducing fossil fuel use, and investing in renewable energy, public transport, green homes and green jobs. But our political leaders also need to embrace one hugely powerful solution and a major source of hope – one that so far they have largely neglected. And that’s rewilding.
The benefits of rewilding include carbon capture, biodiversity and flood prevention. The UN has said the world must rewild and restore an area the size of China by 2030 to meet climate and nature commitments.
Earlier this year, Chris Packham called on the royal family to “step up” by committing to rewilding their estates. The royal family is the UK’s most extensive landowning family, with an estate that includes lands held by the duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall and the Queen. According to calculations by the rewilding campaign group Wild Card, the family owns more than 323,748 hectares (800,000 acres) of land, including the crown estate, which is equivalent to double the area of Greater London or 1.4% of the UK. The submission of a petition, which was preceded by a march from Green Park tube station to the palace, is the latest action by Wild Card. In June, they wrote an open letter to the royal family signed by 120 people, including TV presenter and conservationist Chris Packham, the broadcasters Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Anita Rani, and the leading environmental scientist Prof. Sir Robert Watson.
By calling on the British monarchy to keep to their bold statements on climate action, Wild Card highlights the fact that all institutions, and specifically those in the West, need not only to say, but also to show their commitment to mitigation of the crisis and environmental restoration.
Rewilding as a term encompasses both the cultural interest in restoring our habitats for aesthetics but also the rising concern for stemming biodiversity loss and using our landscapes as a way to mitigate against climate change as an emerging environmental phenomenon. Rewilding is an emerging environmental term, describing specific ecological restoration. Ecosystem restoration here means assisting in the recovery of ecosystems that have been degraded or destroyed, as well as conserving the ecosystems that are still intact. Healthier ecosystems, with richer biodiversity, yield greater benefits such as more fertile soils, bigger yields of timber and fish, and larger stores of greenhouse gases.
Restoration can happen in many ways – for example through actively planting or by removing pressures so that nature can recover on its own. It is not always possible – or desirable – to return an ecosystem to its original state. We still need farmland and infrastructure on land that was once forest, for instance, and ecosystems, like societies, need to adapt to a changing climate.
Dolly Jørgensen expands on the idea of what rewilding is in a massive amount of depth in her paper ‘Rethinking Rewilding’. This laid the classificatory groundwork of rewilding in conservation practices, describing it in six different ways. Jørgensen begins with the ‘three Cs’ to highlight the breadth of rewilding practices. By this definition, rewilding is based on trophic cascades, which are powerful indirect interactions that can control entire ecosystems. Trophic cascades occur when predators limit the density and/or behaviour of their prey and thereby enhance survival of the next lower trophic level. A popular example of this is the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone. This led to a decrease in the number, and changed the behaviour, of elk. This in turn released several plant species from grazing pressure and subsequently led to the transformation of the river ecosystems.
Conservationists have delved further into the nitty-gritty of rewilding and the extensive ecological processes behind it by using island biogeography (the factors that affect the species richness and diversification of isolated natural communities) models. This dictates that large predators (Carnivores) regulate the food chain, that they need large central reserves of land (Cores) for hunting and territory, and that these reserves need to be connected so that populations can move and interchange (Corridors).
Jørgensen fills out the rewilding typology with five additional practices: replacement of key-stone species (species that have a significant influence on population growth, ecosystem health and optimal conditions for survival); replacement of invasive species on islands; captive breeding and release; landscape restoration which involves planting native plants; and productive land abandonment to stop mass exploitation of soil nutrients and eutrophication. Because rewilding varies so widely among these different uses, Jørgensen advises against condensing them into a single definition, worrying that using a single term for such an array of conservation measures could potentially lead to confusion.
When it comes to public understanding, media phrasing and other forms of information output, rewilding is typically an overarching term used for restoring our local wildlife through protection, introducing native species like the planting of trees and simple efforts everyone can take part in. This, I find, is effective in getting public support and policy changes to include rewilding commitments. From there we can then pinpoint direct action using the complex rewilding typology Jørgensen and academics use and advocate for.
Rewilding and restoration look to improve landscapes throughout the world that are deforested, degraded, or underutilised. Boosting the productivity of these landscapes helps take pressure off the world’s remaining ecosystems while also providing a host of tangible benefits—from food security to clean water to carbon sequestration.
With floods, wildfires and other extreme weather becoming a disturbingly common story in the news, it’s clear that we are starting to see the effects of too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
To tackle the climate emergency, we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions to near zero at breakneck speed. But to reach ‘net zero’ emissions, we also need to mop up the excess carbon that we’ve already put into the atmosphere and store it safely, so that it can’t heat up the planet.
There’s much talk of techno-fixes for reaching ‘net zero’ emissions – using machines to trap carbon and inject it into rocks or old oil wells. Nature is one safe way we can do this.
Trees, peatlands, saltmarshes and other ecosystems are already perfectly adapted to soak carbon dioxide and store it. Individual species – by helping keep a balance within their ecosystems – can also play a vital role in the process.
That’s exactly why rewilding is a key solution in the fight against climate breakdown. Rewilding seeks to reinstate natural processes and – where appropriate – missing species, allowing them to shape the landscape and the habitats within.
But we do need to let nature take the driving seat. Rewilding is the large-scale restoration of ecosystems to the point where nature is allowed to take care of itself. While there is certainly a role for planting trees and, on occasion, intervening to restore ecosystems, if we step back, nature can actually do a lot to heal itself – and the planet.
Rewilding key areas and connecting them up through a mosaic of nature-rich habitats will allow wildlife to move, and habitats to adapt, as climate zones shift north. This has the potential to save a significant number of species from climate-driven decline or extinction.