For some time now, I have been searching the fogs and mists in the outer reaches of the conservation movement in an attempt to give shape and meaning to the term Rewilding. In wrestling with the dream-like world of rewilding, the more I read, the more it becomes a fantasy built upon an illusion.
There is a strange fluidity about the distinction between rewilding and conservation. The label of rewilding seems to depend upon who is doing the work or who is speaking at the time. As a result there is a lingering suspicion that it may just be a new fad – a new term to describe something that has always happened but is now being given a makeover. It is almost as if the rewilders are the boy-racers of the conservation world. Theirs is all racing stripes, lowered suspensions and noisy exhausts. The rest of us look on and hope that they will grow out of it. Another way of looking at rewilding is that it is just at one end of the conservation spectrum and is nothing to get worked up about. If it is George Monbiot or Chris Packham speaking to a hall full of right-on urban eco-warriors, there will be a whiff of political radicalism along the lines of eradicating sheep and letting it all “go back to Nature”.
Before science or many other day-to-day matters such as law and politics can get cracking, there has to be a thorough understanding of the meaning of words. We must know what each other means, precisely, before we hurtle off in the wrong direction. Whilst some may leave semantics to the philosophers to work through the tedium of meaning, whenever we decide we want to act in a way which affects our fellow human beings and our surroundings, precision in meaning is important. So the differences in the meanings of conservation and rewilding are vital, especially if it means the possible expenditure of taxpayers’ money or impacting the lives of other people.
The search for meaning in ‘rewilding’
So it is sensible to start with a definition. The website for rewildingbritain.org is next to useless, but Rewilding Europe has this: “Rewilding ensures natural processes and wild species to play a much more prominent role in the land and seascapes, meaning that after initial support, nature is allowed to take more care of itself. Rewilding helps landscapes become wilder, whilst also providing opportunities for modern society to reconnect with such wilder places for the benefit of all life.”
This definition seems to be rather woolly. In the first sentence, there is a general sense that “stuff” is allowed to happen without much intervention from humans. The second sentence uses the word ‘wilder’ without much sense of what it means other than the idea that humans must become more ‘connected’ to it. The subsequent annotations to this definition are a series of ten bullet points which supplement what we must understand about rewilding in order to get a sense of what it is about. The word-cloud below gives the main words within these supplementary notes. If we ignore ‘rewilding’ as self-evident, the rest of it is dominated by ‘natural’ and ‘processes’.
Figure 1 – Word cloud for annotations to Rewilding Europe’s working definition of rewilding (H/T WordClouds.com)
Despite the hints contained in the word-cloud, none of this is very helpful in reaching a concise definition.
The best place to get an appreciable sense of what rewilding really means, beyond the froth and vague hand-waving, is to look at what it is they actually intend to do and how they intend to achieve it. Buried deep in amongst the lovely pictures of animals and middle class intellectuals with hiking sticks looking happily at the scenery, is Rewilding Europe’s strategic plan. This is the corporate plan of a burgeoning EU-style organisation, full of the earnestness of their intentions for the betterment of humanity and how they intend to impose it upon us. As well as detailing their growing links with some of the most aggressive environmental lobbyists, like the World Wildlife Fund, it discretely sets out the methods by which they intend to take control of vast tracts of land in Europe, using the co-ordinated pincer movement of land rights and tax revenue with private funding – all backed up by the massed ranks of the European Union. It is a capitalist corporatist’s wet dream.
The main emphasis of Rewilding Europe’s literature is, of course, composed of beautiful photographs of scenery and animals designed to show us all how wonderful this concept is. The land that they intend to utilise is alleged to have been abandoned by agriculture. It is true that there is a fair amount of this in parts of Europe – especially in those countries formerly part of the Soviet Empire. Quite how they intend to gain consent of and integrate rewilding with the small number of peasant farmers remaining in the areas designated for rewilding is not stated. However, it is a pretty good bet that there will be some difficulties.
One of the designated areas is part of Lapland which is extremely valuable in conservation terms, but is also still the home of the Sami reindeer herdsmen. Rewilding Europe considers that the Sami are OK because their nomadic pastoralism has been going on for a very long time. Indeed, to give credit to Rewilding Europe, their emphasis is upon protecting the Sami way of life and there is a program to eliminate forestry and mining in the designated areas. This should help the Sami and allow their lifestyle to continue.
However, if you are a conventional farmer, with a tractor and some sheep or cattle, there is a strong impression that this kind of human activity will come to an end. If you are a forester with a living to make, it is going to be pretty tough until you have moved out of the area and found another job. Within the strategy of Rewilding Europe is mention of conflict resolution. Presumably, they know that not everyone will be supportive of their ideas and will resent their livelihoods being taken over by diktat from a profoundly centralised organisation. They are not doing this with invasion by armed forces. They are doing it nicely, with apologetic smiles on their faces as they show you photographs of lots of cuddly bears and wolves, and tell you how wonderful it is all going to be – and how much happier everyone will be when they have learnt to live with Wolves in their back gardens.
The central philosophical aspect of rewilding is its insistence that an area that will have been ‘rewilded’ is left alone in order for nature to proceed upon whatever path it sets for itself. Only a little bit of hunting or fishing might be allowed – and even then it will be closely regulated. Commercial activities like forestry are to be minimised to the point of zero. Farming of any type is clearly verboten. The only human activities that will be permitted are tourism and photography. In other words, human interaction with the rewilded landscape is to be almost solely that of a spectator. Nothing else. There is to be no actual human extractive utility to the landscape.
Frans Vera and Oostvaardersplassen
A large part of this philosophy seems to have come from the theories of Frans Vera, a Dutch ecologist. Vera postulated that the standard model of pre-Neolithic Europe being covered in little else but trees is untenable. His alternative hypothesis proposes that tree cover was intermittent, comprising a dynamic series of woods and groves interspersed with grassland and all controlled by the large herbivores that were extant at the time. The Dutch Forestry Service allocated Vera a new nature reserve at Oostvaardersplassen to test some of his ideas. This was a polder, reclaimed in 1968, and which was originally earmarked for industrial purposes. Initially, it was used as a nursery for willows, but then converted itself into a wetland of considerable interest. Vera released Heck cattle, Red Deer, and Konic ponies and then sat back to watch what happened. There is no human intervention other than to shoot the occasional suffering animal on welfare grounds. Neither are there any large predators to control the herbivores. The original willow plantations appear to have been eaten and converted almost entirely to grassland. The following figures are all from Google Earth. I am indebted to Dr Steve Carver for recovering and tweeting the images.
Figure 2 – Oostvaardersplassen 2005
Figure 3 – Oostvaardersplassen 2015, same shot as Fig 2 above.
Figure 4 – Oostvaardersplassen 2005, close up.
Figure 5 – Oostvaardersplassen 2015, same shot as Fig 4 above. Note the remaining small blocks of trees have all been fenced to exclude grazers.
It is difficult to find much literature on Oostvaardersplassen, least of all by Vera himself; but a series of tweets in conversation with Steve Carver, suggest that Vera is attempting to find out what happens when the herbivores regulate their own numbers (because of food availability). It is possible (and I am speculating) that if numbers of grazers decline through natural causes (e.g. a very harsh winter), this will give the spiny thorns that will act as the nurseries to trees, the time to get going and create little thickets. Thus the process will begin of formation of groves of big trees which are unaffected by subsequent populations of grazers and browsers. So far that has not happened and it seems the herbivores have converted a large stand of trees into almost pure, close-cropped grassland. Only time will tell if Vera is correct. But given the number of cattle, horses and deer; the closed nature of Oostvaardersplassen; and the lack of control by either humans or large predators, my suspicion is that the herbivores have converted the area into the most efficient means of palatable biomass production – grass. Only grass will maintain the deer, cattle and horses at the numbers that they are at today.
Whilst rewilding literature is full of predictions of economic gain for impoverished rural economies, their only idea is that tourism will fill the gaps left by conventional agriculture and forestry. Tourism has indeed helped economies of parts of Africa which have established game reserves. But that is in Africa, not Europe. And far less in the UK. European economies and development are very different from many other parts of the less well developed world. We would therefore expect some sort of thorough investigation from Rewilding Europe as to how exactly tourism is going to save the more difficult parts of eastern Europe, for example, by actively replacing agriculture as the principle source of income. However, there is no such calculation to be had. Only wishful thinking and aspiration. Whilst tourism is acknowledged to be the icing on the cake, it is not the substance of the cake itself. The sceptic in me wants to know exactly how they intend to find an income from tourism and photography which will support an entire community in the winter as well as the summer.
Rewilding in summary
We can now attempt to draw together the characteristics of rewilding:
- Very large areas are needed, on a landscape scale.
- Nature is allowed to take over and operate without human intervention, except perhaps an initial helping hand of tree planting and reintroductions etc.
- The only human impact and economic activity upon a rewilded landscape is to be education and tourism (and photography, but that is effectively the same as tourism). No evidence is offered that tourism is sufficient to bring about the economic benefits that are claimed.
- Large herbivores and predators are to be reintroduced (and/or specially bred) into rewilded areas in the hope that they somehow drive the area into becoming more ecologically diverse. There is little or no evidence that this actually works.
- The whole thing depends upon these large areas being substantially abandoned by agriculture and forestry. The human population in these areas will already be very low because of that abandonment. Other industries, such as mining, will be very low key or non-existent. Where they exist at all, they are expected to be closed down. No suggestion is made as to how these activities will be compensated.
- The landscapes concerned will already be relatively untouched and beautiful.
- Because of the abandonment by agriculture, the rewilded areas will become progressively more forested, regulated only by the interplay of herbivores with large predators.
- Forest encroachment upon formerly agricultural areas will create large expanses of secondary forest, similar in characteristics to large parts of the eastern side of the USA where large even-aged stands of trees have taken over land that was farmed until the 19th century.
- As a result of this encroachment, habitats which are themselves of conservation interest because of long term interaction with human livestock etc, will become swamped and potentially lost. There is a strand of rewilding thinking that is prepared to accept local extinctions in the cause of rewilding.
- No evidence is offered that rewilding will actually bring about any ‘improvement’ in biodiversity.
- Regulation of the rewilded areas is to be by an EU-wide quango, sub-divided by regional management and scientific support.
- There is no political or democratic oversight anticipated by Rewilding Europe, but they are nevertheless expecting to obtain land rights and taxes. By implication, they are expecting to get their way within local populations by means of PR only. Whilst they seem to be capable of ‘consultation’, there is no recognition of the need for democratic consent from the people who will be affected by rewilding. There is a sense that rewilding will be imposed upon people, whether they wish it or not.
- Rewilding is considered by its adherents to be the next big thing in conservation. They view conventional conservation as backward-looking. Rewilding specifically looks to the promise of the future without any evidence that their ideas actually work. Indeed, rewilders eagerly anticipate the chaos of ecological revolution.
Towards a working definition
Rewilding is the deliberate landscape scale abandonment of agricultural land. Deliberate flooding or removal of river or sea defence structures may also be considered to be rewilding provided it is on a landscape scale. Much of this abandoned land will eventually become afforested. This afforestation may be initially planted, or allowed to proceed by succession, or a combination of both. The aim is to create a landscape which mimics what is said to be the primeval conditions before the advent of agriculture. Ecological dynamics are regulated by the release of large herbivores and predators. No human activity is permitted beyond tourism and closely regulated hunting. Administration and regulation is conducted by specialists whose ultimate source of funding is the taxpayer. There is no democratic oversight of the initiation or continuation of the rewilding project.
Whilst I was initially positive about some aspects of rewilding, the more I have learnt about it, the less I have liked it. The rewilders themselves are a strange mix: academics in search of new sources of funding to exploit; journalists in search of a story to keep their names in the public eye; genuine conservationists who think it might be the next big thing; fanatical eco-types who think humans are a really bad thing and the planet would be better off without them; purist botanists who condemn all human activity and influence on ecosystems; animal rights activists who are looking to release more stuff into the countryside to disrupt farmers; and eco-Marxists who want to get rid of anyone who currently earns their living in the countryside because they belong to the ‘wrong class’. And that is just in this country. The European rewilders have other things bound up in the mix.
I was struck early on by the insistence of the European rewilders that hunting should continue in these new secondary forests. Initially, it seemed like an extension to the usual German Jagdkultur (hunting culture) which pervades a lot of Germanic thinking about connecting with the forests and nature. It seemed to conjure up images of lots of lederhosen and felt hats striding confidently through the forest. All of which is harmless enough stuff. But as soon as I read about the use of Heck cattle in attempting to recreate the wild Aurocs, some uncomfortable little bells started to ring in my head.
Heck cattle are a breed of cattle developed by Lutz Heck in the 1930s and 1940s. They were an attempt to recreate the huge wild Aurocs cattle that once roamed Europe. By the Middle Ages, they were becoming increasingly rare in Europe and the last one died in 1627 in Poland. Heck’s attempts to recreate this extinct species were supported by Hermann Göring, Hitler’s second in command. Göring was an enthusiastic trophy hunter (amongst his other interests as a collector of stolen art treasures) and built a hunting lodge, known as Karinhalle within the vast 120,000 hectare Schorfheide-Chorin reserve. At the end of the Second World War, this estate was subsequently sealed off and reserved as a hunting ground for Erich Honecker, the East German leader, who took Göring’s obsession to a whole new level. Schorfheide is now a UNESCO Biosphere reserve.
Goring’s obsessions coincided with those of Heck, in that they are both said to have fantasised about recreating lost species. Whilst Göring was busy shooting magnificent stags, dressing up in hunting costume and fantasising about ancient German legends, Heck was hard at work attempting to back-cross various breeds of cattle to try to recreate the Aurocs. Once successfully bred, the new Aurocs were destined to be released in Bialoweza Forest in the east of Poland. Briefly, it was taken over as a new hunting ground for Göring and the rest of the Nazi elite. As was usual at the time, the locals were eradicated. Although Heck didn’t quite succeed, he did create a large breed of cattle whose temperament is sufficiently fierce as to render them too dangerous to farm. That ferocity was one of the main attractions, as implied by this programme made by the BBC in 2014.
Figure 6 – Göring in his role of Reichjägermeister inspecting the Reich Forestry Service.
Neither Heck nor Göring survived to see the conclusion of their experiment. However, some of the cattle did survive the war and have been used at Oostvaardersplassen as large herbivores. Heck cattle have now been taken up by Rewilding Europe and the Nazi experiment is being rejuvenated to continue the work of Heck to find a replacement that mimics the Aurocs. The point of this, as far as the rewilders are concerned, is that the Aurocs is big enough to act as a proxy for all the other large herbivores that became extinct from Europe over the last 10,000 years or so. In this re-creation, the rewilders hope to have found the answer to their desires to return large tracts of European landscape to its pristine glories as envisaged by Vera and others.
Figure 7: Heck cattle (Source: The Breeding-Back Blog)
Figure 8: Heck cattle at Oostvaardersplassen – the sharp-eyed will see that the willows in the background are severely grazed to a browse-line and that there is no tree regeneration. (Source: The Breeding-Back Blog).
Culture and politics.
Looking closely at Rewilding Europe’s website, a number of things spring out of the background;
- There is a strong appeal to ‘nature’.
- Much of that nature comprises idealised pristine forests.
- There is a demand to return to a distant, imagined past before humans began to influence the landscape.
- There is a strong desire for people to visit, witness and explore this kind of landscape – photography is specifically mentioned.
- The imagery is often of happy, healthy, outdoorsy couples with their nordic walking poles.
All of this recalls the rambling, hiking and nature loving movements which have as their metaphor the Deutsche wald (German forest culture). This idealises Germanic folklore, history and connection with nature. It provides the basis of the German hiking groups, many of which date from the 19th Century. Much of the imagery of this culture goes back to the Romantic period and much earlier. If you think of Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, or of Wagner, Siegfried, Nibelungenlied and so on, you have the picture. This cultural base was appropriated by the Nazis to add to their already fantastical ideas of racial purity, blood and soil, and so on. (For a much longer discussion of these links, readers are directed to Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory ). Most of these hiking clubs were banned during the Nazi era because they often had social democratic or other political affiliations which were anathema to Nazism. The rambling groups were replaced with the Hitler Youth, who not only had the lederhosen and little felt hats, but they had marching songs as well. With this in mind, it is possible to conclude that, in between setting the whole of Europe on fire, the Nazis were deeply caring environmentalists. The Green movement owes so much to history.
Yearning for long-lost nature – a characteristic shared by both rewilding and Deutsche wald – is founded upon an imagined or unknowable past. Both are reaching back into myth and legend. Neither will know if they have got there or not. Forest creeping over abandoned agricultural land produces even-aged stands of trees (assuming no Aurocs to eat them). The understorey quickly becomes shaded out and uninteresting. There has not been the passage of time to encourage lichens, bryophytes and fungi. The bird species will be relatively mundane. Changes will not happen to introduce a great deal of biodiversity for perhaps many centuries.
Vera is bravely trying to find out if his theories work, but within the constraints of a relatively small area and a large population of ungulates. So far, he has produced a lot of grass. The rewilding idea is stitched together with a lot of cod ecological theory – and, so far, no experimental or observational science to back it up. I suggest that there will be a lot of boring secondary forest populated with some made-up animals. We will never know if the resurrected Aurocs are the real thing or not. The whole idea has a very ersatz feel to it.
But there is a a bigger issue than that of the cultural origins of this or that aspect of rewilding. It is only possible to detect by reading Rewilding Europe’s website and finding the things that they do not talk about. There seems to be no mention of what they intend to do with any farmers who have remained within the areas to be rewilded. Neither is there mention of those people who are dependent upon farmers – such as abattoirs, local butchers, cheesemakers etc. All of these people, and the communities which depend upon them, seem to be dismissed as irrelevant because the rewilders say that the land has been ‘abandoned’.
Abandonment may be occurring in all the target areas to a certain extent, but it will never be complete. There are no parts of the world, apart from Antarctica, where there is not some form of native humanity which has dwelt in the area for a very long time. The acquisition of land rights would presumably come about by central legislation from the EU. Doubtless the remaining farmers in an area destined to being rewilded, will be ‘encouraged’ by public money to be ‘compensated’ for their loss of livelihoods – in what I would imagine to be a form of compulsory purchase. In the 21st Century it is no longer necessary for the more direct methods, which were prevalent in the 1930s and 1940s, for the removal of recalcitrant locals. In theory, de-population can now happen by the miracles of huge fund-raising or taxpayers’ money – and the encouragement of large predators to harass the farmers’ flocks.
In a UK context, Rewilding Britain’s plans to rewild one million hectares would take place mostly in the uplands of the UK, because these areas fit the rewilding profile of low population and high scenic value. It would amount to the eviction of large numbers of hill farmers, because the ideological principles which underpin rewilding do not tolerate human ‘interference’ with the landscape. Farming is the first casualty of rewilding. Indeed, this points to the stark difference between rewilding in Europe context and that in the UK. At least in Europe, there are genuinely large tracts of land that have been partly, even if not totally, abandoned by agriculture.
In the UK the hills have not been abandoned by any stretch of the imagination. They have been occupied continuously for more than 4000 years. And still are. But in the interests of rewilding, the farmers would have to go. Tim Bonner, Chief Executive of the Countryside Alliance, has likened this process to a modern equivalent of the Highland Clearances. I think he is right; and I do not think he should be in any way apologetic for this description.
In finding a number of links between rewilding and some of the less savoury characters in 20th Century history, I am likely to be accused of needlessly invoking Godwin’s law. But the echoes and parallels are just too many and too strong. There seems little doubt that the mechanisms that the rewilders intend to use to secure their ambitions are overtly totalitarian. The people most affected by rewilding – the farmers – are told (by way of ‘consultation’) that this is proposed, but are not asked for their consent. The rewilding opening gambit of re-introductions of large predators is simply a ploy to erode the livelihoods of livestock farmers who represent the biggest obstacle to rewilding. The Lynx, Wolves, Bears and reintroduced Leopards will drive the farmers away from their land a little more slowly than enforced eviction, but will drive them away just the same.
The British rewilders are a motley bunch, roughly divided into a respectable group which includes academics, conservationists, journalists and television presenters, all of whom are given to appearing almost sensible. Then there are the eco-nutters which include the rabid Marxists, anarchists and the animal rights movement. This second group have all jumped upon the rewilding bandwagon because its label suits them – they have no interest in conservation or the community. Included within this group are the people who have released mink from mink farms, dug up other people’s grandmothers from their graves, and stolen hundreds of traps from the Randomised Badger Controlled Trial in an effort to disrupt the findings. Whatever else rewilding may be, it is not the pursuit of rational science.
Most modern political movements require two groups of people to further their cause. The first is a Victim Group (‘the workers’, ‘the poor’ and so on) whom we should feel sorry for. The second is the Hate Group (capitalists, Kulaks, Jews etc) who are held to be responsible for the parlous condition of the Victim Group. The method of our archetypal political party is to pit one group against the other – to divide society along their chosen lines. In the (often bloody) revolution that follows, our political party is there to step into the void created by the bloodshed and then to take power. Power and control is their prime motivation; and their division of society is how they go about getting it.
Rewilding has already gone a long way towards establishing itself as a political movement. Their Victim Group is clearly the Erdmutter (Earth mother or Mother Nature), who has been violated by wicked humans. The exact group of humans who are responsible for this travesty are not specifically named by either Rewilding Europe or Rewilding Britain. However, George Monbiot has made it absolutely clear that he thinks sheep are the problem. It follows that sheep are caused by sheep farmers; and so the Hate Group must be the farmers.
Despite their slick, delicately tinted websites, the rewilders have failed to demonstrate that rewilding is anything other than an idea with cultural, political and quasi-religious roots. It has no intellectual coherence in scientific, ecological, economic, political or social terms. We know this because they have utterly failed to address any of these issues. Indeed, their deliberate evasion of discussing these matters is profoundly dishonest.
Rewilding Britain have not stated how they intend to achieve their target of one million hectares. This is an area which slightly exceeds that of the largest current land-holder in the UK – the Forestry Commission. It exceeds the combined estates of the Crown Estate, the Ministry of Defence and the National Trust. Clearly, their ambitions are enormous, and so we have to ask: cui bono? (who gains?). And, equally, we must ask: who loses?
Let us assume that the rewilders evict the hill farmers over this area. In theory, the taxpayer would thus save the agricultural payments that are made to those farmers. This would be a lot of money and would far exceed the £11 million the National Trust was paid by the taxpayer in 2016. But it is pretty clear that the rewilders will be waiting in the wings to offer their (paid) services to the government, were this to happen. Quite why it is that the natural succession of trees over former agricultural land requires expensive bureaucrats to administer it, is not explained. Neither is it explained how the evicted hill farmers would be compensated for their loss of livelihoods.
At a ‘summit’ sponsored by Lush Cosmetics in February 2017, there was a small meeting about rewilding in which Rebecca Wrigley, Chief Executive of Rewilding Britain, spoke. The two screenshots below of tweets sent by Lush appear to be quoting Rebecca:
The first tweet establishes ‘Nature’ as the Victim Group. The second speaks of the coming change. There is a sense of inevitability about all this. It is as if the rewilders are singing ‘Tomorrow belongs to me’. There is a sense that they feel that their revolution is coming soon – and they are rushing to establish their own lebensraum.
 Schama, Simon (1995): Landscape and Memory. Harper Collins, London.