What is rewilding?
Rewilding is all about letting nature be spontaneous, dynamic, and unpredictable. Rather than trying to manage and control which plants, animals, and habitats thrive, it is about sitting back and letting nature decide. This can be done in your back garden or at the landscape scale.
If you speak to rewilders, and we have spoken to a few, the thing they all seem to have in common is that they celebrate the unexpected species that are now doing well in their wild patch. For example, at Knepp Wildlands in Sussex it is the unexpected success of nightingales, purple emperor butterflies, and turtle doves since this farm has gone wild that bring the most excitement. This is because their return and success are down to nature doing its own thing and it is teaching us new things about how these species live.
While targeted conservation of rare and iconic species is massively important, rewilding recognises the importance of giving more space for nature to do its own thing. These two approaches are complementary and can really support each other. Traditional conservation practices are helping species hang on. We can use rewilding to increase the number, size and connectivity of nature areas. If we do this, the wildlife hanging on in conservation areas can move out into the newly rewilded space for nature. This extra space will hopefully allow these rare species now to increase in number and so help conserve them. The increasing number of species in rewilding areas will revive the natural processes (like pollination, seed dispersal, and grazing) that allows nature to look after all the species in the ecosystem.
So, rewilding is all about creating more space for nature to do its own thing. And in giving up control of nature we are able to put ourselves back into natural systems at least some of the time and reap the benefits of reconnecting with the diversity, richness, and surprises of the natural world. However, this is definitely not saying rewilding is a silver bullet. Like anything, rewilding comes with benefits and costs, winners and losers. This is why we support a diverse approach to nature recovery for the benefit of people and nature that includes rewilding, targeted habitat restoration, regenerative farming, sustainable forestry and more. We think diversity creates diversity.
Bigger, Better, More Joined Up
Bigger, Better, and More Joined Up is an important phrase in nature conservation. It refers to how we should build our nature reserve recovery network. Nature reserves need to be bigger in size and be connected in a way that allows wildlife to move between them (more joined up). There is a lot of agreement about this. The Better is slightly more complicated. Better can refer to people managing nature better or it can refer to nature working better. Both are important for conservation, but it is ‘nature working better’ that is the rewilding way.
Before humans’ recent evolution and colonisation of the world, nature created and maintained the diversity of life (all living plants & animals) on Earth very effectively. It did and does this through evolutionary and ecological processes- evolutionary processes create new species and ecological processes help maintain the diversity of life through the interactions of plants, animals, and their environment (e.g. pollination and predation).
Humans are changing and breaking down these processes by converting diverse wild lands into more uniform agricultural land, killing off species, introducing non-native species, and changing the climate. Nature only needs management when evolutionary and ecological processes are not working. Rewilding asks: how do we get as many of these natural processes working again as soon as possible and so reduce the need for management?
The first step is bigger and more joined up space for nature. Then, as far as possible, we want to recover nature’s complexity by putting back the plants and animals that have been lost. We need to help the return of all the different species that had different roles within the ecosystem. We need beavers because they build dams, that create wetlands that are home to so many plants and animals. We need wild boar to root up the vegetation and soil to reset succession and create new space for early colonisers to live. We need big herbivores to graze and browse the vegetation to increase the diversity of habitat. We need big predators to move those herbivores around and make sure their numbers vary over the years to increase the diversity of habitat again. The animals described here are known as ‘ecosystem engineers’ and ‘keystone’ species because of the important roles they play in creating space for other plants and animals.
Nature is a complex system of interacting parts, and it is more stable and more resilient to change the more diverse and complex it is. To have all the species needed in the ecosystem you need big and well-connected spaces. This won’t always be possible but that is the ambition! But all wild space is important for creating a home for nature, providing benefits to people, and connecting people and nature.
A framework for understanding what rewilding is (in Britain)
There is still plenty of discussion about what rewilding means. Like many words that describe how people interact with nature (e.g. agriculture and conservation), rewilding doesn’t have a single method of implementation. This framework attempts to provide a pragmatic description of what rewilding is and isn’t, based on rewilding in Britain. It is essentially exploring what rewilding projects have in common while allowing each project to be unique to the place, nature and people involved.