Rewilding: a utopian vision?

Up til now, I haven’t done much thinking about the idea of rewilding. The idea of returning large swathes of land to a state of wilderness, and reintroducing apex predators to help manage that biodiversity, instinctively appeals to me. I love the thought that lynx may, one day, roam free in Britain. That we may, one day, have wild spaces which nature manages, rather than man. That the balance between humans and wildlife is shifted to a more equitable arrangement. But is it too impractical to ever take place?

Last week I heard a fascinating talk from Peter Smith, one of the founders of the Wildwood Trust, and a keen proponent of the idea of rewilding. The talk is available to view on YouTube. It’s long, but I urge you to watch it.

I won’t try to repeat all his points here – you can listen to them for yourself. Instead, I’ll just share some of the things that struck me from his talk.

  1. Focus on the economic argument: conservationists are unlikely to convince politicians, businesses or even the general population about such a radical idea as rewilding by focusing on the ecological benefits. Peter Smith’s talk had a large focus on the economic case for rewilding. For example, he argues that rewilding would more than pay for itself through the flood prevention benefits it would provide.
  2. Reintroducing some species will lead to benefits for many others. For example, beavers create the right sort of habitats for a whole range of species, including water voles, otters, molluscs and bats. Reintroducing pine martens could help red squirrels. And Surrey would be a good place to reintroduce pine martens, as it has the right sort of habitat – lots of well connected woodlands.
  3. There is enough space: rewilding will require large areas of land. On a crowded island like ours, that can seem completely unfeasible. But looking into our land use reveals potential. In England, more land area is used for golf courses than for homes. And, throughout the UK, much of the land that is being farmed is unproductive land that would never be farmed if it weren’t for the perverse incentives of subsidies. Peter Smith argues that we don’t need to farm that land – we can feed ourselves without it.

He also presents some interesting ideas on how the taxation system needs to move away from taxing income to taxing land, to bring an end to a system that incentivises purchase of machinery rather than hiring of labour.

Rewilding is a wonderful, visionary idea. But will it ever come to pass? The trouble, as Peter Smith admits, is that the people who benefit from the current system, and have most to lose from the changes needed to bring about rewilding at a large scale, are the people with the most power. A massive proportion of our land is in the hands of a small number of people who make a large amount of money from the status quo.

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