Rewilding the UK
by Neil Kitching
I am donating one third of the profits from my book “Carbon Choices” to rewilding projects. In this blog I explain why I support rewilding.
Humans have devastated nature – on land, in the sea, in the soil, in the air. We have converted land to grow crops, introduced vast numbers of grazing animals, industrialised fishing, quarried and mined, built roads and expanded our cities, over hunted, polluted rivers and enabled invasive species to spread. This destruction was initiated in western countries and has slowly spread around the world.
The UK may be a ‘green and pleasant land’ but it has suffered one of the worst losses of biodiversity and natural habitat in the world. Nature has been eliminated or pushed into isolated ‘islands’ of protected nature reserves, but even many of these are under threat from invasive species. Meanwhile most of our National Parks are simply managed landscapes that preserve sheep grazing or grouse shooting. Both tend to create monocultures (grass and heather). We have lost 90% of our wetlands and virtually all of our native tree cover – but the public has no awareness of this. Our huge consumption of resources is quietly devastating other parts of the world. For example, palm oil from the tropical rainforests, mining for minerals, and growing water intensive cotton in drought prone regions.
I believe that we have a moral duty to not just protect our remaining wildlife but to support its recovery. Rewilding has no precise definition. It is a movement to re-establish land for nature using natural processes. This is difficult in countries like the UK, as just abandoning the land to nature is more likely to favour invasive species which by their nature tend to spread fast. So, humans might need to interfere to support regeneration favouring native wildlife.
Properly functioning ecosystems include heavy grazers and large predators, both of which have been hunted to extinction in the UK. Heavy grazers are required to spread nutrients and to churn up the ground which enables new micro habitats for plants to colonise. They can create natural clearings, preventing trees from dominating the landscape. Large predators are needed to keep the number of grazers under control which otherwise prevent saplings from maturing.
So, just planting trees, even native ones, is not true rewilding. We need to restore natural ecosystems with predators, a mix of grazers (Highland cattle, boar, bison) and restore previously persecuted creatures. Beavers create dams that flood large areas and create a mosaic of habitats for fish and amphibians which birds then feed on. Pine martins can catch grey squirrels, helping to reduce their invasive spread, whilst the lighter and nimbler native red squirrels can escape in the tree canopy. In Scotland ospreys returned of their own accord, whilst red kites and white tailed eagles have been successfully reintroduced. Reintroducing larger ground based predators like lynx, bear and wolf are clearly more controversial (particularly with sheep farmers).
Our rivers have been extensively tamed and need to be rewilded too. The uplands have been drained creating fast run off of storm water full of peat and silt. Dams and weirs act as a barrier to migrating fish. Farmers have deepened and canalised rivers causing faster flows and flooding downstream. Rivers need meanders to slow the flow down and to create a variety of habitats for fish – fallen trees create pools, rapids and eddies. Trees provide shade which prevents rivers becoming too warm for Atlantic salmon, whilst their leaves add nutrients to the water.
Our seas urgently need protection too. Out of sight, out of mind has been the story here. Industrial scale fishing has devastated fish stocks whilst nets dragged along the seabed cause vast damage. If we protect and restore habitats like seagrass, then they can become a nursery for young fish. These quickly spread beyond the boundaries of the protected area and can create sustainable fish stocks – good for humans and wildlife.
We rely on nature to protect our soils, to ensure clean drinking water, to combat air pollution and to prevent flooding. Access to nature is also good for our physical and mental health. Protecting nature often has knock on beneficial impacts. For example, the overuse of insecticides against ‘pests’ also destroys bees and moths which are essential to pollinate flowers, fruits and our crops. Much of the UK is low productivity farmland, reliant on subsidies from the taxpayer to survive and producing relatively little food. We can choose to refocus many of these subsidies to support rewilding.
A rewilded Britain will create new and different jobs – grants for diversification and to help people to retrain may be required. There will be direct jobs to create and manage rewilded spaces. Rewilding will boost the tourism industry both from a scenery perspective and for wildlife watching tours. There will be more opportunities for photography, cycling, walking, canoeing and bird watching.
And from a climate perspective; new trees store carbon, rewilding can reduce and reverse the carbon loss from peatlands and soils, whilst reduced sheep numbers will cut methane emissions.
In recent years I have supported:
- Scotland: the Big Picture – their vision is to create a vast network of rewilded land and water across Scotland for wildlife and people.
- Scottish Wildlife Trust – aims to restore biodiversity, including a network of reserves, for example, through their ‘restoration’ appeal.
- John Muir Trust – a UK charity that protects and restores tracts of wild land including Ben Nevis and Helvellyn.
- Rainforest Trust – a global charity that creates rainforest reserves for communities and nature.
Please follow the links if you would like to support any of these good causes.
If you have enjoyed this blog, please share with others on social media. You might also enjoy “Carbon Choices” on the common-sense solutions to our climate and nature crises. Available direct from me or from Amazon. I am donating one third of profits to rewilding projects. I am also available to give presentations on ‘rewilding’ or on common-sense solutions to our climate crisis.
Neil Kitching is a geographer and energy specialist from Scotland. He has published Carbon Choices on the common-sense solutions to our climate and nature crises. Neil works for a public sector agency promoting the opportunities for business to benefit from low carbon heating and water technologies.