by Tim Bonner

The concept of rewilding has generated acres of newsprint and much concern in those rural communities where projects have been proposed. It was initially defined as a complete withdrawal of human management to allow natural processes to create wilderness on a landscape scale.

In those areas where the countryside is currently managed, and in the UK that essentially means everywhere, such a proposal unsurprisingly upset those people whose livelihood and communities rely on the management of the land. The idea of clearing farmers and others from the countryside and at best offering them a future in the unproven (some would say fictional) business of eco-tourism did not go down a storm. Rewilding projects which attempted to impose this radical new idea on farming communities have therefore been roundly rejected, which has meant that most rewilding is being done by large private and institutional land owners who are driven by a mixture of economic, environmental and reputational factors. A recent trend has been the purchase of Scottish estates by companies and wealthy businessmen with a commitment to rewilding them. Cynics among us might suggest that such virtue signalling might salve the conscience of the individuals involved, but it does not reduce the environmental impact of the industries and businesses that create their wealth.

For all these reasons I have been pointing for several years that the language of rewilding has become toxic in many rural communities and that both its name and its practice needed to change to offer a future for farming and land-based businesses. Thus far there has been resistance to changing the name which is clearly an expensively created and attractive brand to those who are not being personally effected by it.

What the word means is, however, changing radically for at least some of those promoting rewilding projects. For instance the group Rewilding Europe is promoting a project in Glen Affric in the highlands which seems to have addressed the negative perception of rewilding by not proposing to do rewilding in the way that it has been understood. Instead its plans include planting trees, enhancing river corridors, restoring peat bogs and creating nature-friendly farming practices. All of these are laudable aims, but it  is difficult not to comment that many of them are an awful long way from the original definition of rewilding as the removal of management and the replacement with natural processes. In fact a spokesman has addressed that point directly saying: “Rewilding is a word that people define differently. For some people, it’s wolves and bears. For Trees for Life, it’s about the land, and what it can support…whether it’s opportunities for businesses and job creation, or natural capital and the ability to monetise that”.

So perhaps the answer to the rewilding conundrum is not to rename it, but to completely redefine it as nature friendly farming and land management with the interests of the rural economy and community at its heart. More than that it seems to me that the Trees for Life definition of rewilding would include shoots, fisheries and many other activities which benefit nature, local communities and the rural economy.

Perhaps rather than challenge the ludicrous extremes of rewilding with its obsession with releasing ‘charismatic’ species and attacking tradition land use, we should just do what the entire conservation movement is doing and redefine our own land management practices. We are all rewilders now.

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