Efforts to alleviate the worsening biodiversity crisis in England – one of the most nature depleted countries in the world – are being curtailed with the emergence of a unique “domesticated” form of rewilding, researchers have said.
Rewilding projects are springing up across the UK, offering a form of conservation in which ecosystems are supposedly left alone to naturally regenerate, thereby restoring landscapes degraded by human activity.
But researchers have found rewilding projects in England occur on a smaller scale compared to other parts of the world, and therefore require a greater level of human intervention. This in turn leaves less scope for plants and animals to behave without human influence.
Dr Virginia Thomas, from the University of Exeter, examined two English rewilding sites – the Avalon Marshes in the Somerset Levels and Wild Ennerdale in the Lake District – interviewing those involved in their care and development as well as experts from outside the projects.
She said she found plans to reintroduce large carnivores remain largely absent in England as part of attempts to make rewilding appear safer and less threatening to those who will be most affected by it, such as farmers and landowners.
As a result, the intention to increase biodiversity through rewilding “is somewhat curtailed”.
Dr Thomas said: “In England we’re seeing a ‘domestication’ of rewilding. It is being adapted to exist alongside people, compared to other countries where it involves less human intervention, in order to make it less culturally challenging and more palatable.”
At the Avalon Marshes, intensive agriculture and peat production has been replaced with a mosaic of wildlife habitats alongside farmed land.
At Wild Ennerdale, intensive sheep farming has been largely replaced by less intensive cattle grazing, while the commercial Sitka spruce plantation is being replaced by the regeneration of native deciduous woodland.
Dr Thomas said: “Rewilding in England is somewhat abridged – its aim of restoring ecological function can be fulfilled to some extent but it is limited by the availability of species and it will not be able to fully restore ecological functioning unless and until all ecological niches are filled.”
But speaking to The Independent, she said despite some shortcomings, “the unique form of rewilding in England is an opportunity to achieve environmental gains while not excluding people and their livelihoods from the land”.
In Spain, the return of wolves which have been granted new protections has caused some controversy, but also many communities are actively learning how to live alongside these large predators.
Asked if the UK could learn from this process, Dr Thomas said the Spanish experience shows that greater levels of rewilding were “theoretically possible and we should also learn lessons about how to deal with any potential conflicts”.
But she noted that while wolves have been able to “auto-rewild” in Spain by migrating and recolonising former strongholds, the same process would not be possible in Britain.
“Reintroducing wolves would take a conscious and deliberate effort which would be highly controversial in the face of public concern,” she said.
“The usual approach in such cases is to maintain the status quo (no wolves), so despite whatever lessons we could learn, I don’t see wolves being reintroduced into England any time soon. In fact that’s a significant factor in my claim that rewilding in England is being domesticated – the reintroduction of wolves isn’t even being discussed in any serious way.”
Farmers and land managers interviewed as part of the research argued strongly for continued management of England’s countryside to conserve heritage and cultural landscapes, protect biodiversity, maintain rural livelihoods and communities, and assist in providing national food self- sufficiency, thereby contributing to food security.
They said extensive farming, involving some human intervention in the landscape, as opposed to the more “hands off approach” of rewilding, could achieve these aims.
Dr Thomas said: “In order for rewilding to make any meaningful contribution to conservation in England, it is necessary for it to be accepted by communities. The modifications in this country to some of rewilding’s more radical and contentious proposals may allow it to make a greater contribution to conservation than if those involved stuck to a stricter interpretation of rewilding.”
The research is published in the journal Environmental Values.