Rewilding — what’s it all about?

There has been a lot of publicity about the concept of ‘rewilding’.  And I have read quite a lot of what has been written about it.  But I am still a bit confused about the real purpose of it. Is it just a publicity stunt? Is it just another fund raising stunt, or is it really a project with real conservation values? And what does it really mean?

Britain is an island where there has been more than 5000 years of serious anthropogenic messing around with the environment. It is probable that over 5000 years ago much of the British Isles were covered in  some sort of temperate rainforest. But ever since humans arrived, and long before Britain became an island, humans have been tampering with the natural environment, exterminating species, introducing others. In fact, no one can possibly know what a ‘wild’ Britain would actually look like.  We can be pretty certain of some facts. Just letting things go ‘wild’ would inevitably mean lots of species would disappear – go extinct. A large part of the current fauna and flora of Britain is dependent on man-made or at least man-modified habitats. So what really is the point of re-wilding? Surely it is better to use what limited resources that are available for conserving what we actually have? And if we really want the world to have some truly wild places, why not conserve those that still exist? The wildernesses of Siberia, the Amazon and Congo rainforests. All of this is a lot easier, and a lot cheaper than a speculative experiment of ‘rewilding bits of Britain.

I would emphasize, that apart from a few big, charismatic species, like wolves and bears, we are still remarkably ignorant about the faunal and floral history of the British Isles, and also when we imagine a re-wilded nature, do we want one that is isolated from Europe, or one that had a land bridge – a Brexit wildlife or a Euro-wildlife?  Britain, afterall became isolted after humans had started mucking around with the environment — as studies in Doggerland have shown. To me this whole idea of rewilding seems to be flawed, and being proposed by  those who have little or no real understanding of biogeography or the historical aspects of the wildlife of Britain, or the anthropogenic changes that have taken place over the millennia.  To me, one thing is pretty clear, just letting nature take its course, is not really an option. A few invasive species will tend to dominate; biodiversity will be lost, species diversity will decline, and while after a few centuries, it might all resolve itself, I am not sure it’s worth the risk.  Finally, we should always remember, nature conservation, like most things in life, is subject to fashion. What is fashionable now, and even justified by science, will be seen as a passing fad one day.

It would be really interesting to see what a cost-benefit-analysis would make of it. But not just financially. Species. Biodiversity. landscape. Everything. If anyone reads this, I would welcome comments, ideas etc.

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