A walk on the wild side: Rewilding Britain’s landscapes with large herbivores

By: Filipa Soares

Conservation is at a crossroads. Despite increasing efforts worldwide aimed at halting or preventing the extinction of animal and plant species, many reports and scientific studies paint alarming pictures of rocketing extinction rates, dwindling population sizes and habitat loss. The era of the sixth mass extinction is under way, the first for which humankind is deemed responsible. In response to these ‘doom and gloom’ scenarios, a growing number of ecologists and conservationists has emphasised the need for innovative, proactive and experimental approaches to nature conservation. Rewilding, which was the focus of my PhD thesis in environmental geography, is one such approach.

The term rewilding was first coined in the late 1980s/early 1990s by the environmentalist Dave Foreman, founder of the North American NGO Wildlands Network (former Wildlands Project). It was first defined as the restoration of threatened ecosystems and carnivores through the creation of core, connected areas (‘cores, corridors and carnivores’). Its popularity has since grown, most significantly over the past two decades—since 2021 there is even a World Rewilding Day—and it has been applied to different contexts and practices, with no single definition.

Despite the various meanings that the term has taken on, rewilding is broadly understood as the large-scale restoration of self-sustaining, dynamic and functional ecosystems that require minimum or no human intervention in the long term. It is an open-ended, future-oriented approach that seeks to reinstate natural processes, allowing them to shape the landscape. Contrary to more conventional approaches to conservation, rewilding encompasses working with, rather than against, ecological processes and rhythms.

In Europe, there has been a growing number of projects under the umbrella of rewilding. At a continental scale, these have been largely driven by the Dutch NGO Rewilding Europe, created in 2011, which has seized the opportunities presented by the farmland abandonment in remote, marginal regions (Figure 1) and the EU expansion to Eastern and Central Europe in 2004. In Britain, where farmland abandonment is yet uncommon, rewilding efforts have been led by private and cooperative initiatives and, since 2015, by the charity Rewilding Britain.

Figure 1: Hotspots of farmland abandonment and rewilding in Europe (Navarro & Pereira 2012)

The emphasis of the European version of rewilding has been on enabling connectivity and naturalistic grazing through the restoration of (semi-)wild large herbivores (e.g., cattle, horses, wild boar, beavers, bison, etc). These are keystone species: through their selective grazing and browsing, trampling and seed dispersal, they influence both directly and indirectly the structure, dynamics and composition of ecological communities. As agents of disturbance, herbivores also provide a cost-effective solution to minimise the risks of potentially catastrophic disturbances, such as wildfires and floods.

Disturbances are temporary events that disrupt ecologies and cause change in ecosystems relations. Their cumulative effects over space and time are called disturbance regimes. Inspired by the work of the anthropologist Anna Tsing, I understand disturbances as both ecological and sociocultural processes. Herbivory thus includes not only a trophic interaction (herbivore-plant), but also broader ecological relations, the economic relations generated through markets for the animals and their produce, management practices and materials, etc.

With these considerations in mind, my research explored the implications of rewilding for the governance of forest disturbance regimes in the UK, particularly through the use of large herbivores (wild deer and free-roaming ponies, cattle and pigs). It focused on the extent to which the governance of disturbances through rewilding differs from prevalent modes of understanding, knowing and governing life, attending also to the different and sometimes conflicting social, economic and cultural values associated with working with nature and unpredictability.

It drew on archival and ethnographic research conducted between 2015-2016 in three sites (Figure 2): 1) the New Forest (Hampshire, England), a public forest estate and national park with a medieval system of common rights that has been considered analogous to the ecological conditions and processes suggested as rewilding benchmarks in Europe; 2) Knepp (Sussex, England), a private estate whose owners started a rewilding project in 2001, after several decades of intensive dairy farming; 3) Dundreggan (Glenmoriston, Scotland), a former deer stalking estate bought by the rewilding NGO Trees for Life in 2008.

Figure 2: Location of the three study sites
(Map data: Google, GeoBasis-DE/BKG)

My analysis explored the temporalities and synergies between cultural and ecological disturbances, demonstrating how the former have ecological implications and vice versa. The post-war socioeconomic changes in the New Forest (urban-to-rural migration, declining pastoral economy, growing recreational demands) provide an interesting example. One of the consequences was that the number of ponies (Figure 3) has grown since the mid-1960s despite the low market prices and poor returns, for sociocultural reasons. Besides the ecological threats of overgrazing, which is an extremely contentious issue, as non-ruminants, ponies make great demands on the vegetation, requiring more controlled burning to stimulate its regeneration.

Figure 3: New Forest ponies grazing. Source: Author’s personal archive.

Burning, however, is controversial: for visitors it does not fit their ‘idealized landscape’; commoners want more and bigger areas burnt for the animals; conservationists press for larger rotation and smaller areas for ecological reasons. Controversies such as this have been sparked by the shifts mentioned before. The new actors that came into play often have competing demands and ideas of how the land should be used and managed (‘worked’), and ultimately what it should look like.

Attending to disturbances thus allows us to understand the entangled more-than-human histories through which ‘patchy’ landscapes are made and remade. Rewilded landscapes, particularly European, are not a mere result of ecological processes nor of historical management only. They are ‘working landscapes’, ‘worked’ collaboratively by various humans and nonhumans, continuing or reinventing traditional practices. These landscapes result from specific spatio-temporal configurations outside of which they cannot be analysed nor understood. They have a multispecies history that ultimately shapes what rewilding means in practice.

Rewilding often requires a trade-off between practicality and the rewilding ideal. Despite a discursive openness to unpredictability, there are constraints as to how to respond (e.g., legislation, cultural perceptions, etc.), which are shaped by complex disturbance histories. Noticing these can offer a guide to possibilities of ‘staying with the trouble’ in an increasingly troubling and uncertain world.

Filipa Soares is an environmental anthropologist and cultural geographer interested in the politics of wildlife conservation and human-nonhuman relationships. She holds a PhD in Environmental Geography (University of Oxford) and a BA and MA in Anthropology (NOVA-FCSH). Filipa is now a researcher at ICS-ULisboa in the project People&Fire.


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