Rewilding – the conservation approach that dare not speak its name

In today’s blog, Virgina Thomas introduces her just-published paper in Environmental Values, ‘Domesticating rewilding: interpreting rewilding in England’s green and pleasant land’

It’s well known that the word ‘rewilding’ polarises views. To some ‘the R word’ is ‘toxic’, ‘threatening’ and ‘alienating’. For others, it has a ‘pizzazz’ which has ‘caught the popular imagination’ and creates a ‘positive’ and hopeful narrative about the future for conservation and ecosystems. 

This polarising effect has led some conservation practitioners to avoid the word, even if their work could theoretically be described as rewilding (although the definition of rewilding is, admittedly, a wide umbrella). Meanwhile others have embraced it, keen to (re)brand their projects as rewilding even if their claim to be rewilding in practice is somewhat tenuous (although again the broad definition of rewilding comes into play here), or if the project had previously simply been styled ecological restoration. 

In 2018, when I started the research on which my paper ‘Domesticating rewilding: interpreting rewilding in England’s green and pleasant land’ is based, only three projects were listed on the website of Rewilding Britain as cases of rewilding in England: Knepp Wildland (famously written about by Isabell Tree in Wilding), the River Wandle, and Wild Ennerdale. Meanwhile, only Knepp Wildland and Wild Ennerdale were listed on Rewilding Europe’s website. I should note here that there were, and are, other projects listed in Wales and, particularly, Scotland, but the focus of my project was specifically on England, first because the landscapes of the nations that make up Britain are highly distinct from each other and, secondly, because the idea of ‘the English landscape’ exists so powerfully in the public imagination (see Figure 1). It should also be noted that, even in 2018, none of the projects listed used ‘rewilding’ in their title, preferring the less complicated ‘wild’, although, given their association with Rewilding Britain and Rewilding Europe, it seems reasonable to conclude that they aligned themselves with the principles and practice of rewilding. 

Figure 1. Ennerdale Water in Wild Ennerdale; despite being a rewilding project, and potentially changing the landscape radically, Wild Ennerdale is in the Lake District National Park, which holds some of England’s most iconic landscapes. 

Three years later, in 2021, a search of those two websites reveals a proliferation of English ‘rewilding’ projects, with seven listed by Rewilding Europe and no fewer than twenty six by Rewilding Britain[1]. All except one of the sites listed by Rewilding Europe are also listed by Rewilding Britain, meaning that in total there are 27 rewilding projects listed across the two sites. Now, here’s the clincher – not a single one of them uses the term rewilding in its title. Why is the term rewilding not being used to name ‘rewilding’ projects in England? A survey of the Rewilding Europe website shows that the term is used in Scotland, and across Europe, but not in England, at least not for projects. Rewilding Britain’s website illustrates that the term is used to identify rewilding networks[2], but projects themselves overwhelmingly prefer to identify themselves by their location or through the terms wild or wilder (see Figure 2). 

Figure 2. Names of English rewilding projects which identify via their location or the terms ‘wild’ or ‘wilder’. No projects use the term rewilding in their title. (Totals sum to > 100% as some projects use a combination of these identifiers.)

In my article I suggest that this avoidance of the term is linked to the ‘domestication’ of rewilding in England i.e. ‘rewilding is being adapted to exist alongside people in England, as compared to other countries where it has lower tolerance for human intervention and a tendency to exclude humans. This adaptation includes the avoidance of the term rewilding for exactly the reasons mentioned earlier – it can be threatening and alienating to people, especially landowners, and this is not the impression that rewilding in England wishes to convey as it tries to adapt itself to be inclusive of humans and compatible with other land uses. The Avalon Marshes, one of the field sites I studied (see Figure 3), is an excellent example of this. The Avalon Marshes does not describe itself as rewilding and, despite the proliferation of other projects to do so, has not joined the Rewilding Britain network. This is despite the Avalon Marshes being a large scale conservation project, undertaking significant ecosystem and habitat restoration, increasing biodiversity, reducing levels of human intervention (although human management does still occur), and increasing levels of non-human autonomy (to the extent that birds are effecting ‘auto-rewilding’ in the area). Indeed, external commentators (like MacdonaldMoss and Taylordo describe the Avalon Marshes as rewilding, but it is still reluctant to self-identify that way. This is, at least in part,[3] because the Avalon Marshes is highly inclusive of people, welcoming visitors, especially bird watchers, and continuing productive farming – there are concerns that branding the Avalon Marshes as a rewilding project might imply a shift away from this inclusive approach. 

 

Figure 3. View towards the Avalon Marshes from Glastonbury Tor illustrating the cultural landscape which the Avalon Marshes is adapting itself to sit alongside.

This avoidance of self-identification as rewilding is just one of several ways that rewilding in England is being domesticated. The factors listed above as potentially qualifying the Avalon Marshes as a rewilding project (being large scale, conducting ecological restoration, increasing biodiversity, reducing human intervention and increasing natural autonomy) all occur within rewilding projects in England but in a somewhat moderated form as opposed to rewilding in other countries, even as compared to Scotland. These modifications are set out in Table 1 and I discuss them in detail in my article ‘Domesticating rewilding: interpreting rewilding in England’s green and pleasant land’. I’d welcome your thoughts in the comments below about the state of rewilding in England, how it might be adapting in practice, and how the language we use about rewilding might be different in the English context. 

Factor relating to rewildingAdaptation in cases of English rewilding
Self-identification as rewildingRewilding in England is increasingly self-identifying as ‘wilding’ rather than using the term ‘rewilding’ in project titles, although rewilding will often appear in project descriptions and its concepts are applied in practice.
Large scaleRewilding operates at a smaller scale in England than it does in Scotland, continental Europe and the continents of North and South America. 
Increase in biodiversityRewilding in England aims to increase biodiversity but does so within certain limits, most notably without (re)introducing some mega-fauna species, particularly the large carnivores but also large herbivores and omnivores. 
Restoration of ecological functioningRestoration of ecological functioning is a goal of rewilding in England but is restricted to a certain extent by the inability to (re)introduce certain species, the result of this being that not all trophic niches are filled which in turn affects trophic cascades and other ecosystem functions.  
Reduction of human interventionThe reduction of human intervention is an ambition of rewilding in England but only up to a point, it being neither practicable nor acceptable to completely withdraw human management of landscapes (due in part to the way in which other rewilding factors, namely increase in biodiversity and restoration of ecological functioning, are compromised in the English context). 
Increase in natural autonomyWhile the increase of natural autonomy is an aspiration of rewilding in England this is somewhat limited by the requirement for some level of human intervention which, by definition, indeed by design, impinges on natural autonomy. 
Table 1. Adaptations to rewilding in England as part of its domestication.   

[1] Sites listed on website of Rewilding Britain: Benshaw Moor, Broughton Sanctuary, Elmore Court Estate, Geltsdale Farm, Ingleborough National Nature Reserve, Kingsdale Head, Knepp Castle Estate, Lowther Estate, Pirbright Ranges, Purbeck Heaths National Nature Reserve, RSPB Geltsdale, RSPB Haweswater, Sheepdrove Organic Farm, Steart Marshes, Sunart Fields, Upcott Grange Farm, Wallasea Island, West Acre, Wicken FenWild EnnerdaleWild Ken Hill, Wild Packington, Wild Somerleyton, Wilder Blean, Wilder Doddington. NB The River Wandle is no longer listed, this is because Rewilding Britain overhauled its website in 2020 and updated the examples of rewilding which it listed, including only those had joined its new rewilding network. The River Wande has not yet joined the network although it may do so in the near future.

Sites listed on website of Rewilding Europe: A Hop of Hope, Knepp Wildland, Wallasea Island Wild Coast Project, Wicken Fen Vision, Wild Ennerdale, Wild Ken Hill, Wilder Blean

Sites in italics are those listed on both sites, despite minor variations in the names used between listings. 

[2] Rewilding networks listed on the website of Rewilding Britain: Cornwall Rewilding Network, Devon Rewilding Network, Gloucestershire Rewilding Network, North East Rewilding Network, Rewilding Sussex, Somerset Rewilding Network, Wiltshire Rewilding Network, and Yorkshire Rewilding Network.

[3] I should note that there are other reasons for the Avalon Marshes not using the term rewilding, not least that the project was named before rewilding became popular as a term. 


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