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Rewilding revolution requires research and policy to respond

The goals and methods of conservation are being transformed, throwing up controversy and difficult questions in the process, says Nathalie Pettorelli.

In the Knepp Castle Estate in West Sussex, cattle, ponies, pigs and deer have roamed free since 2001, grazing and grubbing and in the process creating a rich patchwork of habitat for wildlife. On the remote Knoydart peninsula in north-west Scotland, thousands of pine, birch, rowan and other trees have been planted by hand over the past 30 years. In Wales, pine martens are breeding after being reintroduced from Scotland in 2015.

These are British examples of rewilding, a transformative approach to conservation and a rapidly developing concept. Broadly, rewilding involves repairing or refurbishing an ecosystem by measures such as introducing selected species. The goal is to return an area back to the wild, as a self-sustaining ecosystem, using minimal intervention, and with an emphasis on processes rather than the end result.

Many have hailed rewilding as a potentially cost-effective way to bring species and ecological processes back to degraded environments, and to enhance ecosystem services. Reintroducing beavers to rivers, for example, can reduce flooding.

The momentum behind rewilding is growing, both in science and policy. In 2017, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Commission on Ecosystem Management launched a taskforce on rewilding; the use of the term in the scientific literature has grown quickly over the past few years; the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology produced a note for parliament in 2016; and the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee discussed rewilding during its inquiry on the future of the natural environment after the EU referendum.

At the same time, rewilding is controversial. There are doubts about the extent to which ecological processes can be restored in landscapes dominated by human activity. There are also challenges relating to the role of humans in rewilded landscapes and issues linked to how rewilding projects affect the legal, management and cultural categorisations and frameworks for species and lands.

Critics also point to the difficulty of evaluating the costs and benefits of rewilding initiatives, and a lack of consensus on how to monitor and assess these projects. What research there is suggests that in some circumstances rewilding can enhance ecosystem services, but the evidence base is still thin, with very few case studies.

This level of uncertainty and controversy is typical of a paradigm shift in progress. Rewilding indeed challenges the status quo in conservation, forcing us to recognise that biological systems are dynamic, and moving us away from approaches that focus on preserving or restoring specific historical conditions. It helps us acknowledge that global environmental change is driving some ecosystems far beyond their limits, so that returning to historical benchmarks may not be an option.

Similarly, rewilding forces us to engage in difficult discussions and tackle difficult questions. How do we get more people to coexist with nature? Does conserving global biodiversity inevitably mean excluding people from some areas? What is the wild, and when is it wild enough?

The rewilding revolution in conservation is just beginning, and a number of things need to happen for it to deliver on its potential. If the UK is to see support for large-scale, publicly funded rewilding projects, the science supporting the choice for, and implementation of a particular approach in a given area needs to be more robust, more consensual and more interdisciplinary.

Any rewilding project is ultimately underpinned by a number of assumptions. If these are not met or are badly constructed, it could lead to damaging outcomes for nature and people. That said, the science of environmental management is always uncertain. With appropriate risk-management strategies in place, rewilding approaches can be expected to perform well despite scientific uncertainty.

We live in a time of unprecedented environmental change, and that requires an inclusive, scientifically rooted discussion on rewilding. Whoever is concerned with wildlife management cannot afford to ignore the rewilding debate and miss potential opportunities to aid biodiversity.

Conservation, in the UK and globally, must broaden its focus from preserving individual species in specific locations to seeking to enhance ecosystem health and processes, and finding pragmatic ways to mitigate the degradation of biodiversity and ecosystem services. The rise of rewilding is a sign that new approaches are vital to conserve biodiversity and maintain ecosystem services under increasingly unpredictable global conditions, as traditional approaches on their own are unfit for the challenges ahead. 

Nathalie Pettorelli is a senior research fellow at the Zoological Society of London’s Institute of Zoology and an editor of the newly published book Rewilding (Cambridge University Press, 2019).

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This article also appeared in Research Fortnight