Rewilding—returning the land to a ‘wilder’, or more ‘natural’ state by restoring as many lost species and natural processes as possible. This, unsurprisingly, often pits conservationists against farmers and other landowners. The controversy surrounding the idea and the vested interests of landowners have meant that progress towards rewilding has been slow.
The momentum might be shifting, though. Last week saw two wins for rewilding in the UK. Firstly, after over a year of dithering, the Scottish government has finally made a decision on the legal status of the wild beaver populations of Argyll and Tayside. Beavers have been living in the rivers and lochs of this area since at least 2006. The origin of these populations is a mystery, but it seems likely that there were a series of intentional yet illegal releases of these animals in the area, along with escapes from private parks. This thriving population has rather overshadowed the modest trial release of beavers into Knapdale.
Up until now, the government has refused to provide an answer as to the legal status of the wild individuals. This has led to some landowners shooting beavers and public outcry in response—particularly when it became apparent that some of those killed were pregnant or feeding young and others would have died slowly. Last week it was announced that the beaver would be designated as a native British species and granted protected status. This means that the beaver is officially the first formal reintroduction of a mammal to the UK, which is a great cause for celebration.
The other rewilding win grabbed fewer headlines but is just as significant. Andrea Leadsom has announced that £15 million has been pledged to ‘natural flood management, slowing the flow, and looking at ways to work with the contours of our environment’. However, techniques that can be considered rewilding will also have the beneficial effect of reducing flooding. This includes recreating wetlands and peatland, tree planting, and changes to farming practices—such as reducing stocking densities. Combined, these techniques would allow water to penetrate the soil and slow water runoff from uplands. This will not only reduce flooding but also create new wildlife habitats. It may even begin to answer the decades-old call that the grouse moors of the uplands, managed to keep the land bare, worsen flooding in towns downstream.
For centuries, government policy has favoured economics over the environment, and anything ‘wild’—from beavers to forests—has been seen as the enemy of growth and progress. Animals have been controlled and forests felled to favour farming and shooting estates. Are these rewilding decisions part of a growing realisation, among policy-makers, that working with nature can make economic and social sense as well as environmental sense? We can cautiously hope so.
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons