I took a trip last week to the Hay Festival with my supervisor Dr. Sophie Wynne-Jones of Bangor University, and trustee of the Cambrian Wildwood group, who was participating in a panel debate on rewwilding, along with Minette Batters, deputy president of the NFU, and Julia Aglionby, Executive Director of the Foundation for Common land.
Left to Right: Julia Aglionby, Sophie Wynne-Jones, Minette Batters, Rob Yorke
Chaired by independent rural commentator Rob Yorke, about 100 people turned up to listen and ask questions. In his introduction, Rob showed he has an in-depth understanding of the topic, and began by proposing two variants of rewilding- passive, as in taking a step back and letting nature run its course, and active, including such things as herbivore and carnivore re-introductions, and asked the panelists how important they felt it is to have an agreed definition. Sophie felt it was not so important and the greater issue currently was to build bridges and make connections with all stakeholders; Julia felt that however it was defined, rewilding would need management in some shape or form: farming is a long-term activity and land cannot just be abandoned. One problem already occurring in some areas is the rapid spread of bracken, a result of reduced sheep grazing and milder winters. Minette later argued this is bad for climate change since the build-up and subsequent rotting of such vegetation releases a lot of methane. Is this what we mean- or wish for- when we say “rewilding” ?
Rob suggested that we might conceive of scales or degrees of rewilding- with something akin to Yosemite in its early days- when all the native peoples were forcibly removed in order to make room for “wild nature”- at one end of the spectrum, and something much more managed perhaps at the other, though it was not made clear what this might be, though Juila did make the comment that “wilderness is in the eye of the beholder”.
Rob briskly moved the discussion on, asking whether rewilding had been used at times more as a weapon against existing land use and users than as a tool- at this point, a farmer in the audience piped up to assert that as farmers “we love our farm and we love the countryside”. Rob again pointed out that the fault line in these discussions is often drawn between those for whom the “wild place” is seen for leisure and those for whom it is their place of work and source of livelihood.
Should production landscapes be focussed in the fertile lowlands, thus allowing the uplands to be for culture, heritage and nature? It was here that clear differences between the panelists emerged: Minette was adamant that it would be disastrous to take stock off the uplands. Farmers are the custodians of the land and we must not allow their skills to be lost by such drastic changes in land use. There is a danger that all this talk of rewilding will alienate farmers and put them off from improving biodiversity on their own farms. James Rebanks’ 2015 book The Shepherd’s Life was referenced, perhaps to provide balance with the bad press brought upon sheep farmers by Monbiot’s laying the blame on them for what he sees as the current “sheepwrecked” state of Britain’s uplands.
It was when the discussion moved onto animal reintroductions that positions became even more entrenched: I was somewhat taken aback by the stridency with which Minette dismissed the idea of carnivore reintroductions: lynx are a danger to man and our animals, she argued, and there is a very good reason they were got rid of. It would be disastrous to bring them back. She had to back-track a bit and extol the virtues of the fine animal that is a lynx when challenged by a member of the audience who asked if, then, it was a generally good policy to deliberately cause the extinctions of animals we don’t like, but I felt she then contradicted her own position by saying, “look what has happened with the badger- their numbers are out of control because they have no predator.”
Isn’t this one of the main arguments for rewilding, I asked? Badgers are not top predators in the same way a lynx would be, and are generally classed as mesopredators, generalists and omnivores which prey on smaller animals like hedgehogs- and are blamed for drastic impacts on the numbers of the latter and other small animals.
Badgers are the center of a long-standing controversy over culling and TB which I have not really looked into and shall not get into here- but this has nothing to do with the issues of threats to sheep and people by the lynx. However, Minette’s response to me was, “What would eat a badger?” which did give me pause for thought and became something of a joke between myself and Sophie on the way home. Further research later that night suggests that badgers do not in fact have many natural predators, being well-adapted for their own defense, and probably would not be the first choice of a lynx looking for its lunch, although badger cubs might be taken by various predators including lynx and eagle. Mesopredator release – the rapid increase in numbers of mesopredators as a result of the elimination of higher carnivores- is a real thing (Prugh et al 2009), but it is unclear that there are good documented examples of this happening with badgers, apart from a controlled experiment in Texas when Cayotes were removed. In this case however “the increase in mesopredators did not lead to the decreased rodent numbers that classic trophic cascade theory would predict” I don’t know why, or if, then, badger populations have increased relative to historical levels.
Much more worrying was Minette’s concern about the danger of lynx to humans or stock: Lynx are a shy animal and pose no real threat to humans, and any increase in sheep take would barely register against the several hundred attacks by domestic dogs each year. These arguments against carnivore re-introductions are common and understandable, and should not be dismissed, but seem to me to be the weakest, and such fears should not be fueled by representatives of the NFU . Far more serious are the concerns raised by Rob about our own duty of care to such animals, which may not survive in any case, or be vulnerable to being hit by traffic.
Another application of rewilding is flood mitigation, through riparian plantings (trees can increase infiltration rates) and re-meandering of rivers as we saw at Pickering on the Study Tour. Minette was also completely opposed to this, arguing that the most fertile land is generally the flood-plains and should be kept for farming; the water should not be “slowed” but sped up through the towns to be got rid of as soon as possible. If only it were so simple…
Sophie was keen to focus on practical examples such as the Pontbren in mid-Wales, which is cited as a a successful case of using trees to help in flood mitigation- however she cautioned against extrapolation from relatively little data and experience which might lead to over-stating the case for what trees in the landscape can achieve, and also made the important point that this was a farmer-lead project not originally connected with flood mitigation at all, but originally driven by using trees and hedgerows to shelter livestock.
An hour was far too short and the conversations continued over drinks afterwards, when I had some interesting discussions with countryside blogger Ben Eagle who also has a nice write-up of the event. Ben had also pointed to the recent policy briefing by Paul Jepson which disentangles some of these debates and shows the way forward for a possible policy framework for rewilding.
A local farmer who was present, a neighbour of Rob’s in the surrounding Black Mountains, also emphasised the crucial importance to farmers of maintaining their role of food producers. Why? Going back to Rob’s question earlier, could not the less fertile upland areas be rewilded, and food produced where more intensive methods can be implemented? Earlier Minette had explained to me that lambs do not stay long in the upland areas, being soon sold to lowland farmers, and sheep farming is highly integrated across the landscape; I am not sure if this really makes the case though. The conversation turned to policy- would farmers not simply do what they are paid to do? Would they not be just as happy to be paid for conservation as to produce food? For me it was something of a revelatory moment when the table went quiet as it seemed all parties present agreed on one thing at least: noone was really sure what the current farming payments are actually supposed to be for.
I have a lot to learn about farming and farming policy in the UK, as well as about rewilding in its various ramifications, but the diverse opinions I heard at Hay have provided plenty of fodder for this week at least. I shall post more findings and insights as I continue my research through the summer.
Prugh, L.R. et al 2009 The Rise of the Mesopredator BioScience 59: 779–791