Rewilding Discourses

Here is my dissertation submitted for the MSc in Agroforestry, Bangor University, September 2016.

Rewilding Discourses:

Evaluating different discourses of rewilding amongst land-use           stakeholders in the UK

Abstract

Rewilding- the restoration of natural processes, sometimes including animal reintroductions – is drawing increasing popular and academic interest as a radical approach to conservation and land management, but is a plastic term with contested and sometimes conflicting definitions. Popular polemical presentations of rewilding have contributed to raising awareness of issues in current conservation policy, which focusses on maintaining specific habitats in a steady-state. At the same time, conflict and controversy has been created as existing land users perceive themselves to be under threat from a new movement to rewild the landscape.

A series of 18 semi-structured interviews were conducted with a range of stakeholders from Wales and Scotland including members of rewilding NGOs, the farming community, and professional ecologists, to answer the question:

“What are the discourses of nature and the environment that both inform and challenge rewilding projects in the UK?” and the subsidiary question:

“Why do people associate with and reproduce these different discourses?”

Significant differences, as well as agreements, were discovered between respondents. Reintroduction of carnivores such as wolves and lynx to Britain was generally deemed unrealistic in the short term. There was also broad support for the role farmers are playing to increase biodiversity and habitat under existing agri-environment schemes, and general agreement that such schemes need revising to facilitate greater integration of food production and conservation.

Divergent perceptions of current land management were expressed, a key difference lying between the value ascribed to culturally and naturally produced landscapes. Amongst rewilding advocates there was a lack of distinction made between romantic desires to return to a pristine “wilderness” and the move towards “wildness” as a process.

To move forward, the rewilding movement needs to clarify its goals of restoring natural processes rather than attempting to return to a historical baseline. Greater mediation and bridge-building is required between all stakeholders.

Carrifran Wildwood, Moffat, Dumfries and Galloway
Carrifran Wildwood, Moffat, Dumfries and Galloway

Introduction

Rewilding has been defined as a process

“to restore self-regulating ecosystems, with a strong emphasis on the role of top-down control of ecosystems by large predators.”

(Soule and Noss 1998).

A discourse has been defined as “groups of statements that structure the way a thing is thought, and the way we act on the basis of that thinking” (Rose 2001 p.136).

Public and academic interest in rewilding has increased rapidly in recent years, with multiple discourses emerging around the term in both academic and public forums (Lorimer et al 2015; Svenning et al 2015). In the US, public interest has been galvanized by the relatively high-profile reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone national park (Ripple and Beschta 2004). In Europe, the NGO Rewilding Europe, initiated in 2011, now has 43 member projects from 18 countries, covering 3.7million hectares of land at some stage of the process of rewilding (Rewilding Europe 2015). The charity Rewilding Britain, inspired by George Monbiot’s book Feral (Monbiot 2014), was established in 2015, with the stated aim of establishing three core areas of rewilded land of 100,000ha each by 2030 (Rewilding Britain 2015).

Romantic ideals and the appeal of a novel form of radical conservation has so far left collation of a strong scientific evidence base lagging behind (Corlett 2016). This has lead to diverse definitions of rewilding which has become a plastic term, with multiple interpretations (Jørgensen 2014).

Rewilding has been as a holistic process for ecological restoration and resilience (Monbiot, 2013, Jepson and Shepers 2016) and a tool for delivering ecosystem services as part of a suite of technologies for land management (Navarro and Pereira 2015). Other researchers have cautioned about unintended consequences and over-reach from expectations about what rewilding can achieve (Nogués-Bravo et al 2016), while more traditional land users may see their more conservative values threatened by land-use changes demanded by rewilding (Schnitzler 2014, Rebanks 2015).

Beyond its role in conservation, rewilding is also proposed as a remedy for social and psychological problems considered to be part of a “modern malaise” brought on through industrialization, consumerism and loss of contact with the natural world (Taylor 2004). By contrast, ecomodernists, while acknowledging the therapeutic benefits of contact with nature, see rewilding as something that is facilitated by more modernization, with increasingly intensive and efficient energy and food-production technologies potentially freeing up more land for wild nature (Lewis 2015).

There is an increasing recognition by ecologists and conservationists that habitat and biodiversity protection are as much social issues as ecological ones, which is reflected in the rise in popularity of inter-disciplinary research (Moon and Blackman 2014). Different groups such as farmers, hillwalkers and conservationists may hold very different values concerning how they feel the countryside should be used. Within rewilding itself, differing interpretations could lead to widely differing policy outcomes. Following this understanding, this dissertation sets out to address the research question:

“What are the discourses of nature and the environment that both inform and challenge rewilding projects in the UK?”

and the subsidiary question:

“Why do people associate with and reproduce these different discourses?”

Related concepts such as “nature” (Proctor 1998), and “wilderness” (Oelschlaeger, M. 1991, Cronon 1996), as well as environmental issues such as climate change (Nisbet 2014) and wind farm development (Woods 2003) have been subjected to similar analysis to reveal the sometimes hidden or unconscious meanings underpinning such terms, including deep-rooted historical and cultural associations. To apply a similar analysis for “rewilding”, the method of semi-structured interviews was chosen to attempt to uncover and understand meanings which otherwise may not be directly observable or identifiable through more quantitative methods such as formal surveys (Moon and Blackman 2014).

Rewilding strategies have implications for a whole range of public policy issues, in particular the future of farming and conservation policy post-Brexit, and with debates becoming potentially more fractious between competing interests, it is becoming increasingly important to find forums in which different perspectives are voiced and listened to.

The complete dissertation can be downloaded here:
strouts-g-2016-rewilding-discourses

What would Eat a Badger? Rewilding at the Hay Festival

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.

IMG_4530.JPG

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.

References

Prugh, L.R. et al 2009 The Rise of the Mesopredator BioScience 59: 779–791