How rewilding can fight climate change by restoring the UK’s natural beauty
By Aimee Tweedale Thursday 07 January 2021
Imagine a UK where woodland blossoms right outside your front door, and wolves and beavers roam the landscape.
It might sound like something from a long-distant past – but it could also be a part of our country’s future. Recently, a report by the organisation Rewilding Britain claimed that by allowing the natural landscape of the UK to be reclaimed by nature, we could cover our country with “species-rich mosaics of woodland”.
“Rewilding” is the name given to this process of letting nature take over, and it’s considered one of the best chances we have of fighting the effects of climate change. Not to mention, it could save many British animal species currently on the brink of going extinct.
We already know there are countless benefits to planting trees, creating carbon sinks that are naturally brilliant at sucking carbon out of the atmosphere. Rewilding takes things a step even further – it’s all about restoring not only forests, but wetlands, marshlands, and peatlands, too.
Read on to find out everything you ever wanted to know about rewilding, including how it works, and how you can get involved in your local area.
What is rewilding?
Rewilding is what it sounds like: letting nature run free, restoring itself to a ‘wild’ state.
Over generations, humans have depleted the UK’s natural environment. We’ve cut down forests and hunted animals, blocked rivers with dams and dried out wetlands. The result is a version of Britain that looks very different to thousands of years ago, with much less greenery, and many of our native species in danger of extinction.
Why does this matter? Because of climate change and other environmental threats. Restoring balance to our ecosystems is one of the most effective ways we have of fighting the effects of global warming and biodiversity loss.
That’s why rewilding campaigns such as Rewilding Britain want to see the UK covered in natural woodland and grazing animals once more.
Rewilding means putting down the shears, throwing out the pesticides, and letting nature take its course. It can also mean reintroducing plant and animal species that used to live in the area. Humans can create the right conditions for rewilding to happen, but at its heart, it’s all about letting nature be the boss.
What’s the difference between rewilding and reforestation?
The definition of reforestation, according to Merriam-Webster, is “the action of renewing forest cover”1.
This can be done by planting seeds by hand, or by the natural distribution of seeds when a patch of land is left to go wild. So, when it involves the growth of new trees, rewilding can be a type of reforestation.
To fully rebuild our wildlife’s natural habitats, it’s crucial that we pursue both manual tree-planting and rewilding. As Friends of the Earth explain, we need to plant trees in places where reforestation isn’t likely to happen on its own, but we need to let natural regeneration take its course, too. “Choosing between [tree-planting and rewilding] is a bit like choosing between breakfast or dinner,” they write. “We need both.”
Here at OVO, we’re on a tree planting mission, with over 1 million planted so far together with our partners The Woodland Trust and I Dig Trees. In 2020, we also called on the Government to get serious about reforestation, by enshrining a tree-planting target in law.
Why do we need to restore our woodland? Learn more about deforestation and why it matters, and about why tree planting is so important to us here at OVO.
Types of rewilding
So how exactly does rewilding work?
Most rewilding projects can be classed as ‘trophic rewilding’. ‘Trophic’ is a scientific word that relates to feeding or food chains. The basic idea of trophic rewilding is restoring nature by restoring the food chain that used to exist there.
The reintroduction of native plants or animals gives the ecosystem a kickstart, by completing the food chain.
Some rewilders also like to take a more hands-off approach, leaving nature completely to its own devices.
Below are the 3 main types of rewilding.
Passive rewilding is what you’d expect: it means taking a step back, and passively letting nature take its course.
This form of rewilding relies on as little human intervention as possible. You can see it happening in areas like the Soar and Wreake Valley, in Leicestershire, where the area is being managed as lightly as possible, so that the natural landscape can flourish.
This form of trophic rewilding is all about reintroducing species that roamed the environment before we changed it. The name refers specifically to the Pleistocene era – or, as it’s commonly known, the Ice Age.
This type of rewilding focuses on the mass extinction of megafauna – meaning large or giant animals – at the end of the Ice Age, which some argue left an unbalanced ecosystem behind. So in order to restore stability, Pleistocene rewilders advocate for the reintroduction of large animals like bison, oxen, and seals.
A famous example of this kind of rewilding is the reintroduction of wolves and bison to Yellowstone National Park in the US.
Translocation rewilding is a bit of an umbrella term. ‘Translocation’ means moving from one place to another. So, Pleistocene rewilding can be a kind of translocation rewilding, because it involves moving animals or plants to a new habitat. But translocation rewilding also involves introducing flora and fauna that have more recent origins than those dating back to the Ice Age.
An early example of this kind of rewilding is the Oosvaardersplassen Reserve, an area of the Netherlands that was reclaimed by conservationists in 1968. Scientists introduced cattle and red deer to the area, to graze on the vegetation – but the results have sometimes been controversial, showing that rewilding efforts must balance the entire food chain, not prioritise one species over another.
What are the benefits of rewilding?
It’s great for sequestering carbon: if a third of the world’s most degraded areas were restored to their former natural glory, those lands could store enough carbon to offset half of all the carbon emissions that humans have generated since the Industrial Revolution2. Learn more about carbon emissions and how they’re driving the climate crisis here.
It encourages biodiversity: rewilding gives nature a chance to restore all the variation and abundance of its ecosystem, from the top to the bottom of the food chain.
It’s cheap: scientists are hard at work on developing more modern, high-tech solutions to take carbon out of our atmosphere – but these are all currently very expensive. The most cost-effective option we have is to let nature do the job.
It can help prevent floods and wildfires: wild wetlands and moorlands don’t just hold onto carbon – they can also help protect us from the effects of climate change. Boggy rewilded peatlands are resistant to fire, and can help prevent floods by storing water, to help stop rivers overflowing3.
What are the disadvantages of rewilding?
There’s a limit to how much carbon land can store: in the UK, we’d need to restore the natural wetlands of an area about 10 times the size of the entire country to fully offset our carbon emissions4. This isn’t necessarily an argument against rewilding, but it shows how important it is that we use a variety of methods, and lower our emissions, too.
Land is also needed for farming and other purposes: in some circles, rewilding is pretty controversial. Farmers argue that it would disrupt their livelihoods, by taking up the land that they need to rear their livestock. But ecologists say that farming and rewilding can co-exist5.
Reintroducing some species but not others can cause issues: the Dutch reserve Oostvaardersplassen famously ran into problems when many of its grazing animals began dying, because there wasn’t enough food for them to eat. Many also had to be put down. Without any predators around to eat the herbivores, there were simply too many of them to survive. This shows the importance of restoring the entire food chain – not just part of it. Some experts argue that rewilding works best if you reintroduce dangerous predators such as wolves, which only 36% of the population think is a good idea, according to YouGov. Unfortunately, if predators aren’t reintroduced, it can lead to animals starving or being culled by humans. This is the darker side of rewilding.
5 facts about UK woodland you should know
Thousands of years ago, Britain was made up mostly of forests. In fact, it’s estimated that 6,000 years ago, as much as 90% of the UK was covered in woodland.
By 1919, Britain’s woodland covered just 5% of the total land. Thanks to reforestation and rewilding, the amount recently returned to the same level it was in the Middle Ages – around 13%6.
While that sounds good, it’s still way behind the rest of Europe. The average woodland cover in the EU is 38%. Experts say that we need to get to at least 17% here in the UK to fight the climate crisis. But we’ll need to seriously step up our rewilding and tree-planting efforts and prevent further deforestation if we want to get there.
Just 2% of the UK’s woods are classed as ‘ancient’ woodland. That means woodland that has been continuously growing, without human interference since 1600 in England and Wales, or 1750 in Scotland.
British wildlife is also under threat. Half of our native species are in decline, and 15% are in serious danger of becoming extinct.
Key rewilding projects in the UK
The conservation charity Rewilding Britain is on a mission to turn an area the size of Greater Manchester back into mossy, leafy wilds within the next 3 years7.
As well as their own monumental efforts, there are many other rewilding projects taking place across the country, including:
WildEast: an East Anglian conservation project that wants to return 250,000 hectares of land to nature.
Dingle Marshes: 93 hectares of wild marshlands in Suffolk.
Knepp Castle: owner Charles Burrell decided to rewild his estate in West Sussex in 2001. Today, it’s home to wild pigs, deer, and ponies.
Carrifran Wildwood: this woodland in Scotland is a large-scale conservation experiment, started by a group of friends in the early 2000s – now with over half a million trees.
What can I do to help restore UK wildlife?
If you’re interested in helping restore your local wilderness, there are plenty of ways you can support the work of Rewilding Britain. They welcome donations, and any effort to spread the word about their work.
Interested in rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty? Find a local rewilding group or project you can get involved with.
You could also join Naturehood, a community project run by environmental charity Earthwatch Europe, which aims to establish local ‘naturehoods’ (areas of wild greenery) around the UK. Find out more about how to get involved here.
Did you know the climate crisis can have an impact on your mental health? Read more about eco anxiety and how tree-planting can help you cope with it.
How to rewild your garden
To make a difference to climate change at the scale we need, rewilding needs to be a huge effort, made by local communities to restore large areas of land. But, if you’d like to apply the same principles to your own garden, it can’t hurt to let a bit of nature run wild there, too.
All you need to do is put away the tools, banish chemicals, and start letting weeds and other naturally-occurring plants take over your patio. You may be surprised by the beauty that comes from letting nature do its thing – and by the bird and insect species that start appearing at your back door!
Read more tips on rewilding your garden from the Guardian. If you’re also interested in tree-planting, check out our guide to the best trees to plant at home.
And if you’d like to find out more about what you can do at home to fight climate change, read our essential guide to reducing your carbon footprint.
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