Andy Lester, A Rocha UK’s Head of Conservation, comments on the growing number of rewilding initiatives and why they are so important for nature and people.
This summer saw positive steps forward in attempts to reintroduce lost species to the UK and ‘rewild’ parts of the country; news of a pair of golden eagles successfully rearing a chick at a rewilding estate in the Scottish Highlands for the first time in 40 years; the endangered large blue butterfly successfully reintroduced in Gloucestershire for the first time in more than a century; the successful reintroduction of red kites, with over 10,000 confirmed in the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, from just 13 young red kites from Spain introduced thirty years ago in July 1990; the government granting a group of Beavers located in Devon the ‘right to remain’ permanently after a five-year reintroduction trial showing that their dam-building activities were good for wildlife. Devon Wildlife Trust called the decision “the most groundbreaking government decision for England’s wildlife for a generation.”
Rewilding is gathering pace in the UK, and it needs to. The UK has one of the most impoverished landscapes in Western Europe.
According to the Wildlife Trusts we have lost over 97% of our wildflower meadows. The British Trust for Ornithology indicates that 40 million birds have vanished since the early 1970’s, with the losses of insects in the same period equally alarming. Against such dire data, the need for a revolutionary landscape-scale approach is vital. “Rewilding” is an attempt to bring landscape-scale change to key areas of the planet.
Up and down the country new initiatives are creating extraordinary opportunities for nature. Ennerdale in the Lake District; the Knepp Estate in Sussex, home of visionary leaders Charlie Burrell and Isabelle Tree; Langholm in Dumfries and Galloway where the community is attempting to buy a huge upland area from the Duke of Buccleuch and the stunning Avalon Marshes Project in the Somerset Levels. Some of you may have heard of Derek Gow. Gow is a farmer, conservationist and writer with a passion for restoring wild landscapes to the heart of the UK. He is one of a growing number of landowners with a vision to see Britain rewilded and restored.
Gow’s own vision for change started back in 1995, when he bought fish from a farm in Hampshire to support a programme to restore water voles and their habitats on his land. He noticed the waterways naturally begin to silt up and it made him think about the role beaver historically played in the European landscape and in water management. In 1997, Gow drove all the way to Poland to pick up his first batch of beavers to help him manage the ponds for water vole. His love affair with rewilding had begun. And today the 55 year old has released over 25,000 water voles and released dozens of beavers.
Gow has owned his current farm since 2005 and with growing confidence has turned his hand to other species; Heck cattle, wildcat and white stork. The idea of wildcat and beaver roaming Devon’s countryside and rivers may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But in the face of such alarming downward trends for nature globally and specifically in the UK, Gow, Burrell and many others are pioneers in a time where there are many reasons to have doubt and fear.
Government policy for farms, food and wildlife as we leave the EU is to support farmers to look after the countryside for nature and people. Much of the detail is as yet unclear and farmers are understandably nervous at the lack of clarity. There will be big changes for many, whatever happens. But experiments in rewilding suggest there could be, for many, a viable way forward which combines food production with a radical restoration of our nature.