Defining Rewilding

There has been a lot of talk recently about the definition of rewilding and the apparent lack of a definitive meaning for the movement that is gaining more and more traction in the public consciousness across the world right now.

For me, it has always been clear, but not something that can be summed up in a short sentence. So in the interests of clarity, here is my interpretation for which I believe there is a strong consensus.

Rewilding at its core is about the mass restoration of ecosystems, encompassing small, medium and large scale projects where natural processes are allowed to interact without ongoing human intervention; restoring land to its uncultivated and wild state to maximise biodiversity. The media has predictably diluted this message and instead fixated on the reintroduction of lost species – but this is just one, albeit important, ingredient for achieving the rewilding ideal. However, reinstating an ecosystem’s trophic function – and by that I mean the way in which predator, prey and plants interact – is a pivotal part of the rewilding model.

Risnjak National Park, Croatia. (c) Gordon Eaglesham

It’s about optimising the conditions for the existing wildlife to thrive and spread, and also about increasing the ecological dynamism through the reintroduction of top predators, large herbivores, keystone species and ecosystem engineers alongside more trees and vegetation. By doing this, new habitats are created, which in turn, boost the overall biodiversity and subsequent health of the landscape. In areas where the land is so degraded that it needs a helping hand from humans to get it back on the path to restoration, we then need to step back and let nature take its natural course.

Carrifran Wildwood, Southern Scotland. (c) Gordon Eaglesham

The second part of rewilding’s definition is more intangible, but just as important – and is inextricably connected to the first part. This involves the rewilding of ourselves. Through the creation of wilder, more fascinating and inspiring natural surroundings, we create something which enriches our lives and encourages us to explore the outdoors more: reconnecting ourselves to the natural world and subsequently leading wilder and more outdoor-orientated lives. Rewilding is about getting back in touch with nature, physically, mentally and emotionally.

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7 thoughts on “Defining Rewilding”

  1. Thanks for writing this – I agree that a decent definition is overdue, and this isn’t far off how I would have put it.

    I still stuggle slightly, though, with the idea that human intervention should stop altogether. The flourishing of ‘natural ecological processes’ is the cornerstone of rewilding, but I don’t see how they can flourish without ‘land abandonment’ and species reintroductions on massive temporal and spatial scales.

    Let’s say we want to rewild a mountain. We’d have to fence out domestic livestock: they’re a human intervention. But we probably wouldn’t want to use deer fences: that would be a human intervention too. But how do we prevent overgrazing by overpopulated deer?
    Can’t shoot them, so have to introduce wolves. I fear that any plan which relies on introducing wolves is bound to fail. So practically, maybe rewilding isn’t that useful a concept.

    What I’d like to see are some wilding-inspired plans for real-world places, rather than slightly vague statements about restoring ecosystems. It would be good to see some experimental plans too – randomised controlled trials to test what actually happens.

    1. Thanks for your thoughful comment. And I agree that we need to have some form of human intervention in many cases to lay the foundations for natural processes to be optimised. After all, one of the main reasons we’re talking about rewilding is because our land and habitats have become so degraded and monocultured. I wouldn’t rule out wolves returning, as they are a valuable piece of the jigsaw, but it’s a very gradual gravitation due to Britain’s unique circumstances. Rewilding is, at the very least, getting people enthused and more interested in their countryside and wildlife, so it has a place and is not going anywhere.

      1. Don’t get me wrong – I love the idea of rewilding. But it rubs a lot of people up the wrong way – especially those people who own or work the land. I wonder whether we’d get more of them on board if we just called it habitat restoration. I realise we shouldn’t be beholden to landowners and their ‘traditional’ views, but we have to constructively engage. Rewilding seems to have become, almost immediately, a dirty word.

  2. George Monbiot in his book “Feral” states quite a few times as letting nature come back itself. Although there has been a lot of tree planting in the Carrifran most of the grasses, ferns, wildflowers etc. have come back themselves.

  3. Well spoken, the ability to experience ourselves as part of nature rather than just as relentless consumers of our planet’s resources is critical to earth’s long term survival.

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