What is Rewilding?
"the restoration of ecosystems"
Rewilding is quite simply the restoration of ecosystems through the reintroduction of natural processes that are the product of millions of years of co-evolution between plants, animals and other organisms. It is a realisation of the ways in which we have diminished ecosystems over the centuries, and a recognition of the key processes that recover them.
However, the approach taken to ecosystem restoration may vary depending on the context of the locality in which it takes place. Other factors such as existing land use and ecology, culture, heritage, and local economies all play a role in how we rewild. For example, in the Carpathian Mountains or Yellowstone National Park, where ecosystems are largely intact, rewilding is simply the reintroduction of a keystone species that is missing.
Here in Wales, where ecosystems are more depleted and 88% of land is managed in some way for agriculture, rewilding is about restoring the complex and dynamic mosaic of habitat that once was. This is done through utilising natural grazing systems, then supplementing this with the reintroduction of missing species such as beavers and pine marten. The overarching goal however, remains the same; to restore the functioning of ecosystems.
"large herbivores and omnivores"
At Tir Natur, we emphasise the key role that large herbivores and omnivores play in restoring ecosystems, and thus any rewilding project. Almost every rewilding project in the UK is producing meat, or at least has large herbivores in the landscape. This is not to combine conservation and farming; it is a recognition that they should be one and the same.
If we look at natural landscapes around the world, whether it is in Africa, Canada, North America or Eastern Europe, the first thing that comes to mind are the large animals associated with them. Be it elk, wild horses, buffalo, wildebeest, warthogs, zebras, antelope; these animals play a crucial and disproportionate role in maintaining biodiversity.
In the UK, these large herbivores would have been the auroch (wild cattle) tarpan (wild horse), wild boar, red & roe deer, as well as bison and elk. Each animal has evolved to fulfil a niche; they graze, browse and rootle in different ways, creating harmony and dynamism in an ecosystem.
The disturbances these animals create in the landscape, and the natural competition between those disturbances and vegetation succession has come to define rewilding. It is through this competition that nature really comes to life.
If we simply allow natural regeneration without these large herbivores, and no substitute management (i.e., land abandonment) then particular species would come to dominate the ecosystem. Swards become less diverse, dominated by a handful of species. Rhizome based plants like bracken would quickly fill vacant spaces, and outcompete shrubs and herbs. The result of land abandonment is an immediate closed canopy; a species poor and static environment which is the antithesis of rewilding.
"reintroduce native species"
This is why farming and rewilding go hand in hand in the UK. Domesticated native animals have been bred from their wilder cousins, and rewilding is simply introducing low stocking densities of native breeds of herbivores, that act as ecological proxies for those wild ancestors.
Native, horned cattle fulfil the role of the auroch, native ponies for the tarpan, native pigs for wild boar, and red & roe deer complete the grazing system. These five animals are the core of any successful rewilding project, and we refer to them as ‘the ecosystem regulators’.
Whereas these animals are crucial to the functioning of an ecosystem, it is equally important to control their numbers. Too many, and overgrazing will diminish ecosystems. It is a balance that is essential for nature to thrive, and one that is maintained best by farming.
Further to this natural grazing system, rewilding looks to reintroduce native species that are missing from our ecosystems; hunted to extinction or victims of habitat loss. These include the beaver, pine marten, red squirrels, golden eagles, white-tailed eagles, cranes and dalmatian pelicans.
"laying the foundations for natural processes to take over"
Before the ‘ecosystem regulators’ are introduced, rewilding requires some initial interventions - we call this part ‘laying the foundations for natural processes to take over’:
The removal of internal fencing, and the erection of a perimeter fence. This would need to be high stock fencing for deer, and pig proof!
The removal of any drainage blockages to restore functioning wetlands.
The planting of whips and the sowing of seeds, where there is a clear absence of certain species. Natural regeneration will always be the default setting, but the reality is that we have depleted nature so much in this country, that there is an absence of some species to regenerate. This will be site specific.
We will need to prepare the ground, depending on the landscape we are starting with. Overgrazing has created very tight-knit, species poor grasslands, and it will be important to break up this sward, and expose any latent seed bank, to give natural regeneration a leg-up. This could be done through mechanical rotavating, or our personal preference, focused pig rootling.
Removing nutrients – Much of our landscapes have had chemical or organic fertiliser applied heavily and consistently for many years. This saturates the soil with nutrients, and it can take some time for these nutrients to leach out of the soil to the point that the chemical profile of that soil is neutral. Too many nutrients in the soil might lead to species poor regeneration.
Invasive Species removal – Take steps to remove any invasive, non-native species if present.
Ponds & Scrapes – nature won’t dig the ponds and scrapes that have been filled in over the years.
So, this is rewilding. Giving nature time and space to regenerate under the influence of this natural grazing, as well as removing the physical barriers to nature recovery. Grasses, wildflowers, shrubs & trees, insects, birds & mammals all recovered into the complex web of life where they belong – and all the while producing high quality, sustainable food.
Photo credits in order - Wren (Shutterstock), Exmoor Pony (Dr Sam Rose), Wild Boar (Picfair), Lake (Knepp Wildlands), Lake & wildstock (Knepp Wildlands)