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Holes in the rewilding versus conservation debate

27 January 2014 | Posted in Author , Conservation , Tony Whitbread

lesser spotted woodpecker / Paul Marten lesser spotted woodpecker / Paul Marten
Author Tony Whitbread

Chief Executive

The current discussion on rewilding is extremely healthy but I am worried that both sides have left a gaping hole in their logic. This hole relies on a myth, a myth that goes something like this:

Natural processes equal succession, conservationists fight succession so conservationists are fighting nature.

Rewilders say this is a bad thing because conservationists ignore natural processes.

Conservationists say this is a good thing because current nature is the product of thousands of years of interaction between people and wildlife so we need to continue that interaction.

This is presented as two opposite approaches, poles apart, different traditions, different philosophies, each blackening the other. Rewilders claim that conservationists are playing God, making nature do what they want. Conservationists claim that rewilders threaten to devastate whole habitats whilst chasing an unknown dream.

The problem with both sides is the starting point. This is the presumption that nature equals succession.

At a simplistic level it makes sense. Succession is the process by which, if you leave an area alone, it goes through a process starting with small plants, then taller plants, eventually scrub forms, then trees and then the trees grow up to form a forest the end! Sure enough leave an area alone and that is generally what does happen. So everyone believes it. But this leaves out so much of the story that it is, broadly, nonsense.

Trotting out this simplistic nonsense still bedevils our television screens with any number of countryside programmes saying how all this would have been dense trees before man cut them down. We literally do not know this. It is not possible to claim what wild nature would have looked like and it is certainly not possible to claim it was all one type of favourite habitat (such as woodland). Anybody referring to a past, unknown, wild landscape should be far more humble in terms of what they think it might have been like.

Rewilders and conservationists have a problem open habitat. To rewilders open habitat, like heathland, meadows, wetlands and moorland, are hated examples of human exploitation. To conservationists they are loved examples of how sensitive management delivers diverse cultural landscapes, richer than boring tree-covered wilderness. Both are wrong.

A significant proportion of our plants and animals rely on open habitat. About half are open habitat species, about half of the rest rely on forest edge habitats and even many of the deep forest species still rely on open habitat for some part of their life cycle. If the natural state of Britain was dense forest then our flora and fauna would be dominated by shade-loving species. It is not - most species are light demanding. This cannot be explained by small, temporary gaps in the wild forest (see The myth of the dense wildwood in my November 2013 blog). Whatever it was like, the primeval forest must have been a wonderful, diverse place containing the precursors of all the habitats we have today. It is most unlikely that they were virtually absent (as some rewilders believe) and it does not make sense to claim that they were just made by humans (as some conservationists believe).

So starting again what are the natural processes that might have been active in a wild system, and what can we learn from this? This is the interesting question that should be of interest to both rewilders and conservationists.

Natural processes are many, diverse and complex. To simplify (probably over-simplify) you could think of them as working in two directions. Succession going in one direction, heading towards some form of conceptual climax forest; natural disturbance going in the opposite direction, effectively turning the clock back on succession. What is more, this would work at all sorts of scales and time scales.

Natural disturbance is not a bad thing I spent years after the 1987 storm explaining the ecological benefits of storms. Indeed habitats with low rates of natural disturbance tend to be relatively poor. Technically, natural disturbance is termed the initiator of vegetation dynamics. Its the thing that makes vegetation change, opening up habitats, developing new niches and generating more living space for more species.

Wind storms, flooding, erosion, accretion, fungal disease, insect attacks and the action of grazers and browsers are key forms of natural disturbance. But even these are just examples if you observe nature you can see all manner of disturbance events that influence vegetation and habitats.

But it is not just the animals or processes that have a direct effect on vegetation that matter. Predators also have a major impact by significantly altering the behaviour of herbivores through the ecology of fear. Predators influence where grazers graze and so influence where trees regenerate. This has a huge beneficial effect on how the whole ecosystem functions (see my review of Where the wild things were in my blog of August 2009).

Rewilders, pushing all this aside in order to promote a favourite wooded habitat are not rewilding at all they are just creating another human artefact. Excluding natural disturbance is just as artificial as management. It is like taking the engine out of a car and claiming it will go faster!

Rewilding is not a matter of leaving a restricted, degraded nature to fend for itself. Instead it should be about understanding and re-establishing the natural processes that should be active in an area. Sometimes this might be through non-intervention (see my blog on a present day wildwood, in November 2013), but not always. George Monbiot in his book Feral goes some way in this direction but then gets lost in a desire to attack conservationists. As George says, rewilding should be about establishing natural processes and then allowing nature to find its own way without setting an end point. He then lets himself down, setting an end point by saying that it all must be dense forest.

The agenda for conservationists and rewilders should come together at this point. We should become ecologists again by trying to understand nature and natural processes then use this knowledge to inform what, where and how much management should be put in place. This is part of the value of wild places - places where we can learn from nature functioning for itself.

But what about situations where the full range of natural processes cannot be restored? This will be the normal situation in conservation generally we are looking after a restricted and degraded nature. Natural disturbance may be absent, limited, constrained in time and space, or simply cleaned away. Grazers may be present, but not having a natural effect on vegetation, and predators will almost certainly be absent. So, desirable as it may be, we will not be able to re-establish the full range of natural processes, for example, in an urban greenspace a couple of hectares in size. This is where conservation management comes in. If we have wild places with nature functioning for itself then we should be able to develop a better understanding of how to mimic natural processes through conservation management.

And we should not forget those thousands of years of interaction between people and wildlife. Conserving what weve got now must be the starting point. But we must also be aware of shifting baselines what we have now is not the best that we can have, we can imagine better and rewilding can drive us in that direction.


  • 28 Jan 2014 14:54:40

    Tony – rewilding is about bringing back ecological processes to create rich dynamic processes that where once part of nature and created all the micro habits that harboured our rich and diverse species. It is not about leaving flora alone to reach a climatic habitat. I have no idea where you views come from, but they are wrong. There are some fringe elements promoting such ideas. But what you are objecting to is not rewilding as the vast majority of those of us in the rewilding movement understand it to be and it is this fallacy that seams to be at the heart of your problem.

    You are not attacking real rewilding just some fantasy of what rewilding means and from your blogs you are part of the problem trying to polarise and dumb down the rewilding debates.

    Rewilding is about creating habitats rich and diverse with many open and mixed habitats from the action of natural grazing animals such as beaver, wild horses and cattle. I have no idea what you think rewilding is, some extreme version of putting a fence up and allowing nothing in, or releasing some wolves in unsuitable habitat. But by making a straw man of the augments in this debate you are undermining yourself.

    The reality is the rewilding movement, started in Europe, is about the best way to get the highest biodiversity on land at the cheapest price. Something you should be keenly aware of. What real rewilders are annoyed about with old fashioned nature conservationists is that they spend vast amounts of money emulating 18th Century farming and forestry practices that does not maximise biodiversity and leave areas devoid of the wildlife they could harbour, or fixate on one species at the expense of many.

    Those of us who understand the economic issues of re-wilding also also opposed to the systems of subsidy and tax breaks to landowners- often supported by Wildwife Trust – that ensure the over use and high price of marginal land that should return to wildlife use, ensuring only a tiny fraction of the land mass of the UK is available for nature conservation.

    What rewilding is about to me is the economic, legal and technical means we can increase the biodiversity of this country at the least expense. Making the resources of wildlife charities go further and achieving our charitable objectives. Call me sometime so I can disabuse you of some of you very narrow prejudices and how many of our objectives are really the same.

  • 29 Jan 2014 18:10:12

    Tony Whitbread replied
    “I agree with practically everything Peter says, but he is missing the point. There is a strong and growing view out there that rewilding is all about creating dense forest – the old idea of succession towards climax forest. It is also a view that is being strongly promoted in the social media, in the press and on TV. George Monbiot has stimulated a healthy debate through his book “Feral”, but this gives a strong view that continuous forest is the one true habitat, anything else being just poor nature conservation. I agree that polarising the debate between conservationists and rewilders makes an artificial division – but that was the point I was making. Peter makes good points in his comment, but they are probably better targeted on those promoting a simplistic version of rewilding rather than on my response.”

  • N:

    30 Jan 2014 12:25:09

    Great blog Tony. Spot on! Echo my thoughts precisely. I find it incredibly frustrating that the simplification you articulately describe is exactly the one that keeps popping its head up at the policy level. The recent public debates have unfortunately turned into background noise as the people arguing tend to be on the same side (or hijacked by those with an NGO axe to grind). Whilst this happens decision makers, landowners (the most important!), managers and their representatives carry on regardless. Why is the NFU taking less flack than conservation NGOs for example? Rewilding is a term covering a whole range of views, I have heard everything from the detailed to the simplistic and we should acknowledge this is a problem. Once we get into the detail, we usually find that the shared middle ground is vast, but until we can turn the point scoring between ourselves into a clear, publically supported policy ask, then wildlife is going to continue lose out. In my personal opinion.

  • dave bangs:

    15 Feb 2014 19:32:50

    I think Tony makes very good sense.

    I would additionally point out that he is talking about wildlife on its own, not as one consideration in a range of considerations…which is actually how we must plan for nature’s survival.

    Our need for sustainably farmed food must be the main other consideration, as well as the need for other products, such as wool, leather, timber and wood. There are other considerations, too, such as the range of peoples’ recreational and sporting needs, aesthetic considerations, and so on.

    When I wrote my book on the Brighton Downs I tried to make a case for the restoration of the wide, range-grazed sheep walks to fulfill just such multiple functions.

    It is necessary to consider nature conservation in its economic and social contexts, not just as a single issue. We all need to eat !!

    good stuff, Tony

    Dave Bangs

  • M:

    28 Sep 2014 20:36:04

    I have been exhaustively reading all aspects of the debate surrounding rewilding for a third year university project for several months. I have to agree with Peter, because I can’t seem to find these ‘dense forest’ enthusiasts that Tony talks of. The impression I have forged of rewilders (the scientific kind, not the few fringe non-science people who do use the term in an inaccurate and romantic way) hasn’t led me to think they have a particular bias towards forest habitat. I don’t know where this is coming from, but it doesn’t represent the concept of rewilding that I have been researching for so long now that I think my eyes are going to start bleeding!

  • Dave Bangs:

    01 Nov 2017 20:42:24

    Please do tell more on how farmers make money in the UK, especially in the uplands. I work with farmers in North Wales on a regular basis – they often speak about how they make a loss from wool and don’t sell cattle for meat produce anymore. All who I have asked directly about their main income point towards conservation subsidence’s.

    Yes, we have to eat. As George Monbiot suggests in his book, those making an honest living should continue to do so. Currently in the uplands that’s a very small percentage.

    Ste Carey

  • Erik:

    24 Feb 2021 15:40:00

    The objectives of rewilding are the re-establishment of trophic complexity, connectivity to allow species dispersal, and stochastic disturbances, this means that for any habitat we are working with, in larger areas, that can be all types of terrestrial habitats, we have transferable goals. I have only really come across the continuous forest frenzy in environmental activists mainly in cities who do not know of ecology to the extent of understanding habitat diversity, it often comes with the monoculture fallacy, that one species should be planted everywhere for example.

    One thing that is discussed to a lesser extent is the ignorance of aquatic habitats, we are a terrestrial animal and that has led to a vast sea of ignorance when it comes to Ocean, particularly that which is beneath the waves, coral reefs, kelp forests and seagrass meadows are the main habitats in question, and rewilding has recently taken work to help these habitats, which is a big innovation that rewilding has done, which I think furthers the point that I have not heard much of the forested world fallacy in rewilding groups, it is so unbiased as a movement that it has led to places many do not know is in even more danger than peatlands, and arguably even more vital for recovery, not that we should prioritise any habitat over another.

    I agree with your points made entirely, but I think it would be more accurate to state the commonly held belief that monoculture is the answer, and that one type of tree and one type of habitat is a solution to any crisis.

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