Those with an interest in conservation issues may have noticed that the concept of ‘rewilding’ has gained increasing prominence over the last few years. Defined by George Monbiot, perhaps the UK’s best known advocate of rewilding, as ‘the mass restoration of ecosystems,’ it involves ‘reintroducing missing animals and plants, taking down the fences, blocking the drainage ditches, culling a few particularly invasive exotic species but otherwise standing back.’
In order to achieve this, Monbiot argues that the current system of agricultural subsidies should be overhauled, so that subsidies can only be claimed for up to 100 ha (250 acres), and that the requirement to keep land in ‘agricultural condition’ should be removed. Perhaps more eye-catching is the suggestion that extinct animals such as wolves and lynx should be re-introduced in order to allow trophic cascades to occur, as seen most famously when wolves were re-introduced in Yellowstone National Park (Monbiot, G. (2013), Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding: Penguin).
So what might this mean for the South Pennines? It seems unlikely that any top predators will be re-introduced here, as the habitat is almost certainly too fragmented, and the area as a whole too populated and urbanised. Nevertheless, there is much that could be done. There is already little farming on the uplands, as much of the moorland is water catchment. The Moors for the Future project is an exciting partnership between water boards, local authorities and conservation bodies, which aims to restore areas of blanket bog and moorland damaged by 200 years of industrial pollution. Much of the work involves blocking drainage ditches, planting trees, re-introducing missing plants and reducing grazing pressure – exactly the sort of things that advocates of rewilding are arguing for.
It’s worth remembering of course that moorland isn’t a natural landscape as such – the Pennines would have been largely tree-covered until humans started felling the wildwood. Nevertheless, if the restored moorland is left largely to its own devices, a certain amount of tree cover would inevitably return, and I think it’s therefore fair to regard the Moors for the Future project as an exercise in rewilding. We now need to see its practices adopted across the South Pennine moors. In particular, we need to see an end to the damaging management practices of the grouse moors. Perhaps we might then see some missing fauna return too – hen harriers for example. This would be a truly inspiring objective for restoration projects and a real demonstration of their value as rewilding.
Web links for other rewilding projects elsewhere in Britain and Ireland:
Trees for Life – charity aiming to restore the ancient Caledonian pine forest to a large area of the Scottish Highlands, including their own 10000 acre Dundreggan Estate.
Wales Wild Land Foundation – aims to restore over 17000 acres of the ‘Cambrian Wildwood.’
Wild Ennerdale – partnership between the National Trust and Forestry Commission working to restore Ennerdale in the Lake District National Park to a wilder and more natural state.
Wild Nephin – the first designated wilderness area in Ireland. The project involves the rewilding of 27000 acres of land over a 15 year period. The area includes former commercial forests and parts of Ballycroy National Park.
John Muir Trust – charity dedicated to the protection of wild land. Owns several iconic areas of the Scottish Highlands, including Ben Nevis, Sandwood Bay and parts of Knoydart, which are managed in accordance with the Trust’s ‘Wild Land Management Standards.’