Britain is one of the most ecologically depleted nations on earth. We have lost all our large carnivores and most of our large herbivores. While the global average forest cover is 31%, and the European average is 37%, ours is just 12%. Our ecosystems have almost ceased to function. In the words of David Attenborough “far more species are declining than increasing in the UK, including many of our most treasured. Alarmingly, a large number of them are threatened with extinction. The causes are varied, but most are ultimately due to the way we are using our land and seas and their natural resources, often with little regard for the wildlife with which we share them.” In fact, 60% of all studied species in the UK have declined in the last 50 years.
People in Britain have never before spent so little time in contact with nature and rarely gain a sense of just being part of the environment rather than in control of it. Indeed three quarters of our children spend less time outdoors than prison inmates. This is having a huge impact on health and wellbeing, and has been connected to increased levels of stress, physical inactivity and obesity.
The damage to our natural systems also means our environment is less able to provide the goods and services upon which we depend. Across the whole of the North of England, in late January 2016, about 16,000 homes and businesses were flooded. The preliminary estimate of the cost of the flood damage is £1.3 billion, and rising. The cost in terms of human misery is unquantifiable. It is now increasingly recognised that the impacts of this extreme rainfall were exacerbated by the overgrazing, deforestation, burning and drainage of the uplands and by the canalisation and dredging of the rivers. And there are increasing calls for investment in the planting of trees and changing land management practices to encourage the restoration of natural climax vegetation communities in areas upstream of our towns and cities.
And it’s not just water – we are losing our soils at an alarming rate and the ability of our habitats to act as carbon ‘sinks’. We now know that the highly simplified ecosystems of the kind that prevail across Britain are also much less resilient to environmental change, such as climate change and invasive species.
Rewilding offers a chance to reverse that. A chance to restore natural systems and all the benefits they provide; to work with communities to restore to parts of Britain the wonder and enchantment of wild nature; to allow magnificent lost creatures to live here once more; and to provide people with some of the rich and raw experiences of which we have been deprived.
Rewilding Britain was set up to promote the large scale restoration of ecosystems in Britain, on land and at sea. We believe it is not enough merely to try to preserve tiny fragments of our wildlife. Meaningful conservation must involve restoring natural processes and re-establishing missing species. Rewilding does not attempt to produce fixed outcomes. It sees dynamic ecological processes as an essential, intrinsic aspect of healthy living systems. The animals we lack, such as beavers, boar, lynx, pelicans, cranes and storks, are not just ornaments of the ecosystem - they have a role as ecosystem engineers and are essential to an effectively functioning environment.
By 2030 we would like to see at least 300,000 hectares of core land areas and three marine areas established where nature is starting to take care of itself and key species are starting to become re-established. These areas will be ecologically connected, supported by an engaged and enthusiastic public, and delivering a range of benefits for local communities and landowners.
Rewilding is about the restoration of natural processes. It benefits nature, by connecting nature with nature, creating diversity and increasing the number of niches available, and making room for species to move through landscapes as they adapt to environmental change.
Rewilding benefits the wider environment too. By allowing natural process to function rewilding improves provision of ecosystem services. For example, restoring woodland reduces the flow of water downstream, flattening out the cycle of flood and drought. And increased woodland filters out contaminants that affect water quality, and increases carbon sequestration, helping mitigate climate change. Certain keystone species can have a huge impact. Beavers clean rivers. Their ponds retain silts and trap nutrients and flatten out cycles of flooding and drought. And predators such as lynx can regenerate forests by reducing deer numbers and allowing saplings space to grow.
But it’s not just about the environment – rewilding can bring significant economic benefits. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, the world on average has just 60 more years of growing crops. Rewilding can be farming’s greatest ally. It helps restore nutrients, worms and mycorrhizal fungi to the soil, provides for pollinating insects, purifies water, reduces flood risk and helps resist droughts. Perhaps rewilding will give us a few more harvests yet?
Rewilding can revitalise local communities. An RSPB report found sea eagle tourism on the Isle of Mull brings in up to £5 million a year to the island’s economy and supports 110 full-time jobs. Examples from around Europe show that new sources of income and jobs, based around wildlife and eco-tourism, offer a great potential to revitalise rural communities, supporting the recovery of the human economy as well as the natural world.
Rewilding is as much about people as it is about the planet. Time in nature improves concentration and behaviour, benefits health and wellbeing, and increases environmental awareness. Which is why rewilding is as much about rewilding ourselves as rewilding land. It’s about experiencing the enchantment of wild nature, about noticing and experiencing what's around us, about an increased connection with the living planet – “to love not man the less, but nature more”.
Rewilding is our big opportunity to leave the world in a better state than it is today. To turn our silent spring into a raucous summer. To introduce one of the rarest of all species into Britain’s ecological vision: hope.
Helen Meech is the Director of Rewilding Britain
The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.