Rewilding in Britain

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.

Britain’s forests: not seeing the wood for the trees

Forests are an essential component of our natural environment. They provide eco-systems for wildlife to flourish, beautify landscapes, and provide green spaces for recreation and leisure. Matt Browne, an associate at Bright Blue, has already written for this site about how the National Forest in the Midlands, planted under John Major’s government, is an exemplar of green conservatism in action.

Yet further action is required to improve the state of the UK’s forestry. England has one of the lowest levels of forest coverage in the Europe. Just 11% of its land surface is covered with trees, compared to an EU average of over 44%. Across the whole UK, the figure is not much higher – just 13%.

The pendulum has now started to swing the other way, as forestry’s share of UK land has started to tick up. The nadir came after the First World War, when forest coverage fell to just 5%. The Government now boasts that woodland cover is back to the levels of the fourteenth century.

Policy framework

The twin challenges for government in improving forest coverage are maintaining existing forests and planting new trees.

Ancient woodlands are defined as forests planted over 400 years ago and make up approximately a third of England’s total woodland. They are particularly important habitats for wildlife. They enjoy special protection from development, although organisations like the Woodland Trust claim that many are under threat from a loophole in the planning guidelines. In 2014, the Communities and Local Government select committee recommended strengthening the wording of the National Planning Policy Framework, adapting the clause that allows ancient trees to be cut down if the benefits of development outweigh the loss.

Forests are a sensitive and potent political issue. One of the biggest policy reversals in the last Parliament came when plans were announced to privatise the state-owned Forestry Commission, which administers the 18% of the UK’s forests that are in public ownership.

Following the u-turn, the Government set up the Independent Panel on Forestry to advise on the future of public woodlands in the UK. In response to the Panel’s report, the Government in 2013 announced its target to increase tree coverage in England from 10% to 12% by 2060.

The Government has maintained this commitment, by pledging to plant more trees in the UK in this Parliament. In the Spending Review last year, £350 million was ring-fenced for spending on public forests, with the aim of planting an additional 11 million trees over the course of the Parliament.

Yet analysis last week by the Woodland Trust found that the rate of new tree planting had slowed, and was insufficient to meet the planting rates required to meet the 2060 target. The goal requires the planting of 5000 hectares of trees annually on average, but last year just 700 hectares were added.

Benefits of woodland

The maintenance of forests falls within the Government’s natural capital policy agenda, which provides a framework for ascribing value to and enhancing natural assets. In their latest report, the Natural Capital Committee, set up by the Coalition government, called for more trees to be planted on the periphery of major cities and towns. They argued that this would bring greater recreational benefits and carbon savings than continuing to plant new forests in peatlands. They quantified the net economic benefits of this approach as being worth £550 million per year.

Planting more forests will have a number of important benefits for the UK’s natural environment. First, trees lock up carbon, allowing warming emissions to be removed from the atmosphere and helping to mitigate climate change. The Committee on Climate Change has recommended that an additional 10,000 hectares of trees are planted annually in order to cost-effectively meet the emission reductions in the Climate Change Act 2008. It’s worth noting that the Committee on Climate Change’s recommendation for additional tree planting is twice the level implied by the Government’s 2060 target.

Second, trees can make catchment areas more resilient to flooding. They slow the flow of flood water, by evaporating more water, increasing water absorption by the soil, roughening up land surfaces, and decreasing soil erosion. This helps the environment adapt to the effects of climate change. In her statement to Parliament following the flooding in December 2015, the Environment Secretary Liz Truss MP identified tree planting as part of a long-term approach to flood risk management.

It is also claimed that there are economic benefits of woodland. By quantifying the monetary value of a hectare of woodland in terms of health, climate, business, recreational, and water management benefits, the Woodland Trust has estimated the total value of £270 billion of Britain’s forests.

The Government’s 25-year environmental plan is due before the end of the year. Ministers have indicated already that forests are going to be one of its focuses. It’s clear that greater afforestation offers many public benefits. The challenge is now to increase the rate of planting to match the ambition. The forests planted under this Government could rival the Major government’s National Forest as a demonstration of green conservatism in action.