This post is by Miles King, senior ecologist at Footprint Ecology, and a regular blogger about nature and the environment.
If we could create a modern equivalent of the primeval landscapes that covered Britain before modern humans started to mould the country to their own ends; would it be worth doing, how would we do it, and where?
This is one of the ideas that has been explored by George Monbiot in his recent book Feral. I have been debating the pros and cons of mainstream conservation and rewilding with George over the past two years, commenting on his book, through posts on my blog and, more recently, in a debate at the Linnean Society. Having worked in nature conservation for over 25 years I have some experience upon which I can draw, but also decades of received wisdom and ‘cultural baggage’.
‘Renaturing’ instead of rewilding
From the outset I would say I prefer ‘renaturing’ to rewilding. I think that ‘wild’ and ‘wilderness’ are words too loaded with multiple meanings to be useful in this context; we can get a feeling of wildness from standing on a mountain top, but that has no bearing on how natural the mountain ecosystem is. If we are talking about restoring natural processes to a large ecosystem, I would call it renaturing.
For the past 100 years, mainstream nature conservation has focused on conserving the species, semi-natural habitats (evolved through human influence, often for millennia, but still composed of native species of wildlife) and landscapes shaped by the interplay between people and nature over the past 10,000 years. Renaturing is something different: it seeks to create new natural ecosystems, where natural herbivores and natural predators take their places in a more natural ecosystem, where domesticated animals (livestock) and plants (crops) play no part. That is not to say one is better than the other, merely that they provide different public goods.
Restoring predators and herbivores creates a more natural ecosystem, which is predominantly forested, with open areas created and maintained by large and small herbivores and other natural actions, like storms, disease, drought and fire. Monbiot’s argument is that these are the habitats we should be conserving in Britain, because they are more complete, more complex and, therefore, more valuable.
How much land is needed and what would it cost?
How big an area would be needed to support sustainable populations of the largest predators? According to Mark Fisher at the Wildland Research Institute at the University of Leeds, in Germany an area of 250,000 hectares supports nine wolf packs, which is a sustainable population. In fact, because wolves are quite happy living in cultural landscapes (those shaped by human activities), the area could be a lot smaller, if the wolves were not shot as soon as they left the ‘Renature Area’. A round figure of 100,000 hectares seems like a sensible number to explore further. It sounds like a lot of land, and it is, three times the size of the Isle of Wight.
If a very wealthy philanthropist had the money to back the project, how much would it cost to buy this land? Land in the British lowlands is going at about £25,000 per hectare at the moment. So the cost would be of the order of £2.5 billion. It would cost a lot more if there were houses to be bought as well, at the equivalent of say £1 million per hectare. And, of course, the residents might not want to move. This makes the uplands a more attractive prospect for a Renature Area. Prices are still high but average around £10,000 per hectare, without many houses to push up the total price. But a £1 billion price tag on a 100,000 hectares of upland is still a lot of money.
Where would be best for renaturing?
I would argue though that the uplands, although attractive for practical reasons are not the best place for a large Renature Area. While upland forests such as Caledonian Pine and Atlantic Oak forests can thrive in the uplands, the uplands also support critical blanket bog and other peat-based habitats that are a huge carbon store which would lose carbon if afforested. More fundamentally upland renatured forests would support only a small fraction of British native wildlife.
Collectively, nature conservation is a surprisingly big landowner in Britain. Terrestrial Britain covers 23 million hectares. Over 1.3 million hectares of land is in public ownership and another 600,000 hectares belongs to wildlife charities and similar groups. Could some of this existing nature resource be exchanged for other land, along a coast, where there is already substantial conservation ownership by, the National Trust, for example? A strip of land, 20 kilometres deep and 50 kilometres long, is 100,000 hectares. Combining coast with lowland and, in places where possible, upland landscapes, would provide the entire range of terrestrial conditions for renaturing ecosystems, from foreshore to coastal heath and dune, through forest, glade and floodplain.
I have suggested elsewhere that we are coming to the end of the age of the semi-natural. While we should still try and conserve what little is left of our semi-natural habitats and landscapes, if we are going to help the nature of Britain survive beyond the 21st century and adapt to the changing climate, we need to think about giving it the space it needs to flourish.