This post is by Alasdair Cameron, the founder and executive director of Somerset Wildlands.
When we talk about our rewilding projects one of the most frequent questions we get asked is “have you consulted the community?”. Rewilding, like wildlife conservation, receives a mixed reception and community buy-in is vital to its success.
While on one level this sounds simple, community consultation involves a number of assumptions and contradictions. Which people do we mean? Do we really need to consult? What do we hope to do with the information gained?
Perhaps the best place to start is to look at what the charity I run does, to put some of these issues in context. Somerset Wildlands is based in the Somerset Levels, a low lying area in the south west. Once it would have been a vast wild wetland but, over the years, it has been drained and tamed, and is now made up largely of grazing land for cattle and sheep, silage and maize production, and some excellent nature reserves. There are few really big private estates, and land ownership is diffuse.
Somerset Wildlands is dedicated to bringing more life and wildness back to the Levels, buying patches of land large and small to set aside for nature. These ‘wild stepping-stones’ are managed in as light touch a way as possible. We allow nature to take the lead. In this respect we differ from, and complement, traditional nature conservation and restoration projects, which typically seek either to maintain points of interest or return lands to a pre-determined state. Nor are we seeking to create destination reserves. There will be no car parks or cafes. The land will be as open as we can allow, but human infrastructure, including paths, will be kept to an absolute minimum.
There is no single community to consult
Just because we’re not creating a visitor attraction doesn’t mean we aren’t interested in people. Ultimately, to succeed, we must build a community of support. This is not the same as consensus, nor is it passive. Too often, rural communities are treated as a block. Or simply used as shorthand for ‘farmers’. Yet, the people in the areas where we work are IT professionals, artists, café owners, soldiers, factory managers, walkers, birdwatchers, farmers, scientists and so much else. There is no one community to consult.
Gauging the level of feeling is hard. We have not conducted formal consultations, partly because they would be expensive and difficult, and also because it’s not clear what we would do with the information.
We own the land we are rewilding, as do others in our emerging affiliate network. No one lives on the land we purchase, and it does not come with tenants in place. We’re not operating in highly protected areas, and generally avoid Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). We’re not altering the hydrology of the area in a way that would affect others. Nor are we planning any reintroductions of large animals, at least not in the near future. In a strict sense, then, we don’t need permission any more than the farmers near us need it to change from one crop to another. But, of course, we want people to like what we are doing, and to feel the joy of a gradually rewilding landscape.
To build that support we do talks at local fairs, run accounts on social media and target other local interests. We are building up a membership and recruiting local volunteer site wardens. We work with other local interest groups too: citizen scientists, birdwatchers, ecology consultancies, government agencies, other charities and contractors. Each will, in some small way, become part of the wider community of interest in what we are doing.
The reception has been overwhelmingly positive
Given the level of diversity it would be foolish to expect any rewilding project to have universal support. Yet, so far, the reception has been overwhelmingly positive. Among visitors and locals passing by, and in the community centres where we make presentations, most people seem keen.
A YouGov poll supports this, with more than 80 per cent of those asked backing rewilding. Indeed, the people who sold us our most recent piece of land – the former farmers – came up to congratulate us at the end of the auction and seem genuinely delighted at its future.
Of course, there are detractors. This is hardly surprising. Rewilding is a change to the usual way land is viewed and valued. It is, almost by definition, ‘not farming’, or at the least not farming in a way we recognise. For many, this will rub uncomfortably against notions of the morality of working the land. It may be seen as an implicit rebuke of the way things have been done, or it may raise concerns about food supply.
Only a tiny amount of UK land is set aside for wildlife
We need farming, of course, because we need food. But we also need some land that is not farmed and is set aside for wildlife. This is uncontroversial in much of the world. The amount of land set aside for nature in the UK is tiny, and virtually all our national parks and protected areas are farmed or intensively managed in one way or another.
One of the most important things we could do to benefit the environment would be to shift to a diet lower in meat, dairy and fish. This would require much less land. Some of this space could then become available for rewilding and nature restoration. Many rewilding projects use livestock (like Knepp), but the amount of meat produced in these systems is nowhere close to supporting continued high levels of consumption.
When people talk about community engagement, they often mean getting the agreement of farmers. If farmers are inspired to start rewilding some of their land or if the policy environment can encourage it then that is welcome, but ultimately rewilding is not about farming, it is about rewilding, and it needs to build its own body of support and interest, rather than seeking to twist arms and cajole people with different aims and objectives. This is about creating places that we are happy to just let be, places from which we do not feel the need to extract. That’s probably the hardest challenge of all, and we will only build more support for it by getting on and doing it.