'Rewilding' the Earth: An Alternative to Conservation

By Ross Johnson on at

'Rainforest' isn't usually the kind of word you'd associate with the ecosystems in the British Isles. But up until around six thousand years ago, when land began to be cleared by humans, temperate rainforest spanned much of what is now the United Kingdom.

It is little-known facts like this that form some of the argument for 'rewilding,' a worldwide movement that seeks to restore depleted environments to a more healthy, primeval state. Efforts are being made, for example, to restore huge swaths of the ancient Caledonian Forest in Scotland.

Rewilding differs from traditional conservation in some very distinct ways. Where conservation aims to (wait for it) conserve an ecosystem, the goal of rewilding is to actively promote natural processes by restoring environments as if humans had never touched them.

The problem with standard conservation methods is something known as 'shifting baseline syndrome,' wherein conservationists will attempt to preserve the ecosystems that they consider to be healthy, often those that they remember from childhood. But in most cases, such ecosystems will in fact represent hugely depleted environments.

The reason? Us. Since humanity moved out of Africa, something like 70,000 years ago, we've been cutting a bloody path of destruction across every other continent. (Except Antarctica. It's far too cold for any of that nonsense).


Europe once boasted woolly mammoths and narrow-nosed rhinoceros. Giant sloths and beavers roamed North America. Australia was, as ever, home to some ludicrous creatures, including a giant wombat and massive carnivorous flightless birds. And at some point, we came along and slaughtered the lot. In fact, the reason that Africa now has the widest range of megafauna (big animals) is that they evolved alongside us, and consequently knew to stay the fuck away.

The removal of certain species from an ecosystem, especially apex predators, can have drastically negative consequences for the other flora and fauna in the area. To put it bluntly, as a result of humankind's propensity to wantonly kill everything, we've pretty much buggered up the world. Well. That's one of the reasons, anyway.

One facet of the rewilding movement is the conservation or reintroduction of key species  (especially large carnivores) to areas where they are now rare or extinct. For example, everyone's heard about various initiatives, proposed since the '60s, for the reintroduction of wolves to the Scottish highlands.

It's controversial, and probably won't happen for a while, because wolves are the bad guys in half of the stories we grow up with as kids. They occupy a prominent place in our cultural consciousness. They're scary. And usually, most of the scary animals in the UK have been accidentally imported.

But apex predators serve a purpose in the ecosystem, and wolves are a prime example when we look at Scotland. Perhaps their most important contribution is that they scare the shit out of deer as well as people. The theory is, reintroduce the wolf, or a similar predator like the lynx, and you improve the Caledonian Forest's chances of restoration.

Here's a still from Trees for Life's video on their efforts to restore the Caledonian Forest. That fence is for keeping deer out of the burgeoning forested area. On the right: barren grassland, from which the massive Scottish deer population strips any young seedlings, eliminating any chance of trees growing.

The deer currently roam around freely, going wherever and doing whatever they feel like. They're like the jock kids in pretty much every American teen movie. Untouchable. The wolf, in this analogy, plays the part of the new, no-nonsense principal who's out to curtail their fun. But in this case, by eating them.

Howling packs of wolves would do two things to the deer population: reduce it, and send it running for cover. When there are hungry canines around, deer don't swan about on the grasslands, eating baby trees. They run, and they hide, in the already-forested areas. And so, the forest would gradually spread.

Reintroduction of wolves represents a kind of 'middle ground' here. Rewilding methods range from having practically no involvement in the ecosystem (and allowing regions abandoned by humans to develop naturally) to the introduction of alternate species in lieu of extinct ones (for example, notions of encouraging elephants to breed in European forests in place of mammoths).

The rewilding movement is gaining momentum. Rewilding Europe is aiming to have restored one million hectares of land to wilderness by 2020. The Rewilding Institute seeks to create huge areas in North America where the jaguar can roam again (it hasn't been seen there since the Pleistocene Epoch). And the Rewilding Foundation is working to create habitats for large carnivores the world over.

Closer to home, Trees for Life has planted over one million trees and created 4,000 hectares of new Caledonian Forest. They run programs that allow volunteers to plant new seedlings, and if you can't be arsed to go all the way to Dundreggan, you can always sponsor a grove.

The goal of rewilding is to create some truly wild spaces that can be enjoyed by anyone, with opportunities for eco-tourism popping up wherever a healthy ecosystem can be maintained. And with a truly healthy ecosystem comes the spectacle of large carnivores. Perhaps one day, going 'on safari' might not refer so exclusively to a holiday on the African plains. I for one would love to be able to snap some holiday photos of a lynx or wild boar in the Scottish highlands.

Image Credits: Wooly mammoth and forest from Shutterstock