This essay by Zhao KS ME was entered into and won the Luddington Prize 2021
Assess the extent to which “rewilding” is viable in the UK as a means of enhancing biodiversity.
The future seems grim for our children and grandchildren, not only because of poverty, disease and crime, but because the majestic megafauna that accompanied our childhood in children’s books are on track to be organisms of the past, prime targets of our indiscriminatory destruction of the environment. In doing so, we forget that such organisms are the centre of the interdependent food webs across the Earth. First proposed by biologist Michael Soulé and activist Dave Forman in the 1980s, rewilding is a concept which aims to protect ecosystems by protecting or introducing top predators and/or dominant herbivores to restore ecosystems to before human intervention. I will consider the problems which rewilding aim to solve, their importance and relevance in the UK, the previous success of the mechanisms they use, and social, moral and economic parameters that might hinder its progress.
In some cases, withdrawing human management is sufficient to restore natural processes and enhance biodiversity. The problem it aims to solve is the general problem rewilding tackles: a collapse of ecosystems globally caused by damage done to key components as a result of human action. This method tries to help the environment by passive action only, and thus works on areas whose ecosystems are those that nature can mend without external help. Specifically, these are ecosystems who have not lost keystone species to the extent that they cannot recover. They exist in the form of strict nature reserves that promote things such as woodland development. In fact, in a study led by the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH), they found natural woodlands created by seed dispersal of non-human factors to be both more environmentally resilient and economically sustainable than artificial cases such as the “Northern Forest”, to which the government has paid £5.7m. Passive rewilding can help the UK reach its numerous environmental goals, namely planting 30,000 hectares of woodland annually by 2025, at a low cost with minimal involvement. Previous success globally demonstrates the viability of this option.
However, the extent of damage done to the environment, particularly to the vulnerable top predators, means that carnivore reintroduction has been increasingly popular as a means of rewilding. Sometimes, as stated previously, passive courses of actions such as withdrawing human factors or protective legislature can already result in predator levels increasing, as evidenced by recovering wolf populations in Chernobyl and Western Europe. In many other cases, active reintroduction of the most crucial regulator of the ecosystem was adopted and saw great success. The most famous example is undoubtedly Yellowstone. Despite President Ulysses Grant’s signature that landmarked it as the first national park ever, wolves of Yellowstone were still subject to poaching. Their murder was in fact “justified” in the name of protecting elks and deer. However, as they later saw, reducing wolf populations caused elk populations to skyrocket, resulting in the overgrazing of willows, aspen trees and cottonwood plants that was detrimental to songbirds and beavers. Both due to the lack of shade from declining tree populations and the lack of damming from plummeting beaver populations, water temperatures rose and killed many cold-water fish. This is just one example of ecosystem cascading that proves the importance of top predators and the often-unadaptable changes that fluctuations of their population bring. Thus, in 1995 wolves were brought from Canada and British Columbia to Yellowstone and despite some initial pragmatic issues, the wolf population rose again and to this date is leading the return of balance and sustainability to this ecosystem. Similar programmes have also been carried out in the UK, such as the translocation of pine martens from Scotland to Wales, demonstrating its viability. Another very successful UK example is that of the reintroduction of ospreys, birds who regulate the local fish population, from Scandinavia with their population growing from 0 to 225 pairs by 2017.There have been speculations of introducing lynxes, wolves and bears into northern England to regulate deer population, but no action has taken place. Furthermore, herbivores reintroduction is also an option for rewilding. They play a key role in an ecosystem by distributing seeds and nutrients in their faeces, and they regulate producer populations through consumption. However, this has not been carried out much in the UK, with mostly half-domesticated animals introduced into regulated areas.
However, one must note that the process of animal reintroduction must be regulated constantly and investigated beforehand due to the many risks involved. First, the individual organisms that are translocated may not be able adapt to their new surrounding and struggle to find their place in a new ecosystem, which is based on the same premise of climate change: that humans are changing the world in too fast a manner that animals cannot adapt to. This is further emphasised when animals are introduced in to reinitiate historic ecosystems, from which the current world has already evolved greatly. Second, outcomes can be very unpredictable, with ecosystems possibly worsened through careless action, such as Oostvaardersplassen.
Another form of rewilding discussed is that of paleo-rewilding. It seeks to introduce the close relatives of extinct megafauna to recreate the ecosystem of history, with major benchmarks being the Eemean interglacial (132,000 – 113,000 years ago), the end of the Pleistocene (11,000 years ago) and the early to mid-Holocene (10,000 – 5,000 years ago), due to the fact that they were the penultimate interglacial period, the first instances where megafauna became extinct due to humans, and the first instances of agriculture whereby ecosystems were drastically changed, respectively. The specific aim of this form of rewilding is to undo the actions of our ancestors and restore ecosystems to its state without our existence. This, however, is subject to environmental, economic, and moral flaws that invalidate it. First, it undermines the dynamic nature of ecosystems and renders immobility as perfection, casting the misconception that ecosystems and their components do not evolve as the world around them changes. Second, current ecosystems, due to their dynamic nature, have evolved to such an extent that introduced organisms are essentially invasive species that threaten the ecosystem. They could cause species extinction and huge economic costs as some invasive species have done. Third, extensive research and experiments must be carried out to mitigate the previous problem, costing time and money which could be spent on other relevant issues or viable solutions. Due to the incompatibility of environmental success and low economic cost, paleo-rewilding has been ruled out in many places and is in my opinion inviable in the UK.
Considering the parameters rewilding must satisfy, we must note that any form of rewilding should not impact us socially and economically such that it creates social unrest and inadequate resources to invest in other important things, such as poverty, disease and crime, factors as important to our children as a healthy ecosystem. One must find a healthy balance where the environment and humans are in a mutualism relationship, as any relationship where only one party benefits is unsustainable for both. If humans suffer excessively to protect the environment, there will be little incentive to continue. Second, I believe it is best that rewilding is led by the governments and/or non-for-profit corporations, since profitable corporations are more subject to corruption and could advertise their initial gains to create misconceptions that construct a false sense of security, providing the incentive not to do the little things which, when evaluated collectively, is just as important, such as “reduce, reuse, recycle”. Finally, it must be made clear to the general population, particularly animal rights activists that the introduction of top predators are not excessively detrimental to primary consumers, for example, and that any human intervention is not uncontrolled. In response to these parameters, I believe firstly that the UK can find the balance between economic development and rewilding, especially with the movement towards tertiary and quaternary industry and the vast abundance of natural reserves already. Secondly, numerous non-for-profit organisations have already led rewilding programmes that have seen success, like Rewilding Britain. Thirdly, by explaining the benefits of rewilding, the necessity for slight regulation, and how in principle rewilding aims to reduce human intervention, any social objections should be quenched.In conclusion, rewilding, carried out successfully, taking the form of passive management or animal translocation, can be viable to restoring balance to destroyed ecosystems by ensuring the security of keystone species. I believe the benefits and likelihood of success in the UK outweigh the risks and objections, believing to a large extent in its viability. However, the wellbeing of ecosystems is only a small part of the wellbeing of the environment, which is still a fraction of the wellbeing of Earth and all its inhabitants. The successes of it are only a mitigation of the harms that we have caused, and much more must be done to stop the Earth from disaster and save our children.
(Featured Image: © Bernd Thaller)