conservation environment

The difference between conservation and rewilding

Last week I reviewed George Monbiot’s book on rewilding, Feral. It’s a book I’ve found very thought provoking, because I hadn’t really considered rewilding seriously before. I hadn’t grasped that it is a distinct philosophy with its own organisations, and while it overlaps with conservation in many ways, it is different in its aims.

The goal of conservation is in the name. It aims to conserve a landscape, species, or a specific habitat, to preserve or enhance a chosen state of things. Conservation picks winners, if you like.

I’ve seen this in my own conservation volunteering. We have a park nearby with a chalk hillside, and some rare wildflowers thrive in the alkaline soil. So we preserve the meadow conditions, chopping back encroaching blackberries and nettles around the edges, and grubbing up sycamore blow-ins. I have no problem with that, but it is a matter of choosing an ideal state and then holding back the plans that nature apparently has for that patch of land.

Rewilding, on the other hand, believes that giving control back to nature is the point. It is surrendering the need to organise the land, which is perfectly capable of organising itself. Although that may mean restoring wetlands or forests that have been cleared, we don’t need to have a goal in mind. It is “not an attempt to restore them to any prior state, but to permit ecological processes to resume” says Monbiot. “Rewilding is about resisting the urge to control nature and allowing it to find its own way… While conservation often looks to the past, rewilding of this kind looks to the future.”

You need both kinds of course. Conservation isn’t just about protecting areas from nature, but from human encroachment or pollution. Invasive species can make rewilding impossible. And some landscapes are unique and should be preserved.

Conservation is a vital work, but we need more than conservation. It’s not the answer for every area of land, and Monbiot has some fairly harsh words for those wasting their time on man-made landscapes that would be far more biodiverse if we stopped intervening. “To keep an ecosystem in a state of arrested development, to preserve it as if it were a jar of pickles, is to protect something which bears little relationship to the natural world.”

Rewilding and conservation shouldn’t be conflicting movements, but I suspect that they will continue to have separate organisations. After all, the wildlife trusts would be doing themselves out of their jobs if they stopped managing land and rewilded it instead. There are potential income streams from rewilding too, but it would require a shift in thinking. The bigger vision for rewilding is likely to come from specific rewilding organisations.

It’s an interesting debate. I’m off to see my conservationist brother in Scotland this week, and I’ll be picking his brains about it – and lending him the book.

7 comments

  1. I think a big difference is that for a country like the UK the ‘wild’ environment hasn’t been wild for millennia, it has been controlled by man for the economic purposes of the times.

    Therefore rewilding is an environment that is alien to everyone here and while a conserved environment can be managed to have a clear economic purpose, managing a rewilded environment would defeat the purpose. So almost no one would benefit economically while there would be many losers

    If people want to buy land and rewild it at their own expense then good luck, but I don’t think politically it would get much support from taxpayers.

    1. That’s what you might think, but the book describes how sheep farming and deer stalking are activities that make no economic sense. One relies on perverse subsidies, the other is subsidised by the rich who enjoy the sport, but vast tracts of Britain are reserved for these activities. Since those are things that actually lose money, there’s nothing to lose by stopping them.

      Rewilding doesn’t mean fencing them off and not allowing anyone in there, either. There would be new possibilities in leisure and tourism industries, and studies in other parts of Europe suggest that rewilding can be economically beneficial.

      1. If the rich are paying to go shooting then the land is economically active.

        My point is most people want what they know, the familiar managed landscape and are happier to subsidize that.

          1. I’m not saying don’t do it, just that I don’t think the public will go for it. The dodgy half truth campaigning tricks used by environmentalist will get used against rewilding. I’ll have my popcorn ready for that fight.

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