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.