What is rewilding?
A couple of events over the summer, one in the Lake District at Wild Ennerdale (1) the other in Sheffield on the management of the Peak District Moors (2) demonstrated clearly that wildland has been appropriated as a concept by those who have no commitment to it. Thus, in the absence of any other voice, the agenda that is now attached to “rewilding” is livestock grazing, and will increasingly, through the persistence of the grazing advocates, be the only approach to wilder land that the public will hear. Thus whereas the axiom should be of a withdrawal of farming as an absolute pre-condition of moving along the wild land spectrum, this will continue to be disavowed here in Britain, as it is also being propagated across Europe by the spectacularly misnamed “Rewilding” Europe.
For some time now, I have wanted to explain why I don’t use the word rewilding anymore. I believe it is a term that has been hijacked to become a toxic reminder of the worst aspects of the noosphere (3). A better expression would be ecological restoration, as was suggested to me a few years ago by Philip Ashmole of Carrifran Wildwood (4) as he believed rewilding did not address the reinstatement of the structural elements of vegetation that have been lost from our denuded land. However, even ecological restoration is now being put into use by the rewilding-by-grazers, so that every phrase we may have used, is becoming useless to us: rewilding, wilded, natural processes, ecological restoration.
The rot set in when the warped theories of Frans Vera and the Dutch Nature Development movement from the 1990s made it easy for the conservation industry in Britain to reinvent itself as rewilders. I observed 10 years ago that it was only a matter of time before those theories would end up as a justification of agriculture in nature conservation (5). And so it proved with an obsessive attention being given to naturalistic grazing, the euphemistic term for the fakery of assigning a wilderness function to free-ranging but domesticated grazing animals. The implication that the free-ranging of cattle somehow overcame the genetic degeneration of millennia of domestication, returning them to the behaviours and instincts of wild animals, is more than far fetched, but it had imprimatur in 2005 through a report commissioned by English Nature (as was) that gave credence to Vera in his demand that landscapes are “restored by grazing”, when it looked at “the role of large herbivores in the post-glacial landscape of Britain and the potential for using free-ranging grazing animals to create and maintain diverse landscape mosaics in modern conditions” (6)
I talked to Frans Vera a couple of years later, when we walked around Charlie Burrell’s Knepp Estate in East Sussex. Vera had been an adviser to Charlie for his Knepp Wildland Project (7) a removal of internal fences on his farm so that he could free-range a small herd of 40 long horn cows and followers, while of course trousering a whack of Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) funding (8). Vera seemed mostly harmless then, if not boyishly naïve and rambunctious, and I could see how his hyperactive certainty of view could enthuse people, even though I disagreed with every word of it. I also came across Tony Whitbread there, Chief Executive of Sussex Wildlife Trust, and witnessed for the first time his need to control every situation, every interpretation of nature, including being an arch advocate of grazing and intervention management (or natural disturbance as he would have it) (9).
Naturalistic grazing as the new rewilding
If I thought it was going to go away, then I had underestimated the persistence of such a seductive notion for the conservation industry, who were planning all kinds of naturalistic grazing projects, funded by HLS, and which always seemed to involve chopping down trees in the first place, with the totally spurious assertion that deciduous trees would then spontaneously reappear, as if it was the grazing of cattle or ponies that would make it happen (3, 10). In addition, one of the authors of the report on naturalistic grazing, Cathy Hodder, took it upon herself to write “a critical overview of the various guises of rewilding” as a booklet in the Ecological Issues series of the British Ecological Society (11). Having seen a draft of the booklet, I was concerned at it ever seeing the light of day, but it did in revised form in a special supplement of British Wildlife, sponsored by Natural England, and entitled “Naturalistic Grazing and Re-wilding in Britain: Perspectives from the Past and Future Directions” (12). The supplement came out while we were planning the launch of the Wildland Research Institute, and I wryly remember Keith Kirby of Natural England giving me forewarning that it may generate some interest in rewilding. If it did, it certainly didn’t come our way.
on the European scene, a second conference was held in November 2010, as a
result of the resolution on wilderness passed by the European Parliament
(13). This time, I got an invite, but I could see from the program that a
presumption for grazing being a natural process was being pursued with
vigour by some western Europeans as a means to create “new wildland” and
on the back of the momentum initiated by the resolution. An organisation
had sprung up called the Wild Europe Field Program, backed by
conservation organisations – WWF Netherlands, ARK Nature Development, Free
Nature and Eurosite - with a track record of promoting Nature Development,
the Dutch approach to creating "new nature" (14). They have to do this
because the Netherlands is so covered in livestock excrement that they
have to get creative if they are to have any semblance of nature (15).
Confusingly, they talked of this Program creating “European wilderness”.
As I would learn repeatedly, the ideology of these people will always show
an incoherence from trying to point in two directions at the same time.
Thus from the brochure for the
Field Program, we first get the appeal to usual sensibilities about human
impact on wild nature, but then there is the attack on those who happen to
believe in the prevailing evidence that forest would likely have been the
dominant land cover before humans introduced agriculture (16):
Does this strike you as chilling newspeak, a controlled language created by a totalitarian approach? More was to come of this newspeak, including a name change to “Rewilding” Europe as a deliberate repositioning (and thieved from elsewhere) its website containing an explanation of its approach that declared "Wilderness is more than forest alone". That webpage has now gone, but it rambled on with a recurring thesis that the open, grazed, agricultural landscapes of Europe are the true analogues of wild nature, rather than forest; that much of Europe’s biodiversity was found in half-open landscapes, and which was put at risk from spontaneous forest regeneration that occurred after abandonment of farmland. This was the solution they proposed - “to turn the tide, a new appreciation of the original role of the great grazers must prevail”
This is the “Vera hypothesis” the presumption that agricultural “biodiversity” is the predominant natural diversity because wild herbivores will have kept landscapes predominantly open. Vera and his acolytes have become past masters at retrofitting this warped reality on to the landscapes of Europe, while playing fast and loose with the facts (17). When I got to the two-day EC Presidency Conference in Brussels, the sheer weight of emphasis on grazing projects seemed to me a cultural convention, a habitual accommodation of the cultural use of lands as somehow being more naturally biodiverse. I wondered how wilderness dependant predators like wolf, lynx and bear would figure in this "new wildland”.
just kept coming after the conference, betraying a triumphalist attitude
that seemed naive at best, and immature at worst. I got a promotional
email from Twan Teunissen of ARK Nature Development, but operating as Wild
Wonders of Europe, the communication partner of “Rewilding” Europe, which
had this gush:
It’s a puzzle to me how such a quantitative relationship could be inferred between overall species composition and the natural state of vegetative cover. It is evidence that permeates all through “Rewidling” Europe, of a wilful eco-illiteracy, a blindness to what has gone before. Prof. Peter Grubb made a plea in 1976 for the conservation industry to consider what was the original natural habitat of chalk grassland species, noting that their mobility meant that they were easily recruited from the natural open spaces prior to the human domination that denuded the landscape of forest, such as woodland edges at the margins of cliffs, cliffs in lowland and montane areas, coastal sand-dunes, what woodland openings there were, and well drained micro-sites within the marshes and fens of the lowlands where tree growth was poor (18).
A more contemporary account of the same observation comes from Chris Thomas of York University (19). He sought to ask why so many animal and plant species in Britain, and in some other parts of northern Europe, are restricted to open habitats when the majority of the landscape would naturally be forested? He observed that most open-country species would have survived the mostly wooded state of the mid Holocene in the open areas of inland and sea cliffs, dunes, coast and lake shores, and possibly river-valley grasslands, fen, bog and mire, as well as above the tree-line, without the need to invoke major modification of the vegetation by large herbivores. They would have colonised twice: in the early Holocene after the ice receded but failing to persist once tree cover asserted, and then again after the trees were cleared for agriculture. Thus what ever the date of arrival, current distributions largely reflect recent conditions. In addition, the rates at which we see modern distributions adjust to new environmental conditions are sufficient to allow most animal species to assume new distributions within Britain in a few hundred years if conditions change. Current distributions thus reflect recent anthropogenic habitats far more strongly than they reflect the longer-term history of natural populations.
A sinister turn and a despicable act
Soon after, I learnt that WWF Netherland’s (WWFNl) funding of “Rewilding” Europe had come about as a consequence of their withdrawal of funding from PAN Parks. It is also likely that the renaming to “Rewilding” Europe was also at the instigation of WWFNl, because that was the title of the last funding proposal that PAN Parks had submitted to them. That PAN Parks didn’t die-off must have been a considerable irritation, as its achievement in raising the profile of wilderness across Europe through its membership network of protected areas was one of the key factors in the Explanatory Statement to the European Parliament resolution on wilderness (20) and they have gone on to establish a European Wilderness Preservation System (21). The wilderness that PAN Parks certifies in the core areas of National Parks, and that of its Wilderness Partners, is a complete antithesis to the proposed fake and manufactured wilderness of “Rewilding” Europe.
Events then took a sinister turn through a despicable act by “Rewilding” Europe, and which I recently pointed out in an article over the summer, having kept it to myself for some time in respect for PAN Parks desperate difficulty in replacing the funding that was taken away from them. For completeness, I will retell the events as few people have read that article (22). Are articles about my wilderness walks in America that uninteresting?
I started corresponding with George Monbiot over two years ago, while he was researching and writing his book Feral (23). George gave me a draft last year for comment, and there was a section in there that made me cringe. George had, like many others, appeared to have swallowed the rhetoric of “Rewilding” Europe and its fantastical plans to restore “ecological processes” across Europe, when in reality they are a gung-ho grazing organisation. I told George about what I thought was the inadequacy of the scientific backing for their approach. George said that he had questioned them on the science of their assertion that Europe's landscapes are naturally "open and half open", and had received a reply from Staffan Widstrand, a notable ego, amply suited to getting on the payroll of “Rewilding” Europe. The content of the reply demonstrated the bizarre conviction that drives their warped ideology, because it showed that when their guard slips, they couldn’t care less about science.
Widstrand rambled on about
how science used to view the earth as flat, that the sun circled the
earth, and the heretics who did not believe that were burned on a bonfire.
He also took a huge dig at forestry, as though foresters ruled the world
of nature protection. I'm not sure which world he lives in? Anyway, this was him saying that those who took the currently available science at
face value – and which is overwhelmingly unsupportive of Vera’s theories
(10) - were
uncritical followers of a
the equivalent of those flat earthers, while “Rewilding” Europe were the
heretics who, presumably, would eventually be proved true. Then he shot
himself in the foot before he stuck it in his mouth, when he repeated the
only rebuttal they have to criticism of their approach:
I was also
able to tell George about the events after WWF Netherlands withdrew its
funding from PAN Parks, plunging it into financial crisis, while at the
same time it bankrolled the formation of “Rewilding” Europe. Like the
bullies that they are, “Rewilding” Europe then aggressively sought to
enforce the dissolution of PAN Parks, the dismantling of its wilderness
network of member parks, and the taking over its network of tourist
operators. This prejudiced the chances of replacement funding for PAN
Parks that had been offered to them, in a fear that it would end up with
“Rewilding” Europe. Thwarted in that attempt to shut PAN Parks down, WWF
Netherlands then commissioned a consultancy "to explore a joint
business perspective for Rewilding Europe and the PAN Parks Foundation"
without even seeking the assent of PAN Parks or its members. Perhaps WWF
Netherlands and “Rewilding” Europe were fearful that the wilderness
advocacy of PAN Parks in Europe will expose the threadbare ideology that
they pursue? George, in the published version of his book, is now openly
critical of the approach of “Rewilding” Europe (23):
Ten years on for Self-willed land
point out that this month marks the 10th anniversary of
Self-willed land. That I will be speaking at the World Wilderness Congress
in Spain in a week or so should represent some sort of affirmation of
progress over those years (24). However, I had pretty much made up my mind
last year that I wasn’t going to the Congress because I could see that
“Rewilding” Europe would seek to hijack the agenda. I said as much in an
email to some members of the development group for the Congress at their
meeting in Frankfurt at the end of June 2012, pointing out that it should
be difficult for those people to be in the same room with an organisation
that had sought dissolution of PAN Parks:
Neither of these conditions are true for PAN Parks.
This kind of inappropriate behaviour from WWFNl and RE is unhelpful to say the least in the cause of protecting and re-establishing wilderness in Europe”
That this hardly caused a ripple surprised me until I found out that “Rewilding” Europe was “buying” their way into the Congress, but in a sleight of hand that could be called money laundering, some of that money was coming straight back out to fund the “soft porn” wildlife photography of Widstrand. Even worse to come was when the development of a “Vision for a Wilder Europe” to be endorsed by the Congress, was being written by more people who, like Widstrand, had suddenly popped up on the payroll of “Rewilding” Europe. The first drafts read like a press release for “Rewilding” Europe, which is not surprising given the limited (selected) input to it that left out particularly the involvement of Wild Europe, another key player, like PAN Parks, behind the European Parliament wilderness resolution, and another organisation that "Rewiding" Europe had tried to bully. For the few that were involved in the "Vision", and not on “Rewilding” Europe’s payroll, it became a battle for months in trying to make it less like a propaganda text for “Rewilding” Europe, and where I had yet again to be the voice of those with concerns about the overbearing influence of “Rewilding” Europe.
documents, in particular, cited in the “Vision”, showed the contempt for
reality, as neither had yet to see the light of day, and thus their
content could not be weighed against the assertions in the "Vision". One
was a report on a “wildlife comeback” across Europe that had been
commissioned by “Rewilding” Europe and which had originally been signalled
for launch in late 2012, the other being a report in preparation for
“Rewilding” Europe by Wageningen University that allegedly would give
credence to the assertion – here it is again – that:
There is that assumption again that agricultural landscapes are the true nature! The 50% assertion was eventually dropped from the “Vision” presumably because the Wageningen University report was not going to be produced, but the “wildlife comeback” stayed in, the report finally seeing the light of day last Thursday (25, 26). The report of course dwells on high profile, photogenic mammals and birds (Widstrand is credited for 45 out of 121 photographs) and there is nothing about restoration of native vegetation, providing evidence of Philip Ashmole's surmise about rewilding being only about the comeback or re-instatement of mammals (see above). I wonder, since the report had been promised over a year ago, whether the first draft didn't say exactly what “Rewilding” Europe wanted it to say. If so, I have respect for the Zoological Society of London in not being brow-beaten by the usual bullying of “Rewilding” Europe, and bringing in other organisations as a bulwark against the pressure they were likely under, to produce evidence that fitted the "Rewilding" Europe story.
clear about this. “Rewilding” Europe sought this report as a cover for
their warped sense of what “rewilding” European landscapes mean - covering
everywhere with herbivore excrement. They call this the "new paradigm", a
freeing of natural processes, but in effect they want to create large
scale open air zoos, where herds of livestock and horses can be seen
roaming around and eating the life out of the land, asserting that (16):
really? Not for nothing have “Rewilding” Europe also said in their
brochure that "We intend to assist in bringing wildlife numbers up to
more readily viewable levels" since it is all about creating the gawp
factor with domesticated animals as a substitute for truly wild nature.
Wouter Helmer, their stooge in co-founder ARK Nature Development, was
interviewed in the New Yorker late last year (27) and revealed that the
goal of “Rewilding” Europe was, in effect, to create giant versions of the Oostvaardersplassen, each at least fifteen times as large, and which
confirmed my view about open air zoos (3, 28). Helmer stressed that
“Rewilding” Europe was not particularly concerned about whether the new
landscape that would be created would resemble the ancient one that had
been altered or destroyed:
Dissecting the warped ideology
Essentially, this is ecological ignorance, in spite of "Rewilding"
Europe's disingenuous nod to the large carnivores in their brochure and in
this “wildlife comeback” report which, in their warped thinking, are not
the system directing species of trophic cascades - they and their allies
always seek to minimize the influence that carnivores have on the
behaviour and impact of herbivores. Thus a guide to using domestic
livestock as “landscape architects” produced by Free Nature and Eurosite
(co-founders of "Rewilding" Europe)
has this, and marvel at the simple logic of it, and in which behaviourally
mediated trophic cascades don't exist (29):
The wildlife comeback in Europe owes nothing to "Rewilding" Europe or its ideology. When they say theirs is the "new paradigm", it shows their knowledge of the history of protected areas in Europe is as bad as their eco-illiteracy. It is the withdrawal of human influence on landscapes that has been the key factor, as is demonstrated by 100 years of strict protection in places like the Swiss National Park, or the Lagodekhi State Nature Reserve in Georgia, a fact that was recognised by Harvey Hall, an American who travelled Europe in 1928, comparing the European approach to National Parks and reserves to that in America (30). This meant no hunting, no logging, and NO grazing - the original paradigm, and which Hall observed was needed in Europe because, unlike America, there were no large areas of unmodified nature left here. Thus there had to be a long period of strict protection to restore what he called the natural condition. In contrast, "Rewilding" Europe will use the cover of "wildlife comeback" to justify imposing domesticated herbivores on to landscapes that would better recover their wild nature, their natural condition, in the absence of what is in effect a farming pressure.
There is an inordinate emphasis in the "Vision" on economic opportunities and private land ownership - and nothing to support the existing and widespread state systems of nature protection, which are predominantly in state ownership, and which have, like such as Lagodekhi State Nature Reserve, been delivering to some measure on that "new paradigm" for some decades through strictly protected areas. The former is just a continuation of a western European trend of the Neoliberalisation of nature conservation. There is also an overemphasis on the EU and the Natura 2000 network, exposing again an ignorance of the national protected area systems across the whole of Europe and not just the member states of the EU; the origin of the Natura 2000 network through its copying of the flawed approach of the Bern Convention, and which flaws have also been duplicated in the Emerald Network, the non-EU copy of the Natura 2000 network; and it ignores how the Natura 2000 network is a block on ecological restoration through its compositional approach to nature conservation. It sets up the straw man argument of the cost of managing for nature conservation, but then repeats the assertion that abandonment leads to a loss of biodiversity. This is also ignorance of national protected area systems that recognise both strict and managed nature reserves, as though only the latter exists. Fundamentally, this is a very contrived document to suit a particular vested view. It was never likely to be anything else, since the whole approach of Dutch Nature Development, Frans Vera, "Rewilding" Europe and the True Nature Foundation (which used to be called the Megafauna Foundation) ARK Nature Development, Free nature etc. is to ensure that every argument fits their world view. Frankly, this "Vision" is really insulting to so many people now and in the past.
will be going next week to the World Wilderness Congress in Salamanca,
where it will be hard to avoid the propaganda of “Rewilding” Europe. As
you would expect, I will be speaking in the Science Section about
wilderness in Europe as revealed by strict protection in the national
protected area legislation of European countries. But I will also be
giving a talk during a session of PAN Parks European Wilderness Days
entitled The Definition of Wilderness: pushing true wilderness into the
frontline! It deals with the two themes that “Rewilding” Europe pushed
into the “Vision for Europe” of the Congress, about “wildlife comeback”
and the “new paradigm”, and where I will thoroughly dissect their warped
ideology. It is, though, probably too late to rescue the word rewidling.
John Burnside writing in
the New Statesman recently observed that the outcome of the
"reformulating, reimagining, redefining" that characterises
organisations like "Rewilding" Europe, gives rise to allegedly new
concepts being introduced, only "to turn into buzzwords"(31):
Mark Fisher 28 September 2013
(1) Welcome to WildPeople WilderNature, Wild Ennerdale June 2013
(2) How can we manage a site’s landscape, ecological and human history and safeguard our archaeological and natural heritage? Public Event, Workshop & Networking. Action for Involvement 27th June 2013
(3) Fisher, M (2012) The revisionism of the conservation industry – expanding the noosphere in Britain. Self-willed land March 2012
(4) Wildwood plan for Carrifran. SNH Magazine. Winter 2009
(5) Fisher, M (2003) Wild follow up. ECOS Volume 25, Issue #1
(6) Large herbivores in the wildwood and in modern naturalistic grazing systems (ENRR648) English Nature Research Report 648, 2005
(7) Knepp Wildland Project
(8) Knepp Estate HLS - Management of environmental features: General conditions on all HLS agreement land 1st January 2010 – 31st December 2019
(9) Fisher, M (2012) Saying goodbye to ash. Self-willed land December 2012
(10) Fisher, M (2012) A review of naturalistic grazing versus natural processes, Self-willed land September 2012
(11) Rewilding: What would it mean for British wildlife? British Ecological Society 31 May 2007
(12) Hodder, K.H., Buckland, P.C., Kirby, K.J. and Bullock, J.M. (2009) Can the pre-Neolithic provide suitable models for re-wilding the landscape in Britain? In Naturalistic Grazing and Re-wilding in Britain: Perspectives from the Past and Future Directions. Volume 20 Number 5 (Special supplement) June 2009
(13) Rebuilding the Natural Heart of Europe, EC Presidency Conference on Restoration of Large Wild Areas, Brussels 16, 17 November 2010
(14) Wild Europe Field Programme: A Field Programme for creating European Wilderness 2005
(15) Smil, V. (2011) Harvesting the Biosphere: The Human Impact. Population and Development Review 37: 613– 636
(16) Rewilding Europe brochure 2012
(17) Fisher, M. (2013) Trees, Forested Landscapes and Grazing Animals. A European Perspective on Woodlands and Grazed Treescapes, Wildland Bibliography book review, Self-willed land
(18) Grubb, P. J. (1976) A theoretical background to the conservation of ecologically distinct groups of annuals and biennials in the chalk grassland ecosystem. Biological Conservation, 10, 53-76
(19) Thomas, C.D. (2009) A speculative history of open-country species in Britain and northern Europe. In Naturalistic Grazing and Re-wilding in Britain: Perspectives from the Past and Future Directions. Volume 20 Number 5 (Special supplement) June 2009
(20) Explanatory Statement, Motion for a European Parliament Resolution on Wilderness in Europe, Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety report 5 December 2008, European Parliament
(21) The Million Project, PAN Parks
(22) Fisher, M. (2013) Ecological restoration in modified landscapes. Self-willed land June 2013
(23) Monbiot, G. (2013) Feral: Searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewidling. Allen lane
(24) WILD10. 4-10 October 2013: Salamanca, Spain
(25) Wildlife Comeback in Europe, Zoological Society of London 26th September 2013
(26) Wildlife comeback in Europe: The recovery of selected mammal and bird species. Zoological Society of London, BirdLife International & European Bird Census Council
(27) Kolbert, E (2012) Recall of the wild. The quest to engineer a world before humans. The New Yorker, December 24 & 31, 2012
(28) Fisher, M.(2011) Does it have (four) legs? - The Dutch Experience of Nature Development, WRi
(29) Natural grazing wild and semi-wild animals as landscape architects. Free Nature and Eurosite May 2013
(30) Hall, H.M. (1929) European Reservations for the Protection of Natural Conditions. Journal of Forestry 27: 667-684
(31) Burnside, J. (2013) Rewilding: Who are we to dictate what species live where? New Statesman 28 August 2013