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  • Writer's pictureCrone

Re-minding rewilding

There's a rewilding course I'd really like to do but remain unsure about. You can find the details here. It covers everything from ecosystems and beavers to getting finance and planning the project.

As the Trust have bought this large site, Strawberry Hill, and apparently plan to manage it like the famous rewilded Knepp Estate, it seems that getting this training - alongside having Volunteer Officer on my CV - might help me get a job one day. It would also be fascinating to visit the beavers in Devon and learn from real pioneers of rewilding. The course is supported by this wonderful place Embercombe and the Ecosystem Restoration Camps team - another great organisation. All of that sounds just up my street.

But so often my streets are culs-de-sac and I find myself feeling like the odd one out. In fact, as I have stated before, that seems inevitable.

That's one reason to doubt. There are other reasons.

Money. It costs quite a lot - though it could apparently be classed as CPD which might help me rather than hinder me financially. So that is less of an issue. Other courses I might feel more aligned with might not be able to classify as beneficial in that way.

My big issue arises from the attitude that European rewilders - more than their North American counterparts - seem to have about animals.

I read a book by one of the tutors - actually I listened on Audible as it was free - Cain Blythe and Paul Jepson's Rewilding.

It's not a polemic, like George Monbiot's Feral, which I read and rather liked some years ago, or a personal record, like Isabella Tree's Wilding, which I still have not read, but does a decent job of going through the science... to a point. It explains the importance of herbivores. Great. But without carnivores, the system needs human intervention in terms of killing animals to reduce numbers and does not have the benefit of herbivores being "moved on" to avoid grazing preferred areas to destruction, which does appear to happen when they are concerned about predation. (The research is questionable on this - Yellowstone talks about "landscapes of fear" but wolf researcher David Mech queries that. However, predators do kill the herbivores. Their actions plus the weath - it's a complex system - impact herbivore numbers without us killing them.) So, essentially, they are talking about large scale conservation grazing.

Now, I don't have a problem with conservation grazing. I think it's great. But it's not rewilding. Now, they SAY it's rewilding, Jepson and Blythe, because they define rewilding that way. But this is Orwellian! You can't just say, "Oh! This word sounds good, let's say it means what we want it to mean!" Why not, you may ask, that's what science does. Here's why: rewilding carries with it certain connotations. Romantic and free! So, just like the use of colours and specially chosen words in advertising, it has a cachet that will lead people to buy into it - and that cachet, it seems to me, IS about freedom, wilderness, and animals being animals - NOT about grazing stock! It’s fine, great, to have grazing stock - but it’s like a kind of purity-washing to call it "rewilding".

You might say, well, if the advertising gets people to buy into something which is, incontrovertibly, ecologically good, then what's the problem?

A good question. My answer is because by making people think that we are doing something purely good for other species when in fact it is all about ecosystem services simply perpetuates the current condition: humans matter most and nothing else has value in itself. Only as it can be used by or for us.

I think Blythe and Jepson are making a great case for ecosystem services, for saying, OK, we’ll be better off if we let natural processes do the stuff that can improve the land and the environment. But they are labelling it DISINGENUOUSLY. All of them are. It’s all about people, our food security, our land - it’s not about the wild world at all.

This is a criticism regularly leveled at European rewilding by their North American colleagues. But of course, we do not have, in England at least, at the moment, a large enough space for larger carnivores than a fox (e.g. wolves or lynx) to have territories. Nonetheless, Blythe and Jepson avoid even the suggestion that predators bring advantages by seemingly suggesting that it's ALL about grazing. This makes it seem as though it's ALL about preventing scrub incursion and woodland expansion and instead managing grassland or wooded pasture.

Again, wooded pasture is great. And we do have to preserve the many and varied habitats we have in the UK - as both David Attenborough in his series Wild Isles and the wonderful Ian Hilbert at the Trust pointed out.

Indeed, both politically and pragmatically, that might be the best thing we can do in England (continental Europe does have wolves and lynx), but it's rewilding through relabeling rather than in fact.

In addition, as I mentioned above, the authors' attitude to animals really pissed me off. For a start they praise the Game Parks in Africa for preserving ecosystems - paid for by trophy hunters - and say that only an unthinking person could fail to see the advantages in allowing game hunting for the greater good (the habitat). BUT I was to resist such dualistic thinking (the lives of animals vs the good to the habitat) and I want to say that this view perpetuates the kind of anthropocentric, human exceptionalistic, domination-focused, ego-driven mindset that is the root of the problem. It addresses a symptom - OK, that's not entirely bad - but it enhances the cause - and that is dreadful.

Consider this: The elephants in those South African reserves were trucked in as youngsters after seeing their families shot from a helicopter. These young male elephants, without appropriate family life in the natal group and then in a group of mature males, came into musth about 10-15 years earlier than is normative and they raped and killed 100 rhinos. This behaviour was previously unknown in elephants. Likewise, the reintroduced wolves at Yellowstone were unrelated individuals captured and flown in. Despite their success, there is FAR greater inter-wolf violence in Yellowstone than in Alaska.

This highlights Blythe and Jepson's utter failure to recognise the sentience, relationships, culture and agency of the animals themselves, which is further demonstrated by the way they talk about the herbivores. They seem to see them as material objects, things, pawns, to be put in certain numbers in certain places that require them. And that when you "cull" a number it's just that. We know that this is not the case. Who is killed by predators is different almost always from who is killed by trophy hunters or by ranchers. The animals' social and cultural lives are adapted to losing sick, weak and very young animals but not to losing males in their prime, matriarchs and adolescents. To ignore this is, again, to reaffirm and reestablish all the anthropocentric thinking that got us into this fix.

For goodness' sake, tiny little tits value relationships more than food. Animals are not machines that eat and shit, they are living beings with preferences, connections and a will of their own.

Rewilding isn't, in my view, just about "nature knowing best", it's also about animals knowing how they best flourish. And it's not as ranched herds artificially brought together and artificially fragmented.

The book seems to be suggesting that rewilding is purely a means to best manage the environment FOR US. To use a term with the wilderness and romantic connotations inevitably implied by rewilding is deceptive. Nature based solutions. Call it that. That sums it up. But it is NOT rewilding.

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