In the continued quest to cover more solutions-focused topics in this corner of the internet for a while, today I wanted to focus on the power of rewilding. As both a natural climate solution, a way to reverse biodiversity loss, and a vital tool to protect and restore the natural world, rewilding is an incredibly important movement. Here’s what you need to know.
What is rewilding?
Rewilding is a conservation strategy that focuses on restoring biodiversity and ecosystem health by restoring natural processes (the way nature works when left alone). Wild areas can flourish without human interference, rewilding lets nature take over and re-find its own balance, so ecosystems can once more become self-sustaining and abundant.
Natural processes can’t be built, but we can create conditions to help them reassert themselves through repairing damaged ecosystems and reintroducing lost species of native plants and animals.
I suggest that the dominance of natural processes, without any human intervention, can be seen as a kind of holy grail. And that rewilding is the journey to that holy grail, it is the process of restoring land so that natural processes can dominate.
Rewilding is therefore often an active process in the beginning; working on restoring equilibrium using a range of approaches grouped together under the Three Cs, Cores, Corridors and Carnivores.
Cores refer to a key part of a habitat that one or more species rely on. Specific needs, for example timber and running water for beavers, determine how large a species’ core habitat is. Focusing on cores refers to supporting access to resources (for example regrowing native plants revives native insect species and therefore the entire food chain) and reducing human activities that threaten these resources. It usually entails surveying an area to define what human activities have damaged an ecosystem (for example dumping industrial waste into waterways or chemical runoff into soils throws an entire habitat off balance). These projects can be difficult, as stopping human activity can require lobbying for tougher regulations and court battles over land rights and use.
Corridors focuses on creating connectivity between restored core wilderness areas that were once part of the same landscape but have been separated by human activity. This allows different populations to migrate, interact and breed, increasing biodiversity and preventing genetic bottlenecks while creating more self-sustaining environments.
Carnivores refers to the reintroduction of keystone species. Rewilding efforts focus on animals high up in the food chain, like apex predators and large herbivores. These larger animals regulate ecosystems due to their interactions with other species, and their activities affect everything in the ecosystem. This is known as the trophic cascade.
Once these steps have been taken and an ecosystem is able to function independently human interference is actively withheld, allowing nature to completely take over, find the correct balance, and thrive.
Types of rewilding
In 2015 Rewilding Europe carried out a major assessment of opinions in rewilding areas in Portugal, Croatia, Italy, Romania, Poland, Germany and Bulgaria. The assessment found that 75% of people were aware that Europe was losing biodiversity, with over 67% of those interviewed believing rewilding and letting nature take care of itself to be a good thing. Over 87% endorsed the efforts to bring back wildlife that are taking place in parts of the EU.
So how can it be done?
Also known as trophic rewilding, this is an active approach that involves reintroducing current descendants of species an area has lost, aiming to restore missing or dysfunctional processes in an ecosystem. Reinforcements involves the release of a species into an existing population to enhance viability and survival, while reintroductions aim to re-establish a population in an area after a local extinction.
This aims to reduce human intervention in ecosystems, returning areas of land back to nature and restoring it, aiming to let nature develop and thrive on its own.
Remove any barriers hindering nature’s ability to thrive. This means removing dams and dykes, putting a stop to active wildlife management, restoring connectivity between wild spaces (like building wildlife overpasses), and repairing and ending damage caused by human activity (like planting native tree species after widespread deforestation).
This strategy focuses on reintroducing species or descendants of megafauna from the Ice Age (known as the Pleistocene era). There was a mass extinction of megafauna towards the end of the Ice Age, which some argue left an imbalanced ecosystem. This type of rewilding can involve introducing foreign species to an ecosystem rather than reintroducing something that recently disappeared, so it’s a more risky approach.
One of the most famous successes for trophic rewilding was the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park. Wolves were killed off in Yellowstone in the 1930s, leaving the ecosystem unstable. Elk and deer populations rose to uncontrollable levels, leading to overgrazing, which led to a reduction in trees and plants in the park. This went on to hurt populations of beavers, otters, and bears, and increased pressure on vegetation. It even caused river banks to change as there were fewer trees capable of holding the soil together, causing more erosion.
Once wolves were reintroduced in 1994 they helped stabilise these populations, as well as preventing overgrazing as deer and elk spent less time at watering places, allowing plants and trees to recover. In particular, flowers increased, attracting more insects and birds, and streamside vegetation growth increased which reduced erosion. Waterways returned to more natural pooling patterns, benefitting trout and other species. Beavers also then returned, creating conditions for more fish, and benefiting otters and other animals.
Additionally, the wolves reduced large coyote numbers, meaning populations of smaller animals that were being preyed on or out-hunted were able to recover. Rodent populations increased, in turn benefitting birds of prey, weasels, foxes and badgers, carrion left by wolves provided more food for ravens and eagles, and bears increased as they benefitted from both the wolves’ hunting skills and the increase in berries due to reduced overgrazing. This is a key example of how the reintroduction of one species high in the food chain has a huge impact through the whole interconnected ecosystem.
Another success has been the reintroduction of beavers in the UK. Beavers are incredibly helpful animals, their dams are important for regulating natural water systems as well as creating habitats that many other species can use. They create ponds and rippled sections downstream, while the dams themselves make good habitats for many invertebrates and the animals that live off them. They also prevent flooding and scouring in rivers, improve soil health, and create habitats for bats and other species by coppicing trees near rivers. Where there are beavers the number of wildfowl, ducks, and geese and the size of trout and salmon tend to be much greater.
Benefits of rewilding
But rewilding goes beyond natural restoration. Here are some other key benefits:
Biodiversity: rewilding gives nature a chance to reestablish its natural state of rich abundance and biodiversity. Large predators keep populations stabilised and fluctuating in harmony while natural corridors increase genetic diversity.
Self-Sustaining Systems: a return of natural processes without human interference allows all areas of an ecosystem to thrive in balance, naturally creating a system that is self sustained and in which all components thrive.
Fighting climate change: as part of a larger ecosystem, animals and plants can affect weather, land and erosion patterns, all of which are connected to weather events and climate change.
One paper suggests the presence of large herbivores in the Arctic, including reindeer and muskoxen, can help moderate warming trends. Another details the positive influence of beavers on wetland plant diversity. Research published in the new journal suggests large herbivores can prevent extreme wildfires by thinning vegetation.
…Rewilding efforts must be accompanied by other types of conservation projects, as well as stronger efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
Less extinction: reintroducing species of plants and animals has more chance of protecting them from extinction, as they are returned to core areas where they are best adapted to survive. In particular this is key for insects and microorganisms, who can be negatively affected by agricultural chemicals and human land management.
Rewilding the self
Another key part of rewilding is how it affects humans. As well as mass restoration of ecosystems, rewilding helps people become more enchanted with the natural world. The psychological benefits of rewilding are clear, because people like to be in nature. There is strong research tying mental health benefits and access to green and blue spaces together, which is a plus both for people and for responsible tourism. Because people want to see natural spaces and animals, there is also an economic case to be made for investing in rewilding on top of human and natural benefits.
Rewilding is a way of understanding ourselves as just one part of a larger, complex natural ecosystem, rather than as the domineering, destructive species we too often become. It gives us a chance to interact with nature on its terms, and escape the sanitized, unnatural environments that we have overwhelmingly built for ourselves
Rewilding projects around the world
There are currently multiple rewilding projects taking place across the world, so if you want to learn more or contribute there’s likely to be something going on close to you. In North America the Y2Y initiative aims to connect over 2000 miles of wild areas from Yellowstone Park to the Yukon in northern Canada. Get involved here.
Closer to home, Rewilding Europe promotes large-scale rewilding across Europe including Europe’s largest wilderness landscape outside of the Arctic Circle, Swedish Lapland and Europe’s largest wetland area. Even in just a short period of time, these projects are seeing increases in beaver, elk, ibex, whooper swans, white-tailed eagles, and even wolves. Get involved here.
Finally, if you’re in the UK, Rewilding UK have a series of projects here. They aim to support at least three pioneering pilot projects in Britain over the next decade, having most recently helped with the Summit to Sea project in Wales. Get involved here.