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Finding a Definition to Save the Natural World

By Gabriella Lockwood, BSc Zoology with Professional Placement Student at the University of Exeter

Aged fourteen I decided I wanted to study zoology at university. I was fascinated by the natural world and wanted to protect it. However, as my knowledge of nature conservation efforts grew, I began to realise this idea of protecting nature is not as straightforward forward I thought in my childhood. Rewilding has become a popular new tool for conservation – but it is controversial! Some think rewilding is a radical new way to protect nature, for others it is just a fancy new name for the term “restoration ecology”. But, at its roots what exactly is rewilding? Everywhere I look has a slightly different definition.

My first introduction to the concept of rewilding was in my second-year Biodiversity and Conservation module. Simon Roper, from Ambios, was invited to give a lecture on the work at the Sharpham Estate. Alongside their ecological education and training programmes Ambios have a long-term goal of rewilding the land surrounding the river Dart by creating partnerships with other local landowners. I was inspired by Ambios’ work so when I was given the opportunity to camp at Ambios and see their rewilding process first-hand, I jumped at it.

View up a hill where at the top there is a row of tents with trees behind, showing the wild area where students camped - Credit: Gabriella Lockwood

Ambios describes rewilding as “land management that encourages natural processes to shape and restore landscapes”. Using the term ‘management’ makes the process seem like humans are in charge. In her famous book “Wilding”, Isabella Tree gives a contrasting impression. She describes the process as “restoration by letting go…allowing nature to take the driving seat”. I think my favourite description of rewilding from this book is “giving nature the space and opportunity to express itself” – a beautiful and almost poetic phrase. Tree’s description of rewilding implies there is minimal human involvement, which is the opposite of how Ambios describes the process. Another definition is used by the charity Rewilding Britain which promotes rewilding in Great Britain; they describe it as “restoring nature on a large scale until it can look after itself”. This describes a middle ground between the definitions put forward by Ambios and Isabella Tree. Could this lack of a solid definition hinder the evaluation of rewilding project success? I’ve had a look at what the scientists say.

Plantation forestry - Credit: Gabriella Lockwood

The lack of a solid definition is discussed in the scientific literature as well as popular science literature. For example, Nogués-Bravo et al. (2016) define rewilding as the “restoration of ecosystems through the (re-)introduction of species” – this paper also states that the variation in definitions surrounds the level of human involvement. Other researchers say that the issues surrounding a definition for rewilding are deeper than this and we need to be asking what it means to make something wilder.  Jorgensen continues by explaining that the term “rewilding” was first used in print in 1991 in a magazine article connected to the Wildlands Project in North America. This project aimed to create corridors with no human activity with the intention of their being used by large carnivores. Again, I feel that this invites questions surrounding rewilding and the levels of human interaction. Should humans be there to make something “wild again” and then leave it to fend for itself? Or should rewilding be about land being left alone completely for nature to take its own course? Inevitably, humans will impact the land whether it is left of natural regeneration or choices are made to aid the process in activities such as tree planting. Neither is necessarily wrong, but without a unified definition frameworks are harder to make to aid decisions surrounding human involvement in rewilding.  

The confusion continues when some scientists use definitions that don’t refer to humans directly, e.g. “a process of (re)introducing or restoring wild organisms and/or ecological processes are either missing or dysfunctional”. Others (Jepson; and Navarro and Pereira) argue that rewilding is different to mainstream conservation as it does not require human management to a set goal but that it is an open-ended form of management (implying that there is still some type of human involvement).

Trees of different ages and heights regenerating naturally in the Cairngorms – Credit: Gabriella Lockwood

Ultimately, the situation in the scientific literature matches that in popular media but is the opposite of my initial impression as a child. Conservation can be confusing and if we lack consensus on the most fundamental thing – a definition – how can we be successful? Rewilding efforts have seen species return to areas from which they have been absent for a long time, so they claim their methods work. I saw this at Ambios, the vegetation is reflective of what it looked like before it encountered major changes in the 18th century for recreational use as parkland. While at Ambios I shared excitement in hearing that another student had spotted a jay while leaving their tent one morning. With every piece of land and its management history being so different is it understandable that the rules of rewilding are not set in stone, but it’s clear that guidelines and a set of definitions are needed, especially surrounding the level of human intervention in the process.

  I would like to thank the University of Exeter’s Career Zone for the opportunity to visit as a part of the Gateway to Careers: Nature Networks programme.

View of River dart from the campsite at Ambios, Credit: Gabriella Lockwood

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