The most ambitious proposal for land management


I can’t remember where I first came across the term rewilding, but I know roughly when. I had a similar problem a few years ago in remembering what inspired me to pick self-willed land when looking for a name for this website. I thought it must have been in articles by Dave Foreman of the Wildlands Project (1). Well, it was Dave Foreman, from his chapter in a book of essays entitled The Great Wilderness Debate (2). I’ve gone the same route as before to search for rewilding in looking through those early books from America that influenced me, but not one had the word. The only place I can track it down to, is the few files I copied from the Wildlands Project website in late August 2003 and where the strapline motto was “reconnect  restore  rewild”. Yet even these few webpages seem a tenuous connection, as I don’t see that I would have absorbed so much from them in so short a time to have been able, a couple of weeks later, to have written and circulated a personal manifesto on rewilding Britain (3). I mentioned both The Wildlands Project and Wild Earth in that manifesto, Wild Earth being the periodical that was the platform for the Project (4). Looking back, I see I took text from the Wildlands Project webpage on Mission, Vision and Purpose and paraphrased it to give a flavour of the central aim of establishing a connected system of wildlands to stem the loss of wildlife and wilderness (5). It would be a natural recovery of whole ecosystems and landscapes in every region of North America over a period of 100 years and more, and which supported the repatriation of top predators where they had been extirpated. This was about seeing wilderness as a wild home for unfettered life.

Even then, rewilding wasn’t mentioned in relation to this recovery of ecological integrity. The formative article on the scientific basis of rewilding by Michael Soulé and Reed Noss was one of three articles that I could have downloaded from the Wildlands Project at that time in 2003 (6) but I only see the other two in my folder (7,8) and can find no copy of the Soulé and Noss article dated early enough in any other folder. So how was I able to assert in my manifesto that areas designated for rewilding must be of sufficient size and, ultimately, linking between them would be desirable, a key concept of the Soulé and Noss article? How also could I have looked to an inflow of species as the recovery evolves, and that wild mammals would return to participate in shaping the rewilding? Why would I restate the importance of large carnivores in the need to reintroduce those predators so that the wilder area is supplied with a full complement of its essential tools for balance, when this is a key concept in the scientific basis for rewilding? If it was not from the Soulé and Noss article, where else would I have learnt about rewilding?

The history of the evolution of rewilding

That’s a puzzle that’s going to vex me for some time, and you might ask why it has any importance? Well, I’ve been looking at the history of the evolution of rewilding before 2003, and finding that vexing in itself. It comes across strongly in the timeline of evolution of rewilding, that there was a core group of highly motivated environmentalists in America and, amongst them, a small group of scientists working in landscape ecology and conservation biology. It was thus a cross-fertilisation between the outputs of those scientists in their professional life with the strategy and actions of the Wildlands Project and its followers, and the articles that they and others wrote for Wild Earth. If there was a fault, it was that these scientists did not associate rewilding with the scientific concepts in the articles that they were having published in peer reviewed journals, but which they and others rightly associated in writing about ecological restoration by rewilding in Wild Earth from 1991 onwards. I can only speculate why this was. Sometimes you just want to get your thoughts out there without having the hassle of peer review ripping it to shreds (or have my dislike of being edited) and then the wait until publication, especially if you are on a leading edge. Thus it’s interesting to note that Wild Earth gave space for Paul Martin to expound his ideas on Pleistocene rewilding in 1999 (9) because Martin was finding it difficult to get it into the mainstream academic literature – it took him another six years before he could to get it into the journal Nature (10). Perhaps it was the implicit understanding amongst them that rewilding was derived from the principles of conservation biology, itself a young branch of science then in applying ecological knowledge to the conservation of diversity, that it was the science that they were publishing that was the important thing. More probable, there may have been a sensitivity at that time about these scientists not wishing to sacrifice their standing as impartial observers by seemingly getting into advocacy for a particular approach to conservation (11).

I was asked recently what impact my manifesto had made. I suspect that it was mention of wilderness and large predators that put people off from its message of giving wild nature a break from human exploitation. Fifteen years on, equipped now with an evolution in my own ecological understanding, I am surprised to see that the eight action points I laid out in the manifesto remain as valid today in their consistency with the scientific underpinning of rewilding (4). The same cannot be said for the continual triviality in which rewilding is approached in Britain. Thus a couple of weeks ago, a heavily promoted event took place in London that was an adversarial face-off – a “Battle” -between antagonists for and against rewilding the uplands where the only winner would be those in the audience who get a vicarious thrill from witnessing human disarray (12). This was always going to generate more heat than light, given the known views of the panel members (ie (13)) and in the paucity of its contemporary relevance. My colleague Steve who was there, said it was all theatre, entertaining rather than informative. You can read Mark Avery’s account if you are able to wade through the football metaphors (14) or that of Catherine Early for the Ecologist who makes a better fist of reporting what each panel member put forward (15). Then, of course, there is the establishment figure in Fiona Howie, chief executive of the Campaign for National Parks, who wants to claw back and control this little opening window of discussion (16). However, given that according to Avery, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was sitting in the front row, then this farrago has to go down as a missed opportunity to present the best case for rewilding, because arguments for rewilding based on farmland will always fall flat.

Why we ended up with such naff national parks

Steve and I recently wrote a piece for ECOS about the review of England’s National Parks (17). I can’t say my heart was entirely in it, because it was yet another encouragement for our national parks to be search areas for opportunities for rewilding, but at least it was couched as an identification of both public land holdings and willing private land owners (18). While we were scribbling away, the Campaign for National Parks released a report, the central theme being that the “Parks should be raising the bar on nature and, through innovative, landscape scale approaches, demonstrating how the declines in wildlife can be halted and reversed”(19). The headline message of this report was based on a survey carried out in 2016 that revealed that the top two changes that people wanted were for national parks to better conserve wildlife, and to be made wilder (20). Hence the Raising the Bar report has 26 mentions of ‘wilder’, seven of ‘rewilding’, and three of ‘wilderness’. However, the big get-out in the Campaign for National Parks report was that it would be qualified as “relatively wilder”. It also makes a particular point in relation to rewilding about the importance of language, that there is a lack of consistency in terms of what people understand by the word rewilding, and then goes on to give the least challenging examples of alleged rewilding in Knepp and Ennerdale. The key of course is that both these examples are meat factories and thus an unthreatening proposition to farm interests (21,22).

I was more interested in writing about why we ended up with such naff national parks. I have shown how the very first report on national parks in 1931 set the trend of condemning us to a continuing incomplete trophic ecology because we were considered a “country where the fauna is practically limited to birds, insects and the smaller mammals” and thus did not need real national parks where wild nature could have its home unfettered by human interference (23-25). The Addison report also observed that we were a densely populated and highly developed country where there was little land that was not already put to some economic or productive use. Instead, the aim of taking adequate measures for preserving the countryside of the private land co-opted into a park could be secured by controlling rural development through the planning system. The Dower Report that followed in 1945 also repudiated the North American parks, asserting that even the remotest areas in Britain had been settled and modified, noting that while a park would have its landscape beauty strictly protected, and with ample access for public open air enjoyment, established farming use had to be effectively maintained (26). The Hobhouse report two years later went the same route of dismissing what it saw as the wildlife sanctuaries and game reserves of the national parks in North America and Africa, declaiming that parks in England and Wales were not to be small scale copies of those vast areas set aside in other countries (27). Moreover, parks were not to be seen as museum specimens, but instead would be areas where farming and rural industries must flourish, unhindered by unnecessary controls or restrictions, nor from any inconvenience through public access to visitors. At least the Hobhouse report gave more expression than the Dower report to the protection of wild life, noting that preservation of the landscape called for maintenance of a good vegetational balance, as well as of the rich flora and fauna in the wilder parts that were a principle attraction. Of course, this policy for wild life was not be allowed to prejudice the best use of developed land.

When it came along in 1949, the legislation for national parks embraced the approach of co-opting private land and ensuring preservation of its natural (scenic) beauty through controlling physical development by the planning system (28). Parks were to provide opportunities for open air recreation and the study of nature, these being delivered by open access agreements with individual landowners who would be compensated (see S.59 & 60 in (28)). There was no mention of wildlife in the original bill. Although specific provision for recreation and access was made in the Act, it failed to achieve free access to open country. By 1974, only 32,000 hectares had been secured, less than 2% of all open country, and 80% of that was just in one park - the Peak District national park (29). So poor was the take up in access agreements that it was characterised as a dominance asserted by landowners over the use and control of rural land, and that allowing recreational access was a benevolent act that would require respecting the institution of private property (30). However, it would be subsequent legislation in 2000 that would provide real open access, and thus 51 years afterwards (31).

Both the Dower and Hobhouse reports emphasized the protection of wildlife, but it would be 46 years before conservation of wildlife would be included along with natural beauty as a purpose of parks, but this was balanced by the addition also of conserving cultural heritage (32). At least this amendment of the original Act by the Environment Act 1995 (see S. 61 in (33)) fulfilled one of the recommendations of the Edwards report (34) even though the amenders eschewed a reference to ecology by not inserting “natural systems” that was in the wording recommended by the Edwards report i.e. "to protect, maintain and enhance the scenic beauty, natural systems and land forms, wildlife and cultural heritage of the area". However, this greater emphasis on wildlife was without any teeth, since an additional amendment only required that if there was a conflict between the purposes laid out for a park, then greater weight was to be given to conserving and enhancing the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage (see S.62 in (33)). Somewhere along the way, the requirement of national parks to provide opportunities for the study of nature got lost.

Public ownership provides greater opportunity for regeneration

Taken as a whole, it’s not really an enviable record that would satisfy an appellation of “national”, but then I have never sought to fix things that were broken from the outset. I see that I was resolute in declaring in point six of the manifesto that experience shows that public ownership or ownership in the public interest provides greater opportunity for regeneration and then preservation of self-willed land, rather than the co-opted privately owned land of our national parks (4). It has been a central tenet for me these last 15 years. I may be a critic of farming, and its hegemony over land use, but I have never sought to impose rewilding on those who are fundamentally and inherently antagonistic to it – they would be, and have shown to be, such unreliable and uncommitted participants anyway, especially when inevitably they would need incentivising. Nor could private ownership necessarily provide the long-term continuity that must be given if wild nature is to thrive. I noted above that there would probably be a need to reintroduce wild predators so that our new wilder areas are supplied with a full complement of its essential tools for trophic balance. This was point seven in the manifesto, and in present times is vehemently opposed by landed interests, as witnessed by the National Sheep Associations indefatigable opposition to the reinstatement of lynx (35). I have to say that the very public tragedy of over 3,000 animals dying of starvation this last winter in the Dutch monstrosity of the Oostvaardersplassen (22, 36) has firmed up my resolve about the idiocies of alleged rewilding being synonymous with unrestrained large herbivores chewing up the landscape. Thus I have eschewed the conditionality of “probably” that I used 15 years ago in relation to large carnivore reinstatement, and would argue that the biggest challenge facing ecological restoration in Britain is how the missing functional trait of a large predator is factored in - it should not otherwise merit the term rewilding. Given the millennia of farming in Britain, a first step in restoration is a cessation of grazing and a monitoring of the return of structural vegetation, small mammals and birds (24,37). At a point where some of that structural vegetation is mature enough to resist a low level of grazing, random pulses of grazing that have some spatial diversity can be instituted. It’s a compromise and will require considerable planning and effort, but it will demonstrate the need for the real thing - large predators (38).

I reiterate here that the UK and Ireland are the last and only countries in Europe that do not have the presence of the wolf (24). The irony is that this now continent-wide distribution of wolves in Europe has not been matched in similar scale by a re-distribution of gray and red wolf in America over the same time span (39) especially so when detractors of rewilding often regard it as an American phenomenon solely associated with large carnivore reinstatement, and thus doesn’t apply here. Well, there is a simple reason why rewilding is linked with reinstatement of large carnivores in America, because it is due to the absence of large carnivores that are needed to complete the trophic balance. In the same way, rewiding in Britain has to be associated with the reinstatement of large carnivores because of their absence here. The big difference between America and here is that we seem incapable of applying the principles of conservation biology, the knowledge that restoration is more than just reinstating one or two species or a habitat, that it has to be about restoration of much as possible of the whole ecosystem at all trophic levels – and then protecting it long term against human interference. I’ve written about the Wildland Network Designs of the Wildlands Project for the Sky Island mountain area in south-eastern Arizona to southwestern New Mexico, and where Focal Species Planning was key to ensuring full ecosystem representation of the region's native habitats and species (37). This was the Wildlands Project demonstrating its mastery, after a nine-year development period since its inception in 1991, of the ecological implications of restoration by way of network design at regional to continental scale rewilding. The reason for the emphasis on it being a network is because conservation biologists soon recognised that the dangers from insularity in the concept of island biogeography also applied to isolated areas of wildland (40). They had moved beyond a concern with the preservation of islands of wildland to articulating a broader vision for restoring a fully connected wildness on a large scale and where the mobility of wild creatures define the shape and character of the areas connected and preserved (41).

An audacious proposal

This mastery though was evident very early on when five members of The Wildlands Project turned up in 1993 at the Society for Conservation Biology's annual conference in Tempe, Arizona, and in front of a packed audience of over 300, explained how the Wildlands Project “represented a loose coalition of regionally-based groups across North America, each of which was composed of conservation scientists and activists, and each interested in developing long-term strategies to restore native biological diversity, ecological integrity, and wildness to their region” (11). They then outlined an overarching vision for public lands protection that would safeguard more than 50 percent of the lower forty-eight states in core wilderness areas with human buffer zones and interconnecting corridors stretching across huge tracts of land (42,43). The technical approach was a map-based conservation planning, involving an iterative process of reserve selection, reserve network design, and development of management and restoration plans (11). It was a vision of what North America might look like in 100 or 200 years if the scale of human activities could be reduced and wild nature was given a chance to recover. Described by one author as an “audacious proposal” it is alleged that the “sweep of the idea elicited gasps from the audience” (43). Following the presentation, a panel of scientists from academia, government, and the private conservation community were asked to critique The Wildlands Project. The Project was more cautious in reporting the reaction it received: that it was radical and politically unrealistic, a wildly utopian assumption about the future when set against human population growth and resource consumption, that there was the potential for a backlash against these “ambitious proposals”, that the benefits of corridors and roadless areas, in particular, were insufficiently validated to form the basis of the approach, and that these proposal may drive people from their homes in the human use areas of the buffer zones and corridors (11,44). There was, however, little criticism of the scientific underpinning of the proposals in the need for big reserves and inter-linking corridors if biodiversity was to be protected. The boldness of the proposal drew new attention and some controversy (such as the erroneous assumption of human exclusion) among conservation biologists, national environmental groups, and even prompted a major and largely favourable article about The Wildlands Project in Science magazine (43).

Science described the proposal as "the most ambitious proposal for land management since the Louisiana Purchase of 1803" (42) an allusion to a land purchase from the French in 1803 that nearly doubled the size of the United States (45). Unfortunately, because the article is not freely available, you will only get to see the first page (42). Nevertheless, that has a map showing the network design for the Pacific Coast of Oregon, with a continuous band of core refuges, buffer zones and wildlife corridors delineated in different colours, the corridors on the inland edge of this band forming directional arrows for where they will link in with other networks. It gives you a good idea of the approach. The next map shows a series of continuous buffer zones and corridors criss-crossing the State of Florida to link up core areas so that the Florida panther can migrate between them – a monochrome version of this graphic was published earlier in the first edition of Wild Earth (46). The third map is of special interest to me as it shows a vast reserve system of core areas, buffer zones and corridors encompassing the southern Appalachians in the Mid-Atlantic region – I’ve walked the two National Parks in this region and a number of wilderness areas in its National Forests there.

The scale of these reserve systems was consistent with the “growing conviction among conservation biologists and other scientists that native species, especially big carnivores such as wolves, grizzly bears, and mountain lions, need enormous amounts of space to survive” (42). In that respect, giving wild animals sufficient space was viewed as consistent with laws like the Endangered Species Act that allows for the designation of “critical habitat” for an endangered species on the basis of the best scientific data available, and which prohibits any “take” (harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct) of the endangered species (47). The Science article also gives a good cross section of the reactions to the various aspects of the proposals, and which were particularly tentative about the corridors where the greatest land use changes would have to occur. Outside of doubts of its political feasibility, many of the scientists interviewed could not fault its ecological approach to species survival – thus Fred W. Allendorf, a population geneticist at the University of Montana is quoted as saying “at least it will help force people to make a conscious choice about what we are going to let survive” (42)

There is to be a new Environment Act (48). It’s essentially guess work what this legislation will cover, for although it is couched as building on the 25 Year Environment Plan, there is no other information provided. I can’t see that it was trailed in that Plan, unlike the commitments to such as an independent environmental watchdog to hold government to account, and a Nature Recovery Network (49, 50). I doubt that this new Act will be informed by the recommendations of the Law Commission in reforming wildlife law (51) as these recommendations came out before the decision to leave the EU, and thus do not reflect the pre-occupation there is now with withdrawal from the requirements of EU legislation (52,53). Nonetheless, the wildlife trusts are already staking a claim to the Nature Recovery Network with their “report for the Westminster Government” (54) and I expect they will dig up their previous big idea that went nowhere, the Nature and Wellbeing Act (55) its view of wild nature in both of these firmly rooted in a reference point that is stuck in a depauperate past that the Addison report described back in 1931, a “country where the fauna is practically limited to birds, insects and the smaller mammals” (see above).

It wouldn't take much to put forward “the most ambitious proposal for land management” in Britain since the Addison report, an “audacious proposal”, a wildland network design that has designation of sufficient “critical habitat”, buffers and corridors to enable the reinstatement of former natives species like the wolf and lynx, because “at least it will help force people to make a conscious choice about what we are going to let survive”

Mark Fisher 29 July 2018

(1) Wild Park, Brighton - not so wild now, Self-willed land December 2013

(2) Foreman, D. (1998). Wilderness Areas for Real. In: Callicott, J. B., & Nelson, M. P. (Eds.). (1998). The great new wilderness debate. University of Georgia Press. Pg. 405

(3) About the author and articles. Self-willed land 2004-2012

(4) Self-willed land - the rewilding of open spaces in the UK, Self-willed land September 2003

(5) Mission, Vision and Purpose. Wild Earth, 10(1): 4-5

(6) Soule, M., & Noss, R. (1998). Rewilding and biodiversity: complementary goals for continental conservation. Wild Earth, 8(3): 18-28.

(7) Miller, B., Dugelby, B., Foreman, D., Del Río, C.M., Noss, R., Phillips, M., Reading, R., Soulé, M.E., Terborgh, J. and Willcox, L., (2001) The importance of large carnivores to healthy ecosystems. Endangered Species Update, 18(5): 202-210

(8) Locke, H. (2000) A balanced approach to sharing North America. Wild Earth, 10(1): 6-10

(9) Martin, P.S. and Burney, D.A. (1999) Bring Back the Elephants! Wild Earth 9(1)(Spring 1999) 57-64

(10) Donlan, J., Greene, H.W., Berger, J., Bock, C.E., Bock, J.H., Burney, D.A., Estes J.A., Foreman, D., Martin, P.S., Roemer, G.W., Smith, F.A., Soulé, M.E. (2005) Rewilding North America. Nature 436, 913-914.

(11) Noss, R.F. (1995) Science Grounding Strategy - Conservation Biology in the Wildlands Work. Wild Earth 5(4)(Winter 1995/1996) 17-19

(12) The Battle for the Countryside: Britain Should Rewild Its Uplands, Tuesday 10 July 2018, 7.30pm | Emmanuel Centre

(13) Rory Stewart MP: rewilding leaves no place for people in the Lake District, Campaign for National Parks 6 July 2018

(14) Could rewilding uplands save the British countryside? Mark Avery, JULY 11, 2018

(15) Could rewilding uplands save the British countryside? Catherine Early, Ecologist 12th July 2018

(16) Let’s avoid a simplistic debate about the future of National Parks, Fiona Howie, chief executive of the Campaign for National Parks, Green Alliance blog 19 July, 2018

(17) National Parks review launched, DEFRA Press release 27 May 2018

(18) Carver, S. and Fisher, M. Reviewing England’s National Parks: an opportunity for rewilding? ECOS 39(3)

(19) Raising the bar: improving nature in our National Parks A report by Campaign for National Parks June 2018

(20) A Big Conversation about National Parks: the findings of our survey, Campaign for National Parks June 2016

(21) Unfinished business on rewilding - a comparison between Rewilding Britain and Rewilding Europe, Self-willed land May 2016

(22) More zombie ideas in ecology, Self-willed land March 2018

(23) Report of the National Park Committee [Cmd. 3851] 1931

(24) Rewiring an emptied food web, Self-willed land January 2018

(25) The continuing destruction of our native trophic pyramid, Self-willed land February 2018

(26) National parks in England and Wales. Report by John Dower [Cmd. 6628] 1945

(27) Ministry of Town and Country Planning. Report of the National Parks Committee (England and

Wales) [Cmd. 7121] 1947

(28) National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949

(29) Curry, N. R., & Curry, N. (2005).Countryside recreation, access and land use planning. Taylor & Francis ppg. 63-64

(30) Parker, G., & Ravenscroft, N. (1999). Benevolence, nationalism and hegemony: fifty years of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. Leisure Studies, 18(4), 297-313.

(31) Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000

(32) Section 5, National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949

(33) Environment Act 1995

(34)Edwards et al (1991) Fit for the future: report of the National Parks review panel

(35) NSA reemphasises the risks of reintroducing lynx in the UK. National Sheep Association News 13th July 2018

(36) Using functional traits - walking rewilding and wolves straight into the criticism of Goldilocks Standards, Self-willed land June 2018

(37) Conservation biology and the repair of our damaged and degraded ecosystems, Self-willed land April 2018

(38) Terborgh, J. W. (2015). Toward a trophic theory of species diversity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(37), 11415-11422.

(39) Places for Wolves: A Blueprint for Continued Wolf Restoration and Recovery in the Lower 48 States, Defenders of Wildlife

(40) Foreman, D. (1995) Wilderness: From Scenery to Nature. Wild Earth 5(4)(Winter 1995/1996) 8-16

(41) Smalley, A. L. (2017). Wild by Nature: North American Animals Confront Colonization. JHU Press

(42) Mann, C. C., & Plummer, M. L. (1993). The high cost of biodiversity. Science, 260(5116), 1868-1872.

(43) Turner, J. M. (2012). The promise of wilderness: American environmental politics since 1964. University of Washington Press.

(44) Johns, D. (1993) Wildlands Project Update, Wild Earth 3(3)(Fall 1993) p.4

(45)Louisiana Purchase, Historynet

(46) Noss, R. (1991) Ecosystem Restoration - An Example for Florida. Wild Earth 1(1)(Spring 1991) 18-27

(47) AN ACT To provide for the conservation of endangered and threatened species of fish, wildlife, and plants, and for other purposes (Endangered Species Act of 1973)

(48) Prime Minister announces Environment Bill, Defra Press Office 19 July 2018

(49) A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment. HM Government 2018

(50) The continuing destruction of our native trophic pyramid, Self-willed land February 2018

(51) Wildlife Law Report Summary, Law Commission (2015) LC362 (Summary)

(52) New environment law to deliver a Green Brexit, DEFRA News 10 May 2018

(53) Environmental Principles and Governance after the United Kingdom leaves the European Union: Consultation on environmental principles and accountability for the environment, DEFRA May 2018

(54) Towards A Wilder Britain: Creating a Nature Recovery Network to bring back wildlife to every neighbourhood. A report for the Westminster Government by The Wildlife Trusts June 2016

(55) A Nature and Wellbeing Act: a green paper from the Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB, October 2014