ECOS 38(6)

Twitter debates reveal the prejudices and the passion surrounding moves to embrace rewilding.  

 Over the last couple of years I’ve been active on Twitter, mainly tweeting about wilderness and wild land, but more and more these days about rewilding. It gives me an opportunity to share thoughts as well as current events and news items with my students and a wider group of followers. It also gets me into some quite lively debates about what rewilding is and, more critically, what it isn’t. I’ve written in ECOS before about rewilding, most recently about some of the conflict and scepticism that inevitably comes about during a paradigm shift.[1]Twitter provides a useful window into the views and opinions of others. To give me a better understanding of the various reactions to rewilding I follow a diverse group of people and organisations and I try to engage with these as constructively as possible.

Different camps - pos apart?

If you search under the #rewilding hashtag you’ll quickly find out there are two opposing camps: the ‘pros’ and the ‘antis’, with very little in between. The apathetic and the undecideds don’t seem to tweet much. What ought to be evident to anyone who follows what might loosely be termed the ‘countryside’ lobby, either in traditional or social media, is that rewilding has had a bit of a bad press of late. [2] Figure 1 gives examples of a small selection of recent headlines attacking rewilding. There are assorted reasons for this backlash. These include the fact that it is new, that there is an implied loss of control (real or otherwise), the fact that rewilding is something of a game changer in conservation circles, and (for some) there is a very real fear associated with bringing back top predators.

Figure 1. Anti-rewilding headlines

Underlying much of the ill-feeling and mistrust amongst the land-owning and game-shooting country set is that rewilding implies relinquishing some of their long-held control over much of the British countryside. This is what I say in my pinned tweet (see Figure 2) and comes from an analysis of the many interactions I’ve had over the last couple of years. Rewilding is widely seen as the latest social movement loved by the great unwashed of right-on leftie urbanites and vegan eco-zealots (their words, not mine) aimed at undermining the cultural status quo. There is another view, widely held among ‘rural folk’, that rewilding is anti-farming and threatens livelihoods by replacing fields and livestock with the dark wolf-filled forests of lore. Neither is it a one-sided argument, as extreme views from both sides trade blows in ever-increasing circles of name-calling and mud-slinging. The animal rights lobby and anti-driven grouse shooting (#dgs) groups seem particularly vociferous and active in pursuing those who they see as the bad guys. [3]  It may sound like I’m exaggerating here for dramatic effect, but I kid you not. Twitter can be a microcosm of all that is bad in social media. Throw in class war, politics, money, long-held beliefs about ‘tradition’ and mix liberally with stark warnings about the anthropocene including climate change, mass extinctions, plastics in the oceans, etc. and #rewilding adds up to a perfect storm that is never very far from proving Godwin’s Rule.[4]

Figure 2. @LandEthics’ pinned tweet

When 140 characters is just not enough

Time and time again, I’ve been asked to say exactly what rewilding is. For such a complex and rapidly developing subject this is not an easy task in the maximum 140 characters that Twitter allows, so I often just refer my Twitter friends to articles that I and others have written for ECOS.[5],[6] Nevertheless, just for @GethinJones123 who keeps asking me for a definition I’ll give it a go…

Giving wildlife & natural processes space & time to determine their own patterns & trajectory without human interference or intervention.

I think that about nails it in just 137 characters! However, the best “Rewilding-in-a Tweet” I’ve seen is by @AliDriver (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. @AliDriver Rewilding in a tweet

Of course, multiple definitions abound depending on context and exactly what flavour of rewilding is being espoused. With such a new and complex subject, this is only to be expected, but it nevertheless seems to be something the anti-rewilding lobby can’t (or don’t want to) get their heads around. Rewilding is a continuum of both scales and approaches, that itself sits along the range of human modification of the natural environment, covering urban at one extreme to wilderness on the other (see Figure 4). [7]

Figure 4. Rewilding and the Wilderness Continuum

A longer, more comprehensive definition that takes the continuum concept fully on board is given in Box 1 and illustrated via the graph in Figure 5. This graph attempts to visualise the idea that: (a) there are diverse types of rewilding that may initially require different levels of human intervention; (b) these may change over time; and (c) the intended outcome of rewilding is nominally the same, namely an ecosystem that can effectively take care of itself and determine its own successional trajectory without constant interference or modification from human management.

 

Figure 5. Level of intervention vs time

Busting the #rewilding myths

Much of this backlash can be attributed to the many Alt-facts and fake news circulating around about #rewilding. I explode some of the more common myths and, critically, go on to explain what rewilding is not.

  1. “Britain is too small and crowded an island” This is a commonly heard myth that maintains our islands are too heavily populated to allow landscape scale rewilding. Some basic statistics are helpful here. The population of Britain is 67 million people of which 81% can be classified as urban occupying just 6% of the total land area. That leaves 94% non-urban areas with an average population density of <1 persons per square kilometre that can be described as rural. Nevertheless, rural lobby groups see rewilding as an urban idea forced on rural people, even though urban rewilding is just as much part of the picture as rural rewilding. [8]

  2. “Our land use and habitats are too heavily modified” While it is true that most of the country’s ecosystems are human dominated and are comprised largely of some form of urban, agriculture, managed forest or moorland, there are many semi-natural habitats that with a little careful rewilding could quite easily develop into valued natural habitats. There is a deeper issue here in that many of the existing wildlife habitats and the species that occupy them are based on some form of traditional land use regime. In this instance, rewilding implies change to and subsequent loss of these. This neatly brings us on to the next myth.

  3. “Rewilding will mean we will lose biodiversity” The question I always ask in return is “What biodiversity and who for?” This implies that the current biodiversity of human modified ecosystems has only come about through association with human created niches and as such isn’t representative of the landscape’s true ecological potential. I also make the point that we need to be careful not to confuse biodiversity (number of species) with naturalness or wildness.[9] They are not the same thing.

  4. “Nature can’t survive without our help” Nature abhors a vacuum and given time and space, nature and natural processes will occupy any land left to its own devices. It is only human nature that we want to meddle and interfere and unfortunately this applies to many conservationists as well as land managers. This myth may well be true if we concern ourselves only with specific species and habitats that rely on human management and intervention to keep them in place, but if we are concerned with creating rewilded ecosystems that are led by natural processes and ecology, then this shouldn’t necessarily concern us too greatly.

  5. “Rewilding will destroy rural communities and traditions” This final myth is perhaps the trickiest one to answer. If a community is based, as some are, on peculiar and specialised economies, such as driven grouse shooting, then rewilding the moors on which they depend will result in irrevocable change. However, the picture need not be so black and white. Much depends on the scale, focus and approaches to rewilding. Diversification with rewilding as part of the mix may, if carefully managed and marketed, add to the wider resilience of many local economies and culture. Much depends on a change of mindset that embraces change while maintaining core traditions under which the “cultural severance” arguments presented by some against rewilding may be myths themselves.[10] There are many examples worldwide where local communities have developed and benefited from their proximity to wild landscapes and the opportunities that presents, and there is no reason why we cannot recognise that here also.[11]

To counter the misconceptions about rewilding it is perhaps just as important to state very clearly what it is not as to say what it is.

  1. Nobody wants to rewild everywhere. Food, people, and farming are important aspects of a holistic land use policy. We all need to eat, and so responsible and sustainable farming is central to putting food on the table. Rewilding should therefore only take place where the combined benefits outweigh the costs in terms of food production potential foregone. For this reason, rewilding will necessarily be limited to those landscapes where there is public or beneficial ownership and a will to forgo the burden of exploitation; and where agriculture and forestry is marginal and/or dependent on subsidies so that rewilding as an alternative land ‘use’ can provide better value in terms of the public goods of wider ecosystem service delivery.

  2. Rewilding is not a universal approach. One size doesn’t fit all and there are plenty of examples where rewilding as a conservation approach wouldn’t be appropriate. There is confusion here as rewilding has become a bit of a conservation bandwagon with Everyman and his Dog referring what they do for nature conservation as some kind of “rewilding”. While rewilding fits along a spectrum of approaches (see Figure 4) in the end if a term, either restoration or rewilding, applies to everything, it also means nothing.[12] This has not been helpful in promoting the cause of true rewilding to its doubters because they can claim that rewilding is either nothing new or an ill-defined and imprecise term.

  3. Rewilding is not being forced on anyone. It should be a bottom-up process led by the communities involved and enabled by enlightened top-down policies. There is much concern (real or otherwise) among its detractors that rewilding is some kind of “subversive and planned land grab”.[13] Rewilding depends very much on the availability of suitable land, willing land owners and, where necessary, an engaged community. Many existing rewilding projects are based on these principles and without each of these three pillars in place, any rewilding project, however well-meant it is (like the proverbial three-legged stool missing a leg) likely to fail before getting off the start line.

  4. Rewilding does not exclude people. People are very much a part of any rewilding process because it is people who hold the power of decision over both public and private lands. These might be government officers, planners, NGO representatives, land owners, land managers or local people. While many local people might not be directly involved via land ownership they should always be involved through extensive consultation, participation and involvement before rewilding goes ahead. Part of this deal ought to be free rights of access to rewilded landscapes for recreation especially when paid for by public money.[14]

  5. Rewilding is not just about reintroducing top predators. Many of rewilding’s detractors jump immediately on the notion that rewilding is just about reintroducing large predators. While this might be the ultimate goal of “re(al)wilding” it is not necessarily the initial starting point or, indeed, end-point for all bona fide rewilding projects.[15] Reintroducing large mammalian predators is a difficult and long-term project that requires much careful thought, preparation and full consultation and involvement of local communities. Nonetheless, there are strong ecological arguments that landscape rewilding without natural predators isn’t ecologically sound as full trophic processes cannot otherwise be established and so be limited by the need for constant human intervention.

A final word?

Much of the impetus for this article has come from the many and sometimes heated debates I’ve had with people on Twitter. Rewilding has variously been called a fad, a “subversive land-grab”, ignorant and unjust. Rewilders have been called fantasists, “disenchanted human beings” and the “boy-racers of the conservation world”.[16],[17] All the while, many of rewilding’s detractors seem unable to grasp even some of the basic ecological facts on naturalness, predator-prey relationships, trophic cascades, disturbance and succession. Much of the anti-rewilding rhetoric hinges on the generalisations, half-truths and myths that I debunk in this article. Confirmation bias, however, is rife on both sides of the debate, with protagonists often ignoring contrary evidence or the simple voice of reason because it doesn’t suit their agenda or beliefs. Compromise and understanding seem to be rare commodities. I’m guilty of it myself: often seeing red when people peddle Alt-facts and fake news, especially when intentionally targeted to discredit or derail genuine discourse on and around rewilding.

Here Twitter and other forms of social media are failing, though I doubt they were ever intended as a platform for compromise and consensus in the first place. Rather they serve only as news platforms, providing instant access to data feeds and current events. There’s nothing wrong with that, but what is needed is more face-to-face dialogue across all sides of the debate. In a recent Twitter-thread, the argument ran for several days with up to 11 individuals involved before it fizzled out after over 1100 tweets. I suspect we’d have achieved a whole lot more in one evening of lively discussion around the dinner table sharing some good food and drink than we did in a whole week of back-and-forth Tweeting. We might have discovered some common ground which could then form the basis for some progress in which positions based on complex bundles of different life experiences and aspirations could start to be modified. Perhaps participants might even be persuaded to do some follow-up research by reading more detailed evidence in which the arguments run to considerably more than 140 characters.

Nevertheless, social media does have its place, making open participation easier and more accessible, unlike those debates carried out solely within the pages of academic journals and specialist reports. Twitter and its ilk will continue to draw attention to the #rewilding debate across a far wider audience with its outreach of millions rather than a few hundred. It is far easier to join the debate here than it is to attend meetings, speak in public and get your thoughts and opinions published in print. For this reason alone, the “establishment” doesn’t like it. Michael Gove has attacked social media because it “corrupts and distorts reporting and decision-making".[18] Or maybe it just draws attention to facts that politicians and influential land-owning interests would rather remain hidden? Blogs are a kind of middle ground and there are several good and prolific bloggers out there who are worth reading. Here I include Miles King, Mark Fisher, Rob Yorke and David Eyles which might be enough to give you a broad spectrum of views on the subject. [19] I have seen more promising signs of developing understanding and compromise in these writings than I have in many a Twitter rant. I think the key is word space – space to develop and explore an argument across its many facets and angles than the 140 characters in Twitter allows. Yet, the corollary of this is that we increasingly like to receive our information in short, easily digestible sound-bites. This fits easily into our busy lives and the palm of our hand as we dash about head-down in a smartphone or other portable device. Interest piqued, we might then dig deeper and read more around a topic, learn and so mould our opinion in a more enlightened and informed manner. Hopefully, this will then come out in our subsequent Tweets and posts, so moving the debate forward.

Argument or influence?

What does all this have to do with the real world of rewilding? How do the often-abstract debates that go on in Twitter (and many a blog also) affect the real-world situation that faces practitioners and rewilding projects “on the ground”? Does it change the way bodies like Rewilding Britain, Carrifran Wildwood and Trees for Life pursue their day-to-day work or, indeed, influence their long-term vision? I suspect the answer to each of these questions is “not much” at least directly, but perhaps it will influence the hearts and minds of the wider audience? Here then it must have an indirect and more subtle influence, after all, these projects and organisations depend on ‘membership’ and/or affiliation to survive. [20] Whatever the answer, the ongoing debate in Twitter-space provides us with a useful barometer of public opinion and a window into the thinking of some key individuals and the views of the organisations they represent. For that reason alone, it is worth following and engaging in the #rewilding story.

References

[1] Carver, S. (2016) Rewilding… conservation and conflict. ECOS37(2), 2-10.

[2] See for example The Countryside Alliance http://www.countryside-alliance.org/ @CA_TimB and @CAUpdates

[3] See for example Raptor Persecution UK https://raptorpersecutionscotland.wordpress.com/ @RaptorPersScot

[4] Godwin’s Rule is an Internet adage that states that as an online discussion grows longer the probability that someone will mention or compare someone or something to Adolf Hilter increases https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godwin%27s_law

[5] Recently Twitter has started allowing 280 characters in some people’s tweets as an experiment. There are mixed feelings about the usefulness of such a feature as longer tweets are harder to digest though they can more accurately express content and sentiment. This latter point is important as anyone who uses SMS will doubtless know. Short pithy messages, such as those in twitter, can often appear terse and combative giving the wrong message despite good intentions. I’ve called “bumptious” by some (thank you @NaomiLWood) when all I was doing was tweeting factual corrections from a point of knowledge and experience.

[6] Carver, S. J. (2016). Flood management and nature–can rewilding help? ECOS: A Review of Conservation, 37. Fisher, M. (2006). Future Natural–. ECOS27(3/4), 1.

[7] Or ‘spectrum’ @denny_robert

[8] How much of your area is built on? http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-41901294

[9] Carver, S. (2014). Making real space for nature: a continuum approach to UK conservation. ECOS, 35(3-4), 4-14.

[10] Rotherham, I. D. (2015). Eco-history: an introduction to biodiversity and conservation. ECOS, 36, 1.

[11] Many communities do. For example, those in the Cairngorm National Park based around recreation service industries and those on Mull based around wildlife watching economies.

[13] @NaomiLWood https://twitter.com/NaomiLWood/status/926193130772320256 and David Eyles’ blog https://wulfstansghost.com/2017/11/02/what-is-rewilding-and-who-is-it-for/

[14] Charging the public for access to Knepp Estate and Alladale seems to go against this principle.

[15] Carver, S. (2014). Making real space for nature: a continuum approach to UK conservation. ECOS, 35(3-4), 4-14.

[16] Catherine Bennett https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/oct/01/id-prefer-if-wolf-kept-from-my-door-rewilding-countryside

[17] See David Eyles’ blog https://wulfstansghost.com/2017/11/02/what-is-rewilding-and-who-is-it-for/

[18] Michael Gove (2017) Radio 4 Today Programme, 24 November 2017.

[19] Miles King “A New Nature Blog” https://anewnatureblog.wordpress.com/about/; Mark Fisher “Self Willed Land – advocacy for wild land and nature” http://www.self-willed-land.org.uk/; Rob Yorke “Rural Commentator” http://robyorke.co.uk/; David Eyles “Wulftsan’s Ghost” https://wulfstansghost.com/  

[20] There is a very mixed picture here as there are different models of ‘membership’ ranging from Twitter followers to paid membership of organisations registered with the Charities Commission.

 

@LandEthics (aka Steve Carver)

Steve Carver is Director of the Wildland Research Institute, School of Geography, University of Leeds.

Contact the author

Definitions of rewilding

Rewild (verb) to restore an area of land or whole landscape to its natural uncultivated state often with reference to the reintroduction of species of wild plants or animal that have been lost or exterminated due to human action.

Rewilding (gerund) is a conservation approach aimed at restoring and protecting natural processes in core wild areas, providing connectivity between such areas, and protecting or reintroducing keystone species (which may or may not include large herbivores and/or predators). Rewilding projects may require active intervention through ecological restoration, particularly to restore connectivity between fragmented protected areas, and the reintroduction of species of plants or animals where these are no longer present.

Passive Rewilding is the spontaneous colonisation of abandoned land by wild or native species in the absence of direct human management or influence from domestic plants or animals, and resulting in/from the return of natural processes.

Active Rewilding is the return of wild or native species and restoration of natural habitats and processes that involves some level of human intervention and/or management.

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