What would rewilding mean for a country like the UK? Bringing back wolves and bears? Returning the land to how it looked in prehistoric times? How will people fit into this wild and unimaginably different place? Questions like these abound whenever rewilding is in the news.
In essence, rewilding involves giving more space and time to nature. Instead of managing ecosystems to preserve particular species, rewilding is intended to reverse environmental decline by letting nature become more self-willed. That means allowing wildlife the freedom to flourish and habitats to regenerate naturally.
But without clear principles to guide these processes, rewilding has become a trendy buzzword that is often used indiscriminately. This has invited wildly different interpretations, sparked debates and caused controversy that has discouraged governments from developing it into policy.
This could be about to change though.
We’ve published a set of guiding principles which specify what rewilding should involve and how it should be done. This is the result of one of the most comprehensive international studies on rewilding to date, reviewing best practices and the latest science, instigated by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and involving hundreds of experts. Without further ado, here are the dos and don’ts of rewilding.
Don’t (always) start with wolves
The objective of rewilding is boosting the health of an ecosystem by increasing the number of species and how much they can all interact. A fully restored ecosystem would have top predators, but there are a lot of missing parts – the plants, prey animals, fungi – that should be put back first to ensure that larger species have an appropriate food source and habitat to support them.
It might not be appropriate for lots of other reasons to reintroduce wolves to a particular place at the moment, but in the meantime, bringing back beavers, lizards and butterflies is brilliant too.
The UK government has the chance to support the reintroduction of species by including funding for it in its new environmental land management schemes. As opposed to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, which paid farmers a subsidy based on the size of the land they owned, the new schemes would offer payments to farmers and land managers in return for supporting nature recovery across the landscape.
Within these schemes, funding could be allocated for the natural regeneration of habitats, instead of interventions like tree planting. This would mean moving away from setting fixed targets and managing habitats to suit one species, which might feel risky, but it would let scientists see how natural processes operate when they are given room, and what unexpected things arrive. This can change our understanding of how ecosystems work and where species can thrive if landscapes become healthier.
Do reconnect people with nature
Rewilding involves reducing harmful human pressures and promoting natural processes in ecosystems. This shouldn’t mean excluding people though. Rewilding should actually help people develop a more positive relationship with the natural world that involves compassion for all species and a spirit of learning from nature rather than seeking to dominate it.
This can be done through school trips, holidays in rewilding sites and voluntary work opportunities like tree planting, wetland restoration and wildlife surveys. A greater emphasis on the natural world in primary and secondary education could also help guarantee the long-term success of rewilding efforts by nurturing enthusiasm from an early age.
The prospect of rewilding has made some people in the countryside anxious. Farmers in particular worry that their livestock, land and way of life are under threat, either from reintroduced predators or new directives to manage the land differently.
Including local people at every stage of a rewilding project is very important. To ensure this, staff working on rewilding projects need to be based locally so they are available for a chat or to discuss concerns. They shouldn’t just rely on formal consultation – where communities fill in surveys or participate in organised meetings.
Ideally, rewilding projects should be driven by local people who could organise and set the agenda for how their land is managed. They should also directly benefit from associated businesses, like wildlife tours.
Do think about the future
Some people worry that rewilding harks back to a time before modern man or even earlier – to when woolly mammoths stalked the Earth. Looking back can allow us to see what has been lost and what could be revived, but rewilding isn’t about rewinding the clock. It’s about looking to the future and the challenges nature will face.
By enabling species to move through reconnected habitats and traverse entire landscapes, wildlife populations can be rebuilt. This would ensure the healthy functioning of an ecosystem isn’t dependent on a few isolated creatures, and it’s a practical way to help nature adapt to threats like climate change and new diseases, as species will have more freedom to move if pressures in one place escalate.
The UK government has committed to protect 30% of UK land by 2030 by creating new national parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. But landowners need commitments from the government and funders so they know that restoring woodland and wetlands won’t cost them money down the line. Conservation covenants – introduced in the 2020 Environment Bill – could provide a mechanism for landowners to stipulate how their estate is managed in perpetuity. So land can become, and remain, wild hundreds of years into the future.
Here, wildlife experts have suggested nine of their favourite spots for families to go searching for nature in the city this Bank Holiday weekend.
At more than 90 hectares, this is the largest local nature reserve in Norwich. Trees include oak, birch beech and lime, and there is a clay-lined pond which is used by breeding frogs in early spring.
Other species include lizards, woodland birds and deer.
Peregrine falcons have become some of the city’s most-watched wildlife after making their home in the cathedral spire.
Cow Tower and the River Wensum
Sit along the river and spot kingfishers, geese and mute swans. At dusk keep your eyes peeled for bats feeding over the water.
With its majestic trees this woodland in Thorpe Hamlet is home to birds such as great spotted and green woodpeckers, as well as bats and grey squirrels.
The cemetery is home to birds such as jays, goldcrests, sparrowhawks, blackbirds, wrens, robins, nuthatches, green and great spotted woodpeckers. There have been occasional sightings of hawfinch, firecrest, wood warbler and even a great grey shrike. The mix of grassland and trees is home to many moths and butterflies, and mammals include muntjac deer, hedgehogs, grey squirrels and foxes.
Train Wood borders the River Wensum on the northern side of Norwich, running along the disused railway line from the start of Marriott’s Way to Anderson’s Meadow. The area provides a home for foxes, otters, woodpeckers, and a myriad of other bird and plant life, as well as aquatic life – and it is fantastic for butterflies.
Whitlingham Country Park
Swifts, swallows and house martins can be seen feeding over the broad, while a whole host of bird song can be heard in the surrounding vegetation. Other species include bats, voles, foxes – and even the elusive otter.
The reserve contains a large area of open water known as St Andrew’s Broad. It hosts a variety of waterbirds, particularly in winter, including great crested grebe, pochard, cormorant, grey heron, gadwall and tufted duck. The surrounding scrub is home to reed buntings and a few Cetti’s warblers, whose noisy, explosive song is often their only giveaway.
This park, between Angel Road and Aylsham Road, has one of the longest herbaceous borders within a public space in the UK, and is a good place for spotting blackbirds, robins, starlings, collared doves, chaffinches, jays, jackdaws and wrens, as well as holly blue, orange tip and peacock butterflies.
How can we capture the power of the natural world to support the physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual health of each person, and the whole population, helping to prevent illness? And how can we steward and care for the ecosystems that we rely on so that they are sustained as they sustain us?
Come join our upcoming free event to find out how nature connection for health can be integrated into everyday life and into existing clinical pathways.
The Centre for Sustainable Healthcare has partnered with Health Education England’s online learning platform e-Learning for Healthcare to develop a free online module to introduce all healthcare workers to the knowledge and skills they need to deliver healthcare that is financially, socially, and environmentally sustainable.
The half-hour session ‘Building the Net Zero NHS’ explains how healthcare contributes to the climate crisis, why it matters for health, and gives specific examples of what the healthcare workforce can do to help. To register visit the programme page
Jack Shutt– Postdoctoral Research Associate in Conservation Ecology, Manchester Metropolitan University
I’ve filled feeders with seeds and nuts since I was a child and I’ve always loved seeing which birds arrive. I’m not alone – around half of all UK households do the same nowadays, spending £250 million on 150,000 tonnes of bird food each year. That’s enough to feed three times the breeding populations of the ten commonest garden species if they ate nothing else all year, with one feeder for every nine birds that use them.
Have you ever wondered how all of that additional food might be affecting wild birds? How much has our generosity changed their natural diet, and what of the bird species we don’t see visiting garden feeders?
If you live in the UK, one garden visitor you’re probably used to seeing is the blue tit. Blue tits are small, fast and often feed high in trees on tiny insects. Seeing exactly what they eat is tough. But with new molecular technology, we were able to test blue tit poo from 39 woodlands across Scotland – some close to houses, some on remote mountainsides and some by the sea – and gain a fascinating insight into their average diet.
What myself and fellow researchers found surprised us. A small moth caterpillar that lives on birch trees was their most common natural prey item, present in a third of the poos we sampled. But among hundreds of species of insect prey, we also found garden bird food – and lots of it.
Peanuts were present in half of all the poos – the most common food item for Scottish blue tits – and sunflower seeds in a fifth. And the birds weren’t just popping next door to find these garden treats. Some were travelling as much as 1.4km from remote areas to nibble on their favourite garden snacks. Clearly this has become part of their staple diet.
A blue tit bonanza
Eating the food we provide gives blue tits more energy to lay eggs – five days earlier than blue tits that don’t. These earlier breeders are likely to raise more healthy chicks. Eating bird food was also linked to a nearly four-fold increase in the proportion of adults available to breed in a given area. Where there used to be one pair of blue tits nesting, garden bird feeders nearby meant there was now likely to be almost four pairs sharing the same space.
All this feeding might be giving these species an unfair advantage. These species have natural competitors in the woods that aren’t using bird feeders as much or at all, either because they’re shy or because they’re bullied by more dominant species, or because they don’t like the food people provide. These species include the marsh tit, willow tit, pied flycatcher, wood warbler and lesser spotted woodpecker. What’s happening to them is, sadly, not such good news.
How to help all woodland birds
On average, woodland birds that don’t use garden bird feeders have declined over the past 25 years, some to the point where they have almost disappeared from the UK countryside. Nobody knows exactly why, and while this may be partly due to their habitat fragmenting and the climate warming, garden bird-feeding may have also played a role.
Due to people feeding them, there are now more dominant blue and great tits in the woods than 25 years ago, eating more of the limited natural food and evicting other species from their nests. There are also more great spotted woodpeckers and squirrels, which eat the chicks of some birds. Perhaps an extra 700,000 pairs of very healthy and dominant great tits in woodlands is too much for the UK’s remaining 2,000 pairs of shy and subordinate willow tits.
While our results suggest there’s a link between how much woodland birds visit feeders and their population trends, they don’t show a direct cause, so we shouldn’t panic yet. While scientists study this problem, responsible bird lovers can help.
Consider contributing to the garden bird surveys organised by the RSPB and the British Trust for Ornithology to help scientists keep track of where birds are, in what numbers and what they’re doing. If you’re lucky enough to live where rare woodland bird species can still be found, consider providing less bird food to common species and cleaning your feeders regularly.
Meanwhile, there are more natural ways to encourage wild birds into your garden. Planting native shrubs and trees like rowan, hawthorn, silver birch, spindle and guelder rose is one option. They are all beautiful year-round, fairly small and provide excellent habitats for wild birds. Other ideas include mowing lawns less often and digging ponds.
As some rare species nest close to the ground, please keep dogs on leads while walking in woodlands during the spring too. But most importantly, keep enjoying the UK’s beautiful birds – in all their miraculous diversity.
Mike Bruford– Professor of Organisms and Environment, Cardiff University
The Queen’s Green Canopy, a campaign to celebrate Elizabeth II’s platinum jubilee next year, involves asking people in the UK to plant trees: a “treebilee” as her son, Prince Charles puts it. This is one of a number of public and private campaigns underway, including initiatives by big corporations from Nestle to Audi which are also planting millions of trees in an attempt to mitigate a portion of their environmental impact.
But, at a much smaller scale, there are thousands of community reforestation projects around the word whose goals differ depending on the environment and desires of local people. For example, planting native trees along the Kinabatangan river in Borneo can support local ecotourism businesses, while forest projects on the east coast of New Zealand are designed to protect agricultural soils from erosion.
Local context makes each community project unique and of more value, as people are more likely to plant the right trees in the right places for the right purpose. But these projects cost money and securing financing can be challenging when funders are so often focused on measurable goals and on removing carbon from the atmosphere to offset emissions-generating activities. Inevitably, small local projects bear the brunt, incurring the steep cost of monitoring and certification.
In 2019, we developed Regrow Borneo, a community-based reforestation project in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, that thrust us into this complicated world. Our work prompted us to examine these trade-offs from the perspective of the cost of trees, the importance of traditional knowledge and the price of reforestation.
Our mission is to share knowledge and inform decisions.
Cost of trees v value of forests
The number of trees planted is often seen as an indicator of the success of reforestation projects. We’ve all seen adverts suggesting that if we buy a product a company will plant a tree to offset the cost of producing the item. Trees are relatively easy to count and, if planted in the right place, may reflect successful restoration. But reforestation occurs over hundreds of years and poorly managed projects that plant millions of trees can sometimes end with the majority dying.
That is why successful forest restoration projects take a long-term approach, through comparing progress to existing forests, taking “before and after” snapshots, and measuring the social cost and benefits. But none of this can be captured by counting trees. A tree census will not tell you about the health of the ecosystem, soil, insect, bird or mammal populations. Neither will it tell you about a loss or gain of economic opportunities for local communities, their health, or spiritual wellbeing. We need new measures for evaluating projects, but none of these approaches is as simple, or easily explained to funders as a tree census.
Regrow Borneo plans to measure success in terms of restored forest area – a simple metric for reporting to donors that can be independently verified by drone footage or through advanced satellite and airborne technologies that can measure how the restored ecosystem functions.
Synergy between science and local knowledge
Effective forest restoration relies on a combination of scientific understanding, knowledge and experience. In the case of Regrow Borneo, the rich local knowledge allows us to predict how fast particular species grow, which species provide food for animals (such as orang-utans) and which are flood tolerant.
The most effective local projects rely on this knowledge throughout their lifespan. But incorporating knowledge into measures of success for projects is difficult because often it simply can’t be measured. Demanding scientific rigour in local projects can lead communities to abandon this knowledge, which can reduce the effectiveness of the projects. The problem is that science needs to catch up and design better ways of incorporating this knowledge into its experiments.
The goals of community reforestation projects and those of funders don’t always align, which can place a huge burden on the community involved. Funders are sometimes focused on paying a fixed price that might cover planting a tree – but it cannot cover ensuring that a healthy tree flourishes. Other funders concerned about their reputation seek guarantees from projects through checks, certification and monitoring, which – though commendable – may not capture the whole picture of “success”.
For example, companies which burn carbon are allowed to offset this by paying forest projects for the amount of carbon they store. In return, companies want guarantees, so will seek projects that are independently certified. The rules of certification are designed to protect forests, but can also limit local access to forest resources and benefits. And the cost of certification and staff training falls on the projects themselves.
Models in which funders coordinate and pay for monitoring may help overcome some of the financial barriers for small projects. Within Regrow Borneo it has so far been difficult to develop a viable price for reforesting a healthy hectare as our commitment to fair wages, monitoring growth and replacing trees lost to flooding or eaten by monkeys can seriously raise costs.
Riskier reforestation sites such as carbon-rich peat swamps and nature reserves involve frequent monitoring for biodiversity, adding further costs and pushing prices well above the rate that carbon is traded. Every community has different wage expectations, every forest requires different resources to restore, so a single price per tree or per tonne of carbon is an unreasonable expectation.
As a restoration community, we believe in a change of thinking. We need to bridge the gap between funders and projects by reducing the barriers to financing small projects. Flexible funding models and less rigid certification processes support the development of community-based forestry initiatives in a more pragmatic way. Projects such as Trillion Trees or Restor that seek to network and fund community-based projects across the globe are excellent examples of good working models. Instead of funding a million trees, we should think of funding a million forests.
Parking requirements attack the nature of the city itself, subordinating density to the needs of the car.
Michael ManvilleAssociate urban-planning professor at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs
Lewis Mumford was suspicious of parking. “The right to access every building in a city by private motorcar,” he wrote in The City in History, “in an age when everyone owns such a vehicle, is actually the right to destroy the city.” Jane Jacobs, who disagreed with Mumford on many counts, agreed here. Parking lots, she said in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, were “border vacuums”: inactive spaces that deadened everything around them.
Mumford and Jacobs published those lines in 1961, when most United States cities were 15 years into an experiment called “minimum parking requirements”: mandates in zoning codes that forced developers to supply parking on-site to prevent curb congestion. In postwar America, development was booming, and neighbors were worried that new residents would make street-parking impossible. Decades later, parking requirements still exist nationwide. In Los Angeles, where I live, new apartment buildings must have at least one parking space per unit; retail buildings need one space per 300 square feet; and restaurants need one space for every 100 square feet of dining area.
Parking requirements enforce what Mumford decried: the right to access every building by private car. As Mumford predicted, they have been a disaster. American urban history is stained with tragic missteps and shameful injustices, so parking requirements are hardly the worst policy cities have tried. But they are notable for how much needless damage they have caused, over a long period, with few people even noticing.
The trouble with parking requirements is twofold. First, they don’t do what they’re supposed to, which is prevent curb congestion. Because curb parking is convenient and usually free, drivers fill up the curb first, no matter how much off-street space exists nearby. Second—and more consequential—parking requirements attack the nature of the city itself, by subordinating density to the needs of the car.
Cars revolutionized transportation by promising not just speed, but autonomy. Cars let you go wherever you want, whenever you want, by yourself and by a route of your choosing. But that promise is fulfilled only if everywhere you might go has a place to store the car whenever you arrive. A train drops a passenger off and keeps going. A driver drops a car off and keeps going. Thus most trains are mostly moving, while most cars are parked most of the time. The price of the car’s convenience, then, is the space it consumes when it isn’t in motion, and indeed even when it isn’t there. Cities designed for cars must set aside space: space to wait for cars, and space to hold them while they wait for their drivers to come back.
Parking minimums take the cost of that space—a cost that should be borne by drivers—and push it onto developers, hiding it in the cost of building. Sometimes this means a project can’t be built at all. At other times, it makes projects more expensive: In downtown L.A., parking usually costs developers more than $50,000 per space to build. Walt Disney Concert Hall, a cultural landmark that is home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, cost $274 million to build. Of that total, the underground parking structure, which is not a cultural landmark (it’s an underground parking structure), accounted for $100 million.
Crispin Cooper, Sustainable Places Research Institute
This seminar will demonstrate the latest simulation tools jointly developed by Cardiff University Sustainable Places Research Institute, Leeds University Institute for Transport Studies, and Sustrans – the charity making it easier for people to walk and cycle.