Rewilding: wild by nature?

Rewilding has been causing a storm in recent months: debates over the reintroduction of beavers, wolves and lynx; renewed challenges to food and farming systems; recent calls to shake up what has been termed a ‘feudal system’ of land-ownership in Britain. The concept and practice of rewilding seems to generate a stream of (often quite polarised) opinions and sentiments – some romantic, others quite militant. So why is this; why is the term ‘rewilding’ so provocative in a way that, say, ‘restoration’ is not? Is it because the term is not very concrete or specific (even a bit ‘plastic’[1]) where many meanings can and have been ascribed to it? Or is it that the core principles behind rewilding are genuinely challenging? Perhaps it’s a bit of both.

So what exactly is rewilding and where are academics and researchers going with it? In Britain, rewilding is often defined as ‘the mass restoration of ecosystems’[2] and there is usually an implication (or hope!) that this will involve, at some point in time, the reintroduction of a missing keystone species or apex predator. Although not radically different in its vision, the European organisation Rewilding Europe omits the term ‘restoration’ from its literature since for them ‘Rewilding is not really about going back in time. It is instead about giving more room to wild, spontaneous nature to develop, in a modern society.’[3] And yet, is not the ‘re’ in rewilding quite confusing then? Should we not just be talking about wilding?

Despite the commitment to ‘novel’ ecosystems, there is still often an idealisation of past states of nature within the rewilding movement. Over the past 10 years much of the scientific literature (particularly from America) has focussed on what is called Pleistocene rewilding – that is, ecological restoration based on a particular historical epoch (approx. 13,000 BP) that saw high densities of megafauna spread across the globe – including in Britain. Not all advocate the extremities of Pleistocene rewilding (e.g. bringing back the woolly mammoth!) but the majority of rewilding advocates at least agree that past ecosystems like those of the Pleistocene can provide inspiration for reflecting on the current state of nature, and challenge what has been termed ‘ecological forgetfulness’ or ‘shifting baseline syndrome’[4] particularly as it appears in current conservation policy and practice (see recent complaints of the management strategies of Exmoor and Dartmoor National Park and new visions[5]).

As well as questioning the ‘re’ in rewilding it’s also important to look at what counts as ‘wild’ for rewilders. The term ‘wild’ has been generally understood as unmanaged nature (not managed by humans[6]) and one of central tenets of rewilding involves humans standing back to allow nature to govern itself. As Trees for Life director Alan Watson Featherstone (spoke recently at Plymouth University) puts it: rewilding ‘has come to encompass the whole process of returning ecosystems to a state of ecological health and dynamic balance, making them self-sustaining, without the need for ongoing human management.’[7]

This is idea of ‘unmanaged nature’ and the emphasis on ecological processes rather than scale and territory is an interesting one, for it doesn’t exclude human activity and occupation in the way the term ‘wilderness’ does. It also retains some of the ‘wildness’ that is so fundamental to rewilding principles. So could rewilding forge some new alliances, and encourage both humans and non-human actors (plants, animals) to co-create spaces through experimental ‘wild’ means? Could ecology be (re)politicised through rewilding so that baselines and ‘ideal’ states of nature go out the window – one big wild experiment?

There are some very fertile areas of rewilding for the arts and social sciences. In its vision statement, Rewilding Europe says that ‘natural processes…create the necessary space for all of our original animals and plants, including man’[8] but critical disciplines could really lend at this point by asking what is meant by ‘natural’ and what are these ‘original’ plants and animals – because we certainly can’t go back to the Garden of Eden! The natural is the wild. Wild by nature.

Cara Clancy, PhD candidate 
School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Science, Plymouth University

Twitter @caraclancy


[1] Dolly Jørgensen, 2014

[2] The definition given by Rewilding Britain and prominent  advocates like George Monbiot


[4] The idea was first proposed by Kahn & Friedman (1995) but given the title “shifting baseline syndrome” by Pauly in 1995.





2 responses to Rewilding: wild by nature?

  1. rob says:

    Interesting. Wouldn’t it be great to be widely using the words ‘stimulating’ and ‘engaging’ rather than ‘provocative’, ‘storm’ and ‘militant’ about the rewilding impetus? The wolf-focused rhetoric has abated a bit since the post-launch pr burst – but there is still so much potential for a rhetoric that is more attractive and collaborative rather than polarising.

    • Sustainable Earth Institute says:

      Dear Rob,
      This is a reply from Cara:

      Thanks for your comment. The media certainly tends to focus on the more prominent voices – those with stronger/polarising opinions (or groups with more power or influence) – but that’s not necessarily representative of the public at large. So 1) the more mix of voices the better and 2) the rewilding debate may be characterised as engaging or provocative but at least the issues are being discussed, which its great- that doesn’t always happen in conservation…’

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