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Mapping rewilding

  • Written by  Stephen Carver
  • Published in Mapping
Mapping rewilding
23 Nov
Definitions of rewilding vary but it can be defined loosely as the process of giving space within human-dominated landscapes back to nature with associated benefits for both wildlife and humans

Rewilding often involves removing human impediments and barriers to nature, restoring natural landscape form and function, and replacing lost ecosystem elements through species reintroductions and reinstatement of natural processes and regimes. Other articles have considered the exact process and the benefits in greater detail, so here we restrict ourselves to the question of how geographical space (and associated concepts of place and locality) is perhaps the critical factor governing the likely success – and failure – of rewilding in Britain today.


Mapping wildness

Much work has already been done on mapping wilderness and wilderness quality indices (WQI) across a range of spatial scales from global to local. This has been based largely on the concept of a wilderness continuum using spatial attributes of naturalness and remoteness to map levels of wildness ranging from least to most wild.

Figure 1 copy

A global inventory of wilderness was first performed on paper by using information gathered from jet pilot navigation charts and further developed into a wilderness continuum using modern GIS methods and data. A WQI has been developed for the EU as part of a European wilderness register and Scottish Natural Heritage have used similar methods to map wildland areas for Scotland. The latter is based on methods and approaches developed for the Scottish National Parks which demonstrates how a relative value of wildness can scale between different areas with different absolute maximum and minimum values.

Figure 2a-resized

Figure 2b-resized

Targeting rewilding areas

Obviously we cannot rewild everywhere, nor rewild to the same degree in all those places where we do choose to pursue a rewilding policy. We need space to live, agricultural land to grow food, and land for industry and transportation infrastructure. However, with reference to the wilderness continuum and the mapping of a WQI, it might make good sense to target our rewilding efforts in areas where just one or two wildness attributes are compromised by human impacts whilst taking the degree of fragmentation, contiguity and connectivity with existing wild land areas into account. Geographical factors of scale, shape, pattern and landscape/social setting are also important since these will govern both the appropriate measures (e.g. for species reintroductions) and likely success of a rewilding project. This emphasises the need for a continuum of approaches across a range of landscapes and within continuum of spatial scales. Rewilding can never be a ‘one size fits all’ model.

brownfieldBrownfield sites such as abandoned factories can be converted into ‘urban’ rewilding areas

Rewilding today

At a European scale, rewilding efforts have tended to focus on the opportunities provided by land abandonment as traditional agricultural practices become uneconomic in marginal areas. Rewilding Europe is the organisation that has largely monopolised rewilding on the mainland. Its focus on maintaining open and semi-open landscapes through high herbivore grazing pressure in order to create ‘Serengeti-style’ safari parks for promoting wildlife tourism business opportunities has, however, come in for strong criticism. Here, Rewilding Britain has recently been launched to promote rewilding in Britain through the mass restoration of ecosystems – on land and at sea – with the aim of restoring at least one million hectares of Britain’s land, and 30 per cent of our territorial waters, supporting natural ecological processes and key species.

Farmland abandonment is as yet an uncommon phenomena in UK, so focus here has to date been principally on cooperative land owner-led projects. Key examples of early adopters in our rewilding movement include the Carrifran Wildwood, Trees for Life, Wild Ennerdale, and the Great Fen Project. Often the emphasis is on removal or reduction of unnatural grazing pressures and land uses to allow restoration of more natural ecosystems, form and process.

carri woodsCarrifran Wildwoods

A typology of rewilding approaches and locations in UK might include:

• Upland rewilding focusing on restoring natural processes to catchment headwaters through removal of domestic grazing pressure, blocking drainage ditches (grips) and re-wetting moors and cessation of muirburn to improve vegetation mosaics, protect carbon stores, improve carbon sequestration and allow reforestation and development of natural treelines at higher altitudes.

• Riparian rewilding and river restoration by removal of channelised banks and reinstating river meanders and backwaters to reduce mean channel slope, removal of flood banks and artificial levees to allow seasonal flooding of the floodplain, restoration of floodplain woodland to slow flood waters and trap sediment, and reintroduction of beavers as riparian engineers.

• Wetland rewilding by re-wetting formerly drained wetlands through the removal of dykes and pumps to raise water tables and restore complex hydrological patterns and processes further slowing flood waters and improving groundwater recharge.

• Urban rewilding by giving over smaller areas of land within cities such as brownfield sites to nature to protect local biodiversity and improve quality of life for residents.

• Coastal rewilding through managed coastal retreat and re-alignment by removal of sea walls to create new areas of coastal mud flats and saltmarsh maintaining a natural barrier to coastal erosion and flooding while providing valuable habitat for wading birds.

• Marine rewilding by introduction of no-take zones to allow fish and shellfish stocks to recover and provide a source of fish for commercial fishing outside of these zones.

Spatial connectivity is the key to creating a successful network of protected areas and rewilding projects. It is therefore essential to maintain physical and biological connectivity within the wider landscape/land use matrix using a network of green and blue corridors (riparian zones, for example) as well as stepping stones formed from smaller rewilding sites that allow wildlife to move more easily and respond to external forces such as climate change.


Barriers to rewilding

The critical stumbling block to most rewilding is land ownership and commercial interests. In the UK we lack large areas of state-owned land where rewilding could reasonably replace the economic imperative to produce revenue from farming, fishing, hunting and forestry. Rewilding can only take place where the land ownership is favourable, for example on the public forest estate, MoD land, and NGO-owned properties, or where private land ownership is sympathetic (such as the Alladale or Knepp estates). However, there are various scenarios for future rewilding in UK. These might include:

• Farming on marginal land is currently uneconomic and dependent on agricultural subsidies, and further CAP-reform might make widespread land abandonment a possibility creating opportunities for landscape-scale rewilding especially in upland areas.

• Changes to environmental payments and stewardship schemes might make rewilding a more attractive proposition and a realistic alternative to farming.

• Payments for ecosystem services or penalties for ‘polluter pays’ impacts linked to unsustainable land management practices such as muirburn, upland drainage, over-grazing could be used to encourage elements of rewilding within wider land management practices such as reducing stocking densities, river restoration, re-wetting, etc.

• Payments and incentives for hosting reintroduction projects could be used to increase the acceptance of species reintroductions especially for large carnivores.

Some of the above ideas have been suggested previously by Natural England in its Vital Uplands report but were subsequently withdrawn at the request of the National Farmers Union which underlines the need for careful handling of rewilding proposals through greater dialogue and sympathetic policies.

Finally, there is a need for carefully targeted rewilding projects at the landscape scale. These should take advantage of the range of potential opportunities outlined here to create wilder landscapes at all levels from urban to uplands using a range of approaches. Nonetheless, land ownership remains the key stumbling block despite the many benefits from rewilding from improvements to ecosystem services, resilience to climate change and better quality of life for humans and wildlife alike.

Stephen Carver is a senior lecturer at the University of Leeds and Director of the Wildland Research Institute

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