Ellie Harrison: Rewildling needs to be commercially and culturally viable for farmers

Rewilding could repair the state of the nature in the UK, but to really make a difference, it needs to get farmers onside, says Countryfile presenter Ellie Harrison.

Farm field winter

Rewilding could do with a rebrand. Its intention is honest, with conservation at its heart. The ‘why’ is valid, but the ‘how’ has created deep divides between those who want it and those who don’t like being told how to run the affairs on their land. Tetchy exchanges on social media and figureheads resigning from relevant organisations risk undermining any hopes of rewilding before it gets going.

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In the scrum, a young rewilding has been hijacked and dressed up for the media in a Halloween costume. So it’s worth looking carefully under the mask at what rewilding is not.

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It is not a response to people’s fear of big agri-farms, mega-dairies and antibiotics. It’s not about forsaking food for fairytale forests or resorting to kelp sandwiches. Even the NFU concedes it’s not solely about production, as supermarket shelves groan under the weight of cheap food. Indeed, we import many times more meat than we produce. Instead, it’s largely about land that isn’t really productive for food, nor farmer’s pockets.

It’s not about neglect. There will naturally be the scrub-ugly intermediate stages of plant succession for dozens of years before woodlands, and there are examples of neglected wild places that haven’t yet become wildlife havens, so there will be a need for stewards. In agreement with the NFU, “hundreds of years’ worth of experience in management of the natural environment must be of some value”. Indeed it is.

And it’s not (yet) about apex predators. Not for decades or longer. As an island, animals can’t wander across imaginary borders, like wolves do now from Germany to the Netherlands. Reinstalling bears, lynx and wolves for rewilding in its purest form is untested on these lands, with citizen numbers now as high as they are. And when predator thresholds are reached, will bullets in the wild be the wild-hand that rewilders really want? But if we do lift the cage door, these keystone species could potentially protect the ecosystem as a whole, change our entire culture and certainly bring in the tourist pound.

Why rewilding is vital for wildlife and farmers

Rewilding is vital for our wildlife and good for farmers says Alastair Driver of Rewilding Britain, who makes an impassioned argument in support of rewilding in our latest podcast episode. 

The case against rewilding – a Welsh farmer speaks out

Rewilding is the buzzword in conservation and involves habitat restoration on a huge scale, including reintroductions of many wild species. Sounds good but not everyone is happy. Here Welsh sheep farmer Dafydd Morris Jones makes a powerful argument against the refilling movement

So, with the mask and bucket of sherbet lemons removed, what actually is rewildling for? It’s the chance to reverse the fortunes of UK wildlife. All sides agree that the state of nature in the UK is declining, and quickly. It’s also the chance to improve our barely wild national parks, which in places look like they’ve had a mower on setting number-one buzzed across them. It’s not just sheep; other upland national parks that are managed as grouse or deer estates rarely feel like wilderness either. Our national parks are classed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as category V; Yellowstone National Park is a category II. Finally, rewilding aims to repair systems that capture carbon, clean our water and hold it on the land for longer. So far, so much common ground.

White-Tailed eagle in flight

But from there, rewilding supporters take a leap across a chasm by linking all this good work to good incomes. They use phrases like “rural economic resilience”. Lovely stuff. But not a currency that farmers can pay their mortgages with. Rewilding,
if it is to stand any chance at all, has to pay. Just as the conservation success stories that are predicated on animals being worth more money alive than dead, rewilding must pay notably better than the alternative.

A leap of faith across an unknown void, risking livelihoods is understandably too great an ask for farmers. What’s missing is a demonstration of rewilding at work, creating a bigger income than before. If uptake of Instagram or AirBnB teaches us anything, it’s that when we observe someone making money from something we could do, we’ll have a piece of that, too, thank you.

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The subsidy pendulum has a good swing. In past decades, policy incentivised maximising production by cutting down ‘birch scrub’ and replacing it with Sitka spruce, draining wetland and taking out hedgerows. Today, money is available to do exactly the opposite. But subsidies alone won’t prop up the business model. Eco-tourism, outdoor education, hiking, sports and every wild idea going needs to be in the mix. Farmers know their land well and, importantly, they are skilled entrepreneurs. The industry will change. But change is a given – tradition is a luxury.