Renaturing vs rewilding

For several years rewilding has been one of the influences on how I manage Century Wood. It’s never been an entirely comfortable fit though, since “wild” is quite an extreme goal. I’ve contented myself with encouraging elements of wildness but now I think it would be more productive for me to talk about “renaturing”, and I imagine a spectrum with wildwood at one end and very controlled plantation forests at the other.

Rewilding started to enter the public consciousness in Britain about the time I bought Century Wood in 2008, and in 2013 George Monbiot’s book “Feral” gave it a lot of publicity and provided a popular manifesto. I was already thinking about ways to encourage large scale reforestation, and Monbiot’s book crystallized the way in which British uplands are kept bare by sheep, deer, and EU Common Agricultural Policy basic payments.

In 2015 Rewilding Britain was formed and uses the following definition:

Rewilding is the large-scale restoration of ecosystems where nature can take care of itself. It seeks to reinstate natural processes and, where appropriate, missing species – allowing them to shape the landscape and the habitats within.

I’ve mentioned rewilding in some of my posts about reforesting, including “Natural regeneration: nature’s grassroots rebellion“. These are definitely natural processes and I encourage them at Century Wood on a much much smaller scale (20 acres). But I am certainly not just “letting nature take care of itself”, and it’s the wildness of rewilding that isn’t that good a fit. Furthermore, the drive today is to favour continuous cover over clear felling, and broadleaf coppicing over rows of plantation conifers, because they are more natural and more suited to our native ecosystems, but that isn’t really represented by “wildness” either.

Rewilding also has a major image problem in many rural communities. I first came face to face with this at the Hay literary festival in 2016, you see it in Facebook groups, and it’s even led to family members not talking to each other in the Archers of all places. The question people managing land always come back to is “If we rewild the land, where will the food come from?” And where will their income come from? Claims about ecotourism only go so far: there’s only so much demand to visit places the Knepp Estate.

Knepp’s Isabella Tree (in her book “Wilding”) and Charlie Burrell have both explained the need to avoid the word “rewilding” and various alternatives, including “renaturalization”, were mentioned at the Opportunities and Issues in Rewilding conference at Sheffield earlier this year.

So quite a complicated situation. Lots of loose ends and some not very good fits.

Taking woodlands as a concrete example, I think this can be resolved by imagining a spectrum from wildwood at one end to commercial plantation forestry at the other. By wildwood, I mean native woodlands left to manage themselves by natural processes (and if you are convinced by Frans Vera, that might include a lot of open areas.) Changes we make, including standing back and not intervening, move the ecosystem left or right along the spectrum, either renaturing or denaturing as we go.

In this picture, woodland rewilding is the process of re-establishing wildwood, but that doesn’t have to be our goal. We might deliberately aim for a point not so far along the spectrum: converting a conifer plantation into a broadleaf coppice for example. We might even be happy to stay somewhere in the denatured end: say if we plant up a grouse moor with a commercial conifer plantation to provide carbon negative building materials for houses.

This leads us to talk about rewilding as a special case of renaturing. As something we can afford to do on some land for its own sake, while we pursue other more or less intensive management styles elsewhere to provide the commercial timber and wood we need as a society, including as carbon negative materials.

The examples I’ve given have been drawn from forestry and woodlands, but you could create other spectra with wildwood or wild wetlands or heath at one end and intensive forms of cultivation (like wheat fields etc) at the other. Permaculture ideas for food production, for example, are then another intermediate ecosystem in the same way as coppicing: more natural than intensive commercial management, but not wild either.

Perhaps by using the renaturing spectrum we can give credit to management that is more natural, but without giving the (false) impression that rewilding suffers from: that everything is rewilding or not-rewilding, and the goal is to push all land into wildness.

Edited to add: there’s now a Facebook group (Renaturing UK) for discussing these renaturing ideas and how to apply them to woodlands and other ecosystems.

This entry was posted in Books, Forestry, Rewilding & renaturing, Woodscraft. Bookmark the permalink.

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