Rewilding seems to be fast becoming as much a fashion amongst landowners as Capability Brown parks were in the eighteenth century. It is spreading from Yellowstone National Park to the Cumberland plain. In Scotland Anders Povlsen, the richest man in Denmark, is turning 220,000 acres of land – about a third the size of Penrith and The Border constituency (itself the largest in England) – into a rewilding project. In Sussex, another four hundred separate dairy fields have been abandoned to nature.
This might simply be a diverting chapter in the history of the British landscape, if increasing numbers of people were not now calling for the entire uplands of England – and in particular the Lake District – to be rewilded, attracting increasing interest from politicians, government agencies, lobby groups and landowners. In the Lake District in particular the idea is often introduced as though it were simply a sensible and moderate way of addressing some of the problems caused by over-stocking of sheep in the 1980s – most especially over-grazing, water pollution, and methane. And it is disguised in vague statements about addressing climate change, biodiversity, ‘natural flood prevention’ and restoring natural woodland, and shrouded in disingenuous statements about ‘respect for farmers’. But how many are aware quite how extreme and radical this vision seeks to be?
The ultimate objective of rewilding is to remove all impacts that humans have ever had on the landscape. Unlike a conventional environmental scheme which relies on carefully scientifically-tested human interventions (tree planting, river management, seasonal grazing and the rest), this aims to allow animals and plants to restore the landscape by themselves, through entirely natural processes, by reinserting extinct animals which humans removed from the landscape, centuries or even millennia ago: predators such as lynx and wolves, or high impact species such as beavers and bison, which can control the landscape ‘top-down.’
Rewilding is not done because it is the most cost-effective, reliable way of restoring biodiversity. In fact, it comes with environmental risks. This can include species loss, which can already be seen in the abandonment of meadows, oak trees and hedgerow to bogland on the Cumberland plain; or in the replacement of the rich biodiversity that exists on woodland edges (from hedgehogs on), to the less rich species that emerge in the centre of dense forest. Or the alien parasites which were inadvertently introduced into Denmark when Polish bison were reintroduced; and the loss of alpine meadows and ultimately of water reservoirs that followed the abandoning of land in the Pyrenees. But this risk is taken because there is a fundamental emotional commitment to the ‘pre-human’, carnivore-dominated, wilderness of the Pleistocene – out of a sense of guilt at the impact humans have had since, and out of a desire to escape what is felt as a tame, safe, modern environment. And it tries to work at a very large scale – not by simply creating a nature reserve in one Cumbrian valley, but by creating a vast core of interlocking corridors potentially covering the entire uplands of England.
Many of the apparent environmental benefits of rewilding come simply from imposing environmental costs on someone else. Clearing sheep from a Lake District valley doesn’t mean humans stop eating lamb; they just begin to eat lamb which is grazed somewhere else. The methane continues to enter the atmosphere, and while Cumbrian fellsides may become wet and boggy – more dominated by reeds and mosses – Patagonia would desertify, only for the sheep to be shipped thousands of miles back to Cumbrian tables. Or the sheep will be crowded in indoor sheds, where instead of being sustained by free grass and rain, they will be sustained by imported animal-feed, which uses tens of thousands of hectares of land to grow, powered by oil-based products.
But the most fundamental problem is that rewilding was originally intended for places like the Yellowstone National Park – a vast, unfarmed, uninhabited wilderness considerably larger than Cornwall. But when applied to our much more densely populated and small island, which has been farmed for thousands of years, the consequences are quite different. It is not simply turning the clock back a few decades to the time before modern farming techniques, but turning it back millennia. There have been farms on the fellside, with pasture, grazed by livestock, for at least six thousand years. The Eden Valley had been cleared of its primeval forest well before the Romans built their signal stations, and the Cumberland gap was ploughed before Hadrian’s Wall was laid (you can see the plough marks under the wall).
All the distinctive features of the Lake District landscape – the pollarded ash trees, the contrast between the more tightly cropped pasture, below the head-dyke of the dry stone walls, and the wilder common land – were in place at the time of the Vikings, from whom many of our farmers descend. Close-cropped sheep lawns surrounded Shap at the time of the monks. This farmed landscape is the landscape of Turner and Wordsworth. And unlike the Highlands of Scotland, where the farms were removed in the Clearances, or the barley farms of East Anglia, here the small family farms have survived providing one of the only fragile surviving connections to our historic landscape: a foundation for our tourist industry, the bedrock of our communities, and for the children in our village schools.
Rewilding is not gentle return to a natural past. This is not simply because it is sometimes naïve about food production, careless of the impact on other countries, blind to the texture and history of our landscape, and its links to our literature and identity. It is fundamentally because it leaves no place for humans in the landscape.