“Three-quarters of all vegetated land on the planet now bears a human imprint.” – The Guardian
There is hope – restoring a third of the Earth’s degraded land and protecting that which is already considered ‘wild’, would store enough carbon to total around half of humans greenhouse gas emission since the industrial revolution. Such is the power of nature and the potential of rewilding.
“The key thing to remember here is that nature is complex and needs to be complex.” – Dr. Chris Sandom, Senior Lecturer in Biology at the University of Sussex
Trophic rewilding restores ‘lost’ species to ecosystem, impacting the whole food web. This restores the complexity of nature, yet it will travel its own course – rewilding is exactly that, little interference. Whatever outcome, the increased diversity will be hugely beneficial for both humans and the Earth.
For example, throughout much of Europe the large predators have gone extinct. Reintroducing wolves, would bring down the population of large herbivores (e.g. deer), allowing greater vegetation to grow and therefore a potential mitigation to climate change through the intake of carbon dioxide. Herbivores can also influence the structure of vegetation, particularly forest landscapes which can act to hinder the spread of wildfires (predicted to increase in the current climate projections).
Rewilding is not just as simple as planting trees, a common “nature based solution” with great support. If done in regions whose natural ecosystems are not woodland, whist mitigating climate change, it would do so at the expense of the ecosystem biodiversity. This reduces the sustainability of the project.
An amazing example of the impact of rewilding in practice is that of the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park (USA) in the 1990s. The wolves transformed the ecosystem, impacting marine species to birds to even the physical geography – changing the course of the rivers. Through reducing the deer and elk population, river banks suffered less erosion changing course and increasing the biodiversity around their banks, supporting a greater population of beavers and otters.
Example: The UKs potential
The UK has a hugely rich potential for climate mitigating rewilding. Peat bogs, heathland, woodland and the marine environment within the UK all have hugely unique methods of locking in carbon.
- Peatland: The UK houses 13% of the world’s peatland, yet 80% is damaged. Each hectare of peatland absorbs 3.6 tonnes CO2 per year. There is ~3 million hectares in this country – huge potential!
- Woodland: At 13% the UK has some of the lowest tree cover in Europe, yet each hectare can absorb an average of 12.8 tonnes of CO2 per year.
- Wetland: Ponds, fenland and lakes can support wildlife, including beavers which aid flooding mitigation. Each hectare of wetland could absorb ~5.1 tonnes CO2 per year.
- Marine environment: Sea grass, hidden in the shores around the UK – each hectare could absorb approx. ~4 tonnes CO2 per year.
Rewilding the British Farm
Replacing native wild animals with cattle has increased methane emissions, a greenhouse gas ~1/3rd times more powerful than CO2 over a 100yr period. Today there are ~1.5 billion cows on Earth. Cattle population increase has been estimated to be responsible for the doubling of Africa’s methane emissions over the last 1000 years to 8.9million tonnes per year.
Knepp Farm in West Sussex have combined agriculture and rewilding to a unique pioneering experiment. Using grazing animals they have restored the environment to a functioning ecosystem where nature has freedom to be the driving force. Old English longhorn cattle, Exmoor ponies, Tamworth pigs and deer form the grazing megafauna present which mimic those which existed in an ancient wild Britain. The land has reverted to woodland, pasture, scrub, grassland and water meadows, providing ecosystem services including carbon sequestration, clean water and flood mitigation. They have released a great book: Wilding outlining their journey.
“Knepp Estate is one of the most exciting wildlife conservation projects in the UK, and indeed in Europe. If we can bring back nature at this scale and pace just 16 miles from Gatwick airport we can do it anywhere. I’ve seen it. It’s truly wonderful, and it fills me with hope.” – Professor Sir John Lawton, author of the 2010 Making Space for Nature report.
Potential Individual Actions
- The power of word: spark the conversation, spread the word, educate.
- Donate and contribute to rewilding projects.
- Sign petitions, email MPs – use your voice.
- Avoid products which contribute to the destruction of intact natural ‘wild’ habitats – decrease meat consumption, especially beef, look at the source, check for sustainable mark on palm oil, etc.