Hit the ‘rewild’ button?
Rob Gibson reports from a recent public debate on the call for rewilding the uplands of Britain
The much-anticipated Intelligence Squared debate on ‘The Fight for the Countryside: Britain Should Rewild its Uplands’ saw the environmental commentator George Monbiot and naturalist Mark Cocker going up against NFU president Minette Batters and Rory Stewart MP. In attendance was a wide range of people, from young environmentalists to a few dozen farmers (including five upland farmers) and even Michael Gove MP, the environment secretary.
It appeared from the start that it was going to be an uphill battle for Rory Stewart and Minette Batters, who were arguing against the motion. When the predominantly London-centric audience voted at the beginning of the evening, 61% were in favour, 13% against and 26% were undecided.
The debate began with each side setting out their stall for what was going to be quite a fiery discussion on the future of Britain’s uplands. Monbiot was in his element as he played to a supportive audience, launching into a lyrical tirade that bemoaned the damage sheep had done to the UK’s natural environment and the waste of taxpayers’ money that has propped up unproductive and uneconomic sheep farming.
Despite his impassioned opening remarks, there was a distinct lack of detail on how he would implement his policy for a rewilded Britain. Mark Cocker did not add any detail to Monbiot’s proposals, and used his allotted time to echo Monbiot’s point about farm subsidies and raised the issue of declining biodiversity across the UK.
In response, Minette Batters focused her opening statement on the important role upland farmers play in maintaining this cultural landscape and supporting upland communities. Batters argued that this debate was about livelihoods and that we should recognise famers’ expertise in the natural environment and support them to create the environment that we want, arguing that “farmers are the solution”.
Rory Stewart used his response to challenge the comments made by George Monbiot and Mark Cocker regarding the perceived destruction of the British landscape and made specific reference to the fact that tree cover in the UK has increased from 3% in 1900 to 13% today. Rory Stewart furthered the point that the uplands represent a cultural landscape that “is central to our identity,” noting that this environment has been shaped by early Britons since the Neolithic period, and therefore we should consider this “human landscape” as precious as Westminster Cathedral. He concluded with a proposal to consider rewilding lowlands (specifically the green belt around London). He argued that this area of fertile land is better able to support a diverse range of species and vegetation, would help to improve air quality around urban areas and would be geographically easier for the population to access. Overall, it was an entertaining evening. Minette Batters and Rory Stewart argued well against the motion ‘Britain should rewild its uplands’ taking a moral victory after an 18% swing in the audience vote (52% for, 39% against, 9% undecided). Ultimately, you can’t help but feel that this debate involves the wrong people in the wrong place, arguing about the wrong subject. There is a broad consensus that more needs to be done to tackle Britain’s biodiversity crisis as well as an appreciation that CAP needs revising to help support farmers in protecting our natural environment. But the danger with giving a platform and debating the extreme views of people like George Monbiot is that the voices of sensible environmentalists and farmers are drowned out by hyperbole. The Countryside Alliance has consistently campaigned to draw attention to the dog whistle strategies employed by campaigners who use the fluffy term ‘rewilding’ to attack current forms of land management, disregard traditional rural communities and deplore the role of humans in maintaining our historic landscapes.
These are people who have limited experience of managing the environment to encourage healthy biodiversity and are using rural issues as a playground for their political agendas.
The problem with the phrase ‘rewilding’ is the lack of clear definition. Advocates of rewilding cannot agree on the period of time when Britain can be considered to have been ‘wild’ and use the term to describe a whole host of activities.
Often, the phrase is used as a substitute for ‘reintroduction’ of once-native species, which in itself might be logical if ‘rewilding’ wasn’t also being used to also describe the restoration of Caledonian pine forest; creation of marine protection areas and no-take fishing zones; coastal realignment through managed retreats; and reduction, or indeed complete cessation, of farming in lowland areas.
There is always room for discussion about how we manage the countryside, but when we live in an entirely managed landscape the basic assumption of ‘rewilding’, that human intervention is by definition negative, is nonsense. It should be perfectly possible to debate the future of the countryside without resorting to such an ill-defined and misleading term.
Those against rewilding suggest we recognise famers’ ability to create the environment that we want
The term ‘rewilding’ is often used to describe the reintroduction of once native species, such as the Eurasian lynx.