Hit the ‘rewild’ but­ton?

Rob Gib­son re­ports from a re­cent public de­bate on the call for rewil­d­ing the up­lands of Bri­tain

Sporting Shooter - - Campaigning For The Countryside With Rob Gibson -

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.

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