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Rewilding Britain – Helen Meech

Britain is one of the most ecologically depleted nations on earth.

We have lost all our large carnivores and most of our large herbivores. While the average European
forest cover is 37%, ours is just 12%. our ecosystems have almost ceased to function. Because of the absence of trees and loss of soil, our watersheds no longer hold back water, with rainfall flashing
off the hills and causing flooding downstream. Species are declining, and space for nature is limited to small reserves that are disconnected from each other and the natural systems that should support them.

Rewilding offers a chance to reverse that: a chance to bring nature
back to life and restore the living systems on which we all depend. A chance work with communities to restore to parts of Britain the wonder and enchantment of wild nature; to allow magnificent lost creatures to live here once more; and to provide people with some of the rich and raw experiences of which we have been deprived.

Rewilding is an approach to environmental restoration that works with the grain of nature, giving natural systems space to function and thereby securing all the benefits they provide – clean air and water, carbon storage, flood control, and amazing experiences which benefit our health and wellbeing. It often requires some initial supportive measures, to kick-start natural processes again, or to help reintroduce lost species, but the goal is to reduce human intervention and create wilder spaces, both on land and at sea.

Rewilding benefits nature, by connecting nature with nature, creating diversity and making room for species to move through landscapes as they adapt to environmental change. The Oostvaardersplassen is a fenced area of reclaimed land not far from Amsterdam that covers 6000 ha. It has been allowed to rewild since the nature reserve was formed in 1968 and has delivered a wide number of biodiversity benefits including the establishment of high numbers of breeding birds that had become very rare in The Netherlands, including Spoonbill, Bittern,
Marsh Harrier and Bearded Tit.

Rewilding benefits the wider environment too. In the Belgian Ardennes, where beavers were reintroduced in 2003, a series of six beaver dams on the River Chevral resulted in a significant lowering of flood peaks on the downstream reaches of the river, and an increase in the interval between flood events (Nyssen et al. 2011).

But it’s not just about the environment – rewilding can bring significant economic bene ts. According to the UN’s food and Agriculture organisation, the world on average has just 60 more years of growing crops. Rewilding can be farming’s greatest ally. It helps restore nutrients, worms and mycorrhizal fungi to the soil, provides for pollinating insects, purifies water, reduces flood
risk and helps resist droughts. Perhaps rewilding will give us
a few more harvests yet?

Rewilding is as much about people as it is about the planet. It can revitalise local communities. Across Europe, large mammals and birds making a comeback
are generating tourism. The Brown Bear is being marketed
as a flagship species for the Somiedo National Park in northern Spain and is increasing tourist numbers. In Finland, an increase in tourism due to visitors coming to see predators such as brown bear and wolverine was associated with an economic turnover of €4-5 million in 2012.

But there are more intrinsic benefits too. Time in nature improves concentration and behaviour, benefits health
and wellbeing, and increases environmental awareness. Which is why rewilding is as much about rewilding ourselves as rewilding land. It’s about experiencing the enchantment of wild nature, about noticing and experiencing what’s around us, about an increased connection with the living planet – “to love not man the less, but nature more”.

Rewilding is our big opportunity to leave the world in a better state than it is today. To turn our silent spring into a raucous summer. To introduce one of the rarest of all species into Britain’s environmental vision: hope.

Helen Meech is the Director of Rewilding Britain. This ‘Opinion’ by Helen Meech originally featured in the Spring 2016 New Ground.  The views expressed in New Ground are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the editor, SERA its executive or its members. If you would like to contribute to future editions, please contact Melanie Smallman, Co-Chair at melanie.smallman@sera.org.uk.

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