This story by Kirsty Girvan was written for THE BEAM during the lockdown in the UK.
The general frame of this piece is the contrast of two rewilding/ecological restoration projects which I have recently come across during the national lockdown. I explore ideas of traditional rewilding and contrast these with smaller restoration projects, concluding that whatever can be done to preserve wildlife, however small, is always very worthwhile.
Last year I was privileged to visit one of the largest re-wilding efforts in the UK on a trip up to the Glenfeshie Estate in the Cairngorms, Scotland. The rivers, the wildlife, the forests flourishing, all part of Wildland Scotland’s vision to restore parts of the Scottish Highlands to their ‘former natural splendour’, a project heavily supported by the Scottish Government. The project, spearheaded by Danish billionaires, the Povlsens, aims to reverse the effects of previous land use, such as overgrazing, on a scale never seen before. Their efforts so far have resulted in a landscape that is forested, remote, dazzlingly, and almost overwhelmingly thick with existence. On that autumnal morning, with the trees glowing orange, it was like a vision of another world.
The notion that ‘wild landscapes’ should be restored, or simply preserved, was first recognised politically in the United States through the creation of a National Park at Yellowstone in 1872, and then Yosemite in 1890. This was followed by the creation of the 1964 Wilderness Act, which recognises landscapes where ‘the earth and its community of life are untrammelled by man’ worthy of protection. This concept presents wilderness as the most authentic form of nature, a pristine Utopian landscape untouched by humanity, and underpins the modern environmental movement which places the natural world as ontologically superior to our own.
On an unexpectedly abrupt return home from University last spring I was surprised to find a modest rewilding project happening on my doorstep: The Kent Wildlife Trust, through their Wilder Blean project are reintroducing bison to an area of protected woodland near Canterbury. The project aims to bring about transformational change through a controlled release of, initially, four bison – a missing keystone species, last thought to have roamed the UK about 6,000 years ago – that are able to naturally manage woodlands. This re-introduction aims to restore natural processes able to withstand the current environmental crisis and species decline and, in the long run, reverse it. The absence of large mammals and the effects of their habits have led to an often sterile uniformity in our national woodland. The hope is that these bison will eventually create varied woodland profiles and a mosaic of habitats, as true ecosystem engineers.
Ambitious projects, like Wilder Blean, continue to uphold the utopian concept that positions nature as a distinct ‘other’ to humanity. They are founded on the idea that nature is independent of human experience and that we should respect, preserve and operate separately from these natural landscapes. They play out a historical ideal where truly natural landscapes are devoid of people, a place of ultimate authenticity, that we should strive to return to. The paradox of this type of conservation is that the only way such a wilderness is likely to survive is through vigilant human intervention. This is demonstrated by Kent Wildlife Trust’s recent call for ‘Bison Rangers’, which states that these rangers will be responsible for keeping the bison in ‘as wild a state as possible’ and that ‘careful management’ will be essential to achieve this. Does this undermine the founding ideology that to be ‘wild’ nature must be ‘untouched by man’?
Another rewilding project is taking a different approach in North Kent on the banks of the River Thames, an area of low-lying open beaches and salt marshes. This area has been a site of constant human modification since the industrial era, with disused factories and areas of manufacturing still evident in the landscape. Much of this has all but wiped out the once-thriving populations of birds. Thames Vision 2035 is looking at ways to restore some of the natural wildlife habitats, focusing on the grassland, marshland and wetland reserves along the banks of the estuary, in the hope that they will provide stable habitats for the birds that roam these riverbanks, and perhaps attract other species.
It strikes me how different the description of this project is from other conservation efforts, such as the Wilder Blean and Wildland Scotland’s projects. This plan does not mention ‘wilderness’, it does not appear to embrace the idea that nature is where humans are not – a preserve for parks and reserves as a counterpoint to society. Thames Vision 2035 has created plenty of footpaths that allow people to pass through the reserve on their commutes, or for exercise, and even provides bird-watching tours for local schools. They have encouraged the local community to get involved, not keep their distance, with some councils promoting similar projects to attract wildlife (obviously on a much smaller scale) in parks and gardens. Here, ‘wild nature’ happens just as easily right under our noses as it does at a mythologized distance. This is wildness without wilderness.
Environmental policy and urban planning do need to recognise the liveliness and materiality of the more-than-human world, for the sake of our shared survival. However, do we adopt too high a standard of what counts as ‘natural’? Restoration efforts are often given success metrics that borrow from the wilderness conservation mindset, with aims of a pre-human population as a typical goal. More realistically, the focus could be on producing ecologies that are dynamic and experimental, involving the lives of other species within our own ways of being. Less care could be given to achieving a mythic landscape from the past and instead we could focus on attracting self-sustaining populations for the future.
Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine the world anew. This one is no different. This should be our calling to restore our natural landscapes, not to the past, but for the future. For, while the virus has raged, who has not been thrilled by the swell of birdsong in the cities, taken delight at the sight of hedgehogs on a path, and found solace in the silence of the rivers and the skies? We can choose to leave this pandemic trying to stitch our future to our past, or we can rethink landscapes we have built for ourselves, ready to imagine another world.
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