Creating a New Eden
Jonathan Thomson had one goal in mind when he purchased 25 acres of English countryside: to turn back time. His plan was to return the land, which had been a llama farm and a commercial woodland, to the wilderness, making space for countless species of flora and fauna that had been pushed out of the area over hundreds of years due to farming. “Nature in the UK is in crisis,” Thomson argues, “it’s time we start giving back.”
It was a lofty goal. But in the last seven years, Thomson and his team of naturalists, ecologists, and volunteers have transformed Underhill Wood from an area of marshy sedge with a few oak trees to a space humming with biodiversity.
The first thing the team did was build a lake, which provides habitat, food and a water source for resident mallard ducks, moorhens, dabchicks, amphibians, grass snakes, dragonflies, kingfishers, herons, mandarin ducks, hobbies and bats – all creatures which haven’t been on the land in many years.
What Thomson is doing is called rewilding, a term that has become increasingly mainstream in conversations about climate change. Rewilding is the process of trusting the natural environment to recover itself by leaving nature to do its thing, aside from perhaps adding a few helpful interventions (building the lake in Thomson’s case).
Underhill Wood is a great example of how effective rewilding can be. But even with its success, there’s a lingering question: can letting nature become wilder really make a dent in the colossal fight to save nature?
To answer that question, we first have to understand the problem rewilding is solving. After 10,000 years of stability, the Earth’s climate is being altered by ever-warming global temperatures. Heatwaves, flooding, extreme weather events and rising sea levels are all well-known consequences of climate change. Carbon emissions are focused on as the main problem, and reaching net zero is the go-to solution. But there is one characteristic of our planet that is under the same severe threat, yet is far less discussed: biodiversity.
Despite half of the world’s wildlife being lost in the last 40 years, issues concerning biodiversity have been found to be covered up to eight times less in the media than other problems related to climate change.
Yet biodiversity – the biological variety of all life on Earth – is not a luxury. It’s a necessity. From providing medicines, water and food, to stabilising the earth we walk on and the air we breathe, an abundance and variety of animals, plants, bacteria and plankton is an essential component to human survival. And it’s one that our own actions are putting under threat.
A growing number of people believe that the only way to stabilise natural ecosystems and preserve biodiversity is through trusting those natural environments to recover themselves through rewilding. Coined in the 1990s by environmental advocates, but becoming increasingly mainstream in the 21st century, rewilding puts emphasis on a lack of, or at least very passive, human intervention to achieve ecological restoration. The end goal is a self-sustaining and self-regulatory ecosystem.
Though it may sound extensive, rewilding can work at big and small scales. Reintroducing an entire species into a landscape is one example, but growing wildflowers instead of a lawn in a city garden is another. The essential factor underpinning both species reintroduction and the growth of native flowers is that they both increase the levels of biodiversity.
The delicate mosaic of an estimated 8.7 million interrelating species (of which we have only discovered 1.2 million) is cracking. Extinction rates are up to 1000 times greater than natural ‘background’ levels with an estimated 1 million species facing extinction. 40% of plant species are now endangered, and they may be being lost faster than humans can even discover them, let alone study them. And, as environmental philosopher Thom van Dooren emphasises in Flight Ways, the loss of a single species does not happen in isolation: “extinction is never a sharp, singular event. Rather, the edge of extinction is more often a ‘dull’ one: a slow unravelling of intimately entangled ways of life that begins long before the death of the last individual and continues to ripple forward long afterward.”
“We have an evolutionary need to connect with the natural world for cognitive, mental, emotional and spiritual development, growth, meaning and fulfilment. Without contact with the natural world, we become impoverished.”Lucy Jones
It’s clear that solutions are needed. Traditional conservation and land management projects attempt to mitigate the impact of habitat losses, pollution, reduction in food sources and over-hunting; the edges of extinction become “places of intense hope and dedicated care,” says van Dooren. Tree planting schemes and carbon capture initiatives aim to reduce the levels of carbon and restore natural forest land. But some feel that even though these individual conservation battles are being won, the war itself to preserve global biodiversity is still being lost.
“Our house is burning down and we’re blind to it,” Jacques Chirac said at the Johannesburg Earth Summit 2002. 20 years later, our house is still burning down and we remain blind to an entire side of the blaze. In the three decades left before hitting the benchmark year of 2050, the protection of biodiversity must be prioritised – and rewilding could be the solution we sorely need.
Humans evolved to live in natural environments, and our time separated from the wild is a small sliver on the clock of human history.
The majority of people who have lived and died did so before modern civilization began. They existed as part of the natural world – deeply dependent on the seasons, the land and the other living organisms for their survival. 300,000 years ago in Jebel Irhoud, Morocco, three adults, a teenager and a child of around eight made fires, ate gazelles and used sharpened flint tools, living out their existence in a desolate but beautiful landscape.
Three hundred millenniums later, when anthropologist Jean-Jacques Hublin and a team from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology unearthed the bones of our distant ancestors, it was a significant moment: “I was emotional,” said Hublin. “They are only fossils, but they had been human beings and very quickly you make a connection with these people who lived and died here 300,000 years ago.”
Recorded history, stretching back a mere 5,500 years, accounts for less than 3% of all humanity. Within that figure, the last 2,022 years is an even smaller fraction. Humans evolved to live in natural environments, and our time separated from the wild is a small sliver on the clock of human history.
It’s easy to see that only recently have humans begun to live indoors, manipulate the land to suit our needs and exist in parallel with nature rather than immersed within it. Has this urbanisation resulted in our connection to the natural world – the one that we evolved in and adapted to live in for hundreds of thousands of years – being slowly severed? Do we need to undergo a process of rewilding the self as well as our planet?
We evolved to live within nature, and as a result, we have a myriad of characteristics that are geared towards seeking out the natural world. Our nervous system is adapted to be calmed down in natural settings. A study found that people’s parasympathetic nervous system was activated in natural settings, and the sympathetic nervous system – responsible for our stress response – was switched off (Richardson, 2016). When we’re exposed to long-term stressors (like mortgages, job security and climate change), as opposed to short-term stressors (like running away from a bear in the woods), we’re at risk of developing mental and physical health problems.
People are not only evolutionarily adapted to be connected to nature, but it is also biologically necessary for our wellbeing.
Lucy Jones summarises in Losing Eden, that “we have an evolutionary need to connect with the natural world for cognitive, mental, emotional and spiritual development, growth, meaning and fulfilment. Without contact with the natural world, we become impoverished.”
Across cultures, people seek out the green and the living, a phenomenon known as biophilia, and there is in- creasing evidence of the biological reasons for this. Soil is now known to contain the bacteria M. Vaccae, which has similar effects on the brain to antidepressants – in other words, it reduces anxiety and depression, and makes people feel happier. Researcher Chris Lowry summarised a common reaction to the evidence: “It leaves us wondering if we shouldn’t all be spending more time playing in the dirt.”
Research has also shown that spending just two hours in a forest significantly lowers cytokine levels within the bloodstream – one of the body’s key inflammatory markers (Geun Im, 2016). Other research from Chalmers University of Technology found that patients recovering in hospitals have a shorter recovery time when they have a view of nature, compared with patients who only see man-made structures, and evidence has shown that being able to see nature or green spaces out of a window improves office workers’ attention (Lee, 2015).
Regaining a sense of awe at the natural world might be key to improving our health and fostering a desire to protect our planet. Experiencing awe not only reduces inflammation in the body, but also deactivates the part of our brain associated with our self-interest (Stellar, 2015). In other words, experiencing a sense of awe can make us less self-interested and more cooperative. The more we are connected to the natural world, the better we are able to connect to each other.
The evidence is clear: people are not only evolutionarily adapted to be connected to nature, but it is also biologically necessary for our wellbeing. And yet, modern civilization largely operates outside of nature.
In 1975, Robert Pyle, author and psychologist, coined the phrase “extinction of experience” to describe the process of fewer and fewer children connecting with nature as part of their development. “Its premise involves a cycle of disaffection and loss that begins with the extinction of hitherto common species, events and flavours in our own immediate surrounds; this loss leads to ignorance of variety and nuance, thence to alienation, apathy, an absence of caring and ultimately to further extinction,” he explained.
“What obligations do we have to hold open space in the world for other living beings?”Thom Van Dooren
The more time children spend in nature at a young age, the more likely they are to protect it when they grow older. The Guardian reports that 75% of children in the UK spend less time outside than prison inmates, while a study conducted by the RSPB found that 80% of children have an inadequate connection with the natural world.
The consequences of ecological illiteracy about the planet that we live on could fuel an even more catastrophic loss of biodiversity in years to come. Thom van Dooren questions, “What obligations do we have to hold open space in the world for other living beings?” If we don’t begin to repair our connection to the natural world, increasing numbers of people will answer none.
The word ‘rewilding’ conjures the idea of returning to something that has been lost: re-creating a past Eden. But we are a globe of over 7 billion individuals, all with human needs for homes, food, water and places of work. For many, the idea of relinquishing all control over the landscape that surrounds us – what many think of when they hear rewilding – is not a workable solution to the problem of climate change.
But rewilding is not simply about giving up control, it’s about restoring our connection to the natural world that surrounds us. The global understanding of rewilding is increasingly diversifying; it’s no longer solely about reintroducing large predators or letting swathes of landscape turn feral – though both have their place in the discussion. Instead, rewilding has become a scalable solution for both the planet and people. Everybody can be involved in rewilding – from large-scale, whole species projects, to individual decisions about what plants to grow in the garden. The case for rewilding is no longer confined to an ecological perspective: it’s become universal.
Richard Bunting is the editor of Little Green Space, an online magazine dedicated to green living and rewilding on an individual scale. “What we’re trying to do is inspire people to think differently,” he told us. “We do highlight the problems, but we try to keep a big focus on solutions to those problems, and on what can be done – whether it’s a big step or a little step. And sometimes it’s lots and lots of little steps, and so staying focused on the end solution and having a sense of hope is essential.”
The buzzwords carbon neutral and net zero have become staples of corporate vocabulary – rewilding has the potential to join them.
Chris Sandom, a Senior Lecturer in Biology at the University of Sussex, emphasises that rewilding is as much about ourselves as the landscape around us: “It’s about getting people to recognise that they are part of the ecosystem rather than a separate force dominating nature.
“A lot of people will say rewilding is supposed to be ecocentric – letting nature do its thing separate from people. I’m more inclined to think it’s ecocentric in the sense that humans and other species are all part of a bigger system.”
The business world is increasingly engaging with the climate crisis and adapting to create a better world. Many now have at least some sort of plan in place to pursue a net zero future by the 2050 deadline (around a fifth of the world’s biggest companies), while others have pushed further to bring the deadline forwards: Apple, Microsoft and AstraZeneca, to name a few, have pledged to be net zero by or before 2030.
“Improving the health of the catchment and the land around us is something that, as a business, is absolutely fundamental to the way we work.”John Gorst
There is a hunger to engage with the problem and pursue solutions. The buzzwords carbon neutral and net zero have become staples of corporate vocabulary – rewilding has the potential to join them. It offers businesses another path to engage with the crisis and invest in a better future. Unlike the sometimes vague concept of net zero – which can be easy to greenwash – rewilding is a tangible solution that individuals can see and touch. It has a physicality that means its impact is reflected in the bottom line, but also in the landscapes we live in, the animals we see around us and the cleanliness of our air and water.
Chris Sandom also runs rewilding consultancy Wild Business, and recognises the business case for restoring nature: “There are direct benefits that businesses can gain from rewilding. Say a chocolate factory situated on a flood plain is buying milk from local dairy farms for a cheap price. The farmers, in the interest of maximising their profits, deforest large areas of land in order to in- crease the number of cows they can use and sell more milk.
“But in doing so, they’re increasing runoff rates, destabilising the soil of the surrounding area, and increasing the likelihood that the chocolate factory, perhaps as well as their customers and employees, gets flooded next time there is heavy rain. Businesses must begin thinking about the long-term consequences of where they invest their money.”
The number of rewilding projects is increasing across the globe, and businesses are waking up to the benefits it can bring. John Gorst is Biodiversity Catchment Officer at United Utilities, which has partnered with Wild Ennerdale to protect the land by bringing people and organisations together to safeguard the future of the valley for wildlife, the surrounding communities and businesses. “There’s been a fundamental shift in the last few years,” he told us. “An acceptance, recognition and an embracing of the elements of the bigger rewilding picture, and a realisation that it works not just from a biodiversity point of view, but also from a people point of view.”
Wild Ennerdale is part of Rewilding Europe, and envisions a future where landowners, communities and businesses come together as one to ensure the wildness of the landscape is preserved. John’s work aims to protect the future supply of water from the worst impact of climate change, and rewilding is an effective and self-sustaining solution. “We are custodians of about 16,000 hectares of land, so what we do has a big impact. Improving the health of the catchment and the land around us is something that, as a business, is absolutely fundamental to the way we work. It’s a way of investing in our future and in our stakeholders’ futures.”
“Perhaps the next revolution won’t be an industrial one, but an environmental one.”Jonathan Thomson
Rewilding offers a way for individuals to reconnect with the world around them, improve and protect the biodiversity of our planet and safeguard businesses for decades to come; it’s a long term way of thinking about our existence. It is as much a rewilding of the self as it is of our planet.
Chris believes that we can reinspire awe by increasing the wildness of the natural world: “Rather than people always deciding exactly what the outcome is going to be, I’d love to see a system that can place two boundaries around what is viable and realistic for that particular habitat or project, and then letting nature take its course. I’d love my legacy to be people being surprised by nature more often.”
Much like how experiencing a sense of awe reorients us towards others instead of just ourselves, rewilding has the potential to bring people together: “People and communities really need to be at the heart of rewilding. Collaboration is fundamental. The more you can engage with communities and open up opportunities for different sectors, the better.”
The desire for people to be more personally engaged with nature resurfaced in every conversation we had for this article. They see the rewilding movement as holding so much potential, not just for what it will do to increase biodiversity, but also because it allows people to see nature tangibly change over a short period of time. “The average Westerner is environmentally illiterate,” says Jonathan Thomson as he walks around Underhill Wood. “If we are going to get people to understand the climate crisis, they need to have the interpretive language to do so.”
In an effort to fight back against environmental apathy, Jonathan runs the John Muir award. Each week he hosts a group of young people to teach them about the changes Underhill Wood is undergoing due to rewilding, and also to get them involved hands-on in beekeeping monitoring doormouse populations and ensuring that barn owls can nest and hunt throughout the year.
“Nature is my passion, and working with young people gives me so much hope for what’s possible. They care about the planet, they respect it and have an eagerness to learn more. Perhaps the next revolution won’t be an industrial one, but an environmental one.”
Rewilding Success Stories
Wolves, Yellowstone, USA
In one of the most famous rewilding projects to date, the US government reintroduced 41 wild grey wolves into Yellowstone National Park between 1995 and 1997. Loss of habitat and hunting had massively diminished the wolf population, and their return shows just how interconnected an entire ecosystem is – they rebalanced elk and deer populations, reducing overgrazing and allowing willow and aspen trees to recover. This led to increased stability in riverbanks, encouraging songbirds, beavers, foxes, badgers and eagles to return to the landscape. Today, there are more than nine packs of wolves totalling nearly 130 individuals in Yellowstone.
Beavers once played a significant role in the British landscape, helping to shape wetlands from prehistoric times, until they were hunted to extinction in the 16th century. Known as ecosystem engineers, beavers have a huge impact on their habitat that benefits other species as well as people. By coppicing trees and shrubs and damming watercourses, they help to foster dynamic wetland landscapes. They also help to reduce flood risks and siltation (which pollutes water), increase water retention, water cleanliness and sequester carbon within the landscape. There have been 200 beaver reintroduction projects across Europe.
Monks Wood Wilderness, UK
In 1961, Kenneth Mellanby, director of the Monks Wood Experimental Station, had an idea. Noticing a four-acre field nearby, he proposed what would become a 60 year long experiment: “It might be interesting to watch what happens if man does not interfere. Will it become a wood again, how long will it take, which species will be in it?” After a decade, shrubs and wildflowers emerged. In 15 years, rabbits, hares and deer appeared. Slowly, a structurally complex woodland ecosystem was emerging, and with it, wildlife returned. To this day, it’s one of the most comprehensive studies on the rewilding process.
Giant Tortoises, Gallápagos Islands
In the 16th century, a once-thriving population of some 150,000 giant tortoises native to the Gallápagos Islands entered a rapid decline as they were hunted by humans, and their habitats destroyed by invasive rats, dogs, pigs and goats introduced by human expeditions. Two species of the giant tortoise are now extinct, and there were just 14 of the Española species left in 1965. But after invasive goats were removed from the islands, the ecosystem began to restore itself. With the help of a breeding program, tortoise numbers are now over 2,000. The return of the tortoises has brought with them an increase in albatrosses, cacti and vegetation across the island and the rejuvenation of an entire ecosystem.