Guest Article from Jonathan Hughes CEO of the Scottish Wildlife Trust
We are living through an unprecedented period of human history. The United Nations estimate there will be 9.6 billion people on earth by 2050. In the UK, the population is predicted to reach well over 70 million by that time, putting extra pressure on our already stressed natural ecosystems.
I say perhaps for a number of reasons. The growth in population is likely to be very uneven across the world. Africa’s population will more than double for example, while some European countries may see a fall. There is also likely to be large movements of people as ecosystems in some places collapse due to the effects of climate change and what might be called ‘natural capital asset stripping’. But there are two trends that could give some comfort to all those hoping there will still be corners of the earth, and of Britain, which will remain wild, or even become rewilded.
The first is urbanisation. Currently, globally 54% of people live in urban areas, by 2050 this will be 66%. So whilst the world population is growing steadily, rural populations may drop in many areas, leading to land abandonment, which for many is closely related to rewilding.
The other big, potentially game-changing, trend is the emergence of so called ‘sustainable intensification’ in food production systems. I say food production systems rather than agriculture as whether we like it or not, the boom in smart mechanisation, new techniques for ‘growing’ protein and the application of synthetic biology could render many of our traditional agricultural systems economically marginal – even with the current levels of high, and highly distorting, rates of public subsidies paid to farmers.
These trends are critical to understand in any debate on rewilding. People have used land for food production, hunting and foraging for centuries on almost every corner of earth. We may now be facing the prospect that a combination of urbanisation and technology will start of reverse this trend, at least in some places. Ironically, the big driver for re-wilding may well not be environmental policy per se, but the forces of capitalism, however one may feel about the pros and cons of our current prevailing economic system.
I’m to an extent playing Devil’s Advocate here. Even the best futurologists would admit it’s difficult to predict what impact – for good or ill – these global mega-trends will have on our ecosystems, and there are many variables. Will these new technologies be acceptable to society? What will the future demand for red meat and other high-ecological-impact foods be?
But let’s be optimistic for a moment and say that re-wilding might well be possible, even on a planet with 10 billion plus people.
That partly answers the question: is re-wilding realistic? I’d now like to try and answer the question ‘why’ before coming on to the ‘how’.
The rationale for re-wilding cuts to the heart of why the nature conservation movement exists in the first place. Many, but not all, humans have an empathy with nature - they inherently feel a sense of responsibility to care for other species for their intrinsic value. It remains a moot point as to whether this is an altruistic act, or whether our motivation is to receive some spiritual or psychological benefit from doing so. And if ‘biophilia’ really exists, then perhaps we are all genetically hard-wired to respect nature anyway.
But what about those in our ‘tribes’ that don’t much care for nature? Those who’ll happily destroy a species or habitat for personal gain? The uncomfortable truth is we are those people – 99% of those in the audience today will have a mobile phone in their pockets with metals mined out of large holes in the ground by Glencore or Rio Tinto or BHP Billiton. Quite a few of us here eat red meat more times in the week that is good for our own health, never mind the health of the planet. If we find it hard to change, how can we persuade the average Minister in government - dreaming every night about how to grow GDP - to create the conditions for re-wilding to become reality?
The fact is, to have any chance of seeing re-wilding happen on the scale required to reverse biodiversity loss, we need to marshal other arguments, and not just, and I stress the not just, rely on the ‘it’s morally the right thing to do’ line. We need to convince our elected representatives to legislate effectively so that corporations and landowners cannot continue to generate private profits by running up a massive natural capital debt which they have no intention of repaying.
This means spelling out the full gamut of benefits which will come from re-wilding. For example, in those areas where farming is economically marginal, we need to provide opportunities for farmers to diversify into new businesses based on eco-tourism, perhaps using some of the 3.5 billion euros provided to farmers in the UK every year under the Common Agricultural Policy.
We also need to make visible all those other benefits of nature currently invisible in economic decision making including; flood mitigation, carbon sequestration and storage in peatlands and woodlands, improvements in water quality and the protection of species and genetic diversity on which we depend for our medicines, materials and new breeds and strains of crops. None of this negates or conflicts with the need for the moral case. Both cases are needed and absolutely should be made.
So what about the ‘how’? How should we go about re-wilding and what should, or could, re-wilded landscapes look like?
The Scottish Wildlife Trust’s vision is for ‘healthy, resilient ecosystems across large areas of Scotland’s, land and seas’. This could be thought of as a re-wilding vision although I appreciate definitions of the term vary considerably. At the Trust, we are already putting this vision into action through our Living Landscape projects, the largest of which is Coigach-Assynt Living Landscape Programme (CALL), a 50 year partnership project in north-west Scotland to restore the ecosystem health of the area but, equally as importantly, to generate socio-economic benefits for local communities. One of the indicators of the success of the project is whether the local schools are still open and alive with children in 50 years.
The CALL project area is around 60,000 hectares involving eight adjacent landowning partners, two of which are environmental charities, two community-owned holdings and four private estates. We think this model of working towards shared goals over the long-term is a very practical way of achieving good outcomes for the environment and the community. The Scottish Wildlife Trust’s ground-breaking Scottish Beaver Trial took the same approach; the trial simply would not have been the success it was had we not meaningfully connected the project with the community and local livelihoods.
And that’s the message I’d like to end on. At the Scottish Wildlife Trust we want to see ecosystem health restored across large areas of Scotland, including the return of extinct keystone species such as the Eurasian lynx. I’m comfortable with calling this mission re-wilding in certain contexts, so long as there is a place for people. As I’ve said before, the ‘Living’ in Living Landscapes includes people, not just wildlife. And I’d add we are not just talking about Gore-Tex clad walkers rambling in the landscape, I’m talking about people living and working in these landscapes in a way which is compatible with year on year improvements in ecosystem health; soil, water, biodiversity and natural processes. That might include low-intensity extensive farming (after all wood pasture is one of the rarest and richest habitats in the UK – and it’s nothing if not anthropogenic), it might, or perhaps must, include hunting and fishing.
The trick to bringing people with us is to combine ecological recovery with economic vitality. It can be done, indeed we’ve made a good start, the challenge now is scaling it up so we once again see Atlantic woodlands stretching uninterrupted from the Mull of Kintyre to Sandwood Bay, or the drained and plantation-scarred Flow Country returned to its rightful place as a great boggy wilderness of northern Scotland.
This is a transcript of a speech Jonathan Hughes gave to an Earthwatch organised debate on re-wilding in 2014 at the Royal Geographical Society in London. He has kindly given me permission to reproduce it here.