Are we ready for a wilderness? The Earthwatch debate
Many people long to see animals, which human impacts have made locally extinct, brought back to the UK. Last night an audience of about 1000 listened to the complex issue through the personal experiences of five speakers working on the “front line” of rewilding, at the Earthwatch debate at the Royal Geographical Society in London.
Could we hear a wild wolf's howl in the UK again?
Click here to watch highlights from the debate
Click here to watch the whole debate
Our Chair for the evening, TV presenter and farmer Kate Humble began by framing the key questions.
“Do we only love wildlife when it’s compartmentalised in reserves, or on our TV screens? How much do we want deer eating our herbaceous borders? Do we really want bats in our belfries? If we find these relatively benign species difficult to live alongside, could we really live alongside wolves and lynx?”
Tooth and Claw
Earthwatch scientist Dr. Cristina Eisenberg, an ecologist and landowner,
gave insights into her work with wolves in North America.
She claimed that the killing of carnivores to extinction has to do with fear. We have been afraid of anything with sharp teeth and claws for millennia and have assumed that by removing these threats we could have a prosperous life.
However Cristina argued that rewilding simply involves allowing ecological processes – such as predation - to resume. Nature, she says, consists not just of a collection of organisms, but of their relationships to each other. She described how wolves can help to revitalise an ecosystem: their presence causes their prey – such as elk – to move around more, which allows grazed landscapes to recover, enabling an increase in songbirds and butterflies.
“When you remove a keystone species from an ecology, it starts to fall apart.”
Earthwatch scientist and engineer Prof. William Megill has also lived in North American wilderness. “It’s a scary place”, he said “a chaotic place. Then I moved to Germany. Here you find a forest that’s been cleaned up, made safe, engineered.”
William stressed the importance of engineering and how it relates to projects like rewilding - identifying how systems work, and making prototypes, before they are “rolled out” for usage. and only then rolling them out.
He cited an example of grey whales of the west coast of North America. They were reintroduced successfully in the 1980s until there were 20,000 but 10 years later none could be found. It transpired that the high numbers of grey whales meant the species had eaten all available food in their ecosystem and they could no longer be sustained. “We need to rewild in a careful methodical way. We need to expect the unexpected.”
When would we feel “rewilded”?
Andrew Bauer, Deputy Director of Policy, NFU Scotland, ran through a representative sample of species considered for reintroduction in Scotland, asking the audience to raise their hands when they felt “rewilded”. He started with a narrow-headed ant, the powan, and river lamprey. The majority of hands shot up when he reached the lynx and wolf.
Andrew reflected that rewilding is often synonymous with charismatic species. “These are species that energise some people, but give concern to others.” Such species, he stressed, can deliver public goods – but at private costs that are usually borne by people in economically fragile parts of the country.
“We need fewer debates in London, and more discussion in rural village halls.”
Rewilding = punk music
Dr. Paul Jepson, director of Oxford University’s MSc in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management, thinks of rewilding as being “like punk music – a signifier of a desire to shake things up”. We need unregulated places, he said; “that feeling of anxiety of getting lost, or being face-to-face with large mammal; the idea of a place where we feel alive”.
Paul believes that rewilding represents a first call of action towards a new vision.
“Let’s create a British nature that’s a bit more edge and in your face, dare I say spectacular. Let’s broaden our portfolio with higher risk, higher return conservation assets.”
The human boom
Jonathan Hughes, CEO of the Scottish Wildlife Trust, referred to UN estimates that by 2050 there will be 9.6 billion people on Earth – putting extra pressure on already stressed ecosystems.
“Many humans have an empathy with nature, and feel a responsibility to protect environments.” But to have any chance of seeing rewilding happen, said Jonathan, we can’t just rely on it being the morally right choice. “We must marshal other arguments, and convince policy makers to manage nature better.”
He concluded by noting how beaver rewilding trials in west Scotland had been a success – mainly because of strong partnerships with the local community.
But, responding to a question from the audience, Andrew Bauer said that since sea eagles were reintroduced to Scotland in 1975, it's taken nearly forty years to gain a formal acknowledgement that the eagles have killed young sheep.
David Macdonald CBE, Emeritus chairman of Earthwatch, gave closing thoughts: How far back in time do we go when we are considering rewilding? What does the term ‘rewilding’ mean to different people?
“My final thought is about teeth of an intellectual sort. A lot of questions today can be tackled with hard-nosed science, which can give predictions and answers. There’s no business of one size fits all. But there’s one approach, and that’s to study the science…and to use that to make an evaluation of each species.”
A film of the evening will be available on our website soon.
The next Earthwatch lecture will investigate exciting “citizen science” freshwater conservation initiatives in the face of water pollution and scarcity. It will take place on Wednesday 18 February 2015 at the Royal Geographical Society. Watch this space for more details and guest reservations.
The Earthwatch lecture series is kindly supported by