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Can rewilding and food production co-exist?

What is Rewilding?

Rewilding aims to restore ecosystems and reverse biodiversity declines by allowing wildlife and natural processes to reclaim areas no longer under human management. It has been seen by some as an attractive and proactive way to restore biodiversity and tackle the climate crisis. The UK government’s £2.4 billion-per-year plan to replace the European Union’s common agricultural policy in England proposes that landowners be paid to plant trees and restore wetlands and peat on 741,000 acres of land under the largest farm policy change in 50 years. There is strong support for the concept of rewilding amongst the British public.

A recent YouGov poll has indicated that more than four-fifths of people support rewilding landscapes to support nature in Britain.

Considerations for Rewilding

Much of the controversy on rewilding focuses on the planting of trees, often as part of carbon offsetting schemes for large corporations and the impact it has on local communities. According to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) rewilding does not always benefit local communities, especially those with histories of traditional land management such as hunting, farming, forestry, and fishing.

Managing the Impact

Evidence suggests that rewilded areas continue to need some form of human management. In the Netherlands, there has been controversy centred on Oostvaardersplassen (OVP), a 56-square-kilometre reserve, into which megafauna have been introduced to recreate the area from the Pleistocene also known as the Ice Age. Once introduced to the area, deer, horses, and wild cattle prospered at first, until their numbers exceeded their habitat’s carrying capacity and animals started to starve to the extent that local people protested about the welfare of the animals. So, if some form of management is necessary, it could include some form of food production through extensive grazing or hunting.

Can Rewilding and Food Production Co-Exist?

Rewilding and food production seem to be at odds operating with completely different philosophies. However, Knepp Castle Estate, in the Low Weald area of Sussex in the UK, is a hybrid model of rewilding and food production merging together successfully. Originally a conventional commercial farm for 20 years, Knepp has been home to an ambitious nature-restoration project, supported in part by UK government Countryside Stewardship grants.

Grazing animals, including longhorn cattle, deer, Exmoor ponies, and Tamworth pigs roam freely on the 3,500-acre estate, and the river system has been returned to its natural course. The biodiversity of the estate has exploded, with nightingales, turtle doves, peregrine falcons, purple emperor butterflies, skylarks, woodpeckers, and many other winged species taking flight each day.

Developing A Rewilding Model

The IUCN has developed several principles to help guide rewilding initiatives, these include the need to ensure that outcomes are to the mutual benefit of people and nature and that there is local engagement and support.  In some regions including Europe, semi-natural vegetation and farmland systems can support wildlife and provide other ecosystem services. Therefore, a type of restoration related to wildlife-friendly farming or land sharing with little competition for land by planting woodland islets and hedgerows for ecological restoration in extensive agricultural landscapes can be beneficial.

Rewilding is a spectrum and there are examples of good and bad projects, and there is clearly some room for compromise between the objectives of restoring biodiversity, maintaining food production and rural employment.

How Might Conservation Influence Your Future Projects?

As businesses, consumers, and policymakers become more and more conscious of their impact on the environment, movements such as rewilding are likely to gain momentum over the next decade and beyond.

Farrelly Mitchell is an international agribusiness and food advisory firm helping our clients to make the right decisions, improve and sustainably grow. We support clients to consider the influence of these schemes and practices particularly in locations where it is already being embraced. Finding opportunities and ways to merge with changing perceptions on how we utilise the natural environment could be key to the success of certain projects. To get expert advice on your project, connect with us today.


Managing Director
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