There are some wonderful things to be said for rewilding, cautionary Michael Crichton blockbusters and Nimby protests aside.
Nature’s ability to recover from ruin and destruction constantly takes the experts by surprise — and yet, seeming no-brainers like bringing back hummingbirds and green fields where now there are weed whackers and parking lots face a constant struggle for public opinion.
Even the word itself, “rewilding,” is discouraged by some government agencies, for fear of the controversy it might cause. Dense thickets of sallow, eight metre-wide blackthorn hedges and grassy meadows might not seem like an existential threat to anyone with even a remote connection to nature, but the R-word has a way of galvanizing opposition, from sheep herders in the UK angry about wilderness replacing food production to scientists who warn that wild boar illegally reintroduced to Scotland carry the CC398 strain of MRSA superbug that is resistant to antibiotics.
Wolves reintroduced to Yellowstone are a source of constant controversy with ranchers in the park’s border areas, and even a plan to reintroduce the rare wild lynx to parts of the northeastern UK are being met by the kind of opposition usually reserved for registered sex offenders moving into the neighbourhood.
As more wild animals adapt to living in urban environs — from raccoons in Toronto to leopards in Mumbai — it’s as if the very notion of allowing nature to reclaim areas that were once wild is both unneeded and unwanted.
And yet, as surveys have shown, rewilding has unexpected side benefits — everything from alleviating the threat of flooding in urban flood pans and alongside riverbanks to the simple calming effect nature has in an otherwise frantic, frenzied urban environment.
Rewilding as a way to combat flooding isn’t pie-in-the-sky, airy-fairy thinking, either. Just this past weekend, the Sunday Observer’s Patrick Barkham reported that a plan to restore 30,000 hectares of upland bogs in Yorkshire is designed in large part to pre-empt flooding, as bogs act as giant sponges for floodwater.
Rewilding alleviates soil erosion, too. Noted biologist John Lawton, author of Making Space for Nature, has argued the case for “more, bigger, better and joined” wild areas.
In a 2013 manifesto for rewilding the world, Oxford environmentalist George Monbiot argued that a mass restoration of ecosystems, “offers us hope where there was little hope before.”
For some, returning the Americas to a time when four-tusked mammoths and two-ton bison walked alongside beavers the size of black bears — two-and-a-half metres from nose to tail — sounds worryingly like something out of Jurassic Park, but the reality is more prosaic. About the worst thing that can be said about replacing a parking lot with a grassy meadow is that there’s less money to be madefrom a patch of green than there is yet another place to park cars in an already traffic-congested city.
Inevitable controversies aside — your wolves just murdered my sheep! — Monbiot argues that rewilding puts a positive face on conservation, as opposed to the usual cries of alarm — Henny-penny, the sky is falling! — that, after a while, begin to lose their effect.
“Environmentalists have long known what they are against,” Monbiot wrote in 2103. “Now we can explain what we are for. It introduces hope where hope seemed absent. It offers us a chance to replace our silent spring with a raucous summer.”
More bird song, in other words. Bring on the raucous summer. And never mind the Nimbys.