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Why is Rewilding Important for Humans?

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Why is Rewilding Important for Humans?

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Rewilding is not just important for wildlife – it’s vital for humans, too. Let’s take a look at its impacts on climate change, flooding and farming.

Ecosystems Constantly Change

For decades, conservation has been working against natural processes, following the science to try and hold nature in a fixed state in order to qualify for scarce funding. But that isn’t what a wild landscape looks like – ecology is all about change. Recently we’ve begun to realise that embracing the change – shifting to a rewilding approach – can reduce the severity of floods, store carbon and improve soil health.

How Does Rewilding Help Climate Change?

Our ‘natural’ landscape, with huge areas of regularly-burned moorland, drained wetlands and intensively grazed uplands, are poor at storing carbon. The rewilding approach begins with researching how these landscapes looked before humans appeared. Conservationists then introduce animals and processes that allow the land to recover to its natural state, which helps  store carbon:

  • When wetland drainage is removed, peat can begin to form again, pulling down CO2 from the atmosphere
  • Reducing the grazing pressure on our uplands allows tree seedlings to grow into forests, capturing carbon
  • Stopping the practice of muirburn (burning moors) allows these ecosystems to recover and transform into mosaic woodlands that, rather than releasing vast amounts of CO2 every year, begin to store it in the soil
  • Transforming our vast monoculture plantations of conifers into wood pasture by introducing large herbivores locks down carbon with the help of rich mycorrhizal networks (fungi) in the roots of grasses

How Does Rewilding Stop Flooding?

While the impact of climate change is certainly being felt in the form of increased flooding, this isn’t the only reason we’re getting hit by so many extreme events. Over the past few centuries, humans have straightened and channeled rivers, alongside clearing hillsides of vegetation. Now, rain falling in the hills flows at high speed with very little resistance down towards the valley below, mixing with runoff from paved towns and cities that have little open ground for water to soak in.

Rewilding rivers is about returning them to a more natural state, which slows the flow of water, allowing a rainstorm longer to pass through the system. The surge of water from heavy rain is less severe, thanks to a number of obstacles:

  • bendier rivers – yes, really!
  • leaky dams – trees falling into streams in rewilded valleys, or beaver dams
  • reclaiming floodplains – breaching levees so the river can spill out of its banks
  • increasing vegetation in uplands – slows water down and soaks it up

How Does Rewilding Help Farmers?

Rewilding is a potential revenue stream for farmers, if they commit to it on a large scale. Knepp is the classic case study here, with wild meat production, ‘safaris’ and holidays replacing arable and dairy income. However, even on a smaller scale, rewilding can restore soil health.

Every year in the UK, 3 million tonnes of topsoil are lost due to erosion (UK Govt report, 2019). As field sizes have increased and agriculture has intensified, we’ve also lost 40-60% of organic carbon in our arable soils. Rewilding projects can reverse these trends by restoring the natural processes required to build our crucial soil reserves back. However, it’s difficult to see how intensive agriculture could be replaced by rewilding, as it simply doesn’t produce enough food. Perhaps degraded farmland could undergo ‘rewilding therapy’ or corridors of land between fields could be rewilded to act as buffers that reduce the problems of soil erosion.

NB. There has been a lot of controversy around rewilding in Wales due to the way that farming communities have been, or felt, excluded from the process. When restoring farmland for a rewilding project, it is important to also replace the jobs that the farm had generated, but newer projects are finding innovative ways to do this, such as ecotourism.

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