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To intervene or not intervene, that is the question


A Heal 2nd birthday blog, by Hannah Needham, Operations Director, Heal Rewilding


 

While we search for a suitable landholding to acquire to become our foundation rewilding site, we’re developing our approach with regards to a challenging aspect of land management faced by all landowners involved in rewilding: how to approach human ‘interventions’.

Some common misconceptions of rewilding are that it can be achieved simply by removing humans from the land or planting trees. While these approaches do sometimes constitute rewilding, there’s quite a bit more to it than that. The goal of rewilding is to reverse the loss of species and habitats by restoring ‘natural processes’. If you’re a keen rewilder, you may be familiar with Rewilding Britain’s definition: “Rewilding is the large-scale restoration of ecosystems to the point where nature is allowed to take care of itself. Rewilding seeks to reinstate natural processes and, where appropriate, missing species – allowing them to shape the landscape and the habitats within.”

Where has this idea of giving control back to nature come from? Well, most land in the UK is shaped by human activities such as construction, agriculture or horticulture. We’ve channelised and culverted rivers, built roads, erected fences and drained floodplains to create neat, organised landscapes that are easier for humans to understand and control. We know now, however, that these benefits to us come at a devastating cost: widespread species declines from habitat loss. When humans release their control over the land or are absent from it, land is shaped by natural processes that are driven by ‘biotic’ (living) factors like animals and fungi and ‘abiotic’ (non-living) factors like the weather and water. This tends to deliver wonderfully dynamic, varied habitats that host an abundance and diversity of species.

In some circumstances, withdrawing from the land and leaving nature alone will deliver the best ecological outcomes. However, if humans have removed or significantly disrupted key biotic or abiotic factors (e.g. through species extinctions, habitat destruction) then the full restoration of natural processes may not be possible – nature may not have all the tools it needs to heal itself. For example, if a site has undergone extensive deforestation and there are no trees or seeds left for miles and miles, then trees may not be able to regenerate naturally for many years.

Some will argue that it is justifiable, in circumstances such as these, for humans to intervene and give nature a helping hand to become self-willed and self-sufficient again. Given the urgency of the intertwined climate and ecological emergencies, we at Heal think a degree of human intervention – based on scientific evidence – is not only acceptable but sometimes necessary.

This leads me to the burning question that so many rewilders are trying to navigate: if our main aim is to enable nature to ‘manage’ the land instead of us, when is it okay for us intervene? We know that landscapes designed by nature are much more biodiverse than those designed by us. We also know that nature, unlike humans, is never driven by bias or favouritism. Is it really a good idea for us to make decisions on nature’s behalf?

This is something we think a lot about at Heal, particularly as we receive so many land management ideas and suggestions from the public. Knowing that interventions will continually come up for consideration, we have been working on a principles-based approach to the question of whether or not to intervene. By taking this approach, we aim to establish a way of working which can hold good on any site we acquire in any place in England.

The output of our work is an interventions flowchart. It is founded on principles which have initially tested theoretically and will then test on our foundation site, in conjunction with professional ecologists and species experts who have also reviewed it in draft.

The flowchart sets out a series of questions that we should ask ourselves in the event that a land management intervention is proposed. First and foremost, we need to ask ourselves if a ‘problem’ - something that is causing a reduction in biodiversity or disrupting the ecosystem – has been observed. If the answer is no, our stance is that we should not intervene unless we are we legally obliged to (e.g. because there is a risk to human health or an invasive species is present).

If the answer is yes – something is disrupting ecosystem function – the next step is to understand the cause of the problem by asking questions such as:

  • Is the problem caused by the absence of a native species?

  • Is the problem caused by disruption to a natural process?

  • Is the problem caused by habitat fragmentation?

  • Is the problem occurring because a species has become dominant?

  • Is the problem the result of destruction from humans?

For each problem identified, we ask ourselves two key questions:

  • Is it possible that the problem will resolve naturally (i.e. without human intervention)?

  • How long will it take to resolve naturally?

Depending on the nature of the problem, the flowchart will suggest land management interventions to be considered, including:

  • Reverse damage caused by humans e.g. re-wiggle a stream that has been straightened

  • Carry out infrastructure works e.g. remove internal fences

  • Reintroduce missing species e.g. beavers

Going through those tests was not only instructive but also surprisingly comforting. We are proud to have a logical and principled decision-making process that can be applied across multiple sites to ensure our actions are consistent and can be clearly communicated to our supporters.

We are aware that stepping through this pathway is done from a particular philosophical position. If someone believes in principle that something should not be done, this instrument will have no value. However, most of us trying to help nature to recover are aware of the positive impact that carefully chosen interventions can bring.


We are open to adapting it and evolving the flowchart based on our own experience going forward and on feedback from others. If you have an intervention that you have either done already on a site, that you would like to retrofit to our flowchart, or one you plan and you would be interested in working through it, please email us: heal@healrewilding.org.uk.

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