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Rewilding and conservation: what's the difference?


A Heal 2nd birthday blog, by the Heal team


Do you really understand how rewilding and traditional conservation are different, but sometimes seem the same? This is the blog to help clear up that confusion.


 

Not long after Heal launched in 2020, a team of desk-based volunteers began a unique task for us. Each week, they have been monitoring Twitter, picking up and storing every tweet relating to rewilding. This work continues, as the purpose is to help us stay abreast of news and views. Over time, this store of tweets has become a remarkable collection of facts, opinions, reflections and confusions about the subject. And it’s one of those confusions that we pick up in this blog.


It’s easy for those of us who live and breathe rewilding to forget that most of the population has no idea what it is, how it ‘works’ and how it differs from traditional conservation. They know it’s to do with nature, but so is conservation. Isn’t rewilding just a new word for what we’ve always done to help wildlife? We often see Twitter posts that tell us there is still a lot of confusion about this.

As part of our work to improve understanding of rewilding, we wrote a special ‘explainer’ last year for Friends of Heal (our version of a membership scheme). What follows is an adapted excerpt which specifically aims to clear up the confusion about how rewilding and conservation differ – which they do, and at a profound level. We hope you find this helpful.


The way to think about rewilding is as a big-picture approach to helping nature. It takes account of a whole ecosystem and focuses on the recovery of all of it. Where there is intervention by humans, it tends to be about repairing ecosystem damage to help fill gaps in those systems that are human-caused. The aim of rewilding is to restore components of nature that have been lost or destroyed, typically because of human activity. This is achieved by reinstating natural processes (e.g. the water cycle, oxygen formation) and, where appropriate, missing species (e.g. beavers, white-tailed eagles). In rewilding, nature is allowed to lead. Rewilding Britain defines rewilding as ‘the large-scale restoration of ecosystems to the point where nature is allowed to take care of itself’.


Conservation is a target-based approach focusing on specific species and habitats. Projects have specific objective with methods to achieve them, usually involving human intervention (‘clear that scrub’, ‘coppice that wood’, ‘plant those trees’). Sometimes, animals can be used to intervene (low-intensity sheep grazing to keep grass in check on species-rich grassland). Conservation is ‘working towards’ an end goal. That may involve saving an area where there is a special habitat, creating new habitats through planting, or supporting the recovery of a single species or a range of species.


Another way of thinking about this is that in conservation you start with something precious and in rewilding you start with something poor. Rewilding aims to restore ecologically depleted land, whereas wildlife conservation aims to conserve the last few remaining pockets of healthy, biodiverse land. Rewilding is a simple and intuitive way to restore degraded land with poor biodiversity. Wildlife conservation is often more appropriate on biodiverse sites that contain important species or habitats that need careful intervention to protect and maintain them.


Rewilding and conservation actions can be the same, but the rationale is different. Planting trees is a good example. A conservation organisation might plant trees to conserve a particular species that's in trouble, like ash trees. If an area is being rewilded but has no ‘parent trees’ left, then stepping back and allowing nature to lead won’t result in many baby trees becoming established. In that instance, a rewilding project may plant trees to fill a gap in the ecosystem.


Thanks to decades of wildlife conservation in England, thousands of precious natural places and the species within them have been saved. But despite this amazing work, species numbers are continuing to decline year-on-year. Why? Protecting these last few pockets of biodiversity isn’t enough to curb the ecological crisis, unfortunately. We need to restore much more land, fast, and we need this land to be connected through wildlife corridors. That’s why Heal launched in 2020 – to heal degraded land at scale across England.

Here's a summary of the two approaches:

If you become a Friend of Heal (from £4.50 a month), you will have access to Rewilding: The Explainer and other benefits, including knowing that you are making a direct difference to nature recovery, climate change and wellbeing!

 

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