What does it mean?
This could be a book. Everyone’s definition of rewilding is slightly different.
The original definition of rewilding appeared in a 1998 journal article by Michael Soulé and Reed Noss, as an approach to conservation based on large core reserves, connectivity and keystone species, which they shortened to the snappy 'cores, corridors and carnivores'.
Now rewilding is what the academic world calls a 'contested term'. We favour the definition used by Rewilding Britain, which is:
The reinstatement of natural processes and, where appropriate, missing species, allowing them to shape the landscape and the habitats within, leading to the restoration of fully functioning ecosystems.
Rewilding boosts natural processes such as:
regeneration of trees and plants
Expanding on that, and noting that these are all complex points which we have hugely simplified or generalised:
On the ecologically depleted land we acquire, meaning land with very low biodiversity, we will reinstate natural processes by returning native ecosystem engineers to the land.
When ecosystems begin functioning better on our areas of rewilded land, we'll have biodiversity hot-spots with healthy soil and booming invertebrate populations that can help kick-start nature's recovery on surrounding sites in the landscape.
Consumption, the food chain or food web, is a key component of a functioning ecosystem. Animals eat plants and/or other animals. Even some plants eat animals. Animals are either carnivores (eat only animals), omnivores (eating both plants and animals) or herbivores (eat only plants). A healthy ecosystem has a balanced mix of all three – keep reading to find out which animals we expect to bring onto our sites.
The first changes will be invisible to the human eye, occurring deep in the soil and at the invertebrate level. It may take several years before the land appears to flourish and we see the return of key animal and botanical species.
Grazing, browsing and rootling animals construct a mosaic of habitats by 'working' the land in different ways. The action of cattle, ponies and deer (herbivores) and pigs (omnivores) naturally controls the growth of dominant species such as tree saplings. Without grazing, habitats are vulnerable to succession, meaning a gradual shift towards total tree cover.
Total tree cover is not a bad thing – woodland is an important habitat and critical for carbon capture. However, uncontrolled succession would lead to loss of diversity of habitats and any niche species in them. We plan to graze cattle, pigs, ponies and deer on the sites once the natural food supply is sufficient to support appropriate numbers of them.
We are not farming these animals - they are our ecosystem engineers acting as proxies for extinct or absent wild species. We are weighing up the evidence to decide how to manage our herds as naturally as possible. To those of you rightly concerned with animal welfare, please be reassured that we won't let livestock die from old age or starvation. We will consult experienced stockmen, and draw on the findings of similar projects, as the sites develop.
We're frequently asked whether we would introduce beavers to our Heal sites. Beavers are a keystone species that deliver enormous water-quality benefits to the wider landscape, even in small numbers. The answer is yes, we’d love to introduce beavers to our sites, but only if it’s appropriate. This year, record numbers of beavers will be introduced in places in lowland England. We will watch these developments with great interest and call on the experience of others once we have land.
Rewilding isn't about returning land to a previous state, but instead allowing what's called 'self-willed' nature to show us what it wants to do. We can’t recreate the past - which year would we choose? 10,000 years ago? 100 years ago? Read Feral by George Monbiot if this topic is of interest.
Unfortunately, it isn’t quite as simple as letting nature take over. Restoring ecosystem function requires some degree of intervention. This is a knotty issue. How much should we intervene? What is the justification for doing so? What unintended consequences could there be?
Some advocates of rewilding might challenge intervention and we understand that. However, we believe that humans have depleted the landscape to such a great extent that some positive, carefully considered intervention is required to give nature what it needs to heal itself. Our interventions will include making ponds, for example, as we lost half the UK's ponds in the 20th century. We will follow expert advice and consider the implications of interventions from multiple perspectives. Would reintroducing beavers flood a neighbouring farm, for example?
To give wildlife the seclusion it needs, some parts of Heal’s land will remain permanently closed except to staff and volunteers, but the rest will be accessible for visitors to explore and enjoy.