Rewilding Success: It’s Not Just About Ecology…

By Dr Sophie Wynne-Jones

Understanding that nature conservation is intensely political, and unavoidably social, is not always so obvious. On the face of it, conservation is about the environment, ecological and biophysical processes. But with rewilding, the 'people' part smacks you in the face repeatedly. 

Just this week the Cambrian Wildwood project, of which I am a trustee, came under fire for our choice of graziers on the basis that they were not ‘native’ Welsh ponies. In purely ecological terms, the Koniks we had chosen do a better job of dealing with the unpalatable vegetation on our site, and we were keen to have an animal closely aligned with the lost ancient horse species of Tarpan. But these points don’t necessarily address the concerns of those who see rewilding as a threat to cultural identity and livelihoods. 

Rewilding photo 1

This instance is of course not unique, and I could fill the rest of this blog with similar stories. As a social scientist I am charged with unravelling some of this analytically, to see what more we can say beyond acknowledging the obvious fracture and frustrations bursting through. Whilst my research has focused most closely on the development of rewilding in Wales, in the talk for ZSL I will discuss projects from across the UK, outlining how they have sought to include people and work through problems.  

Rewilding 2

Importantly, in reviewing these projects, I contend that rewilding is increasingly about people – their wellbeing, their relationship with nature, and the livelihoods they derive in relation to the natural environment. This shows an expansion on earlier interpretations, centred on nature’s integrity and function, but doesn’t overcome the problems also identified. 

 Rewilding 3
Picture credits: Coetir Anian

To work through these, I focus on differences in cultural values and norms, socio-economic impacts, and power. Here I discuss emerging efforts to counteract the livelihood dis-benefits that rewilding can have, particularly at such a vulnerable moment for farming communities caught in a Brexit cross-fire. I also contend that optimism surrounding emerging ‘nature-based’ economies needs to be matched with a careful consideration of how power operates in these forums. Equally, I argue that differences in ‘opinion’ often run deep, both historically and cognitively, and we need to fully explore the foundations of oppositional world-views if we are ever to gain the awareness, and the capacity to care, needed to move forwards.  My analysis isn’t about allocating blame, but gaining a better understanding of the hurdles and the more insurmountable barriers we might face on the way to ‘rewilding success’.
 

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