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’.

Select a blog

Careers at ZSL

Our people are our greatest asset and we realise our vision for a world where wildlife thrives through their ideas, skills and passion. An inspired, informed and empowered community of people work, study and volunteer together at ZSL.

Nature at the heart of global decision making

At ZSL, a key area of our work is the employment of Nature-based Solutions – an approach which both adapt to and mitigates the impacts of climate change. These Solutions, which include habitat protection and restoration, are low-cost yet high-impact, and provide multiple benefits to people and wildlife. We ensure that biodiversity recovery is at the heart of nature-based solutions. 

ZSL London Zoo

A blog for lovers of ZSL London Zoo, bringing you extraordinary animal facts and exclusive access to the world's oldest scientific zoo.

ZSL Whipsnade Zoo

Do you love wildlife? Discover more about our amazing animals at the UK's biggest zoo!


We're working around the world to conserve animals and their habitats, find out more about our latest achievements.


From the field to the lab, catch up with the scientists on the cutting edge of conservation biology at ZSL’s Institute of Zoology.


A day in Discovery and Learning at ZSL is never dull! The team tell us all about the exciting sessions for school children, as well as work further afield.

Artefact of the month

Every month, one of the pieces held in ZSL’s Library and at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo will feature here as Artefact of the Month.

Wild About

Read testimonials from our Members and extracts from ZSL's award winning members' magazine, Wild About.

Asia Conservation Programme

ZSL works across Asia, from the famous national parks of Nepal to marine protected areas in the Philippines. Read the latest updates on our conservation.

Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation

An Open Access journal for research at the interface of remote sensing, ecology and conservation.