What Is ‘Rewilding’ or ‘Wilding’?


[Abstracted from two articles by Tony Robinson and Prof Ian Rotherham, published in Conservation Land Management, spring 2015].

Most people promoting rewilding would accept that it involves reducing human influence on the landscape in order to restore ecosystem processes.  In North America, the essential elements are the ‘3 Cs’ – core areas, corridors and carnivores.  For many people, rewilding also combines a moral imperative to right ecological wrongs with a strong aesthetic and spiritual appeal to ideas of wilderness.

In the wider context, rewilding requires making the choice about how land is used – ‘land-sharing versus land-sparing,’ which is about whether we should set-aside areas for biodiversity conservation or attempt integrating it into other land uses such as farming and forestry.  Allowing a more natural ecosystem would also deliver services to society, the most important being better regulation of the water environment thus helping to alleviate flooding and water shortages and also sequestrating carbon in the form of trees and peat formation.

However in Europe, and perhaps particularly in the UK, many of our iconic landscapes are greatly influenced for better or for worse by centuries of extensive agriculture, involving intimate interactions between people and ecologies.  Many areas are now suffering across Europe from ‘cultural severance,’ whereby land is abandoned by agriculture which often leads to a loss of biodiversity.  For example, birds of woodland and scrub may increase at the expense of birds of farmland and open country; the loss of grazed grasslands and heathlands to woodland.  Some proponents favour ending grazing and farming altogether thus releasing ecological successions.  However, does one intervene to control introduced species such as grey squirrel, mink, Canada goose or Himalayan balsam?

Despite the enthusiastic promotion of rewilding by many people, there are plenty of other views.  Many landowners and farmers have a negative perception of land abandonment and for them rewilding represents a loss of agricultural production.  Keystone species (species that control many of the other species) such as wolf and lynx, are regarded as dangerous to people and livestock.  Conversely if these areas were created, they would provide many opportunities for eco-tourism.  Locally in Sussex, we do have a form of rewilding with the Knepp Wildland Project.

[There are many degrees of rewilding that could in theory be implemented.  Personally I believe – with the exception of the uplands of Scotland or Wales, that the opportunities are more limited but would dearly love to see some areas given over to less-intensive agriculture enabling a mild form of rewilding enacted!]



Rewilding Europe organisation presents here their working definition of ‘Rewilding’ within a continental Europe context [EDITED VERSION].  June 24 2015.

The term ‘rewilding’ is being recognised and acknowledged more widely and more frequently in Europe, with many initiatives and organisations now having started to use this term. But what is ‘rewilding’ and how do we use it in the European context? It is for this reason that we have developed a working definition of ‘rewilding,’ it being first published this in our Annual Review 2014.

Rewilding Europe is a learning organisation, to be more specific: learning by doing. This means that during the first years of our initiative, we have been pioneering and exploring ‘rewilding’ in a European setting and in different regions of our continent. We received many responses and extensive feedback from many organisations, stakeholders, individuals, scientists and authorities. This has helped us in shaping a working definition that we believe is particularly suited to Europe’s history, culture, and condition of landscapes.

Rewilding Europe believes there is a need for a working definition for ‘rewilding’ as this is becoming a conservation approach that is being increasingly used in Europe. We recognize that there might be differences in how ‘rewilding’ is defined and practiced in different places across the world. We will use this definition for the vision and work of Rewilding Europe and hope and encourage other organisations and initiatives to adopt this working definition as well. We very much welcome suggestions and views to further sharpen and improve it.

“We have deliberately chosen to call this a ‘working definition,” says Wouter Helmer, Rewilding Director of Rewilding Europe. “It means that while developing our initiative further, we will learn more and that will help us to refine it as we go, to a point where we feel satisfied and see others adopting this definition – which in fact represents an additional approach to conservation.”

Our working definition is:

“Rewilding ensures natural processes and wild species play a much more prominent role in the land- and seascapes, meaning that after initial support, nature is allowed to take more care of itself. Rewilding helps landscapes become wilder, whilst also providing opportunities for modern society to reconnect with such wilder places for the benefit of all life.”

A number of important annotations further clarify this working definition for the European situation. These annotations are provided here:

  • Rewilding represents a new appreciation of wilder landscapes, in which people understand the inter-dependent relationship between the health of wild nature and the health of human society, and act to strengthen this indispensable relationship.
  • Rewilding creates a new understanding that life-supporting European biodiversity is fundamentally important and is best delivered by natural processes and the habitats that are the result of those processes.
  • Rewilding can occur in all types of land (and sea-) scapes, on a small and a large scale. While a formal protected status is not required, some form of it is often desirable to assure continued, long-term benefits of rewilding.
  • Rewilding is future-oriented, and works towards the return of natural processes and wildlife within our modern social context, creating new opportunities to link human activities to such wilder, natural landscapes.
  • Rewilding often requires some initial supportive measures, to kick-start natural processes again, or to help wildlife species return to more natural numbers but always with the goal of less intervention after that point.
  • Rewilding is a relative and progressive process, and can be understood as occurring on a ‘Scale of Wildness’, where the process is directed towards moving up on this scale.
  • Rewilding is not geared to reach any particular human-defined ‘optimal situation’ or end state, nor to only create ‘wilderness’ – but it is instead meant to support more natural dynamics that will result in habitats and landscapes characteristic of specific area(s), with suites of species and social features that together create the particular ‘Sense of the Place’.
  • Re-introductions and population reinforcements of flora and fauna are intended to restore ecosystem functions and processes but with historically indigenous range of species.
  • In Europe, even our wildest landscapes are missing certain keystone natural processes and/or species, making even these areas qualify for rewilding.
  • To restore ecosystem functions and natural processes, working with ‘ecological replacements’ (of extinct species) is also an option (cf. IUCN), however the main focus is on the native species, including those that may be extirpated (extinct in the local the area).
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