Does Rewilding have a role in preventing Climate Change?
Rewilding, a novel approach to biodiversity, has been gaining significant momentum over the past few years. The restoration process forces us to abandon our obsession for control and industrialisation, instead encouraging us to step back and release as nature is allowed to reclaim its voice.
The Rewilding Institute defines the practice as the ‘comprehensive…large-scale, conservation effort focused on restoring sustainable biodiversity and ecosystem health by protecting core wild/wilderness areas, providing connectivity between such areas, and protecting or reintroducing apex predators.’
At Knepp Castle, West Sussex, the rewilding project coordinated by Isabella Tree and Charlie Burrell is proving instrumental in this research, as ecologists focus on increasing biodiversity, soil restoration, and resultant carbon sequestration. Having inherited Knepp as a 3,500 acre farm drowning in debt and (quite literally) the sticky Sussex clay, the two found it impossible to make industrial farming processes financially viable. Subsequently, abandoning the safety of farm machinery, dairy herds, and rigorously ploughed fields, they embarked on the first rewilding project in Britain.
With the plan to create ‘A Biodiverse Wilderness Area in the Low Weald of Sussex’, the pair were guided by Frans Vera and his book ‘Grazing Ecology and Forest History’, in which Vera emphasises the importance of varied grazing animals on the landscape, in order to ‘transfer nutrients and disperse seeds over wide areas’ to stimulate ‘a complex mosaic of habitats’. Therefore, in an attempt to introduce a variety of grazers that resembled extinct animals which had once roamed the English landscape, the project welcomed old English longhorn cattle as a proxy for the extinct oryx, Exmoor ponies as a proxy for the extinct Tarpan, and Tamworth pigs standing in for the wild boar. Seventeen years later, the estate is overflowing with soft waves of grasslands, pigs deep sea diving for fresh water mussels, and their first turtle dove – a complex and developed ecosystem.
Research published in the journal Nature claims that ‘if a third of the planet’s most degraded areas were restored, and protection was thrown around areas still in good condition, that would store carbon equating to half of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions since the industrial revolution.’ Agricultural farming, and ploughing specifically, has released 15-20% of carbon dioxide now found in the earth’s atmosphere. Rewilding brings relief to these suffocating landscapes at the mercy of heavy ploughing and fossil fuel-based fertilisers. The practice allows land which has been overploughed and reduced to a monoculture of fertilised crops, to be restored, maximising the soil’s ability to sequester carbon and subsequently mitigate climate change.
But not everyone is in agreement…
However, despite the positive impact rewilding has on restoring our environment and reducing carbon emissions, the movement has been met by farmers with controversy, claiming it is unrealistic, undermining their livelihoods and the food production industry.
To gain a further insight, I have spoken to the environmentalist Camilla Swiderska, the owner, alongside her husband Yan Swiderski, of Hamatethy Farm – an exciting organic farm embracing rewilding. Camilla highlighted an interesting point: that the practice is a great way to encourage wildlife to marginal land, with Hamatethy Farm proving an obvious example of this. This perspective offers a reasonable compromise for farmers, as land which proves uneconomical for agricultural farming (such as Knepp Castle), can be put to better use by rewilding it.
Located on the edges of Bodmin Moor, Camilla describes their land as ‘disadvantaged’, characterised by pasture, rough grassland, rocky outcrops, and woodland. In an effort to restore the soil and encourage the growth of wildlife, Camilla and Yan abandoned their sheep flock – referencing George Monbiot, an environmental and political activist, who claims them as a ‘fully automated system for environmental destruction’, as she tells me the farm’s story. Farmed at high density levels, sheep compact the soil, preventing any trees and shrubs from germinating.
Camilla then went on to explain that their now reduced herd of cows have been used to trample over the tougher thickets of their upland, and that the farm is looking forward to welcoming the introduction of pigs onto the landscape. This commitment to creating a kinder and more diversified habitat in which biodiversity can flourish strengthens ecosystems and their resilience against human influence.
So where do Beavers come into this?
Hamatethy Farm’s recent introduction of beavers to the farm in Cornwall has been a joy to watch unfold. Following my visit in 2020, Camilla tells me that the two beavers have created significantly sized pools in their building of dams, providing a haven for fish, a heron, a fox, and even otters!
Beavers have played a huge part in the rewilding movement, having been introduced into the UK following their extinction 400 years ago. Chris Jones, from the Cornwall Beaver Project describes them as ‘powerful manipulators’, in conversation, referring to their incredible abilities to alleviate flooding, improve water filtration, and possibly play a part in regulating greenhouse gases. He referred to the research being undertaken to find correlations between beavers and climate change, as their creation of wetlands allow for perfect conditions for carbon sequestration. Beavers’ coppicing of trees and creation of dams causes both land and wood to become wet (both in the dam and from overbank flows), creating anaerobic conditions, perfect for storing carbon. However, as exciting as this research is, Chris pointed out its novelty and warned me away from drawing any assured conclusions – it will be an area to watch progress!
Studies on beavers in Canada, carried out by Glynnis A Hood and Suzanne E. Bayley, have emphasised the significance of wetland in mitigating climate change, providing evidence that the decline of wetland is correlative with an increase in temperature from 1 to 4 degrees. Their research goes on to prove that beavers play a significant part in protecting this landscape; where beavers have been absent from ponds, the water levels have been significantly lower than in areas inhabiting active beaver colonies. Alongside Ellen Whol’s study of organic carbon measurements between abandoned and active beaver meadows, this research is particularly interesting. Whol points out that the valley-bottom carbon storage percentage is higher in wet meadows actively maintained by beavers, making up 23% compared to a reduced 8% in relict beaver meadows. Therefore, not only are beavers able to protect wetland areas but in so doing, they are in fact storing carbon. Again, as Chris warned me, this research is not fully developed; there is still the question of how long the carbon is stored given the eb and flow of water in these landscapes (when the land dries out, the organic matter oxidises, subsequently releasing any stored carbon).
Although beavers are proving to increase biodiversity and rejuvenate the soil, we are yet to find a solution as to how famers can cooperate with them within the same landscape. The reintroduction of beavers in 2009 in the west of Scotland is an example of the tension between the two, with farmers reporting excessive flooding leading to the destruction of their crops. This battle escalated into a court case between TreesforLife (a rewilding charity) and NatureScot (the Scottish government’s nature agency), with TreesforLife successfully challenging NatureScot’s unrestrained handing out of licenses to kill beavers. Hood and Bayley’s research has offered a potential answer to the conflict, referencing farmers using active beaver impoundments in a drought in 2002 to graze their cattle, ensuring their access to water. Ultimately, the reintroduction of beavers in Scotland has provided an integral challenge to how farmers manage their land – a cry for a revaluation of the relationship between nature and humanity.
Rewilding calls for a recalibration of the balance between nature and human existence, and the practice’s obvious effects of mitigating climate change is a huge incentive to make this step. Whether it is through the rehabilitation of unsuitable farmland or hostile landscapes, rewilding is proving to be a positive impact on the structure of our ecosystem and its ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.