For anyone unfamiliar with the term ‘rewilding’ you’re likely to hazard a well educated guess that it’s an environmental movement aimed at reintroducing native flora and fauna. And yes, in terms of its benefits to wildlife conservation, you’d be right. However, as well as environmental stewardship, rewilding offers an abundance of not so obvious, but equally as important ecological, social and economic benefits.
1. Facilitating trophic cascades
A trophic cascade takes place when animals at the top of a food chain change the numbers not just of their prey, but also of species with which they have no direct connection. Their impacts cascade down the food chain, in some cases radically changing the ecosystem, the landscape and even the chemical composition of the soil and the atmosphere.
Take the case of how wolves changed rivers in Yellowstone National Park. Hunted to extinction in the early 20th century unbalanced the food chain, setting off a trophic cascade in which elk (the wolves’ natural prey) multiplied. The phenomenon occurred again in reverse when 15 wolves were reintroduced in 1994 and the natural balance was restored. When reintroduced, the wolves not only preyed on the elk, reducing their numbers, but also changed the elk’s behavioural patterns. The elk began avoiding exposed areas like valleys and gorges where they could easily be hunted. As a result, those areas started to regenerate, and species such as birds, beavers, mice and bears returned. Plant life once again thrived along the riverbanks and erosion decreased significantly. The stabilization of the riverbanks actually made the rivers and streams change course.
Some critics argue that we should not seek to re-establish missing species until we’ve protected existing wildlife. But nothing better protects our ecosystems than keystone species. Beaver dams provide habitats for fish, water voles, otters and frogs, while protecting local towns and villages from flooding. In Ireland, the resurgence of the pine marten has pushed back the grey squirrel, allowing red squirrels to recolonise. Studies suggest that our woodland ecology cannot recover unless half the country’s deer are culled every year. Lynx could do it for free.
2. Preventing natural disasters
Naturally functioning ecosystems not only provide us with clean air and water, sequestrate & store carbon but they prevent flooding, soil erosion, and provide natural breaks against forest fires.
Flood prevention: A forest’s tree canopy delays the rate at which rainwater reaches the forest floor and the tree roots act as channels to draw rainwater deeper underground. This means rainwater doesn’t run overland into watercourses, streams or rivers. Rainwater is absorbed into tree-covered soil at 67 times the rate at which it is absorbed into grass-covered soil. Trees can also stop soil particles washing into waterways and forming sediment build-up, which can cause additional flooding downstream. Tree roots also act as anchors as they hold soil together and prevent erosion and dangerous landslides in times of heavy rain and flooding.
Forest firebreaks: In the recent forest fires that decimated Portugal, Qunita de Fonte, a farm surrounded by native oak, chestnut and olive trees miraculously escaped the encroaching flames while everything around it burnt to a cinder. The native trees planted several decades ago worked as a natural firebreak against the flames. Older hard wood trees are more resilient to the flames due to their thicker bark, deeper roots in the water rich deep soil, and their greater canopy shade, which lowers the surrounding temperature. This is in stark contrast to the highly flammable, closely planted matchstick like monoculture eucalyptus plantations that covered the surrounding countryside.
3. Enhancing local economies
“The development of wild nature is an opportunity for a new economy”
Pedro Prata, Faia Brava Rewilding Reserve
By increasing the m2 value of wilderness, rewilding offers a new set of options in places where traditional industries such as the highly subsidised and painfully unprofitable farming sector can no longer keep communities alive. - Where schools, shops and pubs are closing and the young people are leaving the land to find work in the city.
In the hills of southern Norway, the return of trees has been accompanied by a diversification and enrichment of the local economy. There, the marginal income from farming is supplemented with eco-tourism, forest products, hunting, fishing, outdoor education, snow sports and hiking.
It’s no coincidence that an ever-increasing number of people are spending their weekends walking, trail running, mountain biking or meditating in woodlands. Experiencing the enchantment of wilderness reconnects us with mother Earth, improves our health while building a shared sense of humanity.
Spending extended periods of time in the forest is proven to improve your health both physically and psychologically. Since 1982 Japan has had a successful national health programme of ‘Shinrin-yoku’ or forest bathing. And it’s not just about the cleaner fresh air, but studies have found forest bathing can lower our heart rate, blood pressure, stress hormones and depression. What’s more, the oils or phytoncides that trees emit to protect themselves from disease and insects, can actually enhance our immune systems.
5. Inspiring a generation to love nature
It’s no wonder the young generation of today are not excited by nature when most cities offer no more than lifeless parks boasting more dog poo than trees, and where our few national parks are sanitised sheep grazing ranches. Being in nature should be a wild exhilarating experience with endless surprises and adventures – ironically, much like the computer games they are so addicted to today. And why do our children love going to the zoo but dread a walk in the countryside. The youth, and in fact most adults, want adventure and the exciting unpredictable feeling of being in the wild. Rewilding can give people this feeling and inspire a new generation to love nature!
6. Fighting Climate change
Global warming is the result of an increase in greenhouse gases, such as CO2 in the atmosphere. In one year the world emits 33 billion tons of CO2 and it is estimated by 2030, our emissions could rise to 40 billion tons of CO2.
Forests are natural carbon sinks and play a hugely important role in sequesting CO2 from the atmosphere. The CO2 is removed through photosynthesis and is absorbed in the wood, leaves and soil, and thus remains in the forest ecosystem. For every tree planted in a rewilding project, as much as 22kg of carbon dioxide is absorbed per year, which equates 1 ton of carbon over a 40 year period.
7. Reversing a sixth mass extinction of our species
According to a recent study in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a “biological annihilation” of wildlife means that a sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history is already underway. Nearly half of all mammal species surveyed had lost more than 80% of their distribution between 1900 and 2015. Scientists concluded that unless monumental changes are made to reverse this decimation of wildlife there would be serious ecological, economic and social consequences.
Rewilding is that monumental change. With large-scale rewilding projects involving government, universities and enterprise, which advocate the reintroduction of large predators and keystone species to restore trophic levels and reconstruct food chains, this sixth mass extinction can be upturned. There really has been no better time for rewilding to take centre stage in conservation.