What is Rewilding?

How Can It Help Create A Healthier Natural World?

written byHannah Kirkland - Conservation Biologist at Mossy Earth

Hannah Kirkland

Rewilding can help create a healthier, more resilient natural world. As we become ever more aware of the threats to our planet and the need to safeguard its future, rewilding offers us a crucial opportunity. But what do we mean by rewilding? The term is controversial and often misunderstood. It's frequently thought to refer to the reintroduction of apex predators, like wolves, to a landscape. Though this is often a piece of the puzzle, rewilding is about much more. Here we answer the question "What is Rewilding?"

The Problem

For thousands of years, humans have changed landscapes and disrupted natural ecosystems. We've cleared large swathes of forest for agriculture, removed large carnivores from much of their range and changed the course of rivers. We're the ultimate ecosystem engineers and the natural world has suffered at our hands. In the face of climate breakdown and global extinctions, it’s now more urgent than ever that we not only protect what we have left but also restore and rewild the ecosystems that we have destroyed.

Humanly engineered fields of grain that cover huge areas of the landscape are being harvested. Rewilding seeks to restore some of these lands we have destroyed.
This image portrays what isn't rewilding. Vast humanly engineered fields devoid of any biodiversity.

Nature's Rhythms

This is where rewilding comes in. Rewilding is based on the premise that nature knows best how to take care of itself. We can give it a helping hand and create the right conditions by restoring vital ecosystem processes like predation, grazing, regeneration and decomposition. For example, carnivores like wolves and lynx shape ecosystems in their role as top predators. They affect the numbers and behaviour of prey species and this has a knock-on effect on the other species in the ecosystem. The impacts of these carnivores can be felt as far down the food chain as the plant species, a phenomenon known as a trophic cascade. Today, initiatives across the globe are bringing these top predators back and restoring the species and natural processes that keep the Earth’s ecosystems healthy.

A bison stands in the prairie against a backdrop of conifer trees. Rewilding Europe have recently reintroduced Bison in Europe to help naturally engineer the landscape.
The introduction of a keystone species such as the bison can help naturally engineer the landscape

Rewilding & Us

Ultimately, within a rewilded landscape there shouldn’t be much need for active management. Nature can look after itself better and more cost-effectively than we can. Rewilding is therefore about reducing human control over the land. It does not mean removing people from the land entirely. In fact, in these wilder landscapes, people and planet can flourish together.

Hikers walk down a trail of wildflowers and conifer trees towards a snow covered mountain. Rewilding promotes nature based tourism.
Wilder landscapes can benefit both people and planet

Benefit of Rewilding

When nature is healthy, it can provide us with abundant products and services, from food and medicine to flood defences and cool air. It offers rural communities economic opportunities through things like wildlife-based tourism. It makes us feel better too. Connecting with nature is good for our mental and physical health. Of course, it's good for the non-human animals that inhabit our earth too. Top predators and grazers are reclaiming lost ground across the globe while rare plants and insects are making a comeback in regenerating forests. These healthier, more intact ecosystems can also help us fight against climate breakdown by keep carbon stored in plants and soil.

To learn more about the benefits of rewilding, we also recommend reading our Reasons For Rewilding and Trophic Cascades articles.

A calm stream meanders through a forest towards the step mountainsides. Healthy, rewilded, functioning ecosystems can provide us with a variety products and services that we depend on
Healthy, functioning ecosystems can provide us with a variety products and services that we depend on

Embracing Change

Rewilding focuses on restoring ecosystem processes. Landscapes are not restored with a fixed set of end goals in mind. It’s not about rebuilding what once was, but about supporting a constantly evolving, ecologically dynamic landscape. Through rewilding, we can create a future in which our natural world can work uninterrupted in all its rich complexity to shape our landscapes. We can help bring wilderness back from the brink.

 

Sources & further reading

Peer Reviewed Research Section
  1. Rewilding in a European context - University of OxfordExternal link
  2. Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding - George MonbiotExternal link
  3. Rewilding European Landscapes - Springer LinkExternal link
  4. Proving the ‘Shifting Baselines’ Theory: How Humans Consistently Misperceive Nature - MongabayExternal link

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