What is rewilding? (with Walter Fraanje)
Welcome to the Feed, a food systems podcast presented by TABLE. I’m Samara Brock.
And I’m Matthew Kessler. Today we interview a TABLE staff member about a recent publication.
I'm Walter Fraanje, I’m a researcher and communication officer for TABLE working for Wageningen university and research in the Netherlands.
So part of what we do at TABLE is try to take complex and controversial topics and explain what they are and what are the important debates around them.
This explainer is called “Rewilding and its implications for agriculture” and it’s written by Walter Fraanje and Tara Garnett, and it’s now available to read on our website tabledebates.org. So what is rewilding, for those of us who might have heard the term before but isn’t quite sure what it means?
Rewilding means different things to different people, people often refer to it as this general idea of giving land back to nature. But I think what's interesting is if you look at the origin of this concept, which is in the field of conservation biology, is that people use it in a slightly different way. And I think the notion of keystone species is really, at the heart of that. Those keystone species are species such as wolves, but potentially also beavers or grazing herbivores that can have a really huge influence on the functioning of an ecosystem. The premise of rewilding then is that if these species are reintroduced to a landscape where they have been lost, that they could help enhance the ecosystem and set it on a pathway of increased complexity and diversity of species. And this relates to a more fundamental view among many rewilders, that it is essentially a very open-ended process of restoring ecosystems and allowing them to evolve quite autonomously - and perhaps even in ways that we may not have conceived of.
So rewilding can be thought of as bringing back or restoring an ecosystem to a quote “more
natural” state through introducing wild animal species of the past. So what is it that makes people use this term now?
If you look back at how people use this concept, it's set definitely within the context of climate change and biodiversity loss. People, of course, see these huge crises and, and then I think rewilding is introduced by most people as a very positive story, a hopeful vision of how we can overcome these challenges using a different way of of land management, essentially.
You mentioned there's different ways to give land back to nature. Can you maybe describe a few examples to illustrate how these ideas play out in different parts of the world?
A lot of the discussion around rewilding that started in the US and it was very much about the idea of reintroducing wolves in Yellowstone National Park, for example. So this is a context of relatively large scale, national parks and this idea of reintroducing large carnivore animals that indeed, are defined as keystone species.
You may have heard of this example before. We’ll link to the YouTube video ‘How Wolves Change Rivers’, which has 44 million views, that explains how bringing back the grey wolf after 70 years had a cascade of effects. In short, wolves hunted and killed the Yellowstone elk, which were browsing willow stems. Will stems are a key source of food for beavers. So as the elk population was reduced and the amount of willow stems increased, beavers came back in really big numbers to dam and engineer the flow of rivers which then had profound effects on stream hydrology. Thus wolves change rivers.
Then, if you go across the pond to Europe, a case from the Netherlands, perhaps slightly later, but around the same time is the Oostvaardersplassen is that if you compare it to, to the US context of very tiny projects of a couple of 1000 hectares, and a fenced area that was basically taken from the sea. And then as the Dutch people do they take land from the sea, but this land was wasteland and then turned into it continuously into a project that was of an area that was of natural value. A person called Frans Vera came in and he introduced Heck cattle, a primitive breed of cattle into this area. Basically, it turns into sort of a grazing conservation project where cattle numbers started to increase.
But this effort was met with a big public controversy after an especially harsh winter that killed nearly ⅔ of the cattle. There’s a train line that runs just next to this enclosure, so people could see the impacts. Thousands of starving or dead animals weren’t being cared for because it was part of the natural - non human intervention experiment.
Walter shares two more examples of a different variety, starting with the one in the UK called the Knepp Castle Estate.
It's a private estate, but it's where they really put in different types of herbivores and using those partly for for meat production. But basically, it's more a conservation project with some meat production in it. And I think that also shows that that there can be some overlap between rewilding and and farming.
And then finally there are those projects - Rewilding Argentina and there are a couple more in South Africa for example that often are based on land that is bought up by rich philanthropists, often from the West, and they start the private conservation projects. And yeah, recently a couple of those have been rebranded as rewilding. Sometimes, like in the case of Rewilding Argentina, they moved from private ownership to state ownership. They're basically centered around this, this idea of creating large protected areas and re-introducing species in them.
Can you talk a little bit about how different geographies or cultures or ways of understanding and valuing nature fit into how people understand rewilding and how it's practiced in different places?
One huge difference between those those projects that I just described is the scale. This is an obvious difference with it. But I think it stems from a very different geographical, but also political contexts, different histories of those those countries and locations. In the Netherlands, it's, you can't I mean, the Netherlands are tiny that you can't imagine a nature conservation project, that would just be a couple of millions of acres. I think a question that comes up, for example, in relation to rewilding Argentina, is whose visions are shaping these types of projects? That's a question that applies both to to like European, North America, Western contexts and other like more global south contexts, but I think it comes up in its most sort of pronounced form in the case of those Latin American or South African projects where, on the one hand, rich philanthropists come in, and they have their probably Western ideas. Perhaps romanticized ideas but are those visions about nature? And then how does that fit with local communities with their views about nature, about conservation, or maybe not only about nature, but about use of their lands? For example, in many cases, land that is used in these projects for rewilding used to be farmland or, or pasture land at least, what comes in there, I think is different understandings of the landscape that can potentially clash with one another.
As you said, there's a very specific idea of nature, which sort of seems to go hand in hand with this idea that there needs to be a strict division between humans and the natural world, in the history of conservation initiatives, that's for sure being something that's been controversial and has often gone awry in terms of kicking people out of national parks or other ways of trying to separate the human - natural world. Can you talk a little bit about some of the controversies that come to the fore in rewilding?
It's interesting to see that the concept of rewilding has this history in conservation biology. So it comes from this - like when it was introduced in the 1990s. It had this strong idea of wilderness as a place where human interference is minimized. We need those areas where there are no humans, basically. But I think if you look at how it evolved, there’d soon be people who would criticize this idea, as you said, it's a longer issue and a broader issue, I think, in the world of conservation. A longer debate about whether there's a case for humans in conservation science. And if you look, especially if you look at some of the European examples of rewilding, there have been projects like that have been entirely fenced off and where public access is minimized, perhaps. But there are also those projects that are that really try to follow more like democratic approaches, try to democratize decision making on land use and try to work with local communities in a deeper, more meaningful way to shape rewilding projects. So I think this is definitely a point of discussion, I think, in the rewilding debate, and there's not one single answer to it, perhaps. And it's, as always, it's context dependent, and so forth. But it's definitely a question that has come more to the forefront.
So you touched on a few of the controversies around who's producing the vision of these projects, this division between nature and humans. I think there's also this question about what baselines, what time in history we are returning to when we do this, quote, ‘rewilding’? How is this navigated among the groups that are proposing rewilding projects?
So the word rewilding, it has the prefix re- in it. So that automatically makes you wonder, where are we going back to? Like it has this thing in it of trying to recreate something that we've lost,something of the past. And so when it was introduced by those US conservation biologists Solei and Noss, and a few others, they were referring to the pleistocene. So they basically saw ever since the Pleistocene, they saw a reduction in in the richness and the complexity of ecosystems and the loss of species. What they thought was what if we could basically set the ambition of conservation to a much higher level and not try to think about what species we can protect what species that are still there, that we can keep, but what if we look back at the richness that was there in the in the Pleistocene, and try to reason back from there, how can we recreate it the type of ecosystems maybe not mimic the exact type of Pleistocene conditions, but try to draw some inspiration from what once existed?
And this led to those proposals of de-extinctions. And what if we could de-extinctify the mammoth and reintroduce those in Siberia, for example. And those are like wild, controversial, provocative ideas. So they also met with a lot of critique. Then projects in the Netherlands or in the UK looked more at you could turn this Holocene rewilding and looked at him when agriculture was starting to be there when humans started to, to live in communities and to keep animals and so forth. And, and looked at the type of landscapes that could exist in that period.
Walter also mentions that there’s several important critiques when thinking about baselines. First, some that talk about pristine wilderness assume that humans weren’t a part of co-producing these landscapes, though these ecosystems were typically managed by indigenous peoples. Another is that you simply can’t recreate all the conditions of the past.
You can't recreate the past and whatever you do, like with climate change, and with human travel, and all the species that go on board with ships, and airplanes, and so forth, all those processes influence ecosystems, and often in quite substantial way. So so you can't recreate the past. There's an increasing dominant part, I think of the rewilding movement that doesn't really try to recreate the past but is much more future oriented. You could call that something like Anthropocene rewilding, so this idea of we've influenced every area in the world, and we can't undo our influences, but we need to live with this fact. And think about how in this context, we can create richer, more biodiverse, more complex ecosystems.
Is rewilding just a fancy term for conservation?
I don't think it entirely is because conservation has this idea of ‘to conserve’. So it is essentially like this idea of we try to preserve whatever biodiversity is existing in a certain region. Rewilding is much more with ecological restoration, with biodiversity restoration. It has this much more nature, positive feel to it. It doesn’t have an end point really. Rewilding is very much about the autonomy of ecosystems and how they can restore in ways that we may not even have thought of. And that’s also in the origin of the concept. The conservation biologists that coined the term really thought of how they could come up with a new narrative that goes beyond just protecting existing habitats and species.
So as we're talking about rewilding, the concept of rewilding travels to all these different domains. It's not just in agriculture and landscapes. And there's a section in the explainer called ‘rewilding our imagination’. What is that about?
This idea of rewilding the imagination is at the heart of rewilding perhaps. So it's this idea of creating a wilder landscape not only but a wilder Earth, also rewilding your own life. So it's this idea of how can we change our relationship to the natural world in such a way that we experience it in more diverse, and richer, different ways. So George Monbiot, the British author, journalist, environmental activist, talks a lot about this in his book, Feral. So I think that sits in this context of what he describes as, the world is becoming increasingly controlled, our lives becoming increasingly planned, you follow your schedule, and clock time, and so forth. And then Rewilding on the one hand be this land management strategy, and blah, blah, blah. But it's also about how can you change your life to come across things that are spontaneous, and that influence how you feel, how you experience?
Can you give an example of that?
Like, one of the examples that comes up in this in this context is, is human-wildlife encounters. So actually, I'm living in the Netherlands now near the beach. And just last Saturday, we saw a few dolphins on the coast. And that was like a really - that is a meaningful experience that even though it is so spontaneous, like they're, they're there, they're gone. And you're actually starting to question whether you saw them or not. But that is something that perhaps influences how you feel and how you think and how you value nature.
So at the beginning of our conversation, you mentioned that rewilding was about giving land back to nature. So it kind of begs the question, what is nature and what is natural? Can you talk a little bit about what you learned about concepts of nature and naturalness through writing this explainer?
One of the conceptions of nature is, of course, this pristine wilderness idea where there are no humans and so forth. And what I find interesting is to see that there are also those very different conceptions of nature, this Arcadian tradition, for example. So this is a concept that has a very long history with the Greeks and so forth, but also played an important role in romantic period. And there you had these two conceptions of nature. One is like the Garden of Eden, where it's all harmony. And that is a certain like, sort of pastoralists. If you see the paintings from this area, for example, that you see a picture of this landscape, with grasslands, with large oaks in it, and so forth. And that is basically has become very influential in European rewilding projects. Whereas this other vision of nature, which is this wilderness vision, human wildlife conflicts and of wolves and bears roaming around, has played a much more influential role in the US, I think, in how people think about national parks and how rewilding is discussed in this context. But you see that those are different visions of what nature should be, and that they relate to lots of other topics. And I think the biggest one of that is perhaps agriculture, which is the biggest land user in the world. So views about nature are always intimately tied up with views about how we use land, how we farm, how we produce food.
So you just brought up agriculture, which is the second half of the title of your explainer Rewilding and its implications for agriculture. So I'd like to dive a little bit more into the discussions and debates where rewilding more clearly intersects with food and agriculture.
When you start to think about, like substantial rewilding of land that is currently used by humans, a major part of the discussion is also about how we use farm lands and how we see a future for that. What we did in the in the piece, we basically sought to versions of rewilding or two directions evolving, and one is a more radical one, which is more on the end of you create conservation on nature reserves, where there's no place or very limited place for for humans. And that I think ties in with the idea of land sparing. So this idea of you segregate land that you use for biodiversity conservation or biodiversity restoration, from land that you use for the production of food or, or fiber or other materials.
And so there's this idea of land sparing is that if you produce a lot of food on a minimum amount of land as possible, then you can use the remainder of all the lands, theoretically, for biodiversity conservation. This is one vision of how you could manage lands and see this connection between relationship between rewilding and agriculture.
So a few examples of agriculture and food production that could be part of the efforts to spare land would be sustainable intensification, the use of GM crops and lab-grown meat.
On the other end, And that's the other version of rewilding that I think is evolving, you see, perhaps a more pragmatic approach that seeks for synergies between lots of things and definitely also between rewilding and farming. So what that means that you take, for example, sheep from grazing lands, so you stop farming in a part of landscape but other parts of landscape you could, like lowlands you could still use for, for example, agro ecological approaches to farming, so those agroecological approaches could be more like biodiversity, inclusive, or try to foster biodiversity on the farm, but also off the farm. So there's a there's a whole synergy I think between could be very similar vision of some agro ecologists and also of regenerative farming people with rewilding in that they see very similar vision for for what landscapes could look like with a relatively extensive cattle or herbivore grazing in combination with arable farming in more sort of nature inclusive ways. I think those are two directions. And I think a question is which direction will be more dominant in the future? And what does that imply for for the species that we try to preserve? And also, of course, not only for nature, but also for how rewilding relates to the future for different communities and peoples in the areas that those initiatives are developed.
So in terms of how this relates to agriculture, and rural areas in general, what might a farmer or pastoralist or a fisher, what in these approaches to rewilding would they agree with or potentially stand strongly against?
That depends a lot, I think, on the nature of the rewilding initiatives, and also on like the type of farmer or fisher. If you are a sheep farmer in Scotland and there's this idea of creating a huge rewilding project next to the area of land that you're farming. And they're talking about reintroducing wolves and all kinds of large predators, then I could definitely see how that is a scary idea. And also, I mean, who's gonna pay for fencing and stuff like that? You get all those types of questions. And I think there’s the question of, what's the future of this region? This whole question about rewilding also relates to urbanization. And, you know, like, what is the future for the countryside? And is it going to depopulate when you have those philanthropists or other people or nature conservation NGOs or whatever, that come in and buy up a lot of land.
Could that destroy the farming community, the culture that's existing there? This is sort of the land sparing or the radical version of it. On the other end, if you have types of rewilding that are more in synergy with farming and that try to maybe it could mean that there are fewer sheep on the same piece of land and that has a very positive development from that rewilding, particular rewilding perspective. Or maybe it could mean a switch from type of farming from livestock to arable, for example. Then it comes to what do you see as a desirable future for yourself as a farmer or as a fisher? And there's of course always this idea that rewilding could also go hand in hand with increases in tourism, and alternative income streams that these types of initiatives could generate for people living there.
So when you were talking about concepts of nature, historical concepts, it struck me that a lot of those were very western and northern centric. And also when you talk about rewilding being land back to nature, can't help but thinking about the land back movement, which is all about decolonization and giving land back to peoples who have been dispossessed from land. Is there talk in rewilding about indigenous worldviews with regard to nature, and also about the right of dispossessed peoples to have access to land as well as these more conservation, non human objectives?
My interpretation of the whole debate is that this is very much underlying a lot of the discussion about rewilding. And I think it's important to realize that indeed, this concept comes from the field of conservation biology. And then there's more critique, for example, from social sciences sometimes raise questions about indigenous peoples and their rights and so forth.
I mean this is a question that applies not only to rewilding, but of course, that the whole nature conservation movement or history has to confront. But there's definitely this question that people ask, can rewilding sort of reinforce that pattern where land is owned by large landowners and so forth? Versus can it help to question those practices, or change, transform something, and, and indeed, democratize decision making over land?
And I think you see, both within the rewilding movement, and that makes it such a difficult concept. Because there's so many, many different things happening around different parts of the world, that all use this same umbrella term. That's said it's still like those types of questions come up. And those perhaps you see an increase in that people start to ask those questions about indigenous peoples. And, and, social justice, land rights and so forth in in relation to rewilding projects. And I think that is like that also creates an opportunity for dialogue on this topic and for more awareness for more conscious, deliberate discussion on this topic.
So we wanted to ask you a little bit more of a meta question in terms of what was the process like, for writing this explainer? We know that that's a fairly involved process at TABLE, what were sort of the main hurdles or controversies that came up are anything interesting that you'd like readers or listeners actually to know about.
What’s difficult is - what remains difficult perhaps is this land sparing, land sharing framework that so easily it gets pushed on, that whenever people start to talk about biodiversity and farming, they start to talk about land sparing and land sharing. And it's a very binary framework that it's always when you start to think about context and its particular species becomes more difficult. And at the same time, you want those types of models, I think, and and in relation to rewilding are redefined as a sort of a more radical and more synergistic type of approach. That sort of broadly, links to those visions of land sharing and land sparing. on a general level, you want to talk about those types of things, but that same time don't want to lose the nuance of, of how everything in detail is connected to each other. So if that makes sense. What we aim for, I think, with this piece is to talk about discussion about rewilding and agriculture on a very general, very global level. But at the same time, it's always uncomfortable that you then do some of the nuance of the context specificity, but I think I hope at least that we have articulated at least some of the main points of the debate and then people can still disagree with exactly how we did that, perhaps. But I think those are important things that we should talk about in relation to rewilding, nature conservation and future farming.
I could have asked you this in the beginning. Why should we care about rewilding?
For me what is very important about rewilding is it paints a positive narrative for the future of nature and biodiversity in a time of climate change and biodiversity loss. Then we need to talk about what that actually means in specific contexts, what that means for local people and so forth. But I think this idea of we can collaboratively give shape to a better future for both people and nature. I think that’s a very hopeful message and I think it's something that, for me, is the most important part of rewilding.
A big thank you to Walter Fraanje, who has also authored explainers on Ultra Processed Foods, The Land-sparing-sharing continuum, and controversies around soy. You can check out this piece and all the other explainers at tabledebates.org/explainers.
This episode was edited by me Matthew Kessler, with music from Blue Dot Sessions. TABLE is a collaboration of the University of Oxford, Swedish university of Agricultural Sciences and Wageningen University.
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