openDemocracyUK: Analysis

Beavers in parks and cattle in city centres: England’s rewilding councils

A quarter of England’s councils – rural and urban alike – are rewilding, or plan to do so soon. What does this mean for the country's landscapes?

Sophie Yeo
21 May 2021, 9.12am
A Eurasian beaver swims in Devon's River Otter
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Nature Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo

It’s hard to look back sometimes, and to remember the grandeur that once cloaked the British Isles: the dripping rainforests, the roaming herds of herbivores, and the winding rivers filled with fish.

True wilderness hasn’t existed on these intensively farmed islands for thousands of years, of course, and there’s no getting it back now. But rewilding promises to return a sliver of it to the modern landscape: a path into the future inspired by the world that once was.

That’s the idea, anyway. In practice, rewilding has sometimes been a tough sell. While many people are excited by the possibilities of a wilder countryside, for others the idea is toxic; they see wildness as incompatible with the rich tapestries that generations of humans have since woven into the soil. In today’s storied landscapes, rewilding must grapple not only with ecological complexities but also the multiplicity of human needs, emotions and memories.

That’s why I was encouraged to find, in a recent investigation for Inkcap Journal, that more than a quarter of local councils in England are now rewilding, or have plans to do so in the future. This figure was the result of months of work, during which I quizzed every county and unitary authority in the country about how they defined rewilding and what it meant to them.

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Old English longhorn cattle grazing at Charlie Burrell and Isabella Tree’s Knepp Wildland Estate in West Sussex | Gillian Pullinger / Alamy Stock Photo

I was surprised by my findings. So far, the rewilding movement in Britain has been propelled by the work of private landowners, like Charlie Burrell and Isabella Tree’s efforts at the Knepp Estate in West Sussex, or by NGO-driven projects, such as the Kent Wildlife Trust’s plans to introduce bison to a patch of ancient woodland near Canterbury. Since local councils rarely make the news when it comes to rewilding, I had assumed that there was probably no story, and that the concept had not yet filtered through the bureaucracy of local government.

In fact, my investigation showed that councils generally had a high level of awareness of rewilding and what it involves. Some saw it as an extension of traditional conservation – the creation of meadows and pollinator corridors, for instance – but others saw it as an opportunity to loosen the reins and let nature decide upon its own course: to let rivers re-wiggle into new shapes and allow forests to re-establish themselves from the seedbanks of existing trees.

Admittedly, most of the initiatives that the councils told me about were on a small scale or in the early stages: wolves are not about to oust the foxes of our city streets, nor primeval wildwood replace the flowerbeds of urban parks.

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But what I found heartening was this acknowledgement that wildness could nonetheless find a place in the small pockets of our daily lives. It wasn’t just rural councils that had embraced wildness, but urban places, too. Leicester, for instance, has introduced a herd of longhorn cattle to a patch of meadow that sits between the football stadium and the shopping centre. “You wouldn’t believe it’s in the centre of the city,” one official told me.

For many people, these patches of nearby nature are at the heart of their relationship with the natural world. These are relationships based on familiarity rather than adventure, perhaps, but ones that nonetheless shape our outlook on nature as a whole and bring comfort in times of crisis. If these places become a little wilder, and a little less manicured, that can only be a good thing for both nature and ourselves.

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Exmoor ponies introduced to the Ken Hill rewilding project in Norfolk as conservation grazing animals | Janet Sheppardson / Alamy Stock Photo

In fact, a few councils explicitly referenced the benefits that rewilding could bring to local communities, particularly through helping people to reconnect with nature. For instance, Plymouth Council’s Green Minds project brings together community groups and social enterprises in nature-based projects, including the reintroduction of beavers into a local park.

Nature’s recovery will also depend on landscape-scale interventions. Some councils were targeting these kinds of actions, too: Bradford, for example, is blocking old drainage ditches and planting sphagnum moss to bring life back to Ilkley Moor – a move that it said would reduce flooding while improving air and water quality.

While large landowners can, to a certain extent, do what they like with their land, politicians have to keep one eye on their electorate; the scale of rewilding will depend on what the public wants. There’s a risk that this could curtail ambition, if the public proves overwhelmingly hostile to the idea, but it could also be an opportunity for meaningful public engagement. And that could be a major boost to restoring nature at large.

Because rewilding has a reputation problem: it is stereotyped as the hobby horse of Islington residents who want a say in the appearance of the Scottish Highlands.

But led by local councils, with the engagement of local communities, rewilding can become a way for residents to prove they are serious about transforming their own landscapes – the ones where they personally live and work – in a way that’s meaningful to them. The result might look different in Tower Hamlets to the Lake District, but that is the point. And so the tapestry of the landscape expands, wildness woven in and our human stories intact.

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