The call of the rewilding movement: A Cambridge symphony
To be at the 2019 Rewilding Symposium was to experience an ecological narrative whose time has come.
Concerns about the capacity of the land to sustain industrial farming techniques – research suggest we are 30-40 years away from the “eradication of soil fertility”– have reached the point where “something has to be done”. And that something, according to the hugely eloquent and well-informed speakers at this Cambridge Conservation Forum (CCF) event, is rewilding.
Rewilding is actually pretty simple. As Devonshire sheep farmer and ecologist Derek Gow said in his barnstorming speech at the Babbage Lecture Theatre in the David Attenborough Building, the challenge is that we just have to let go of the controlling hand humanity has had on nature.
“We have waged war against nature on this planet ever since we could stand on our hind legs,” he said. “We’ve slaughtered, we’ve killed… there is no abomination we have not inflicted on life on this island.
“We now have a real dilemma – we see life falling away from the face of this landscape. As the situation gets worse, we bicker, we bimble. We make the same mistakes – we are not competent. The idea that we are not going to exploit and hunt animals is a very very new idea and we’re not very good at it yet.”
Other speakers pointed out that the UK is not good at encouraging biodiversity. Rebecca Wrigley, chief executive of Rewilding Britain, told the packed house that “the UK is 189th out of 218 countries assessed for ‘biodiversity intactness’”. Much of the UK’s farmland, said writer Isabella Tree, is “drenched in chemicals”, with little thought given to long-term custodianship.
Many of the speakers had practical experience of what happens when you do the reverse of “take back control”. Academic and author Germaine Greer, who opened proceedings of the two-day event on Friday, spoke of what happened when she took over The Mills, a three-acre site including a small forest near Saffron Walden, in 1984. Rewilding, she said, is “not about extending people’s dominion over the Earth, it’s about leaving it alone”. Initially, she let the land around her home be.
“It was a year before I did anything at all. My view is that what animals need more than anything else is space.” Many speakers pointed out the incredible capacity for nature to heal and reinvent itself. “I am constantly surprised by things that shouldn’t have happened,” said the iconic radical feminist, who turns 80 “in a few weeks”.
Probably the most-referenced talk of the two days was given by writer Isabella Tree who, with husband Sir Charlie Burrell, runs Knepp Castle, a 3,500-acre now-wild estate near Shipley in West Sussex which has been home to the Burrell family for 230 years.
“When Charlie and I took over in the 1980s,” said Isabella, “every inch of land was being used but it was already failing.” The lack of investment in infrastructure, the weather – “soggy in winter and baked dry in summer” – and the “severely depleted soil” meant that trying something new was essential.
The first thing Isabella noticed, after they “smashed up the old Victorian drainage system”, was the sound of life starting up.
“Almost immediately the birds started coming back and we knew we were on to something.” Today, Knepp is a model for rewilders the world over. Isabella described the ways species interact to encourage pigs who swim, “extraordinarily belligerent” butterflies, longhorn cattle “with 230 different food species in their guts”, “that leap of joy in the heart when you hear a turtle dove” and “cuckoos, nightingales, snipes, peregrine falcons – all these species found us of their own accord”.
Bug life was improved too.
“Charlie has a fetish for beetles and found 23 different species in a single cowpat.”
The whole mechanism of life sprung back into action – not least on all-important soil quality.
“Organic dung is being pulled down into the soil and that has a huge effect rejuvenation of the soil The volume of life all comes back to the soil. If we show we can restore our soil we can address the issue facing us, of soil depletion.”
There are wider implications: healthier people, for one. “It’s natural for us to connect with nature, that’s what biophilia is, to actually connect with life. This is what rewilding can bring… we can use the land to reconnect in a bigger way that builds resilience as we face climate change extinction.”
Isabella’s talk was really the blueprint for presentations, even if it the conference’s final speaker, writer and environmental activist George Monbiot, wasn’t too keen on the term “climate change”.
“It’s not ‘climate change’,” he told the packed auditorium. “That’s like calling an invading army ‘unexpected visitors’ – it’s climate breakdown.”
Monbiot’s 2013 book ‘Feral' describes his efforts to engage with nature on its own terms to find a new way of living, and it’s safe to say he’s learned a lot about rewilding. In this talk, which CCF council secretary Angelika von Heimendahl – regular readers may recall previous stories about her stewardship of CamCattle – told me was “written for the conference”, Monbiot got very granular and visceral in analysis that took in ranching, palm oil, seeding, rainforest ecosystems, elves, geo-engineering, greenwash, white rhinos and sea life – oh and the little matter of cutting back on meat consumption.
“All the science stacks up,” he said. “Our primary ecological problem worldwide is grazing livestock and we’re not going to get out [of our unsustainable way of life] until we switch to a plant-based diet.”
CCF’s Rewilding Symposium is now firmly on the national map, with this year’s events, workshops and talks boosted by Citizen Zoo, a organisation with links to Cambridge Judge Business School whose efforts to broaden the appeal of the symposium proved a massive success.
Pamela Abbott, chief executive of the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, said in her closing remarks: "We need to take Isabella's leap of joy to our hearts and build a wilder world."