Rewilding: Threat or promise for hill farming?

  • 11.10.2023
  • article
  • Biodiversity
  • Environmental Issues
  • Labour and Livelihoods
  • Robert Barbour

The SFT’s Senior Research Officer, Robert Barbour, examines both the negative and positive potential of upland rewilding projects, a subject that has become a battleground for competing interests and philosophies. Robert explores the merits of a ‘hybrid’ approach to rewilding and how we might move beyond the circular, divisive debates that threaten the hope of achieving good outcomes for all concerned.

Concern around the state of the UK’s upland environment is nothing new. In the 1950s, the ecologist Frank Fraser Darling famously concluded that the Scottish Highlands were a “largely devastated terrain”, impoverished through overgrazing by sheep and deer. Recently though, the future of our hills has become a more hotly debated topic, and a lot of this is due to the emergence of a radically different approach to tackling the nature crisis – rewilding.

The exact meaning of rewilding can be difficult to pin down, but properly speaking, it involves the landscape-scale restoration of the full (or near enough full) suite of natural processes and species that would be present were it not for human activity. In a UK context, this is generally taken to mean the restoration of our long-lost native woodlands and the species that inhabited them, including, most controversially, the return of extinct predators like the wolf and lynx.

A cause for controversy

Unsurprisingly, it’s an approach that hasn’t been particularly well received by the hill farming community. Widely seen as a direct threat to the livelihoods of already-struggling farmers, there’s also often a sense that it is being imposed by ‘outsiders’ with romantic notions of what the uplands should look like, and scant regard for the people who live and work there. Others worry that it represents a new front for corporate greenwash, while some have even argued that it won’t deliver on its core aim of delivering improvements to biodiversity. Of course, these accusations are regularly denied by proponents of rewilding, who themselves have a long list of grievances against hill farming, and all of this gets played out online in interminable, polarised arguments that do little more than inflame and depress.

It’s a frustrating situation, not least because most people probably agree that there is space for hill farming and rewilding to coexist. That said, there are issues with both land uses, and these should be recognised. The environmental and financial problems of the hill farming sector have been written about exhaustively, so I won’t expand on them here – other than to say that while hill farming has a central role to play in socially and ecologically vibrant landscapes, a major shift towards agroecological practices is needed to realise this. Given its recent explosion in popularity, and the genuine concern this has caused in rural communities, I think it is worth highlighting a few of the more valid concerns about rewilding, as well as some of its limitations.

Concerns about rewilding

Many rewilding advocates are supportive of hill farming when practised in a nature-friendly way. There are, however, a vocal minority who argue that almost any form of livestock production represents an unacceptable, even immoral, use of land. Of course, this is a position they are perfectly entitled to hold, but it’s one that is completely unjustified on environmental grounds, and it only helps to feed the polarisation that makes constructive debate around the future of the uplands so difficult.

There are some genuine concerns from a social justice perspective, too. Perhaps the most obvious of these are the high-profile examples of extremely wealthy ‘green lairds’ purchasing large estates for the purposes of nature restoration. While the ecological aims and outcomes of these have tended to be laudable, engagement with the local community hasn’t always been entirely constructive, and they’ve arguably helped entrench a concentrated pattern of land ownership which many feel is a massive problem, in Scotland especially. Meanwhile, the recent boom in the natural capital market has contributed to soaring land prices, limiting the possibility for community land ownership whilst enabling some questionable corporations, including Shell and weapons firms, to offset their fossil fuel emissions by paying for the carbon credits generated by native woodland creation.

When it comes to impacts on the upland environment, rewilding clearly offers enormous potential. However, two points of caution are worth making. First, rewilding hill farmland might not always deliver unqualified wins for biodiversity. Extensive livestock grazing supports a host of open ground habitats and species, and some of these, the curlew being a good example, would likely decline were native woodland to be restored across very large areas. Of course, this doesn’t have to be a one-or-the-other situation: given how little native woodland is left in the UK, there is scope to significantly increase our tree cover whilst keeping the bulk of our uplands open. At any rate, it might be that we collectively decide that the benefits of restoring native woodland outweigh a decline in the populations of open-ground species. However, many of these are culturally important species, some of which the UK hosts internationally important numbers of, so a significant reduction in their abundance would undoubtedly represent a major loss.

Secondly, there is a question around whether rewilding will deliver all the environmental improvements some have promised. For example, some supporters of the reintroduction of large carnivores have argued that their return will suppress the UK’s unsustainably high populations of deer and mid-sized predators, like foxes and crows. However, ecologists have expressed doubts around the extent to which this would occur in landscapes heavily modified by humans. This, of course, doesn’t remove the justification for reintroducing species like the wolf or lynx. There are all sorts of other social and ethical considerations in this debate which I don’t have the space (or bravery!) to explore here – though for what it’s worth, I think there is a strong case to reintroduce lynx. Still, we need to be careful of placing too much trust in compelling but often overly simplistic ‘just so’ narratives, which argue that missing keystone species can solve what are complex human issues.

There are various other issues I haven’t even touched on here. From a practical perspective, can wild herbivores fulfil the ecological role that well-managed grazing livestock provide in our crowded landscape? Where do ideas of wilderness fit with growing calls to repeople landscapes with a history of forced depopulation? Then there are the social and cultural services which hill farming can deliver but rewilding, certainly in its stricter forms, may be less able to: the supply of local food and the maintenance of traditional farmed landscapes being two often-undervalued examples.

An undeniable truth

So, rewilding has its criticisms and limitations, and in fairness, this is something many of its supporters recognise. However, none of these points change the undeniable truth that far too many of our upland landscapes are in poor ecological condition, and conventional, production-focused farming practices, alongside the actions of sporting estates and commercial forestry, are the cause of much of this. Rewilding is by no means the only solution to these ills, but major changes in the way that all traditional land use sectors operate will be required, if they’re to play a sustainable role moving forwards.

Neither should these criticisms detract from the fact that while there will be many situations where rewilding involves environmental and aesthetic trade-offs, in others it won’t. Go to projects where rewilding (or perhaps, more appropriately, native woodland restoration) is already underway, like at Carrifran in the Scottish Borders or Mar Lodge in Aberdeenshire, and it’s impossible not to be inspired by their vibrancy and diversity – a stark contrast to some of the more traditionally managed landscapes that surround them. Similarly, rewilding isn’t always a rich person’s fantasy, or a new form of corporate greenwash, imposed on local communities. There are examples like Carrifran, where community support has been key, while other projects have delivered an increase in employment opportunities for local people.

Moving towards collaboration: a hybrid approach?

In short, there is both the need, and the space, for a rewilding of our uplands – not just on agricultural land, but also on that used for shooting and commercial forestry. In some cases, this could occur in a fairly ‘pure’ form, with very little to no agricultural activity – though this would obviously need to have the support of those living and working on the land. Might, though, there be more scope for rewilding to be delivered in tandem with hill farming? This could occur across a spectrum of intensity of human intervention, from agroecological farms with a strong emphasis on encouraging natural processes, to wilder landscapes that might fall under the terms ‘agricultural rewilding’ or ‘rewilding lite’. What is undoubtedly true is that in all of these cases, native breeds of grazing livestock will play an absolutely essential ecological role, and, for this reason alone, hill farmers must be part of the solution.

People on both sides of the debate might take issue with this hybrid approach: for some, it may represent a dilution of rewilding’s principles, while for others in the farming community, it will require an uncomfortable move away from the current focus on maximising output. Overcoming this will, of course, require good government policy, including whole-farm support for nature-friendly farming practices, grants for farm woodland and agroforestry creation, and a land-use framework that brings different interests together constructively.

Perhaps most importantly though, it will require greater imagination on the part of often-siloed interest groups, and more open and honest dialogue. Without this, the debate around the future of the uplands will become even more divisive, and the rewilding and hill farming communities alike will both lose out.

To learn more about the role of the UK’s uplands within a sustainable food and farming system, you can read our Feeding Britain Report here.

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