I have recently been having a number of conversations with others relating to the need to engage farmers and landowners with the rewilding debate. The rewilding campaign has, perhaps predictably, been led from within the conservation movement itself and has perhaps sidelined and isolated many of those who actually manage the majority of land – farmers. As a result rewilding becomes yet another tool that farmers perceive as being thrust against them by the conservation lobby, instead of the positive opportunity it could be – economically as well as ecologically. The Lawton Report (2010) suggested that we need sites for nature in the UK that are ‘bigger, better, joined and we need more of them’. This is clear and is accepted across the board. The State of Nature Report (2013) presented the critical state that farmland biodiversity is in. Generally, agri-environmental schemes have been shown to be successful to date, depending on the exact scenario and scheme (Kleijn et al, 2006; Dicks et al, 2015), but it is clear that more needs to be done. Should we be thinking more radically? I would suggest we need to be. Agri-environment schemes should continue where they are appropriate but we could go further in some areas and perhaps follow through with Monbiot‘s (and others) calls that we should radically change land use in less productive areas. However, we must be careful not to lose the cultural identities of those farming areas which lie in more marginal areas.
Rewilding recognises that not all land is suitable for intensive production. However, I don’t believe that rewilding proponents have thus far made sufficient effort to engage with farmers and landowners and put forward the case for the opportunities it could bring them. And I don’t mean preaching. I mean calm and considered advice in the same way that FWAG or land agents offer land management advice relating to agri-environment. Rewilders need farmers and landowners for rewilding to work on a large scale basis and therefore rewilding needs to be in the interest of the farmer.
For me, rewilding is very closely connected with another debate – sustainable intensification (SI) – a very popular topic of conversation in the agri circle. SI suggests an approach to land management of land sparing rather than land sharing, focusing efforts on driving productivity on a smaller area of land, whilst ensuring environmental impact remains as small as possible. The benefit of intensification is that other land, perhaps fundamentally less suited to production is freed up for other uses. Perhaps this is where rewilding could come in?
In December 2014 Thomas Merckx and Henrique Pereira published a paper in the journal Basic and Applied Ecology which suggested that CAP subsidies currently allocated through agri-environmental schemes should be tiered through two distinct channels. The first would support ‘conventional’ stewardship approaches such as encouraging best hedgerow practice, field margins and headlands, beetle banks and good soil and water management. This would be allocated for the most productive land, which would otherwise be managed intensively with a focus on driving productivity through a mix of agro-ecology, precision farming and advanced technologies. The second would be targeted at more marginal land that tends to yield poorly anyway and would encourage rewilding and natural succession. Critically, farmers and landowners would be paid to engage in rewilding.
Those who vehemently oppose subsidies may consider this approach unsustainable and it may seem like a wholesale move back towards the days of set aside, indeed set aside + and on a much bigger scale. I feel that Merckx and Pereira’s approach should at least be considered by the rewilding fraternity as a viable way of encouraging the practice they wish to see. It just needs to be taken with a pinch of salt and the human aspect must be taken just as seriously as the wildlife aspect – ecology meeting human ecology.
Ultimately it is a combination of policy and economics that will drive land use change across Europe, as it has ever since the Common Agricultural Policy and the subsidy system began. Agri-environment schemes have shown that farmers will react to policy and implement changes that society wants if the price is right. However, rewilding may be going a step too far – pacing towards a change in way of life and identity that the farmer may not want. Whilst many farmers have engaged with agri-environment schemes they usually still identify as food producers by trade. Their conservation activities, whilst they may be extremely important for some, are periphery activities carried out alongside the main farm enterprises and they don’t stop the farmers from being farmers. If farmers in more marginal areas were told they must abandon production wholeheartedly in favour of rewilding they would face a change in self-identity. Economically they may well be better off in the longer term, through tourism and the suggested subsidy payments. However, would they still be farmers? Almost certainly not.
There is a distinct danger in pushing down the Merckx and Pereira line that whole farming cultures could be wiped out. It could achieve large scale rewilding and the various ecological benefits that brings with it. However, it would have serious socio-cultural implications which must be considered. The line must be trodden carefully.
Dicks, L.V., P. Batáry, D. Kleijn and W.J. Sutherland (2015), ‘The role of agri-environment schemes in conservation and environmental management’ in Conservation Biology, 29, 4, 1006-1016.
Kleijn, D., R.A. Baquero, Y. Clough, M. Diaz, J. De Esteban, F. Fernandez, D. Gabriel, F. Herzog, A. Holzschuh, R. Johl, E. Knop, A. Kruess, E.J.P. Marshall, I. Steffan-Dewenter, T. Tscharntke, J. Verhulst, T.M. West and J.L. Yela (2006), ‘Mixed biodiversity benefits of agri-environment schemes in five European countries’ in Ecological Letters, 9, 243–254.
Lawton, J.H., P.N.M. Brotherton, V.K. Brown, C. Elphick, A.H. Fitter, J. Forshaw, R.W. Haddow, S. Hilborne, R.N. Leafe, G.M. Mace, M.P. Southgate, W.J. Sutherland, T.E. Tew, J. Varley and G.R. Wynne (2010), Making Space for Nature: a review of England’s wildlife sites and ecological network. Report to Defra. http://archive.defra.gov.uk/environment/biodiversity/documents/201009space-for-nature.pdf
RSPB et al (2013), State of Nature Report https://www.rspb.org.uk/Images/stateofnature_tcm9-345839.pdf