Rewilding: to subsidise or not to subsidise?

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.

RSPB et al (2013), State of Nature Report

14 thoughts on “Rewilding: to subsidise or not to subsidise?

  1. It is not just ecological benefits from reducing/better organising grazing pressure in upland areas There are also large benefits for water quality and quantity (reducing our water bills and council tax) and carbon sequestration for starters. On balance I think it is a direction we have to go.

    1. Thanks for this Simon. I agree that the benefits go further than an increase in biodiversity. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if payments for ecosystem services form part of discussions for the next round of CAP reform discussions.

  2. This is an interesting piece. I’ve been (marginally) following the rewilding debate from the other side of the Atlantic, and I think you bring up some valid points. An individual’s social and personal identities can be highly important to them, and people can engage in activities that seem to be self-defeating in order to protect them. So if farmers perceive the rewilding movement to be threatening their farmer identities, then work needs to be done to ease their concerns. I’m not sure how to do it, but somehow farmers should be made to feel like they aren’t being forced to give up an important part of their self worth.

    I’d love to see the rewilding movement succeed. But like you pointed out it’s important to reach out to farmers and include them in the process.

    1. Thanks Ben for the article and Josh for the comment. You both highlight farmers’ way of life and identity as important and neglected aspects of the rewilding debate. I agree.

      Here in the Pyrenees we have seen rewilding with bears since 1996. This is the real thing. And it is hotly debated, with a vocal body of farmers able to influence the policy makers. In 2006 the French government reintroduced five Slovenian bears but was faced with massive demonstrations and one riot, in Arbas. I spoke to some of the protesters at a road block. They acknowledged that they couldn’t stop the new arrivals, but said that if they made enough fuss, the government would think twice before continuing. Ten years later and it is clear that they were right. No more bears have been released in France.

      For these farmers it is a question of identity, economics and lifestyle. They have managed the mountains for centuries in a low-key way – nothing to do with agro-business – and resent people who know nothing about sheep telling them how to go about it. On the economic side, rewilding brings extra costs for protecting the sheep. And on the social side, if the government’s recommendations are followed to the letter, someone needs to stay in the mountains with the sheep for three months each summer. Alone.

      As a result the focus of activity has passed into Spanish Catalonia, where a male bear will be released this May.

      1. Thanks for this comment Steve, I was unaware that the French government had reintroduced bears in 2006. To me this case bears (no pun intended) some similarities with wolf reintroductions in the US, although the French situation seems more extreme. In both cases large predators were introduced against the wills of rural people, and now they’ve become overly politicized. The political opposition to wolves in the US is becoming strong enough that years of conservation success are in danger of being undone. Based on studies I’ve read it seems anti-wolf sentiments are largely identity-based: certain social groups oppose wolves because they view them as symbols of government interference and threats to their lifestyles.

        I identify as a conservationist, and I’m fully in favor of rewilding. I live in the US, and I’d like nothing more than to see predators like wolves and mountain lions regain their lost territories. But I think we have to make more of an effort to get rural people on board before we reintroduce potentially damage-causing animals into their areas.

        Due to my inexperience I’m not sure how to accomplish this. But the first step is just to spend time listening to farmers and forging positive relationships with them.

  3. Reblogged this on Common By Nature and commented:
    A fantastic piece by Ben Eagle regarding rewilding and farm subsidies. Any attempt to return Britain to a more primal state must include proactive dialogue with farmers. Paying farmers to get them on board? Some may scoff at the idea but it is almost certainly one of the most sure fire ways of advancing the rewilding agenda.

      1. Thank you Ben, glad you enjoy me waffling on like a loon – Someone has to! Big fan of your own blog, now that I have discovered the nifty re-blog option I suspect it will get a bit more use in the future!

  4. Thought provoking piece Ben. I can’t speak for how much other “rewilding proponents” have engaged with farmers/landowners as I’m a recent convert. But I believe that groups like Rewilding Britain have tried. This research by the Hutton Institute shows that a range of factors affect farmers, not just money. Its specifically in relation to how to encourage farmers to take up Natural Flood Management, but thought you’d find it interesting if you haven’t seen it.

  5. The rewilding camp is doing a bad job of explaining the outcomes it seeks and how those are to be achieved in real, economically and socially sustainable, terms. Rewilding has evolved into a ‘red flag’ term because its focus seems to be only on the reintroduction of species such as the beaver and lynx – animals which have been extinct in Britain since a time when our island was a lot less crowded than it is now – and because many of the fiercest proponents seem to have little or no regard for the rights and interests of farmers whose families have made a living and managed the landscape in marginal areas for generations.

    That they look the same as us, speak the same language and obey the same laws is no reason to ride roughshod over what is, in effect, a minority culture. George Monbiot has extolled the virtue of the commons as ‘an asset over which a community has shared and equal rights’ (‘The Fortifying Commons’, 15 December 2016, The key word here is community, yet Monbiot sees no contradiction in supporting squatters’ rights over the hereditary rights of a genuine community whose practices and mores he rejects because they do not tally with his particular world view. What does it say about us that we react against projects such as the Belo Monte dam or the Dakota Access pipeline, while closing our eyes to the genuine needs and concerns of those closer to home? Farmers and landowners must be engaged and heard, and their rights respected.

    You ask: ‘to subsidise or not to subsidise?’ The argument is more fundamental than a question of who pays. We aren’t there, yet.

Please leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: