We spoke with Professor Alastair Driver, the Director of Rewilding Britain. Prof. Driver is a Fellow of the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management and an Honorary Professor in Applied Environmental Management at the University of Exeter. He’s a longtime Council Member of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, and for many years he was Head of Conservation for the Environment Agency.

What is rewilding?

Rewilding is about the large-scale restoration of ecosystems, to the point where nature can take care of itself. Rewilding seeks to reinstate natural processes and, where appropriate, reintroduce missing species – allowing them to shape the landscape and its habitats.

Have you been involved in any rewilding projects in Dorset?

I very recently visited Wild Purbeck, which wasn’t being thought of as a rewilding project but absolutely is! They are reducing management, allowing natural regeneration, removing non-native conifers and continually looking to increase the size of the area where these rewilding principles can be applied. A fantastic site and a great example of rewilding in lowland England.

Do you have any favourite Dorset wildlife spots?

Spoilt for choice really. My dad, Dr Peter Driver, used to take me on his birding trips to Portland Bill when I was knee-high, so I have fond memories there – but the whole county is pretty impressive to be honest. If I had to commit to one place it would be Arne, which I visited very briefly recently. I love the wonderful mosaic of saltmarsh, heathland and native woodland all in such close proximity and teeming with wildlife. I vowed to return for much longer very soon!

Why does rewilding appeal as an ecological strategy?

Rewilding offers hope and the opportunity to give nature, and us, a fighting chance – bringing nature back to life, saving wildlife, tackling climate breakdown, and benefiting people and communities. 

Unfortunately there has been a catastrophic decline in Britain’s wildlife over recent decades – many species are struggling to survive or are crashing towards extinction – and the climate emergency is a huge threat to people and nature. In the past, conservation has focused on saving isolated fragments of nature, as nature reserves or places of scientific interest. It was vital work, but unfortunately not enough to stop the decline in biodiversity. So we need to do more – and that ‘more’ is rewilding. 

While it’s not a silver bullet, rewilding can play a key role in tackling the climate emergency and extinction crisis, while reconnecting people with nature, and inspiring individuals and communities through new opportunities that help them thrive. So at Rewilding Britain we are championing rewilding, and want to see it flourishing across Britain.

In your experience, who are your key allies?

Our allies include a wide and growing range of landowners, farmers, community groups, local authorities, and individuals. Interest in rewilding is now at levels never seen before, and Rewilding Britain is now receiving unprecedented levels of requests for guidance. Over the last year alone, this has included over 50 landowners and partnerships with almost 200,000 acres of land between them, and thousands of smaller-scale land managers, gardeners, individuals and local groups. 

Later this year, we will be launching a Rewilding Network – to rapidly upscale rewilding by bringing together hundreds of people from across Britain who are rewilding land or considering doing so. As the primary ‘go-to’ rewilding hub, the Network will harness the growing enthusiasm for rewilding, and it will support projects of all sizes and all stages of rewilding – by providing expert practical help and advice, and being a place for discussion, sharing knowledge and ideas, and developing community action.

Who or what is antagonistic to rewilding?

Rewilding faces challenges too. One has been an unfair farm subsidy system, which has been highly damaging to the natural world. Under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, farmers have been paid around £3billion in subsidies each year – mostly linked to owning land used for farming. This has encouraged farmers to use land for agriculture in ways that have often had little regard for environmental impact. Regardless of your views on Brexit, we now have an opportunity to embrace a more sensible way of managing our land – and we are hopeful that the Government’s new Agriculture Bill will ensure that thriving and resilient nature lies at the heart of our farming.

Another challenge is shifting baseline. In many places we’ve got used to the landscape looking a certain way, and we can’t see what species are missing. We don’t realise that the trees we are enjoying now in many places will not be around for our grandchildren; most of us are not taught ecology in schools; and we don’t realise what amazing animals could live in Britain again, given the chance. At Rewilding Britain, we’re trying help people understand a little more about the living world that surrounds us – and the difference between what it is and what it could be.

Certain types of sport shooting are an obstacle to rewilding because they maintain upland landscapes in a condition which suppresses natural regeneration – which impacts significantly on biodiversity. Huge swathes of Britain’s land are managed for exclusive sporting interests. Grouse shooting and deer stalking keep the land in a degraded state. Many grouse moor managers burn heather to create a habitat that favours grouse – damaging the soils, preventing tree growth, and keeping away other species. Many deer estates keep deer populations high so clients can find and shoot deer easily – but deer numbers are so high in Scotland that overgrazing is preventing many native woodlands from regenerating. Some landowners have successfully combined sport with rewilding actions. They have shown it can be done – but so far they are in the minority.

What’s the relationship between rewilding and pollution?

Pollution damages the natural world, and is one reason – alongside issues such as deforestation, deer and sheep grazing, burning moors for grouse hunting, exotic conifers, and denuded seas – why Britain has been reduced to one of the world’s most nature-depleted countries. The State of Nature Report 2016 ranked Britain 189 out of 218 countries. 

Pollution of our atmosphere through greenhouse gas emissions is fuelling the climate emergency – which is a huge threat to people and wildlife. Climate change is causing widespread changes in the abundance, distribution and ecology of British wildlife, and this will continue for decades or centuries. 

Rewilding, meanwhile, offers a host of solutions to problems caused by pollution as well as other threats. We have to reduce carbon emissions while removing carbon from the atmosphere – and nature is the best carbon sink. Land and marine ecosystems play a crucial role in regulating the climate system, capturing roughly half of our carbon dioxide emissions. Ecologically restored landscapes – with more peatland and woodland – could capture even more. 

Rewilding will also help to tackle the insidious long-term “cocktail effect” of decades of multiple pesticide and herbicide use, because rewilding requires the cessation of chemical usage in the countryside. Our insect populations in particular have been devastated by the use of chemicals and it will take a long time for the levels of these persistent compounds to decline. But through long-term commitment to rewilding principles, wildlife can and will bounce back – as has been so dramatically demonstrated at Knepp Castle Estate in Sussex.

Protecting biodiversity also supports ecosystem services that can help us adapt to the impacts of climate breakdown. Rewilding Britain’s 2019 report, ‘Rewilding and climate breakdown: how restoring nature can help decarbonise the UK’ called for support for nature-based solutions to help tackle the climate emergency and the extinction crisis. 

There are also many specific and interesting examples of how rewilding can help tackle various forms of pollution. Studies show that beavers, for example, can have dramatically positive effects on the natural environment. Scientific research at the Devon Beaver Project – a controlled reintroduction programme – showed how the nature-rich wetland created by the beavers brought wide-ranging benefits, including a reduction in sediment, nitrogen and phosphate. It’s yet another example of how what’s good for nature is good for us.

Are there any particular scarce species that you have a personal commitment to?

Yes – as part of my previous job as national Head of Conservation for the Environment Agency, I led for 20 years on the conservation of water voles in Britain. This involved development and implementation of a multi-pronged action plan to save them from extinction and to restore the population to pre-1970s numbers. I am very proud that we achieved the first goal – but there is a long way to go before we achieve the second! One thing that will make a massive difference though is the return of the beaver to our countryside, because beavers create fantastic wetland habitats for all kinds of other wildlife – including dear old Ratty himself!

You can support the work of Rewilding Britain by visiting their website, and watch a talk on the subject given at the Sustainable Earth Institute in Plymouth. And you can find out more information about Wild Purbeck Nature Improvement Area (NIA) here.