Rewilding Britain: Planning, Policy and Practice Conference 12th September 2017

Rewilding Britain: Planning, Policy and Practice Conference 12th September 2017

BSG Partner Dr Peter Shepherd attended this one day conference at the Durrell Institute for Conservation and Ecology (DICE) to keep up to date with this new area of thinking and practice in ecology (see previous article here)

The day consisted of a series of nine presentations. These covered species reintroductions (lynx, Eurasian beaver and European Bison), strategic planning, building natural ecological networks, a case study of the Knepp Estate project, financial considerations, rewilding and nature- based economies, and the case for a national land asset policy rethink.

The conference was oversubscribed and the 166 delegates present reflected the intense interest in this subject from people in a wide range of roles. Academics,  land managers, local authorities, consultancies, statutory agencies and land owners were present.  There was no dissent expressed about the principle of rewilding or even, (perhaps surprisingly) any debate about what do we mean by rewilding.  Rather, the discussions focussed on the practical measures needed to make rewilding or some form of rewilding a reality. The following is a brief review of the day with some thoughts from Dr Shepherd.

Overview of the Day

There was strong reference to the principles set out in Sir John Lawton’s  review with its clear messages of delivering net gain for biodiversity and the need for landscape scale change to secure this; specifically by creating bigger, better and better connected habitat networks within the UK.

The day started with interesting and detailed reviews of the beaver reintroduction programme in the UK and work abroad by Roisin Campbell-Palmer of the University of Southeast Norway,and the potential for reintroduction of Lynx by David Hetherington, Ecology Advisor at Cairngorms National Park Authority.  Both speakers recognised and emphasised the importance of having honest and detailed discussions with communities that may be affected by reintroductions, and both considered the need to plan for the control of these reintroduced species in future if required. Examples of successful approaches elsewhere in Europe were particularly interesting.  Tony King of The Aspinall Foundation finished the first session with a fascinating talk on the European bison, and how it has been saved from extinction. Whilst the population of European bison across reintroduction sites in Europe is now numbered at about 5000 animals, it remains a concern that genetic studies have shown that this population is based on just 12 founder animals.

The second session was launched by an engaging presentation from Dr Bob Smith of DICE, who has worked extensively on strategic conservation planning models and their application in Africa and other parts of the world. He emphasised the importance of having well planned strategies for targeting where best to build new habitats and reflected on the fact that the UK does not seem to have taken such a strategic approach to how best to meet the objectives of the Lawton Review.  Humphrey Crick of Natural England followed with a clear message emphasising the importance of the Lawton Review principles of bigger, better and better connected with a particular focus on better habitats.

The last presentation before lunch was by Charlie Burrell the owner and instigator of the Knepp Estate project.  This truly inspirational project involves rewilding of approximately 1400 ha of clay farmland near Horsham in West Sussex over the last 16 years. Some of the facts and figures are impressive – the only growing population of turtle doves in the country (from 3 to 14 singing males in 16 years), the largest population of purple emperor butterflies in the UK from none at the outset, a doubling of nightingale territories to 18 by 2015 and the presence of 13 of the 17 British bat species including the rare Bechsteins and barbastelle bats. The project has shown what is possible not only in biodiversity terms, but also in terms of changing financial models of managing land and making a living from it. Perhaps most excitingly, as it continues, we do not know the extent of the biodiversity outcome.

Knepp was only possible due to the land being in the ownership of a single land owner who decided to follow a particular path. If rewilding or even just extending our habitat network in line with the Lawton Review is to be achieved, there are significant challenges to overcome.  The final session of the day tackled some of the really fundamental issues of land, land ownership, financial viability and policy and how these all currently conspire to make large scale habitat restoration a real challenge to deliver. Chris Price from the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) gave a very interesting reality check to the conference with a talk that set out some of the fundamental objectives and requirements of land owners, especially those that own large land holdings, not least the financial implications of changes in land management that have to be considered. Rebecca Wrigley of Re-Wilding Britain followed up with a thought provoking  presentation about how we think about projects from a traditional economic perspective, including Kate Raworth’s recent publication Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist. She went on to discuss alternative economic models and thinking that could be applied to land use change that better fit what she called nature-based economies. There is much to do in this field but the importance of exploring the options and models to the success of re-wildling projects and the wider environment was clear.

The final talk of the day by Dr Paul Jepson of Oxford University School of Geography and the Environment really threw down the gauntlet and challenged the conference to re-think our approach to how we frame and think about the countryside. To date it is largely framed within the farming context and as such we attempt to deliver biodiversity and nature objectives within this context which often is not as effective as it needs to be. Dr Jepson argued the case for a new national asset policy that frames the countryside in multiple, but equal pillars of farming and nature. He argued that whatever one’s personal views on Brexit perhaps it gave us for the first time in 60 years the opportunity carry out this vital task.


Overall it was a stimulating conference; the need to review and change the policy framework was considered to be the top priority by the delegates in order to set the right conditions such that if land owners choose to follow a nature based approach to their land in whole or in part they are not disadvantaged by loss of capital value, funding support mechanisms and the tax regime.  There is also a clear need for a strategic plan – the principles of which are clearly set within the Lawton Review,  but we wait to see what the government’s view is in the eagerly anticipated 25 yr Environment Plan. However, there was also a strong feeling at the conference that perhaps the most important other step we can take is to progress other major demonstration sites in addition to the Knepp Estate and other projects such as Wild Ennerdale so that we can show what is possible.


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