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Nature & Outdoors

Understanding Human Rewilding and Rewilding the Environment

Today, most humans live in an incredible time period with unprecedented access to food, shelter, information, and rapid transportation. Additionally, modern medicine means that diseases that would have killed individuals as little as 100 years ago are now nothing little more than minor inconveniences.

While all of those luxuries are amazing, there has still been a backlash against some aspects of modern life because a lot of its benefits come at a price. The energy people use sometimes comes from power stations that emit gasses that damage the ozone layer, while plastic bottles create nonbiodegradable waste.

The “rewilding” movement aims to remedy some of these problems.

Rewilding What Is Rewilding?

Rewilding is a large-scale conservation effort that hopes to restore and protect large areas of natural habitats by protecting or reintroducing key species and predators. The long-term goal of rewilding is to create an environment that is sustainable and that can be managed passively. There have been several successful rewilding projects, and the movement has some high profile supporters, including George Monbiot. 1

The concept was first introduced by the Dutch government in the 1980s when they tried to reintroduce some new species into the Oostvaardersplassen Nature Reserve in the hopes of creating a sustainable grassland ecology. 2 Though back in the 80s the practice didn't have a name, and it wasn't until the 90s that it was given a title, the idea remains the same.

Today, there are other large-scale rewilding projects, such as the European Green Belt, which follows the path of the former Iron Curtain, but rewilding does not necessarily have to be a huge project sponsored by governments. 3

In the U.K., individuals are being encouraged to try to rewild for themselves by changing the way they interact with nature. The theory is that if enough people stopped trying to micromanage their gardens and patios and were more willing to let nature take hold and do its own thing, native flora and fauna would be better off. 4

Rewilding Projects

There have been many successful rewilding projects over the past 20 years, from the previously mentioned European Green Belt to the reintroduction of tigers in Sariska. 5

Nevertheless, it takes many years to see the results of rewilding projects and to figure out whether they have truly been successful. The balance of nature can be delicate, and all it takes is for one species for things to fall out of balance.

When it goes well, rewilding can be very effective. Take, for example, the Elwha River. The restoration of the river was recently completed as two large dams were removed in late 2013, allowing water to flow freely with the goal of restoring the salmon population in the area. 6

Unfortunately, not all attempts at rewilding are successful. One recent idea attempted to rewild a marshland to the east of Amsterdam, but the project failed. As a part of the project, cattle, horses, and deer were released into the marshland, but the ecologists did not foresee what would happen. The Netherlands saw a run of mild winters, and the population of red deer, heck cattle, and Konik horses grew to over 5,2200 on a 5,00-hectare nature reserve. Because of this, there simply was not enough food to sustain the population.

Things came to a head when the country was struck by a harsh winter, and the Dutch State Forestry Organisation was forced to make the decision to shoot thousands of the animals rather than let them die of starvation. The population fell to just 1,850 by the next spring. 7

The Oostvaardersplassen rewilding project failed because there was no natural population control. In the summer months, the population was able to grow unchecked and because there were no predators in the reserve, the population was never capped. It may be natural for a small percentage of animals to die of starvation each year, but unchecked population growth created a situation where 60 percent of the population was at risk.

Nevertheless, supporters of the idea of rewilding believe that what is going on in Oostvaardersplassen is proof that the idea can work. The dead trees and animals are creating an opportunity for grass and insects to grow. Birds are coming back to the area, and ecologists say that the key now is to trust the process and let nature bring balance to the grasslands.

Rewilding is supposed to take the “cores, carnivores and corridors” approach, and there are some clear lessons to be learned from the Oostvaardersplassen project. The cattle, deer, and horses in the reserve were not native to the area. There were no natural predators for population control, and the residents of the area were not able to migrate.

The project was rewilding in name only, as the Dutch ecologists treated nature as something to be managed rather than trusted. 8 Ecologists have learned a lot from the failures of the project, and are now taking a new approach.

Smaller Scale Rewilding

Rewilding is something that anyone can do, and there are some good examples of small-scale but still hugely successful projects, such as that of the Knepp Castle Estate in Sussex, England. 9 The owners converted the estate, which spans 3,500 acres, from a crop-growing area to picturesque wilderness.

You may think that one farmland being converted would have little impact, but the work is important for English wildlife. For instance, populations of cuckoos and turtledoves have fallen dramatically in recent years. The owners of Knepp Castle have created a new habitat for the turtledove, as well as other birds.

Their decision to convert the area back into wilderness stemmed from the fact that the land had been difficult to farm, and working it was a constant fight against nature. It took just a few years of gentle nudging and a more hands-off approach for it to thrive again.

When you consider how much of a struggle it was for the family to get productive harvests out of the clay farmland, it's easy to understand why they are so overjoyed with the results of their decision to let nature reclaim the land.

Getting Started With Rewilding rewilding

Rewilding is something that individuals can be involved with just as much as big corporations, wealthy land-owning families, and governments. Rewilding on a small scale can be as simple as opting to let more flowers grow around your lawn or allowing the population of your pond to become more diverse. It doesn't have to be a huge decision or a major landscaping project.

Rewilding embraces the idea that if people put trust in their environments and themselves, humanity will be better off. From the point of view of nature, the approach is simple. There are groups that support local communities who want to get involved with rewilding who are turning bits of unused land into small nature reserves. 10 There are also groups that support the idea of human rewilding, which takes the “let go of the environment” approach a step further and encourages people to also let go of themselves.

If you want to learn rewilding techniques, then you should look for a group in your area that has an understanding of nature, rewilding, and the cultural impact that humans have on the environment. If you want to go so far as to learn human rewilding, then that would involve becoming more in touch with your primal side, learning forest survival techniques, exploring movement culture, forest bathing, intuitive eating, and more. Rewilding is about immersing yourself in nature and truly appreciating it. 11

A Movement with Many Motivations

The more extreme elements of the rewilding movement would love to see all green space reclaimed to perform as nature intended. The rewilding movement is not, however, a single cohesive group, and there are many different people with different motivations involved.

It is this diversity that makes rewilding so interesting and gives it so much promise. Everyone who is interested in rewilding has their own motivations, but they are still working towards a common goal: becoming more united with nature and reducing the impact that their life has on the environment.

For some ecologists, the motivations behind rewilding are grand. They want to find out what earth was like 11,000 years ago before humans were such a dominant force and are creating pockets of land that will sit completely untouched by humans to see what happens on that land over a period of many years. 12

There are even some pockets of rewilding happening that were entirely accidental. Take, for example, Chernobyl. The disaster there caused the town to be completely evacuated. Now, more than 30 years after the disaster, nature is reclaiming significant parts of it. Roads and paths are becoming overgrown, wild animals roam the streets, and buildings are beginning to decay. Trees are thriving in unexpected places. A look at Chernobyl today provides an idea of exactly how temporary human influence can be. 13


Nature is resilient. Though humans may throw it out of balance, it will always adapt. Sometimes, the adaptation is slow. However, if humans work with nature rather than attempt to control it, as the rewilding movement states, a balance with nature can be established once more.

Photo Credits: JoostVanUffelen/, DavidWieczorek/, DanielMirlea/

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