Rewilding has attracted a lot of media attention in the last few years. The idea behind rewilding is that by reintroducing predators into an environment and allowing nature to take its course, the environment will recover and perform at its best. By letting plants grow wild, predators hunt prey, and the cycle of life to work the way it should (instead of trimming, burning, and culling to control the population of flora and fauna), the ecosystem return to a healthy balance.
Rewilding is a promising idea, and there have certainly been some high profile success stories. Take, for example, the reintroduction of beavers in certain parts of Scotland. When this project was originally planned, there was resistance from landowners who feared that they would damage the environment when they built dams. However, research from Sweden, which reintroduced beavers in the 1930s, showed that beavers actually benefit the ecosystem and can help combat flooding.1
Another example of a success story surrounding rewilding was improving London’s rivers by removing culverts, replanting reed beds, and planting up water margins, as well as reintroducing salmon in some areas. The river restoration project created new habitats for wildlife and also helped trap pollutants, stopping them from flowing downstream. This even helped reduce flooding and took some pressure away from the struggling drainage systems in the city.2
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Researchers believe that there could be some potential for even more successes, and some new benchmarks that being proposed include bringing back ecosystems from the Eemean Interglacian and the early to mid-Holocene eras. The Eamean Interglacial area was more than 110,000 years ago, and the hope is that by introducing non-native equivalents of the now-extinct elephants and lions in North America and Europe, it would be possible to bring back some of the environmental balance from that era.3
Keystone Species and Rewilding
One of the key elements of rewilding is the idea of reintroducing keystone species into the environment. These are species which perform important functions and are considered essential for the maintenance of the ecosystem. Keystone species help the ecosystem regulate itself.4
One might think that reintroducing a predator into an environment would only benefit that predator, but by regulating the population of the prey, the ecosystem can be brought back into balance in other ways. Every animal in the food web has a role to play.
Bringing Back Ghosts
A lot of largescale rewilding work focuses on bringing back “ghosts,” allowing animals which have been long gone from European or North American ecosystems to return and then observing what changes.
Researcher Paul Martin beleives that the loss of mammoths and aurochs (and the predators that kept those in check) is what caused the Pleistocene grasslands to become the forests and tundras of today. He believes that bringing those back could bring some diversity back to the land.5
Of course, those of us who want to work on rewilding on a more local level aren’t going to be bringing any of these “ghosts” back to their backyards, but you can still do a lot for the planet on a smaller scale.
One major issue facing the environment at the moment is that the population of bees is on the decline. Bees pollinate plants and are essential for our food chains. The widespread use of neonicotinoid insecticides is thought to have had a devastating effect on the bee population. Rewilding could help to protect bees by providing them with more food and more places where they could build hives.6
Rewilding Protects Everyone
Rewilding everyone, not just the animals that are directly exposed to it. Rewilding gardens could protect bees and bees are needed to keep food supplies growing properly. On the other hand, rewilding forests can help create forest firebreaks, which could help stop serious fires from spreading. Older hardwood trees have thick bark and their roots go deeper into the soil, so they can soak up more water. Their canopies produce a lot of shade, which helps to reduce the temperature in the surrounding area. This, cumulatively, reduces the risk of forest fires and means that fires that do occur are more likely to burn out compared to a fire in a eucalyptus plantation, where the trees are closer together, dryer, and almost matchstick-like.7
Rewilding can also help prevent climate change. Forests can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Each tree can remove one ton of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every 40 years, which doesn’t sound like a lot until you realize how many trees are in a forest. If this can help play a role in slowing down global warming, then it would stop ice caps from melting and protect polar species.
Currently, the planet is in the middle of a mass extinction, a slow but reversible trend of biodiversity loss. In one study which tracked the rate of population loss in more than 8,000 vertebrate species, it was found that 32 percent of those species had decreased in population size and range.8
Even if a large proportion of those species are not at levels of concern yet when it comes to population, the diversity of the planet is decreasing as a whole, and it is important to take measures to reverse that loss of diversity.
Once a species dies out, it can’t be brought back. Genetic engineering may be getting to the stage of trying to revive lost species, but there is no substitute for having the real animal still walking the earth. The goal of rewilding is to carve out portions of the planet and allow nature to use that space however it sees fit, for the benefit of all flora and fauna, all predators and prey, and yes, for the future of mankind.
Photo credits: RonnieHoward/shutterstock.com, AuntSpray/shutterstock.com, Pausitus/shutterstock.com