OPINION: What are the pros and cons of rewilding in Norfolk?

Bees are thought to be able to smell their flowers better due to less air pollution during lockdown.

Bees are one insect that has thrived with rewilding - Credit: Archant

Science journalist Stuart Hobday looks at the arguments around nature's hottest topic

In 2021 we seem to have arrived at a point when the idea of ‘rewilding’ has become mainstream and its principles widely accepted.

This year’s BBC Springwatch has been live from the North Norfolk rewilding site at Wild Ken Hill and the media have widely reported the re-introduction of sea eagles to Norfolk which will begin at Wild Ken Hill in 2022 as licensed by Natural England.

Also recently widely reported around the world was the rewilding project in Australia which has seen the re-establishment of the Tasmanian Devil on the Australian mainland. There are other examples in Britain and around the world and it suddenly seems as if rewilding is here to stay.

But for the uninitiated, what is rewilding?

It’s the idea that areas of land be left free from human intervention and allowed to develop naturally in whatever way they will.

Also that some species that have recently been driven out by human activity be reintroduced so as to return an ecosystem to a more naturally sustainable state, recognising that human industrial and agricultural development over the last 200 years has had a disastrous effect on biodiversity leading to premature extinctions.

Also that rewilding large areas of land will be beneficial in the fight against global warming. Rewilding has had vocal supporters in Chris Packham and George Monbiot and if you want to find out more a good place to start is Isabella Tree’s bestseller Wilding which traced the progress of a major rewilding project on a large area of land in Sussex.

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A few years ago rewilding was on a collision course with existing conservation bodies, such as the RSPB and the wildlife trusts, and with farmers. Part of the tipping point we have reached is that there is a growing consensus that successful rewilding projects can sit alongside existing farms but also that some modern farming practices, particularly the use of chemicals, need to be contained to help maintain biodiversity.

Guided tours have been launched for visitors to explore the rewilding area at the Wild Ken Hill esta

Guided tours have been launched for visitors to explore the rewilding area at the Wild Ken Hill estate in west Norfolk - Credit: Wild Ken Hill

The wildlife trusts have come round to accepting that the intensive management of land, which the re-wilders criticised them for, is not always necessary.

A good example of how rewilding is gaining traction is the response to the plight of bees. Widely accepted as disastrous if allowed to continue, bees pollinate plants that provide us with fruit and vegetables as well as flowers, in 2018 the EU banned the use of bee damaging pesticides but this has been backed up by the idea that leaving wild flowers, allowing some wild growth in gardens and farms, is good for bees.

Rewilding areas of land will be good for bee proliferation. Bee numbers seem to be stabilising, this is being monitored closely, and is a good argument for the ongoing rewilding of areas of land as well as not feeling the need to cut down every wild flower in the household garden.

The issues around rewilding however are not straightforward. The farmers union, the NFU, recently issued a statement that returning agricultural land to wild areas may lead to having to transport food from abroad and so will be more damaging to the Earth’s climate. Human needs still abound as is seen in the current debates around road development in Norfolk.

Similarly there is a recognised need for house building to meet demand and this increasingly encroaches on green field sites. Balancing the demands of encouraging biodiversity, controlling global warming, reducing waste, ensuring more local food production, providing good housing and sustainable transport is going to be incredibly hard for planners and politicians in the future.

I am generally in favour of giving areas of land for rewilding but if I was playing devil’s advocate I would suggest that the public acceptance of having sea eagles flying above is partly because of the spectacle it will create and that it will have economic benefits of driving nature tourism to where they can be seen. The transport impact of people travelling to see the eagles will surely outweigh any environmental benefits.

Less palatable to the public may be the reintroduction of predators such as lynx and wolves which the rewilders still aspire to. The introduction of lynx to Thetford Forest was considered a few years ago with the argument that they will contain growing numbers of deer but neither Norfolk Wildlife Trust or the Government were in favour and the idea was dropped. Local MP and government minister Liz Truss subsequently called it a ‘crazy plan’.

It is though still an aspiration of rewilding advocates. I’d be concerned that the risks outweigh the benefits of reintroducing these animals into forests surrounded by farms and villages and the danger is that the whole rewilding project will lose its momentum and the wider benefits to biodiversity will be lost.

However rewilding has the wind in its sails at the moment and its lobby has ambitious plans. Rewilding Britain is calling for 30% of the land to adopt rewilding practices by 2030 and for a doubling of the amount of woodland in the same time frame. They are also calling for locally led initiatives so check www.rewildingbritain.org.uk if you want to get involved.

The general idea of rewilding is urgent and necessary and it’s great that it is now being widely accepted. It’s a good initiative gaining ground but the challenges in the future for real change on climate change and biodiversity remain huge and require us all to analyse what we do.