Writing by Bill Hodgkinson. Illustration by Justine White.
Tucked away in chapter four of On the Origin of Species lies one of Darwin’s most simple, and powerful, truths: a mixture of species planted together grows stronger than species planted individually. In other words, from diversity comes strength. It’s taken a hundred and fifty years for this seed of an idea to bear fruit. Now, amidst a climate crisis, policymakers are starting to apply this concept to forests by planting a variety of tree types and ages to create healthy forests.
The logic behind this is simple: no human technology compares to the ability of forests to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, a process known as ‘carbon capture’. For example, the Norbury Park estate in central England is estimated to capture 5,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide every year. And, the more varied the trees in the forest, the more resilient the forest is to disease outbreaks, extreme weather events and rapid climate change – all things likely to become more and more common. Planting more of these ‘mixed’ forests (read: natural) is, so the logic goes, a key weapon in combating the climate crisis.
These ‘mixed forests’ are part of the ‘rewilding’ trend that has captured the minds of those who are climate conscious. Lying behind the rewilding rhetoric – which is often self-aggrandising – is a humble thought: perhaps Mother Earth knows best. Humans, as a result of millennia of farming and destruction, now have the rather odd task of restoring nature back to how we originally found it with diversity, original animals and all. It’s a nice thought, and one that’s spawned whole fields of research - as well as bleeding heart landowners who now see traditional farming methods and farmers as devil spawn. It’s a shame it’s often carried out so poorly.
Take an example: the reintroduction of beavers to Scotland. The Eurasian beaver was hunted to extinction in Scotland in the 16th century, but the Scottish Natural Heritage (now NatureScot) reintroduced the beaver to Knapdale, Argyll in 2009. However, two private estate owners decided that they weren’t keen on waiting for the slow wheels of bureaucracy to turn and set up their own private trials, funded by tourist visits. Somewhat unsurprisingly, beavers chewed their way out of their enclosure. It’s now estimated that 95% of the thousand beavers in Scotland are the offspring of these private trials. And, perhaps in part due to their hurried reintroduction to the land, misinformation about the damage beavers can cause to the land is rife. For example, one widespread rumour is that beavers eat fish. They’re herbivores. Little wonder, then, that last year more than ten percent of the beaver population was, under licences granted by NatureScot to worried farmers, shot.
But the poor execution of the rewilding programme goes deeper than a few botched trials. Its root cause lies in unanswered questions about who decides what species lives where, what it means to own land and about how rewilding is framed. The beaver incident makes it clear that true wildness doesn’t recognise the borders and structures imposed on it by organisations, local democracy or the whims of landed individuals. It will simply chew through those enclosures.
It’s also remarkable, given the universality of the tired slogan, ‘ending climate change means ending capitalism!’, how many of these ‘radical’ rewilding programmes exist within corporate capitalist structures. BrewDog, the beer and brewery conglomerate, has recently negotiated the purchase of Kinrara in the Cairngorms, ‘bigger than seventeen actual countries’. This land will form their ‘Lost Forest’, which will include a hotel built from sustainable cabins, a campsite, a distillery and hiking and biking trails. Or, taking another example, the Bunloit rewilding project of Jeremy Leggett, a British entrepreneur and scientist. His aim is to create a ‘flagship for hope’ on a 200-hectare estate, funded by eco-tourism.
Somehow, rewilding shifts and becomes a market solution to the climate problem. Wilderness is tamed, and is now nothing more than a useful buzzword to consolidate land into carbon credits, corporate claptrap and profits. It’s easy to see the grievance that the Highlands are once again held hostage by the rich few (432 people own half of Scotland’s private rural land) for new forms of entertainment, or Balmorality. It used to be grouse hunting for royals; now it’s market traders, on the run from the City, kayaking on lochs.
Still, the potential for rewilding is huge. Darwin’s insight is of massive importance as we adjust to living in an age of mass extinction. But is this corporate-branded climatism how we want to see it done? A logo on every leaf? Other examples, in Scotland alone, can guide us: the community purchase of Langholm Moor, or the residents of Abriachan buying back 540 hectares of Forestry Commission land. These communal endeavours to restore native woodland, wetland and peatland illustrate better ways to grow the local economy, protect the land and ‘reconnect’ with nature.
These efforts point to an answer for the deepest question the climate crisis has posed: how wide is the scope of human agency? We know our actions have been enough to fundamentally alter our planet’s ecosystem, but repairing something takes more time and effort than tearing it down. In these endearing struggles of local communities trying to protect and repair their land, from avaricious landlords and climate change respectively, lies a little hope. The attraction of the wild has always been, in part, due to its difficulty to define. Its resistance to human value, its shimmering refusal to resolve itself to any stable meaning. But the residents of Abriachan and the community of Langholm Moor show us that rewilding can be reclaimed as a matter of local interpretation and cooperation. A community becomes tied to, and built around, the land it shares. Land then becomes a place, filled with shared meaning and stories. In terms of the enormity of the climate crisis, this isn’t much. But it’s a start.
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