Trust Chief Executive speaks on rewilding

Chief Executive of the Scottish Wildlife Trust, Jonny Hughes, has addressed over 1,000 people on the topic of rewilding at an event held by Earthwatch in London this evening. The event, entitled “Rewilding the UK: Living in the Past or Preparing for the Future?”, was chaired by well-known TV Presenter, Kate Humble.

The speech highlighted how the Scottish Wildlife Trust is already leading the way with groundbreaking projects such as the Coigach-Assynt Living Landscape and the Scottish Beaver Trial.

Below is a full transcript of the speech. 


We are living through an unprecedented period of human history. The United Nations estimate there will be 9.6 billion people on earth by 2050. In the UK, the population is predicted to reach well over 70 million by that time, putting extra pressure on our already stressed natural ecosystems.


I say perhaps for a number of reasons. The growth in population is likely to be very uneven across the world. Africa’s population will more than double, for example, while some European countries may see a fall. There are also likely to be large movements of people as ecosystems in some places collapse due to the effects of climate change and what might be called ‘natural capital asset-stripping’. But there are two trends that could give some comfort to all those hoping there will still be corners of the Earth and of Britain, which will remain wild or even become rewilded.

The first is urbanisation. Currently, globally 54% of people live in urban areas; by 2050 this will be 66%. So, while the world population is growing steadily, rural populations may drop in many areas, leading to land abandonment, which for many is closely related to rewilding.

The other big, potentially game-changing, trend is the emergence of so called ‘sustainable intensification’ in food production systems. I say food production systems rather than agriculture as whether we like it or not, the boom in smart mechanisation, new techniques for ‘growing’ protein and the application of synthetic biology could render many of our traditional agricultural systems economically marginal – even with the current levels of high, and highly distorting, rates of public subsidies paid to farmers.

These trends are critical to understand in any debate on rewilding. People have used land for food production, hunting and foraging for centuries on almost every corner of Earth. We may now be facing the prospect that a combination of urbanisation and technology will start to reverse this trend, at least in some places. Ironically, the big driver for rewilding may well not be environmental policy per se, but the forces of capitalism, however one may feel about the pros and cons of our current prevailing economic system.

I’m to an extent playing devil’s advocate here. Even the best futurologists would admit it’s difficult to predict what impact – for good or ill – these global mega-trends will have on our ecosystems and there are many variables. Will these new technologies be acceptable to society?  What will the future demand for red meat and other high ecological impact foods be?

But let’s be optimistic for a moment and say that rewilding might well be possible, even on a planet with 10 billion plus people.

That partly answers the question: is rewildling realistic? I’d now like to try and answer the question ‘why’ before coming on to the ‘how’.

The rationale for rewilding cuts to the heart of why the nature conservation movement exists in the first place. Many, but not all, humans have an empathy with nature – they inherently feel a sense of responsibility to care for other species for their intrinsic value. It remains a moot point whether this is truly an altruistic act, or whether our motivation is to receive some spiritual or psychological benefit from doing so. And if ‘biophilia’ really exists, then perhaps we are all genetically hardwired to respect nature anyway.

But what about those in our ‘tribes’ that don’t much care for nature? Those who’ll happily destroy a species or habitat for personal gain? The uncomfortable truth is we are those people – 99% of those in the audience today will have a mobile phone in their pockets with metals mined out of large holes in the ground by Glencore or Rio Tinto or BHP Billiton. Quite a few of us here eat red meat more times in the week that is good for our own health, never mind the health of the planet. If we find it hard to change, how can we persuade the average Minister in government – dreaming every night about how to grow GDP – to create the conditions for rewildling to become reality?

The fact is, to have any chance of seeing rewildling happen on the scale required to reverse biodiversity loss, we need to marshal other arguments, and not just, and I stress the ‘not just’, rely on the ‘it’s morally the right thing to do’ line. We need to convince our elected representatives to legislate effectively so that corporations and landowners cannot continue to generate private profits by running up a massive natural capital debt which they have no intention of repaying.

This means spelling out the full gamut of benefits which will come from rewilding. For example, in those areas where farming is economically marginal, we need to provide opportunities for farmers to diversify into new businesses based on eco-tourism, perhaps using some of the €3.5 billion provided to farmers in the UK every year under the Common Agricultural Policy.

We also need to make visible all those other benefits of nature currently invisible in economic decision making including: flood mitigation, carbon sequestration and storage in peatlands and woodlands, improvements in water quality and the protection of species and genetic diversity on which we depend for our medicines, materials and new breeds and strains of crops. None of this negates or conflicts with the need for the moral case. Both cases are needed and absolutely should be made.

So what about the ‘how’? How should we go about rewilding and what should, or could, rewilded landscapes look like?

The Scottish Wildlife Trust’s vision is for 'healthy, resilient ecosystems across large areas of Scotland’s, land and seas'. This is effectively a rewilding vision although I appreciate definitions of the term vary considerably. At the Trust, we are already putting this vision into action through our Living Landscape projects, the largest of which is the Coigach-Assynt Living Landscape, a 40-year partnership project in north-west Scotland to restore the ecosystem health of the area but, equally importantly, to generate socio-economic benefits for local communities. One of the indicators of the success of the project is whether the local schools are still open and alive with children in 50 years.

The Coigach-Assynt Living Landscape project area is around 60,000 hectares involving eight adjacent landowning partners, two of which are environmental charities, two community-owned holdings and four private estates. We think this model of working towards shared goals over the long-term is a very practical way of achieving good outcomes for the environment and the community. The Scottish Wildlife Trust’s ground-breaking Scottish Beaver Trial took the same approach; the trial simply would not have been the success it was had we not meaningfully connected the project with the community and local livelihoods.

And that’s the message I’d like to end on. At the Scottish Wildlife Trust we want to see ecosystem health restored across large areas of Scotland, including the return of extinct keystone species such as the Eurasian lynx. I’m comfortable with calling this mission rewilding in certain contexts, so long as there is a place for people. As I’ve said before, the ‘Living’ in Living Landscapes includes people, not just wildlife. And I’d add we are not just talking about Gore-Tex clad walkers observing and rambling in the landscape, I’m talking about people living and working in these landscapes in a way which is compatible with year-on-year improvements in ecosystem health – soil, water, biodiversity and natural processes. That might include extensive farming (after all wood pasture is one of the rarest and richest habitats in the UK – and it’s nothing if not anthropogenic); it might, or perhaps should, include hunting and fishing.

The trick to bringing people with us is to combine ecological recovery with economic vitality. It can be done, indeed we’ve made a good start; the challenge now is scaling it up so we once again see Atlantic woodlands stretching uninterrupted from the Mull of Kintyre to Sandwood Bay, or the drained and horribly conifer-scarred Flow Country returned to its rightful place as a great boggy wilderness of northern Scotland.

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Chief Executive of the Scottish Wildlife Trust, Jonny Hughes, has addressed over 1,000 people on the topic of rewilding at an event held by Earthwatch in London this evening. The …

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