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A wilder way: An interview with Rebecca Wrigley

Words: Simon Wicks

Rewilding is more than planting trees and reintroducing beavers, Rebecca Wrigley tells Simon Wicks. It’s an approach to reviving ecosystems that can save the world

I’m a systems thinker,” Rebecca Wrigley declares. “My mind works in systems. I’m not an expert in anything. I’m not an ecologist. But I think there’s huge value in that because I need to understand things by understanding the bigger picture and therefore I can make connections.”

The word ‘system’ crops up a lot in conversation with Rewilding Britain’s founder and chief executive. She speaks of food production systems, natural systems, life support systems, regulatory systems, economic systems – and the planning system, of course.

Above all, she talks about ecosystems, upon which all other systems depend. “We’re part of that web of life, part of those ecosystems,” Wrigley stresses, the “amazing, wonderful complexity and dynamism” of a “naturally functioning ecosystem”.

She continues: “We’ve come to understand it’s not this pyramid with predators at the top. There are key parts of it that, if taken out, the whole system collapses. That’s why keystone species are so important because if you don’t put them back into an ecosystem, you can’t upgrade it again.”

It’s well established that ecosystems globally are suffering, in part because of the loss of keystone species. But it’s a complex picture. Can we really reverse this decline and restore our ecosystems to a “naturally functioning” state?

“It’s about going back to having a holistic approach and being mindful of that whole system and how different interventions flex it, rather than separating into silos,” she says.

We speak just after publication of the Dasgupta Review, the government-commissioned report into the economics of biodiversity. Written by Cambridge economist Partha Dasgupta, it lays out, systematically, the links between human activity and the destruction of the ecosystems on which we depend. Dasgupta describes our relationship with the natural world as one primarily of extraction without replenishment. He cautions that urbanism is disconnecting us from nature and fatally distancing us from this cycle of exploitation.

Many solutions to these problems are touted, from biodiversity net gain to natural capital accounting. Another is rewilding. Broadly, this is the idea that we allow ecosystems to return to a self-sustaining condition with minimal intervention.

“Rewilding fundamentally is about connectivity – ecological connectivity and economic connectivity, but also social and cultural connectivity”

Though it may evoke a Romantic idea of communing with untamed nature, the modern notion of rewilding is rooted as much in evidence as imagination, as aware of the latest thinking in ecology and economics as it is of the impact of the picturesque on our wellbeing. It is perhaps better understood using more technical language, such as ‘ecosystem restoration’.

Wrigley founded Rewilding Britain in 2014 to promote this idea, that ecosystem restoration is the foundation for healthy functioning of the other systems on which human life depends. It is a necessity.

The charity’s goal is to rewild 30 per cent of Britain, around seven million hectares. Five per cent would be ‘core’ rewilding on large tracts of land; 25 per cent “a rich mixture of high nature value land use types and protected sites, with a high level of connectivity between them”. This would be farmland particularly, but also private estates and public open spaces.

Indeed, Boris Johnson appears supportive, pledging to ‘protect’ 30 per cent of Britain by 2030. But this is not the same as rewilding, says Wrigley. “It’s great that Boris Johnson has said that it’s a target, but it’s not enough to just increase protected areas when the state of our protected areas is so poor.”

What Wrigley envisages is a more mixed “mosaic” of land uses than at present: intensive agriculture where appropriate, but also more land falling within the rewilding spectrum, where land use occurs at a “lower intensity, but could potentially be of higher rates of return” as a result of a “much more diversified rural economy”. When I observe that this feels a little utopian, she counters that Rewilding Britain is already working with large landowners who want to “diversify the economics of their land use” with a more “dynamic” mix of “intensive” and “extensive” production, along with rewilding. “Who would have thought the big niche product was gin?”

“What I’d love to see is rewilding happening in people’s gardens and neighbourhood rewilding groups leading into areas of parks rewilded"

The classic success story here is Knepp Wildland in Sussex, a beacon for landowners wanting to turn rewilded land into a profitable concern (although even this estate's environmental integrity is under threat from potential neighbouring development). “There’s interest in rewilding across the spectrum,” Wrigley points out. “Rewilding fundamentally is about connectivity – ecological connectivity and economic connectivity, but also social and cultural connectivity.”

“What I’d love to see is rewilding happening in people’s gardens and neighbourhood rewilding groups leading into areas of parks rewilded. Schools as well, so we connect children to the idea of rewilding.” Eventually we would have “a fundamentally integrated approach to the way that we manage the land and sea”.

Read the related case study: A closer look: Rewilding in the UK

Whether you call it rewilding, ecosystem or habitat restoration, the process of reinstating Britain’s land and seascapes to their natural state is a growing trend. Here are five of the best rewilding projects.

Incentives for landowners

The bureaucratic complexity of land management in the UK is a barrier to change. Wrigley speaks of “siloed” thinking, how farming and forestry have different regulatory systems, how the planning system has little jurisdiction over agricultural land and how even the conservation sector is held back from a systems-wide approach by its attachment to conserving individual locations or species. “What we need to do is bring that under one umbrella and say, ‘What is our land use strategy?’,” she insists.

Britain’s pattern of land ownership, designation and occupation helps to put the aim of rewilding seven million hectares into perspective. Some 70 per cent of England, for example, is owned by less than 1 per cent of the population, with the National Trust, MoD, RSPB and Crown Estate among the big landowners. Green belt is 13 per cent of England. Seventy per cent is designated agricultural land.

As Rewilding Britain notes, three million hectares are sporting estates. Peatlands, in poor condition, cover 2.3 million hectares. Marginal grade agricultural land is one million hectares. National Parks are 11 per cent of England and Wales.

What all of this hints at is a range of opportunities to redirect land management towards biodiversity, perhaps through incentives to landowners. The Environmental Land Management Scheme, launched last year, does precisely this. It’s a “really good start”, says Wrigley.

"If we had a land use strategy, landowners could be held to account for what they do on the land. We also need to boost community involvement in the way land and sea is managed”

“[But] if you don’t have a regulation framework that is then enforced it becomes meaningless. A good example is the Water Framework Directive, a very good piece of legislation from the EU. At the end of last year a study found that none of our rivers are in good ecological condition, which is shocking.”

She continues: “If we had a land use strategy, landowners could be held to account for what they do on the land. We also need to boost community involvement in the way land and sea is managed.”

Recovery from Covid-19 presents an opportunity to move away from a fossil fuel-based economy to one founded on green industries, along the lines of USA’s Green New Deal. There’s another ‘but’.

“In our enthusiasm for rebooting the economy, are we genuinely going to move towards a greener economy? Where we have just as many but different jobs and where we use the opportunity that we have to invest billions of pounds?”

We must, she urges, create an economy “that sustains ecosystems, boosts wildlife and reverses biodiversity losses but provides just livelihoods for people in rural areas and addresses the climate crisis we’re about to face”.

“We can’t separate those things. They are all integrally interlinked.”

Planning and planners are critical. “It’s about integrating natural processes into their thinking. [Natural regeneration] is a mindset. People find it difficult to let go of the idea that we need to be in there all the time managing it, rather than thinking ‘What are the processes we could put back into the system to allow it to, as much as possible, manage itself?’.”

A rewilding glossary

Ecosystem: A interdependent community of biological organisms, together with non-living components of their environment, that interact as a self-sustaining system. 

Ecosystem services: The products of an ecosystem that are useful to human life, such as food, construction materials and medicinal plants. Ecosystem services also include less material items such as tourism, recreation and, increasingly, wellbeing.

Trophic cascade: The idea that removing one species from the food chain within an ecosystem can alter the behaviour, abundance and health of other species within the chain and thus the entire system. This can be catastrophic.

Keystone species: A species which, even though it may be just a small part of an ecosystem by number or mass, plays a critical role in maintaining the integrity of the system.

Example: In Pacific kelp forests, sea otters feed on sea urchins. In some areas the otters were hunted almost to extinction for their fur. Sea urchins flourished but overgrazed the kelp forests, destroying an ecosystem that provided food and shelter for many species. This trophic cascade caused by the removal of a keystone species has been reversed in south-east Alaska, where 400 sea otters were released, a population which has now grown to 25,000.

What is rewilding?

Rebecca Wrigley: “It's the large-scale restoration of what we call naturally functioning ecosystems. But also humans are part of nature, we're part of the complex web of life. So rewilding is just as much about people. 

“I think in the past we've almost separated ourselves from nature. It's kind of ‘Nature over there, let's protect it, and we're over here’. What we need to recognise is that we live within ecosystems, we depend on ecosystems for our livings, they are our life support systems. So let's bring that picture back together, and find a way forward for our time. 

“Rewilding is about restoring natural functioning in ecosystems and to do that we have to reinstate those natural processes that enable and support those ecosystems to function, including some of the missing species, the keystone species particularly, that are critical for those dynamic, wonderful, complex systems that operate within an ecosystem.

“But it's also about people. It’s about our relationship with nature. It's about ensuring that it works, ecologically and economically.” 

Rocky paths

Land use is almost always contested and Rewilding Britain’s first big project, ‘From Summit to Sea’, generated such tension with Welsh farmers that the charity withdrew and refocused. “We realised that our role is much more as a catalyst and an enabler. That’s why we’ve set up a rewilding network, a platform for peer learning, sharing. We’ve got lots of interest from public landowners.”

Wrigley is keen to see more community involvement in decisions around land use, a legacy of her days working with Mayan communities in Mexico. She praises Scotland’s regional land use partnerships. “People should have a say and no one of them should have more of a say than another about how the land is to be managed.”

“People in Britain are enthused by the wonder of nature. We’re one of the most nature-loving countries on Earth and we’re members of conservation organisations in our millions”

Wrigley favours natural regeneration of trees over planting (a hot debate in rewilding circles) and expresses reservations about biodiversity net gain.

“I am cautious about it in the same way as carbon offsetting, because that sense that you can offset what you’re doing in one place by planting trees in another has its risks, not least that you might be destroying an ancient woodland in one place and planting a whole load of trees with plastic tree guards in another.

“It’s about sort of financialising everything. [But can we] consider the ecological, social, cultural value, or costs and benefits of what’s happening?”

Rewilding is perhaps a more nuanced idea than it may at first appear. But the simple directness of the term is a strength: mass appeal is necessary to change our land management habits.

“People in Britain are enthused by the wonder of nature. We’re one of the most nature-loving countries on Earth and we’re members of conservation organisations in our millions,” Wrigley remarks. “But we’re also one of the most nature-depleted nations on Earth. There’s a kind of cognitive dissonance there.”

Rebecca Wrigley: Curriculum vitae


Born: Cambridge, 1969

Education: BSc Genetics, University of Leeds 1990; MSc Environmental resources and rural policy, Imperial College, London, 1993; PG cert, Personal and business coaching, University of Chester, 2009

Career highlights 

Jan 2014- present Chief executive, Rewilding Britain

Jan 2015- Oct 2017 Associate coach, Genius Within Ltd

Sep 2010- Jun 2013 Team leader, communities and neighbourhoods, Oxford City Council

Apr 2007- Jun 2011 Programme manager, University of Oxford

Apr 2004- Apr 2007 Programme manager, INTRAC (not-for-profit providing training, consultancy and research globally to help civil society organisations and networks be more effective)

Apr 2001- Apr 2003 Programme director, Oxfam New Zealand

Apr 1999 - Jun 2000 Programme development officer, Concern Worldwide

Apr 1996- Apr 1999 Programme manager, World Wildlife Fund

1995-1996 Campaigns Volunteer, Oxfam Regional Campaigns Office, Cambridge

1993-1995 Researcher and community worker, programme for the management and conservation of natural resources, University of the Yucatan, Mexico

Simon Wicks is deputy editor of The Planner

Photography | Richard Gleed