As I’m sure many of you did, I sat down to on Sunday evening to watch David Attenborough’s latest ‘last ever’ series Wild Isles (David it’s time to accept you will live till at least 150 and you have plenty more series to go). It was fantastic to see a 4k camera shined on some of the UK’s spectacular wildlife, often confined to short sections of longer Planet Earth episodes.
But perhaps there is a reason for that…because we don’t have that much of it left! 41% of UK species have declined since the 1970s, so most of the production team probably questioned whether they would find anything to film at all.
The morning after I went to social media, expecting to see my algorithmically selected echo chamber also singing the praises of the show. But where I expected to see calls for David to be knighted for a second time, there was instead outrage, as it turned out The BBC had already made a decision not to air the final episode of the series. This finale episode to be titled ‘Saving Our Wild Isles’ was to focus on the causes of biodiversity loss in the UK, but to be followed by some positive stories around what is being done to halt and reverse these declines.
Now I’ve been critical in the past of us straying too far down the path of pessimism. I still think there is a place for heavy doses of inspiration, sprinkled with regular tidbits of realism. It has been shown that too much pessimism can turn people off but to paint our countryside as a wildlife-rich haven would be disingenuous to say the least.
The first steps towards change are knowledge and acceptance and despite 4 in 5 Britons claiming to want a wilder country we are in a weird position where there is probably still a lack of knowledge as to why we are now so nature depleted and what a ‘natural’ landscape even looks like.
This is because the main degradation of habitats occurred before most people were born. The rolling, green, sheep grazed hills are seen as the norm, and for many people this is what ‘natural’ looks like, anything away from a town or city without a building on. But really these heavily modified landscapes are about as natural as a car park. The difference is we weren’t alive to see them being created. Deforestation in the Amazon is rightly greeted with outrage and shock, photos are shared on social media of a ‘before and after’ shot showing an area of rainforest completely decimated to make way for farmland. The painful irony being, the very same thing probably happened right outside your own house at some point in the past century.
This is a difficult problem to tackle. How do you get people to feel a connection to something they have never seen or experienced?
So why try and shield people from this truth? Farmers, on the whole, know the impact farming has had on nature over the past century. They also know they didn’t set out deliberately to cause it. The vast majority are either already doing something to try and fix it or at least would like to. The reason we ended up in the mess we are is due to our typical human tendency to standardise, minimise risk, have things all the time and at a tiny price. Consumers and supermarkets are to blame not the stewards of the land.
I haven’t seen the episode, but this could have been an opportunity to explain some of that nuance, and to explain that farmers are not evil, calculated, wildlife murderers, but are just on the front line of a situation we have forced them into as a collective.
And not only that, but they are the only hope we have of turning this thing around.
Rewilding and polarisation
The episode in question was not only going to show how we got ourselves into this nature-depleted state, but it was also going to show what is being done about it. Part of this was going to focus on rewilding, a topic that has somehow become almost as controversial as Brexit or the scone pronunciation debate.
The fact this topic has become polarising, says a lot about the state of our culture in 2023. You are either ‘all in’ or not. If you support the idea of rewilding you immediately want to abolish all farming, release thousands of wolves and let chaos ensue until you are trying to catch the last wild boar because we ran out of food.
But the fact is, the word rewilding has been subject to meaning creep. Its own semantic worst enemy because it just sounds so damn cool. The word has started to become a catch-all for everything from letting your lawn grow a bit longer to any change of management practice that might be beneficial to nature. And you can see why, rewilding captures the imagination, its great for marketing, it sounds much trendier than nature-friendly farming or agroforestry. But weirdly on the flip-side you have projects that are rewilding afraid to use the word. No wonder everyone is confused.
So when the term gets thrown around so readily when it’s not actually rewilding, you can understand how those whose livelihoods are rooted in food production assume we just don’t want them around anymore. Particularly as the main principle of true rewilding is to reduce human intervention.
Like with most of our environmental issues, whether it is over consumption of meat or reliance on oil, we would probably be better if everyone improved their ways by 20% rather than 1% of people changing their ways by 100%. If farmers think the only way to nature recovery in the UK is rewilding many will switch off and not engage, but if they realise that is simply the extreme end of the spectrum and huge change can be made in the middle ground we have a better chance of making lasting change.
We need to sort out the rewilding branding issue and get to a point where we are proud to use the word when it makes sense to do so, but are also proud of words like regenerative agriculture, nature-friendly farming.
Are we really all that different?
It’s a terrifying time to be a farmer, subsidies that many rely on are on their way out, the climate is changing, costs on the farm are rising and consumers still demand things as cheap as possible.
Nature recovery clearly needs to be woven into the way we think about everything from now on. But we must be careful not to cause polarisation by pointing the finger at farming without acknowledging the true drivers of its negative impacts, whilst using words like rewilding with caution and respect the power of emotive language.
Let us not fall into the modern-day trap of polarisation and make people feel like it’s all or nothing. Lets rewild properly and at scale where it makes sense to do so and we have the buy-in from the community. Let’s make sure it is not a financial sacrifice but is recognised as a task just as important as food production. Let’s carry on producing food on the land where it makes sense to do so but in a way that is sensitive to nature. Let’s monitor, assess, learn and improve.
We all want the same things really. We’d all quite like to live on a habitable planet a bit longer.