Wild flowers and Rewilding

Rewilding is a progressive approach to conservation that is gaining ground across Europe, as well as within the UK. The ethos behind rewilding is to step back to allow ‘nature’ a greater role in managing itself with less human intervention. How might this concept fit with existing ideas of ecological restoration, and with sowing wild flowers?


In January Emorsgate attended a two day conference in Cambridge on ‘Rewilding and its Effects on Nature and People'.  Our aim, to find out what the current rewilding buzz was all about. In particular I wanted to learn how thinking in conservation and ecological restoration was moving, and where habitat creation and enhancement with wild flower seeds might fit in.

What is rewilding? was the first question to seek answers to.

Like many concepts of wildness that have preceded it there is, it seems, no simple single answer. Rewilding can mean many different things depending on who you listen to.  Speakers at the conference ranged from ecologists to hill farmers, and from opening speaker Germaine Greer talking about rewilding her local garden, to closing speaker George Monbiot talking about rewilding on a global scale to mitigate against climate breakdown, and to increase "humanity's prospects of getting through the century".

Rewilding in general terms is characterised by the ambition to step back and let nature to take more of a lead in the restoration of degraded landscapes and ecosystems.  It is a global aspiration shared across many regions and countries with a shared goal of getting our planet functioning again against the background of the climate and population challenges we face.

George Holmes from Leeds university, using Q methodology, was able to describe responses to this rewilding ambition as falling into one of two categories:

  • The first, transformative wildness enthusiasm, is defined by its enthusiasm of large scale, radical landscape change, of natural systems with restored functions taking their own autonomous paths, and sees little value in traditional land uses.
  • The second, pragmatic rewilding, is more practical and it embraces many forms of rewilding in many places and at different scales. It is not enthusiastic for notions of ecological purity and is more sensitive to local culture and traditions.

The first more purist interpretation is the preserve of policy makers and thinkers: seemingly more of a zeitgeist in the sense of intellectual or aesthetic fashion or fad, which one hopes may stimulate new ideas and creative solutions to problems.

rewilding dream

A vision of rewilding from the European Rewilding Network that popped up in a number of presentations

Rewilding in its most complete form, including keystone introductions of wolves, beavers, lynx, deer and wild cattle, is restricted in its application to those with ownership or control of extensive tracts of land and funding such as the National Trust or national government agencies.

The second pragmatic and more practical approach is clearly that of most relevance to humble landscapers, gardeners and conservation initiatives that might use Emorsgate's wild flower seeds.

You do not need to be a big landowner to be inspired and respond to the ideas of rewilding. One of the catch phrases I heard repeated during the conference was the idea that it was possible to rewild a window box! (stretching the concept somewhat perhaps?) However, on a modest plot of land if you relinquish some control to nature modest gains can be achieved.  For example, if you resist the gardener's urge to plan and control every detail of the planting plan by sowing a mix of wild flowers and grasses and let nature determine the outcome. Dont tidy every last corner; allow some unkempt "messy" areas to develop spontaneously.  In the long run making space for nature is good for biodiversity and requires less effort.

One of the key concepts behind this pragmatic approach to rewilding is of ‘working with the grain' in partnership with the designs of nature. This has been a cornerstone of the Emorgate approach to habitat creation and landscaping for almost 40 years - we just don't call it ‘rewilding!'

Key Rewilding Themes

Key rewilding themes I gathered from the wide range of participants and the projects they presented were:

  • Rewilding should not have predetermined fixed goals or timescales whether based on theoretical or historical received wisdom.
  • Rewilding does not need to seek to restore things to how they were in the past.
  • There is no defined end point for the rewilding process.
  • Rewilding is a process or journey not an end point. Rewilding is about moving up a scale of ‘wildness', where every step on this journey is seen as progress.
  • The aim of rewilding is to support nature-driven ecological processes which result in the restoration of resilient functioning ecosystems and habitats.
  • Fully functional ecosystems and landscapes are seen as being biodiverse, complex, dynamic and heterogenous (often described as ‘messy').
  • Practically rewilding may require some restorative human intervention to kick start the process. This is particularly true of any degraded landscapes that have lost species and are beyond the tipping point where natural regeneration will not happen spontaneously.
  • Rewilding in practice frequently involves the reintroduction of ‘missing' species to a site or region. Most notable of these are the larger, high profile, keystone species like beavers, deer and lynx as well as wild or semi-domesticated cattle and horses which can potentially drive ecological transformation from the top down.
  • Species introductions may also require introduction of supporting lower order wild flowers, plants and animals, without which keystone species fail.
  • The aim is to kickstart a complete functioning ecosystem and food web with all necessary components to be self-sustaining. Pragmatically, for example where the introduction of top predators such as wolves or lynx is not a viable option, then some ongoing intervention may be need to substitute for these missing elements (such as selective culling by humans of grazing animals).
  • Management objectives focus on progressively withdrawing human intervention over time (of both inputs and outputs), and maximising ecological integrity - ‘wildness'
  • Active management often requires high inputs with recurrent costs. Rewilding aims to work towards self-regulating landscapes which once established require minimal inputs and are more sustainable and cost effective in the long run. This is of clear practical relevance as funding and resources for restoration work is always limited.
  • Rewilding takes time. Basic habitat restoration and species introductions commonly take decades to establish, and will continue to develop indefinitely in to the future.
  • Rewilding requires space, and the greater the ambition and species introduced, the greater the challenge. One speaker however described the restoration approach as fractal in scale, in the sense that ecological process change will happen at all levels from landscape-scale right down to microbial communities in the soil around a single plant.
  • Most commentators see people and communities as being integral and closely linked to rewilding initiatives, at least in countries like the UK which have very little or no untamed, unpopulated wilderness areas remaining. In this context rewilding is about reconnecting a modern society - both rural and urban - with wilder nature.





Posted on 22 January 2019,
Category: News