Rewilding Conference 2019

Rewilding is an extremely exciting concept, for me at least, and something that fills me with some optimism that we can reverse the damage that we have inflicted on our scarred landscapes. So when I was offered the opportunity to volunteer at the Rewilding Conference 2019 in Cambridge, I leapt at the opportunity.

The event was hosted at none other than the David Attenborough building – an impressive venue with its modern vibe and wall of living plants that spans all four floors.

As a volunteer, I had to help the event run smoothly as a first priority, but thankfully the volunteering team was sufficiently large that I could listen in on almost all of the talks that I wanted to.
And increasingly, as the conference progressed, I realised just how little I actually knew about rewilding. The lectures were so varied, including subjects such as restoring Europe’s lost landscapes, the realities of rewilding small patches of private land, the balance of farming that we need on our land, and the unplanned reintroductions of beavers and wild boars.
I was particularly impressed to see farmers not only accepted into the conference but actively invited to give talks. Different viewpoints are something that we are increasingly detached from in a world of social media that chooses to only echo back to us the news that mirrors our own perspective, and this is not healthy for anyone. As was mentioned multiple times, rewilding is as much about people as anything else, and if matters remain so polarised no progress will be made at all.

If I had to give some highlights, this would probably be the top few:

Isabella Tree – KNEPP ESTATE
For Christmas I got this lady’s book, and although I haven’t got round to reading it yet (I have a lot of books to get through and saving the best until last!) I was very much excited to see the author give a talk. It was, put concisely, inspirational. She told the story of how they turned Knepp Estate from a standard highly intensive farm that was losing more and more money every year, into a pioneering rewilding project, bringing back declining turtle doves, nightingales, and much more.
It was a hugely optimistic and exciting vision for how we can rescue our depleted farmland, potentially restoring nutrient-dead fields in a rotation across the country, allowing each to recuperate, and wildlife to move in, before reconverting it to more productive farmland as the animals move into the neighbouring land.

Although it’s far harder to be optimistic about climate change – or ‘climate breakdown’ as George suggests we should refer to it, this talk was absolutely fascinating. In it, George explained that it is no longer enough for us to simply cut carbon emissions – we need to start rewilding schemes to restore landscapes that can better sequester carbon. And while our declining habitats are releasing more and more carbon as they degrade, he points out that simply through better management we can start to turn things around quite significantly. After reading many of his articles and watching his video about the impact of wolves in Yellowstone, it was great to hear George speak in person.

Featuring awe-inspiring visualisations for the return of Europe’s lost landscapes, this talk encapsulated all of what appeals to me about rewilding. The return of huge, beautiful areas of wilderness and all of the fantastic animals that once roamed them. Frans showed how the rewilding movement, despite being only seven years old, is already spreading so rapidly across the continent and all of the brilliant projects that Rewilding Europe is already coordinating.

Although those faced with some of the less appealing realities of the unplanned reintroductions of some of our native fauna feel differently, there is something undeniably awe-inspiring and wonderful about lost species returning to where they belong. Peter gave a well-balanced talk on some of the issues surrounding the beavers and boars that are starting to make a comeback in small pockets of our country. I feel that it is one of the most exciting aspects of modern conservation, and has potential to be used to engage the public in the rewilding movement extremely effectively.

Besides these highlights, I really enjoyed the whole event – seeing the passion of all of the delegates and the enthusiasm with which they threw themselves into workshops and discussions really struck me as a common mindset that could achieve things.

I also loved meeting all of the other volunteers, some of whom I knew already but most were completely new faces. Attending events like these seems to be the best way to reinvigorate my passion and enthusiasm for conservation, which is otherwise trampled down by the perpetual negative news stories that flood the media, and I certainly left this one feeling inspired.

Meanwhile, I have several new books to keep me going on the topic: Isabella Tree’s ‘Wilding’ and George Monbiot’s ‘Feral’ for starters!

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