Finding Inspiration in Every Breath
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Can Rewilding Save The Planet?
Rewilding - essentially creating a wilder planet - is one of the most cost-effective tools we have available today to combat the climate crisis. Simultaneously, by restoring damaged ecosystems, we can protect biodiversity and avert a 6th mass extinction event. While rewilding alone is not enough to save our planet without slashing our emissions, such natural climate solutions are crucial to securing a future of clean water, air and healthy soil. With so much at stake and only 2% of the climate budget going to nature based solutions, there’s no better time to find out how rewilding can help save the planet.
Rekindling our Relationship with Nature
Our impact as humans has unequivocally been felt across the planet’s ecosystems for a prolonged period of time. You’ll be hard pressed to find a landscape, which over the course of the last few thousand years, we haven’t affected somehow. We’ve cleared wild forests for agriculture, driven species to extinction, polluted vast oceans and even altered the course of rivers. To compound this, at a time when we need nature the most, we’re destroying it the fastest. The rate of deforestation of tropical forests is estimated at 30 football pitches per minute, around a third of the world’s soil is now degraded and up to 200 species are going extinct everyday.
The value of healthy natural systems can’t be overstated - they purify our air and clean our water; provide us with materials, food and medicine; protect us against natural disasters; improve our soils; and mitigate climate change by sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and storing it safely. Now, more than ever, we need to protect nature where it’s vitally important. Not only this, but we must also fix the broken ecosystems we’ve destroyed. This is where rewilding, a modern approach to nature restoration, is inspiring a hopeful future by repairing our relationship with nature. Early successes have already shown that in a relatively short period of time, we can help nature transform impoverished landscapes into thriving and functional ecosystems.
Rewilding’s Role in Nature Recovery
Rewilding is fundamentally about passing control back to nature, letting go of desired outcomes and allowing it to shape its own direction. We have seen how nature can prosper if pressures are removed and we give it space and time. Setting nature on the path to recovery, then stepping back is rewilding in its simplest form.
Where ecosystems and landscapes are severely degraded, we can proactively speed up the process. Some of the ways to do this are to restore missing natural processes, namely predation, grazing, regeneration and decomposition. This could mean reintroducing keystone species like the bison and beaver. These two powerhouses of the rewilding movement (also known as ecosystem engineers) behave in such a way that they engineer the landscape to support a wide variety of species. Rewilding could also be protecting threatened animals that fulfil important ecosystem roles. Vultures for example, scavenge on decaying carcasses which prevents disease spreading through the land. Then there is the restoration of entire ecosystems. Rewilding interventions targeted at this include: planting underwater forests of kelp or removing dams to reconnect rivers and rewet dried up floodplains.
Unleashing a Flood of Change
One of the phenomenal impacts of rewilding happens when it kickstarts a trophic cascade. This ecological term describes a chain of reactions that trickle down from the top of the food web when a species is either reintroduced or recovers. The impacts can be widespread, not just affecting those species directly related to the top, including us. Yes, humans benefit from the cascading effects of these natural interactions: from more fertile soils to controlling the spread of diseases and even changing the composition of the atmosphere.
The most famous example of a trophic cascade is that of wolves being reintroduced to Yellowstone Park in the US. The reappearance of wolves after a 70 year absence unleashed a series of remarkable effects. Firstly, they preyed on the overpopulated elk keeping them in check but they also altered the elk’s behaviour.
From being an unrestricted roaming herbivore, the elk became cautious and avoided grazing in certain areas. This meant vegetation could regenerate naturally where the elk was no longer grazing. A regrowth of vegetation attracted an increased numbers of songbird, birds of prey, salmon, beaver and bison.
As well as triggering the regeneration of woodlands, the wolves inadvertently improved the quality of the soil. Bears, otters, eagles and ospreys revelled in the improved abundance of salmon by hunting and leaving salmon carcasses along the river’s edge. The remains of the nutrient rich salmon fed nitrogen into the soil. Not ending here, another incredible impact saw the newly grown forests stabilise the riverbanks and improve the flow of the rivers.
Since the discovery of trophic cascades last century, more and more fascinating evidence has been unearthed of some astounding connections taking place throughout the natural world.
The largest animal to ever live has a leading part in a trophic cascade that helps mitigate climate change. Whales dive down deep into the ocean to feed on fish and invertebrates rich in nutrients. When they return to the surface level, they deliver these nutrients and dump them in ‘whale plumes’ (in other words, tonnes of poo). These massive plumes generate blooms of phytoplankton - a microalgae that is responsible for almost half of the oxygen in the atmosphere and that helps capture 40% of the carbon dioxide. Although whales are not solely responsible for all the phytoplankton, they transport these key nutrients, through their long migrations, to nutrient poor areas for phytoplankton to feed on. Establishing marine protected areas (MPA) is an impactful and effective approach to rewild the ocean. This policy not only protects whales from fishing (their main threat) but it also leads to the creation of biodiverse marine ecosystems where abundant fish stocks overspill into surrounding waters.
Natural Defences against Disasters
Functioning ecosystems also act as a defence system against flooding and wildfires. Forests prevent flooding in numerous ways. The tree canopy slows the rate of rainwater reaching the ground and tree roots channel water to be absorbed in soils beneath forests instead of running overland. This happens at 67 times the rate of grass-covered soil. Trees also prevent soil erosion and particles being washed into waterways where sediment build-up causes flooding downstream. Add beavers to the equation for more effect - the dams they build on rivers hold back water upstream slowing the flow during heavy rains whilst creating microhabitats for biodiversity. Although beavers can cause the flooding of adjacent farmlands in the process, the net positive environmental impact of beavers is now being recognised. In recent years, there’s been an increasing number of successful beaver reintroductions across the UK.
Building our own resilience to natural disasters goes hand in hand with building nature's resilience. Native tree species boost a forest’s ability to slow or break the spread of wildfires. By contrast, monoculture plantations and non-native forests can exacerbate infernos. Lacking the natural complexities needed in a forest ecosystem, such as species diversity and age structure, can actually fuel and spread wildfires more fiercely.
Although there is a clear need for certain forests to be managed for timber and food production, there’s also an opportunity to integrate better land management strategies. This could mean considering using a mix of native species to mitigate the consequences of wildfires.
Natural Carbon Sinks: self-regulating and cost-efficient
To transition to a carbon-free economy and meet stringent emission reduction targets requires us to spend big and quickly. Natural climate solutions in the way of protecting and restoring natural carbon sinks are a part of the equation that is largely being ignored. Wetlands, peatlands, mangroves, kelp forests and sea beds are some of the ecosystems with immense carbon-storing capabilities but receive only a fraction of climate breakdown funding. For a complex problem that demands a multi-faceted approach, this source of natural capital is one we could be drawing much more from.
Take peatlands as an example, they are one of the most carbon rich ecosystems on the planet capable of capturing vast amounts of CO2 through photosynthesis. In the UK alone, healthy peatlands store roughly 3.2 billion tonnes of CO2. They also help reduce floods by regulating water flow; provide habitats and breeding grounds for important wildlife; and create a net cooling effect in the atmosphere. Right now, however, they are not our silver bullet to fixing the climate emergency. A familiar story of exploitation and mismanagement is having the disastrous opposite effect. Peatlands are drained to make way for agricultural use, conifer plantations, livestock grazing and are burnt for grouse hunting. All this activity instead releases masses of carbon absorbed in peatlands - 20 million tonnes emitted in the UK and 1-2 billion tonnes globally. With 80% of the UK’s peatlands in a degraded state, the political will has shifted to address this as part of the UK’s targets for a zero emissions economy.
The potential cost savings of restoring carbon-capturing ecosystems far outweighs the cost of continuing down the same path of destroying them. Complete restoration of peatlands in the UK is estimated to cost £8-22 billion but overall, saving the UK economy £109 billion from the associated emissions. With around 12 million hectares of degraded peatlands in Europe, there is huge scope to rewild this vital ecosystem cost-efficiently whilst supporting biodiversity. Based on the premise of rewilding, this would involve minimal human management (and costs) to create a self-sustaining natural system.
To quote Sir David Attenborough:
“To restore stability to our planet, we must restore its biodiversity”.
The message could be clearer. The timing couldn’t be more critical. Peer reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences states a “biological annihilation” is underway, and without drastic changes, will lead to a sixth mass extinction event with grave ecological, social and economic consequences.
To stop us from hurtling towards such a diabolical crash scene, we need to rapidly return more landscapes to a wilder state. Rewilding is a vehicle for landscape-wide change for dwindling wildlife populations. Across Europe, governments, universities and enterprises are some of the entities already supporting the reintroduction of large predators and keystone species capable of unlocking powerful trophic cascades. Still, a lot more backing is required to restore and reconnect fragmented habitats at the scales needed.
Achieving all this will also be dependent on protecting key areas from existing and potential threats. We must reduce human impact and other drivers of degradation such as invasive species and pollution. This doesn’t mean, however, completely removing people from the land. There are ample examples of successful human coexistence with wildlife (including apex predators) to use as models. Nature-based tourism is also offering local communities and economies a viable alternative to traditional land-uses which don’t prioritise biodiversity. Demonstrating the value of wilderness in such ways hopes to forge a new mindset, mobilise funding, and galvanise people into action to end biodiversity loss.
So can rewilding save the planet? Not alone. We must immediately curb and reduce our emissions. But to repair the broken state of nature and revitalise life on earth, rewilding is our best bet.
Soil degradation: the problems and how to fix them | Natural History Museum (nhm.ac.uk)