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The potential of rewilding

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  • Picture of Ben Stockwell
    Ben Stockwell
  • Climate change
  • Environment

At Citizen Zoo, we want to harness the power of rewilding to reverse the alarming rates of biodiversity loss and changes to climate we are seeing across the globe. Through community-led species reintroductions and habitat restoration projects, we are working to prevent extinctions, combat climate change and support local people to make a difference, all while boosting mental health and well-being.

We are amid an ecological and climate catastrophe and according to a United Nations (UN) report, up to one million species are at risk of extinction. In the UK alone, 41% of species are declining and one in 10 is threatened with extinction. 

As carbon emissions continue to rise, the very infrastructure of our society, including our health, is under threat from severe floods, storms, extreme heat and drought. Coral reefs are being bleached from increased levels of carbon dioxide in our oceans, peat bogs are drying out under rising temperatures and woodlands are degrading. This all has implications for people as well, as those ecosystems can no longer absorb carbon and hold water to reduce flood risk. 

For too long we have interfered with the natural processes of ecosystems, culverting our rivers, driving species to extinction, deforesting and polluting our waterways. If we are to halt biodiversity loss and the climate catastrophe occurring before our eyes, we must reinstate natural cycles in our ecosystems.

Rewilding offers hope in the face of what seems like an almost irreversible environmental catastrophe. This is not just our opinion at Citizen Zoo, but also that of major political institutions, including the United Nations, who declared that we must rewild and restore 1 billion hectares, an area equivalent to the size of China, to meet targets set to protect the natural world and climate. 

So, why exactly rewilding, how can it help and what is it?

While the word rewilding was first dubbed 40 years ago, it gained real traction in the late 1990s under what Michael Soulé and Reed Noss call the three C’s; Cores, Corridors and Carnivores. They suggested we needed core habitats, such as national parks, linked up via ecological corridors of viable habitat, and keystone species, primarily carnivores, driving trophic cascades (in basic terms, food chains and the web of life).

The rewilding of Yellowstone National Park is the most famous example of this on a vast, landscape-scale, where wolves were reintroduced, and a large ecological corridor was set up to link Yellowstone with Canada’s Yukon National Park. The wolves reduced the booming elk population, trees began to grow again without intensive grazing, songbirds returned in greater numbers and beavers bounced back. They in turn dammed up the rivers with the newly established trees, altering their flows entirely.

As the field of rewilding developed, the IUCN Commission on Ecological Management’s Rewilding Task Force went on to suggest an alternative three C’s model: Cores, Connectivity and Co-existence. Here, Cores play much the same role, while Connectivity is expanded to include not just the ecological connections, but also the connection between people and nature. Carnivores have been swapped with Co-Existence in their model. This is not due to a lack of value in functional ecosystems, but more to emphasise that we must learn to live alongside wildlife, including in certain circumstances carnivores, if we are to overcome current wide-scale biodiversity declines.

In the UK, we believe this model is wholly appropriate and is what is required if rewilding is to be achieved, and most importantly, we are to see the landscape scale benefits it can bring for people and wildlife. Common to all rewilding however, and paramount to it, is looking to the past to inspire management decisions for the benefit of wildlife now and in future. While this can be criticised for seeking to create a landscape that no longer exists or is unattainable, we argue the opposite. It is about taking inspiration from the past to create a new, prosperous future for humans and wildlife.

Challenges in rewilding and our work

One of the main obstacles to rewilding is land use. Space is at an absolute premium, especially here in the UK. Large swathes of our countryside have been allocated to intensive farming, grouse moors and leisure activities. Often, there is resistance to change these practices for economical, social and cultural reasons, which is a major obstacle to rewilding on a large scale.

A lack of community buy-in often goes hand in hand with this, as people invested in those industries feel as though their livelihoods and traditions are under threat, which is something we must avoid if rewilding is to succeed. It should not be a case of conservationists versus other industries, but we should be able to work together for the benefit of the environment for wildlife. That is why community empowerment is at the heart of our work at Citizen Zoo. We want local people to be involved with and lead on our projects.

This is the case for both our active reintroduction projects, one urban and one rural, which are engaging local communities and empowering them to make a difference for the wildlife in their areas. Our urban based reintroduction project is seeking to return water voles to the Hogsmill River, a small chalk stream in southwest London.

To date, over 100 volunteers have been involved, surveying the river for viable habitat, carrying out habitat restoration, invasive mink monitoring (the main reason behind water vole declines across the country; they are voracious predators and, unlike larger otters, are the perfect size to gain entry to water vole burrows), community engagement and fundraising. In 2020, at the height of the pandemic, through sheer passion and determination, we raised £18,000 for the project with community volunteers, a testament to their incredible dedication. We hope to release our first batch of water voles in Spring 2022, followed by a second release to bolster their population the following year.

Our other reintroduction project is focused on the UK’s largest, most handsome, and one of the most endangered grasshopper species, the large marsh grasshopper. Restricted to the wettest fens and peat bogs, a decline in these habitats due to drainage for farming and climate change, has meant they previously only resided  in two sites; in the New Forest and in Dorset. Citizen Zoo along with partners including the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, the Wildlife Trust for Beds, Cambs and Northants and Natural England, have returned this beautiful species back into its previous geographical range throughout East Anglia.

We have trained a team of volunteers or Citizen Keepers as we affectionately call them, to home rear the species from eggs right through to adulthood, after which we release them into restored sites across East Anglia. To date, a total of over 2,000 grasshoppers have been released into the wild and there are positive signs of the newly established population breeding in their new habitats.

In addition to these projects, we are also working with Kingston Carers to engage their young carers with their local wildlife in Kingston and are working on restoring a local nature reserve to be used by people with disabilities or mental problems.

We are always on the lookout for new opportunities with other businesses, organisations or passionate people looking to make positive change in the world, so if any members of the RSA are interested in rewilding, we would love to speak.

Support the mission to Rewild Our Future by becoming a member today,donating or volunteering for one of our rewilding projects.

Ben Stockwell is the Urban Rewilding Officer for Citizen zoo, an ambitious social enterprise working to Rewild Our Future. He leads their urban water vole reintroduction project and oversees the day to day delivery of other projects and fundraising activities. Before working for Citizen zoo, Ben worked in communications & membership at Galapagos Conservation Trust and urban community engagement at Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust.

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