Rewilding is a conservation practice that involves allowing ecosystems and habitats to be restored through natural processes.

In simple terms, it’s about letting nature take the wheel and go wild. It often involves very little or no management by humans in order for plants and animals to recover and create new natural landscapes. As such, it is unpredictable and complex and very exciting. It is becoming a common practice in large-scale conservation projects, but you can also do it in smaller areas, like your own garden.

Main principles

One of the most important principles behind rewilding is to allow nature to make the decisions. By removing human intervention, rewilding allows nature to have full control over which species will survive. This is in contrast with traditional conservation methods which often involve plans for managing the survival of target species. While this is definitely important for rare and endangered species, rewilding focuses on creating more wild spaces for all species. This is a valuable conservation model for promoting the creation of large, well-connected natural landscapes with high diversity and richness of species.

Another important aspect of rewilding is recreating complex ecosystems. This means that there needs to be a sufficient diversity of species to fill many different roles in the ecosystem – including apex predators, small carnivores, large grazing herbivores and a broad diversity of plants and decomposers. Often this is the part of the rewilding process where some human intervention is required in order to reintroduce species back into a landscape to undo the historical imbalance. These are usually large herbivores (such as European bison and wild boar), predators (such as grey wolves and Eurasian lynx) and keystone species (such as beavers) which are all crucial for efficient ecosystem functions.

The rewilded landscape of Knepp Wildlands, featuring a matrix of grassland, scrub and woodlands. Photo: Rebecca O’Sullivan, 2018.

An important aspect of rewilding is to change our mindset around landscape management. Rewilding is a beautiful concept as, in its simplest form, it involves sitting back and doing absolutely nothing at all while letting nature take back control. For individuals, the most basic way to get involved in rewilding is to stop heavily managing your garden and to embrace the wildness.

Rewilding projects

There are many new rewilding projects being set up all over the world as people become more aware of how rewilding works as a conservation method. In Europe, many of these projects are part of the European Rewilding Network. These include the Greater Côa Valley in Portugal, the Southern Carpathians and Danube Delta rewilding areas in Romania, the Oder Delta rewilding area on the border of Poland and Germany and the Rhodope Mountains rewilding area in Bulgaria (to name only a few!). In Ireland, there are two projects which are a part of the European Rewilding Network – Dunsany Nature Reserve in Meath and Green Sod Ireland in Galway.

A buzzard flying over Knepp Wildland. Photo: Rebecca O’Sullivan, 2018.

Knepp Wildlands rewilding project

A wonderful example of a successful rewilding project is Knepp Wildlands in West Sussex in England. In the past, Knepp was an intensive agriculture and dairy farm but it has now been converted into a 3,500-acre pioneering conservation project where they are restoring the landscape by using large grazing herbivores, such as the longhorn cattle, Tamworth pigs, Exmoor ponies and various deer species. These species are used to simulate the effect of locally extinct native herbivores such as the auroch and wild boar (replaced by cattle and pigs, respectively). The aim of Knepp is to let nature take over with minimal intervention from humans. They have had huge success and now have several rare species breeding at the site, including nightingales and turtle doves. Many other species are found in the estate including peregrine falcons, ravens, red kites, sparrowhawks, lesser-spotted woodpeckers, lapwings, skylarks and yellowhammers. All five of the UK’s owl species are found in the area as well as 13 out of 17 bat species. The beautiful purple emperor butterflies are also found in Knepp Wildland and they are currently aiming to establish a breeding population of white stork. For an estate only 16 miles from Gatwick airport, that is pretty incredible.

A purple emperor butterfly (Apatura iris) in Knepp Wildland. Photo: Isobel Taylor, 2019

You can see more of Knepp Wildland’s wildlife in this video created by our volunteer zoologist Rebecca O’Sullivan. If you would like to find out more about Knepp Wildland, you can check out the book ‘Wilding’ by Isabella Tree.

A green hairstreak butterfly (Callophrys rubi) in Knepp Wildland. Photo: Isobel Taylor, 2019

Written by Rebecca O’Sullivan