Saoirse McHugh: Rewilding is one of the best solutions we have in fight against climate collapse

Putting nature back in control is one of the most cost-effective ways to tackle emissions, flooding, and drought while restoring species, writes environmentalist Saoirse McHugh
Saoirse McHugh: Rewilding is one of the best solutions we have in fight against climate collapse

Peatland, woodland, marine areas, grassland, and wetlands all store and draw down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere when working correctly. These are complex ecosystems which need various plants, animals, and insects in different combinations in order to function in a self-regulating and stable manner

THE Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last Monday released its physical science basis report from the committee’s sixth assessment.

It presented a clear picture of the horrors already being experienced and chilling projections as to how our situation will deteriorate. The size and interconnectedness of environmental collapse makes it hard to imagine how we could possibly do enough to put right such an enormous wrong.

Rewilding is one of the most hopeful areas I have come across in my years as a very worried environmentalist.

It offers us an answer to the question: What the hell are we going to do about the collapsing environment?

Rewilding is a big-picture, holistic approach to ecosystem restoration where we abandon micromanagement for certain species and let natural processes and dynamics shape the landscape.

Saoirse McHugh: Rewilding is one of the most hopeful areas I have come across in my years as a very worried environmentalist.
Saoirse McHugh: Rewilding is one of the most hopeful areas I have come across in my years as a very worried environmentalist.

Although the main premise of it is that we release our hold on the reins and let nature guide the conservation and management of areas, it often includes the reintroduction of missing species, the undoing of hard engineering such as drains and dams, and the removal of damaging invasive species like rhododendron. It requires us to let go of fixed ideas of neatness and what a place should look like.

Describing it like this makes it sound complicated and difficult to imagine, especially in Ireland, where we have so few ecosystems in good condition to draw on. Many of the ‘natural’ areas accessible to us are highly managed either for aesthetics (such as the Phoenix Park) or for export-based agriculture (our national parks).

Notwithstanding this, we all crave connection with nature and we search it out. We hunt for butterflies in the garden; we watch for the swallows to return every year; we go to beaches and climb mountains; and we spend too much money on house plants. We do these things because nature, even the tiniest sliver of it, is good for the soul.

Moral obligation

Ireland has a moral imperative to act on climate breakdown as quickly as we possibly can, regardless of what any other country is or is not doing.

Rewilding is one of the most cost-effective ways that we can reduce our emissions, mitigate flooding, restore species that have all but disappeared from the land, protect ourselves from future droughts, and create beautiful public spaces that can be enjoyed by everybody.

The IPCC estimates that 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the degradation of landscapes and so protection of existing natural areas is of paramount importance. 

However, as last Monday’s report made clear, we no longer have the luxury of simply halting destruction — we must actively restore our Earth

Peatland, woodland, marine areas, grassland, and wetlands all store and draw down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere when working correctly. These are complex ecosystems which need various plants, animals, and insects in different combinations in order to function in a self-regulating and stable manner.

For example, 16% of Ireland is peatland and when kept waterlogged, it is one of the most efficient stores of carbon in the world, at the same time as providing habitat suitable for a huge number of animals, including those such as cranes, which have been extinct in Ireland for centuries.

Flooding damage

Rewilding is also a way for Ireland to finally tackle our ever-worsening flooding problem. Despite the tonnes of concrete and thousands of man hours that have been spent dredging and channelling our rivers, it is estimated that €192m worth of damage is done by flooding every year and this is only going to get worse over the next few decades. Restoring our bogs and wetlands, allowing regeneration of upstream woodlands, and letting flood plains function again will protect towns and villages and improve water quality.

The loss of wildlife in Ireland is noticeable, even across my own lifetime. The hills are barren and silent, the summers are no longer filled with hundreds of varieties of flying insect, and snorkelling or fishing leaves you with the sense that there is nothing left in the sea at all. In fact, 25% of species in Ireland are under threat of extinction.

Rewilding projects around the world have shown that even after a few short years, life will surge back into areas once active degradation is stopped.

Konik ponies fight for dominance during the foaling season at the National Trust's Wicken Fen Nature Reserve in Cambridgeshire. 
Konik ponies fight for dominance during the foaling season at the National Trust's Wicken Fen Nature Reserve in Cambridgeshire. 

This is not just a phenomenon of warmer climates; in England, projects such as Knepp Castle estate and Wicken Fen reserve observe combinations of species and behaviours that have been so long missing from the landscape they come as a surprise and even fly in the face of what we thought we knew about ecology.

That is not to say that there is no management involved. In many cases there will need to be reintroductions of animals that have long since vanished from our countryside. These animals are necessary to create a truly dynamic and evolving ecosystem, bursting with life, which creates the circumstances for more life.

Misinformation campaign

Rewilding can draw down greenhouse gases, protect against flooding, clean our air and water, protect and restore thousands of different species, create beautiful public spaces and thousands of associated jobs — and yet there is a small but concerted misinformation campaign against rewilding in Ireland.

The main accusations levelled at rewilding are that we won’t be able to produce food, or that rural Ireland will be cleared out in order to let nature recover. Both of these arguments are based on the premise that rewilding is somehow out of our control and so we cannot afford to give it an inch, when in reality it can be what we want it to be.

In Ireland, 80% of our agricultural produce is exported and there is a constant need to create more markets for it. In the same vein, we are consistently net importers of food energy, putting to bed any notions that we are “feeding the world”.

“Rural Ireland” has long been used in some quarters as a stick to beat down progressive change or improvement, and certain lobby groups have latched onto rewilding as the next bogeyman.

With no clear link between the two, it is often claimed that rewilding will clear people from the land.

In fact, with the huge amount of jobs in rewilding and the massive tourism created by wild areas, it could very well be the thing that saves many parts of Ireland from the creeping abandonment that has been a feature of rural life for decades.

I don’t believe that these accusations are genuine worries. Rather, I believe that certain industries fear loss of their cultural hegemony over what the land in Ireland is used for and who gets to have a say on it and benefit from it.

Let nature take control

As rewilding is a landscape-scale solution to a landscape-scale problem, it is difficult to take individual action, but there is so much we can do in our own lives to let nature take a bit more control. Leave the weeds grow in your driveway, stop spraying verges with herbicides, let a hedge get a bit scraggy, and watch how, with even the tiniest bit of space, nature comes rushing back in.

A lone sparrow perched on a garden hedge.
A lone sparrow perched on a garden hedge.

Imagine what that would look like across a horizon. Imagine seeing rivers so packed with salmon that you could catch one with your hand; imagine hearing the hauntingly beautiful cry of the curlew across the bogs; imagine catching a glimpse of a lynx while on a hike.

Within a single generation these things could be a reality for us if we wanted.

The point we are at in human history has left us with a stark choice: Continue as we are and face a hellish future, incompatible with human civilisation, or restore and protect our planet and in doing so, take the opportunity to create a beautiful world for everybody. What we should choose seems obvious.

 To learn more about rewilding, become a member of the Irish Wildlife Trust or the Native Woodland Trust. There are several excellent books on the topic, my own favourites being Wilding by Isabella Tree and Rebirding by Benedict MacDonald.

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