The critical distinction between ‘nature restoration’ and ‘rewilding’

‘Restoration is the quintessential nature-based, but human-guided, solution to biodiversity loss’

Ecological restoration offers a broad range of ‘restorative activities’, appropriate to different social and ecological contexts, unlike the misleading binary options often evoked by the term ‘rewilding’. Graphic: Society for Ecological Restoration

The angry controversy surrounding the EU’s proposed Nature Restoration Law has kicked up a lot of obstructive dust, just when we most need clear vision to address increasingly ominous impacts from the biodiversity and climate emergencies.

Science-based engagement on the real issues at stake is vital now, as the European Commission, Council and European Parliament embark on “trilogue” negotiations on the law, trying to salvage its most necessary measures, after its shipwreck on the reefs of hostile amendments.

Several factors have led to the current impasse, especially the blatant manipulation of farmers’ legitimate fears by vested interests. That manipulation has been facilitated by the EU’s long-standing failure to engage effectively with farmers on environmental issues, and to reward them adequately for the radical technical – and cultural – changes in land management they are being asked to undertake.

That said, greater clarity about the science underlying the restoration law, and especially about how that science is communicated to the public, is sorely needed, even now, if we are to achieve a final version acceptable to at least some of its critics, and still fit for purpose to reverse biodiversity loss and mitigate climate change.

READ MORE

So what does “nature restoration” really mean? And is it accurate or inaccurate, helpful, or harmful, to conflate it with “rewilding”, as has happened frequently in this debate?

Farming and politics on collision course over impact of our changing climateOpens in new window ]

Until quite recently, the ecological restoration movement, and the restoration ecology that underpins its successes, were the unproven new kids on the block in biodiversity conservation.

The biggest question about ecological restoration is whether such an apparently hubristic project can work at all. Even the simplest ecosystem is complex beyond our current understanding. Myriad species of microfauna and microflora, for example, have unknown functions in the dynamics of an ecosystem, but may be critical to its flourishing.

So restoring an ecosystem is rather like trying to solve an equation where you only know some of the variables. Nevertheless, pioneers across the world have been increasingly successful in meeting the definition of good restoration practice set by the Society for Ecological Restoration: “assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed.”

The phrase “assisting the recovery” is telling: depending on the type of ecosystem and the level of degradation involved, the resilience of the system itself should be the main driver of restoration, so that management and intervention, while often essential for restoration, should be kept to the minimum necessary. Restoration is the quintessential nature-based, but human-guided, solution to biodiversity loss.

There are now many examples, across the EU, of restored ecosystems, offering opportunities for uplifting local ‘before and after’ images to promote the restoration law

One degraded bog, for example, may simply need to have its natural hydrology reactivated by blocking the drains that had dried it out. Shortly thereafter, the rich mosaic of native plant and animal species it had lost, along with its vital capacity for carbon sequestration, may begin to return spontaneously. On another bog, much more topographical re-engineering might be necessary, some native species may have to be manually reintroduced, and alien invasive species may need ongoing management.

By 2009, the advances in restoration ecology were recognised in a special issue of Science devoted to the field. Its editors declared that: “Our planet’s future may depend on the maturation of the young discipline of ecological restoration.”

That recognition extended across the globe, as environmental issues surged up political agendas. The UN declared the 2020s “the Decade on Restoration”. And the European Commission proposed the Nature Restoration Law last year.

Members of the European Parliament, some in 'Restore Nature' T-shirts, take part in a voting session on the EU Nature Restoration Law in Strasbourg, France, last month. The law text passed with 336 votes in favour, 300 against and 13 abstentions, setting the scene for the parliament to negotiate a final law with EU member states. Photograph: Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty

So restoration seemed to be an idea whose time had come, and the law should have been a relatively easy sell. The very word “restoration” generally strikes a feelgood tone. It is inherently hopeful, whether applied to human health, paintings, or ecosystems.

And there are now many examples, across the EU, of restored ecosystems, offering opportunities for uplifting local “before and after” images to promote the restoration law. They were used, and often well used, by the Commission, and by environmental NGOs.

Can agriculture and reduced emissions coexist? Meet the pioneer farmers who are leading the wayOpens in new window ]

How, then, has restoration suddenly become a dirty word in many quarters? How did a law dedicated to enhancing degraded and impoverished landscapes, through ongoing science-based management, become associated with “land abandonment”, and demonised as the harbinger of further devastation to rural communities already in heartbreaking decline?

Undoubtedly, agribusiness lobbies and many political conservatives, along with some sinister far-right actors, played the major role in creating this caricature of restoration, through their breathtakingly mendacious allegations about the law.

However, it may be that their success was assisted, albeit inadvertently, by the increasingly widespread fusion, in popular and even scientific media, of the science and practice of restoration with the problematic rhetorical notion of “rewilding”. It’s common now to find the two terms used interchangeably, but they come from different contexts and carry very different implications.

Rewilding makes very little sense in the European context, where we have made such deep impacts on landscapes over millenniums, and human populations remain generally dense

“Rewilding” originated in the American west, developed by the brilliant conservation biologist Michael Soulé, among others. It has roots in the contested concept of “wilderness”, which so influenced the US environmental movement. Its founders based their strategy on “Three Cs”: Core wild areas, Corridors to link the cores, and Carnivores to rebuild the natural food chain. Apart from the reintroduction of the latter, classic rewilding generally urges humans to stand back totally from nature, assuming that ecosystems can heal themselves. Restoration, in contrast, generally assumes ongoing human engagement in landscapes.

In the remoter parts of the US, the rewilding approach can make some sense. Large and relatively intact systems, with little contemporary human presence or immediately obvious human impacts, can indeed regenerate spontaneously fairly well. Even in those open spaces, however, the term is contested. Some indigenous peoples, whose civilisations managed these far from empty landscapes for millenniums, and did not consider them “wild”, find it offensive.

Farmers should be on the frontline fighting the climate crisis. Yet some deny its existenceOpens in new window ]

And rewilding makes very little sense in the European context, where we have made such deep impacts on landscapes over millenniums, and human populations remain generally dense. Like it or not, we simply have to keep managing most of our ecosystems to some degree, or they will collapse. And indeed, many of the projects labelled “rewilding” in Europe are actually based on restorative management. Isabella Tree’s very influential book, Wilding, largely describes the restoration of traditional farming practices, which can be very effective in recovering biodiversity and ecosystem functions.

If you simply remove human agency from most Irish oak forests today, you will have nothing but a rhododendron monoculture – a biodiversity desert – in 50 years, as I’ve heard a Wicklow farmer tell rewilding advocates. And reintroducing top predators, at least in Ireland, seems a most impractical and unhelpful distraction from the urgent environmental tasks at hand.

May 2023: The Taoiseach has said that aspects of a proposed EU law that could see previously drained farms being rewetted "go too far" with regard to land use in Ireland.

So why use “rewilding” rather than “restoration”? It’s true that the concept of rewilding carries a stronger emotional charge than restoration for some people. The word, with growing currency in several European languages, can certainly mobilise numerous volunteers, but it probably turns off many more people than it turns on.

Restorationists need to demonstrate to farmers, and other citizens troubled by the law, that restoration, properly executed, negotiated and funded, offers no threat to rural communities or food production

To be fair, rewilding is used in patent good faith, often by committed and otherwise well-informed activists. This contrasts starkly with the mendacious anti-science rhetoric of the far-right, and the scaremongering of the agribusiness lobbies and their political allies. But rewilding advocates should surely weigh up whether its positive attraction to some sectors is not negated by its alienating impact on much broader public opinion, especially in rural areas. With votes on the Nature Restoration Law so nail-bitingly close, this is no semantic quibble. Removing misleading terms from the debate now could indeed influence the outcome.

Farmers whose good faith and passion for local landscapes is as patent as any environmentalist’s, often find the rhetoric of rewilding an affront to their deeply rooted culture of managing nature to produce food for our communities. Understandably, they perceive rewilding in binary terms, as a blanket rejection of any form of land management. Restoration, in contrast, offers a “continuum of restorative activities” (see illustration), ranging all the way from reducing negative impacts, through restoring biodiversity to small areas such as hedgerows, through to full-scale restoration of native ecosystems, where appropriate and socially acceptable.

Restorationists need to demonstrate to farmers, and other citizens troubled by the law, that restoration, properly executed, negotiated and funded, offers no threat to rural communities or food production. Rather, it presents a last-chance opportunity to enable our landscapes and their human communities to flourish in diversity once again, managing them in a healthier and more broadly productive way, for the benefit of all.

A nuanced, science-based, socially and culturally sensitive approach to the current debate is essential if we are emerge from it with legislation adequate to the dimensions and complexity of the crises we face.

Paddy Woodworth is a member of the Society for Ecological Restoration, and author of Our Once and Future Planet: Restoring the World in the Climate Change Century (Chicago 2015)