The Battle for the Countryside: Britain should Rewild its Uplands
magine if swathes of the British countryside were allowed to be wild once again, if trees and rare plants could flourish and beavers, boars and white-tailed eagles could retake their place in the ecosystem. That’s the goal of the growing numbers of nature-lovers and environmentalists who support the idea of ‘rewilding’ Britain’s uplands. We tend to think of these uplands, with their dry stone walls and green hillsides, as ‘wild’ and ‘natural’. But in fact, as the rewilders point out, they are entirely man-made, the result of clearances by man to make way for millions of sheep whose grazing over the last 200 years has rendered the land bare. Sheep farming, once a major source of Britain’s wealth, is now largely uneconomic and depends on billions of pounds of subsidies paid for by you and me. And there are other costs too: the denuded hillsides are unable to fulfil their natural function as ‘water towers’ that hold back rainfall and release it gently throughout year. As a result there is periodic flooding and droughts down the catchment. Where rewilding is taking place, in Britain and in Europe, a boom in tourism is providing a more sustainable local economy. People are opening up B&Bs and working as nature guides, attracting others to come and reconnect with nature in a deeply fulfilling way. Of course, we must farm our most productive lands, but we also need to make space for wild nature in places where farming does not make sense, and thereby reimagine our own relationship with the natural world.
That’s romantic tosh, say the opponents of rewilding. People matter too, and the idea that we should do away with traditional ways of life for the sake of wild bilberries and wolves is getting things out of proportion. Get rid of the farms in the uplands and you will destroy not just the livelihoods of farmers, shepherds and vets, but also the village schools, shops and pubs that are at the heart of rural communities. Yes, upland sheep farms are subsidised but so is almost every other kind of agriculture. It is the husbandry of the land which has given us the landscapes that we love and that have inspired artists and writers for hundreds of years. Should we obliterate the stunning scenery of the Lake District, for example, which so deeply affected the likes of Wordsworth, Ruskin and Beatrix Potter? Do we really want rampant scrub to replace peaceful scenes of grazing sheep and gambolling lambs and introduce dangerous animals such as lynx and wild boar who will all too soon encroach upon the outskirts of our towns and villages?
On July 10th, Intelligence Squared are bringing together four speakers who care passionately about the countryside but disagree profoundly on how we should manage it. Join us, hear the arguments and make up your own mind.