Why are big NGOs in Britain so rubbish on rewilding? On some of the thorniest issues of the day – the reintroduction of native species, management of land and National Parks, less intrusive conservation measures, culls of wild animals – the major campaign groups appear to be almost silent.
It’s not that the NGOs do nothing. There has been a strong campaign to protect bees. The RSPCA famously intervened on the badger cull, RSPB is good on its birds and target species (and seems to give tacit approval for boar on its land), while the Wildlife Trusts are active on a host of local issues, including the beaver and badger culls. For their part the big international campaign groups are happier to raise money for tigers than pine martens, and seem incapable of taking the government here to task, but at least they keep the flag flying. No, what I really mean is that there is a real lack of a grander vision. Huge sections of the public are so obviously ready for rewilding, why have none of the big NGOs embraced it?
Part of the reason I think is a history of protecting small areas, or single-species campaigning – groups like to raise money for iconic animals and then spend this on general work. This makes sense. Sadly the UK has few iconic species left, and the NGOs do not yet seem to have adapted their thinking to the idea that we can create the conditions to bring them back and make things better – at least not in Britain. Plans to bring tigers back to Cambodia will receive widespread interest, but the wildcat in England is still perceived as too controversial.
Inertia plays a role too. Big NGOs have existing projects and take time to plan new ones and turn around old ones. Again, this is natural. They cannot go chasing every topic that comes along, as that is best left to more nimble informal groups. But rewilding is not that new anymore, and the time when this was a valid excuse is fast running out.
A third reason is the desire to be scientific. This is on the whole good. Decisions in environmentalism and conservation should be based, as far as possible, on solid foundations. But sometimes this is taken too far. In the desire to appear cold, and to shake off the image of 'bunny-huggers', conservationists sometimes forget that we cannot explain everything we do in terms of biodiversity and ecosystem services. At the end of the day this is about the kind of world we want to live in, not just a cost-benefit-analysis of species.
But even aside from these barriers, I think there is something else at work. A loss of confidence perhaps. I once asked the Policy Director of a major UK Trust if they ever used the world ‘wild’ in their communications. They paused and said ‘no’, because to them wild conjured up an image of somewhere nobody went.
I was horrified. To me, this was, and always would be the reason I was interested in wildlife and the environment – the wild aspect. It is not that I do not see the crucial value of bringing wildlife into everyday life – I do – but I also see a place for the big, the aspirational and the free.
I have found this sort of 'defeatist' attitude to nature on display in other places too. Some groups frequently build elaborate and hugely expensive visitor centres, complete with hides and paths and facilities. Only by generating footfall, by creating tourist attractions, can they justify their actions. There seem to be any number of the ‘wildlife in your back garden’ type campaigns. We appear to be trapped in the mind-set that real wildlife is what happens in the rest of the world, and the best we can do here is install a few bat boxes or build wood piles for insects.
None of this is to say that these small measures are not important. They are. We live in a hugely crowded and increasingly urbanised country. We need, as a priority, to bring wildlife into everyday life, redesigning our cities to make them more bio-friendly and reconnect ourselves with nature. That must happen. But at the same time we need to build a vision of something much larger and more hopeful. Just as we cannot tackle climate change by swapping our light bulbs or buying slightly more fuel efficient cars, neither can we bring about the relationship with nature we need to see with a few visitors centres and school ponds.
If we want to get people on board with a wilder vision of the future we need to offer them something which makes their hearts beat a little faster, and not just more of the same. We must not be afraid to say that this is about something more than 'saving the planet', or the loss of gene banks. The world will always go on. It will just be darker and bleaker and lonelier. Rewilding is, as much as anything, about saving the soul of our society, and of ourselves.