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The Rewilding Forum

The Rewilding Forum was the culmination of a week-long exhibition, a coming together of experts to debate how we can restore and protect the earth’s ecosystems through the concept and practice of Rewilding. Gathered in Highgate Bowl, itself undergoing human and ecological transformation, we heard contrasting views on the human role and explored the movement through art, science, architecture, education and language.

As the UN issues stark warnings of mass extinctions, the planet losing 200 species every day, the topic of rewilding could not be more poignant. Underscoring this sentiment, curator Beatrice Searle opens with the words, ‘We cannot afford to be passive. By not making sacrifices we are directly contributing to the loss of species.’

We are facing a biodiversity crisis on a global level in which 27,000 species are threatened. According to one of the forum’s first speakers, Dr Darren Evans, a reader in Ecology and Conservation at Newcastle University, this figure could be far higher, with many threatened species still to be discovered by humans. 33% of the world’s coral and 14% of bird species have already been lost. Pieter-Paul Groenhuijsen, an ambassador of the European Nature Trust and General Manager of Alladale Nature Reserve, stresses that in Scotland we have seen some of the world’s most severe deforestation. Less than 1% of the Caledonian forest remains and Government plans to ‘increase woodland cover’ actually equate to more commercial forestry, thus more CO2. And then there is food demand, predicted to have doubled by 2050, a grave situation coupled with massively degraded soil and failing agricultural systems.

It is not only our forests and agricultural land at risk. Today 79% of our population live in cities and, as Steve Head from the Wildlife Gardening Forum points out, ‘Urban development is stripping gardens and green spaces from our cities at a catastrophic rate.’ Between 1998 – 2008 in London an area over twice the size of Hyde Park was paved or concreted over every year for car parks and housing.

Rewilding could be one solution to the crisis. Addressing both biodiversity and climate change, (one would argue that these are not separate, but wholly connected) rewilding, a relatively new term, has a multitude of definitions and in turn a multitude of approaches. Some of our panellists suggest that it is just that, ‘a term’. Dr Susan Baker urges that whilst the actions and outcomes are paramount, the term itself is not so favourable. ‘It’s a very dangerous term. Dualistic, separate, also important and urgent and required.’ The take away from the ambiguity is, however, overwhelmingly positive – rewilding possibilities are infinite and today is more than a glimpse into how individuals and communities are a pivotal to this movement.

Ambitious rewilding projects are already happening in Europe and in many parts of the UK. Alladale Wilderness Reserve has a 200-year plan to restore parts of the Caledonian forest whilst reintroducing species such as the Scottish wild cat.

Closer to home, Paul de Zylva of London National Park City starts his talk with a perception exercise. The forum’s attendees are asked to close their eyes and visualise London. Whilst some visualise the city as a group of iconic architectural structures, Paul emphasises the network of greenery; gardens, commons, parks, canals and nature reserves. In fact, a quarter of London is garden and up to 8,450 species of insects are found in British gardens. Empowering evidence for the individual.

From our parks and gardens to our buildings, architect Maria-Chiara Piccinelli, the Director of PiM studio, celebrates the story of the spaces in between; vents, gutters and roofs where nature can thrive. Piccinelli wants us to rewild architecture, to encourage biodiversity in buildings and create new dialogues, not boundaries, between humans and other species. ‘When you introduce a fragment of nature – it emits an infinite power.’

Human intervention is critical to much of the rewilding movement, which is where its definition becomes unstuck – how wild is rewilding if we design it? But Dr Susan Baker brings our attention to the novel ecosystems created when agricultural land management ceases and nature reclaims its space. These important niches hold new species and are able to persist over time. Baker’s observations echo an earlier point from Dr Darren Evans that the less managed, the overlooked, the messy and the ugly can hold some of the most vital niches in terms of biodiversity. Studying an organic farm in Somerset for three years, Evans has created a food map highlighting the inter-connectivity of species. Most revealing of all is the whereabouts of the richest ecosystem – in the wasteland of the farm, amongst the weeds and the spillage.

It is this, the less ‘managed’ side of nature, that poses one of rewilding’s biggest hurdles. Dr Jonathan Prior shares his work on cultural expectation.  “Too much nature, or nature that falls outside of cultural expectations is aesthetically unappealing.” Rewilding schemes that are deemed too messy or unsightly often struggle to gain public support. Beyond the messy there is the outrage at efforts perceived to be inhumane. In the Netherlands, the Oostvaardersplassen scheme aims to rewild a wetland area just east of Amsterdam. During a particularly harsh winter in 2017/18, up to 3,000 animals starved in plain sight of the public, to much social consternation.

The reality of nature, death, rotting plant matter, fallen trees and even weeds is not always accepted in western society. In conversation, artist Anna Skladmann and Susan Baker discuss the idea of conventional beauty. And the notion that untamed nature has a darker side, as explored in Skladmann’s series ‘The Genesis of Blame – A Natural History of Forbidden Fruit’. There is a side to nature that we don’t understand, that we cannot control or predict; nature has its own beauty, it is not a conventional beauty that has been predetermined by our ideas or the camera’s lens.

The biosphere’s complexity, its science and language can also pose hurdles of inaccessibility for many in society. Here, as we hear from Dominick Tyler and Dr Poppy Nicol, both education and language play a vital role. Tyler, a photographer, has felt first-hand the barrier of language. Despite his rural background, when asked to contribute words to natural history publication, he found himself limited by language, resorting to clichés to describe the seemingly indescribable. This sparked the birth of ‘Uncommon Ground,’ a collection of landscape phrases and idioms published in 2015. From the ‘monkey’s birthday’ to the ‘fox’s wedding,’ many languages and cultures have their own way to describe being caught in a sun-soaked rainshower. But historical language is only one side of the coin. In conversation with the audience, Nicol added ‘We need an enriched wordscape that has been created by the next generation.’

The need for our next generation to have access to nature is paramount. Through our increasingly urbanised society we have lost touch, and, through this disconnection, fear has evolved. Layered upon the barriers of language and aesthetics, disconnect has manifested into fear for many children and adults alike. Woods are perceived to be scary by many. There are stories of inner-city children struggling on the uneven ground of forests, so conditioned are they to flat, manmade surfaces.

Reconnecting with nature can be simpler and more subtle than climbing mountains. Through daily observation, intuition, foraging and play, Poppy points out the benefits of merely opening our eyes. And for the curious there is an endless supply of inspiration; every citizen has a right to access seed through the millennium seed bank. Children and wider communities are seeking access, seeking permission, craving connectivity with nature.

OmVed Gardens will continue to offer a platform to engage, share and inspire.  As well as the grand and ambitious rewilding schemes, as a society, we are finding ways to connect, to dissolve boundaries, remove the fences and barriers with rich, accessible and relevant language, through art, play, education and experiences. Our role can no longer be one of control. It must be one of nurture, of connectivity, of engagement, of collaboration, communication and of harmony.

The last conversation of the day between artist Fiona MacDonald and Tom Jeffreys echoes the sense of collaboration and harmony with nature. Through her work, Fiona MacDonald explores the relationship between humans and non-humans to ‘see the richness, rather than extracting the richness in order to profit’. In her portraits of rescued foxes and art created by hedgehogs, she deconstructs barriers between the self and another species. We are nature, not separate or other, not more privileged or more important, but one and the same.

The massive degradation of our planet, the forests that hold life for thousands of species, the soil in which we grow our food, the green spaces in which our children play and learn, is having a catastrophic effect on human health and possibly existence. We can reverse this if we act now. Today, beneath a canopy of green, exposed in part to the elements, we learned that from the cracks in our pavements to building facades, roofs and the spaces in between, from courtyards to city parks, to thousand acre estates and even the self, the possibilities for re-wilding are almost infinite. And we felt, today, that nature heard us. As the final acknowledgements for the Rewilding Forum were made by curators Anna Souter and Beatrice Searle, thunder cracked above the glasshouse almost as if to issue a final sign off on everything we needed to know.