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Saoirse McHugh: Community-led rewilding could bring life back to the countryside

It is important to allow nature to do its own thing.

Saoirse McHugh

In her fortnightly column for TheJournal.ie, Saoirse McHugh of the Green Party writes about what we can do as individuals in the face of climate chaos.

OVER THE LAST two years, the idea of rewilding has enjoyed an explosion in popularity. There are articles written almost weekly advocating for everything from leaving roadside verges uncut to reintroducing wolves.

It has come to encompass a whole range of measures which all have the same basic premise at their core: allow nature to do its own thing.

It is based on the fact that natural habitats have, over hundreds of thousands of years, developed methods of self-regulation. If let, they will repair themselves and eventually recover some equilibrium.

It has become so popular recently for several reasons. In the context of climate breakdown, the carbon sequestration ability of wetlands, bogs, forests and permanent meadows is unparalleled.

If we are to keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, then we will have to allow the environment to help us. At this stage, stopping emissions will not be enough on its own.

We will need to capture that carbon and to date, there is no more efficient nor effective method than letting nature do it by itself. 

The concurrent biodiversity crisis is threatening the basis of human civilisation. Global food production is at risk due to soil damage, pollinator decline and the dependence on a very small variety of crops.

Clean air and water is becoming more difficult for our ecosystems to provide as we endlessly extract from and alter them beyond what they can sustain.

Robust ecosystems can and do offer protection from natural, and increasingly extreme, disasters.

Floodplains, meanders, bogs and vegetation can reduce the negative impacts of flooding, mangroves protect against coastal storms and permanent grasslands preserve soil. Diverse ecosystems recover much quicker from harsh freezes or heatwaves.

Criticism of rewilding

Despite these benefits, rewilding has been vilified by some politicians. It seems to be intentionally misunderstood as an old-timey land clearance where there will be no more people nor agricultural activity and we will all be moved into the cities.

It has been baselessly linked with rural decline along with other suggestions that rewilding could lead to more fires, which would then release more carbon emissions. 

Many of the accusations against rewilding are actually the reality of what is already happening under current business as usual. It is a form of projection which usually seems bizarre, until you look at who is saying what and where those people earn their money.

The truth of rewilding is that, like anything, the implementation of it will determine how it works out.

Old fashioned conservation separated people from nature and took quite a preservationist, and often racist, approach to the environment.

It chased some pristine version of nature where the land was untouched by mankind as opposed to seeing humans as part of that very nature.

This outlook need not be the case. Due to the severely degraded status of much of Ireland’s habitats, there will be a large amount of work in returning the environments to a place where it can begin to self-regulate.

After that, as ecosystems begin to recover from decades of monocrop agriculture and extraction, livelihoods will be created in many new areas. It is ridiculous to think that humans and the natural world are unable to live harmoniously.

If rewilding is carried out alongside an agricultural transformation it could bring about not just a rejuvenation of nature, but also a revitalisation of rural communities.

The most difficult step in a rewilding project would be adjusting our relationship with nature to see it as part of us and something we depend on, rather than something we mow and spray and extract profit from.

Reconnecting with nature will allow us to rejoice in the return of natural processes and cycles to the land instead of mourning the loss of intensive agriculture.

Rather than missing our barren lawns, we can delight in the reintroduction of hundreds of varieties of plants and animals that don’t just sequester carbon and make ecosystems more resilient, interesting and beautiful. 

If we continue the way we are going, there will be no need to scare people about the countryside becoming a theme park because it will be a desolate place with a few large landowners owning everything.

There are a few people out there who are tapping into a fear that all of us have about the future, but they have no solutions to offer.

Keeping things as they are is not an option and if we seize this opportunity, community-led rewilding could bring life back into the country.

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Saoirse McHugh

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