The Uncomfortable Truth About 'Rewilding'

As David Attenborough recently pointed out, rewilding could save the world. But it’s private landlords who are currently leading the charge.
November 4, 2020, 9:15am
deer Dunsany Castle
Photo: Daniel Fildes

Randal Plunkett is not your average eco-warrior. You might not guess it from his appearance – long-haired, bearded, dressed in black, like the frontman of a 90s stoner rock band – but the 37-year-old is the 21st Lord Dunsany, heir to one of the oldest titles in Ireland.

Unsurprisingly, given his background, tradition runs deep in Randal’s family. Which makes it all the more remarkable that he has decided to do away with the carefully-controlled parkland around Dunsany Castle – the 12th Century Gothic fortress 40 minutes outside Dublin, which he calls home – and let nature take over.

This approach, known as “rewilding”, has long been proposed by environmentalists as one solution to the climate crisis. If trees are left to grow unhindered, and soil to go untended, the thinking goes, they will create natural “carbon sinks” that will help absorb greenhouse gasses.

They would also give wildlife a chance to recover, and encourage biodiversity. In David Attenborough’s most recent Netflix documentary, the naturalist dedicated a lengthy segment to how rewilding might work in principle, but there are still relatively few examples of it being put into practice.

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Dunsany Castle. Photo: Daniel Fildes

Ireland provides a particularly interesting testing ground for rewilding, because as Pàdraic Fogarty, Campaigns Officer at the Irish Wildlife Trust, explains, “The extinction crisis has affected Ireland more than most other countries.” It also provides pertinent parallels with the UK. “A bit like the British, we lost our forests centuries ago,” says Pàdraic, and many of the debates over land use today are similar.

If anything, however, the damage to Ireland’s natural ecosystems is even more pronounced. The country is now the second-least forested in Europe – two places behind the UK, and ahead of only Malta.

Ireland is famously green (just 1.8 percent of the country is under settlement, according to government statistics), so there’s lots of land that could potentially be turned over to rewilding. But most of it – some 71 percent – is currently used for agriculture. There are powerful lobbying groups (the fertiliser industry, or, as Pàdraic puts it, “the shiny new tractor industry”) with an interest in maintaining that status quo. But farming is also hugely culturally important: perhaps even more so than in the UK, it’s a proud part of Ireland’s identity.

“Culturally, it runs very, very deep,” explains Pàdraic. “We've had dairy farming in Ireland for around 5,000 years.” As a test case for rewilding, then, Ireland is like the UK on steroids.

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​Photo: Daniel Fildes

Farming doesn’t have to be bad for the environment, but much of it is. Agriculture – especially the industrialised kind that’s widespread in Ireland – doesn’t just clear carbon sinks, it creates carbon sources. The methane burped up by masticating cows is around 34 times more potent a greenhouse gas than Co2. Meanwhile, artificial nitrogen fertilisers produce nitrous oxide, which is up to 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Just 1.4 percent of Ireland’s farming is organic, the third-lowest rate in Europe.

Despite its totemic status, agriculture is far from the biggest contributor to the Irish economy, accounting for around 8 percent of annual GDP, and a similar proportion of the jobs. Ironically, while some of Ireland’s agri-food businesses turn a tidy profit, individual farmers themselves often aren’t particularly well-off. A recent survey by the Irish Agriculture and Food Development Authority found that only 32 percent of farms in the country were actually economically viable.

“While biodiversity and nature has suffered, so have a lot of farmers,”  says Pàdraic. The problem, he says, is Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), a set of subsidies the UK government has essentially promised to keep going, post-Brexit.

Currently, the CAP rewards cultivating as much land as possible, and squeezing as much out of every single hectare as you can. “It's driven the commodification of every kind of land use,” says Pàdraic. As it stands, he adds, “the big farming organisations have no interest in changing that” and “the government hasn't shown any interest either”.

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​Photo: Daniel Fildes

If a lack of political vision and entrenched lobbying interests go some way to explaining why rewilding isn’t more widespread in Ireland, they also help to explain a wider phenomenon that makes uncomfortable reading for left-leaning environmentalists: that it tends to be private landowners leading the charge.

From the much-vaunted Knepp Estate in West Sussex, to the six-year-old experiment at Dunsany Castle, to the enormous wildlife reserve established by the ex-CEO of Patagonia clothing in Chile, many of the pioneering rewilding projects in the world today have been established on private land.

There are exceptions, of course. Dr. Marcus Collier, a Professor at Trinity College Dublin (Ireland’s answer to Oxford, Cambridge and UCL rolled into one), specialises in urban rewilding. He’s been instrumental in this year’s high-profile project to replace Trinity’s manicured lawns with wild flower meadows. It’s a hugely symbolic move – the campus is in the centre of the city – and one that’s proved massively popular so far.

“Both Oxford and Cambridge have come to look,” he says. But he admits to being surprised that the decision was met with approval from the University’s multiple stakeholders. “We were kind of shocked that the 400 years of attitude changed overnight,” he says – and is pretty clear-eyed about the fact that, the more people involved in decisions over land-use, the less likely they are to opt for radical solutions.

“Look, the fact that 400 or so people own half of Scotland is disgusting,” he says. “But democracy doesn't always work when it comes to rewilding.” In fact, he says, “democracy can actually be a millstone around your neck – because you have to engage with so many more people, it takes such a long time [to make decisions]”.

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Randal Plunkett. Photo by the author.

On Randal Plunkett’s estate, nature is recovering more quickly than even he imagined it could. He proudly shows me willow and oak saplings growing in what was, until just six years ago, an orderly – but biologically sterile – cornfield. Otters have returned to the stream, he says, and “we've had around a 40 percent increase in birds of prey, which helped get rid of invasive grey squirrels, and… look”, he says, pointing at a stool on the ground, “that’s pine marten”. One of Ireland’s rarest creatures, they’ve started coming back now the grey squirrels are gone. “This year, for the first time in 100 years, we had a woodpecker in this area - Birdwatch Ireland confirmed it,” he says proudly. “We had about seven of them here”.

Dunsany Castle is visibly reaping dividends in terms of ecosystem restoration and increased biodiversity, and the potential for the area to act as a carbon sink is huge. Rewilding, the evidence suggests, works. Despite this fact, for many people – including farmers and the politicians who depend on their votes – it can be hard to see the native woodlands for the trees.

“Look, it takes a lunatic to do something like this,” says Randal. “I’ve received death threats and all sorts.” But living among the artefacts of his ancestors, he says, serves as a constant reminder of his duty to future generations. “I don't consider myself as owning this,” Randal says, gesturing to the castle. “I'm merely the curator for my generation. When I start looking at what I've got in front of me, I start thinking what's going to happen for the grandchildren, what's going to happen to the great-grandchildren – not just of mine, but yours, and everyone’s.”

“The thing is, I’ve been given this privilege, and perhaps it takes people in my position to make changes.”

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@Tris_Kennedy