Living wild lives

In New Zealand, the land without teeth, where large, browsing moa are gone forever, what does ‘rewilding’ mean? Living landscapes, suggests Claire Browning – making New Zealand a land for wild life.

Most recently given prominence by English ecojournalist, best-selling author and campaigner George Monbiot, “rewilding” is a new word for a vision where rich forests, their birdlife and other living systems thrive and we live among them.

Monbiot says it’s the subject he loves more than any other and to which he will give much of the rest of his working life.

He is firing shots across the heather at English conservation, tweedily defending bare, grazed, “sheep-wrecked” upland and heather-covered moorland in perpetuity – land that should be covered in trees, once roamed by elephants.

In Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding – called by one reviewer “three-quarters exhilarating environmental manifesto, one-quarter midlife crisis” – he lays out his ecological case.

The book explores and argues for the fulfilment of rewilding potential in England and the rest of Europe.

In other words, the mass restoration of living systems, including the possibility of welcoming home species that were indigenous just “a few ecological seconds ago”, which are already spreading back through Europe: big browsing and hunting species such as wolves, lynxes, beavers, boars, moose, bison and the elephant.

And, while we won’t recover the ancient megafauna – the mythical-sounding aurochs, the sabre-toothed tigers, the woolly mammoths – the chance is not lost for changes capable of profound effects on both ecology and the more metaphorical landscape of our lives and minds.

Rewilding is a theory of trophic cascades – an “ecological process that tumbles from top to bottom of an ecosystem”, like the reintroduction of wolves to America’s Yellowstone National Park.

The wolves control the deer by keeping their numbers down but also by engineering, in the most natural and primitive way, changes in deer behaviour. The deer learn to avoid risky places, giving nature enough breathing space in those places to bounce back.

Sinking down their roots, regenerating trees hold fast the banks of rivers and make homes for returning beavers – and the beavers are engineers of whole landscapes, shaping the rivers’ paths.

Over time – even time on a human scale – the reengineering of ecosystems re-engineers the physical landscape, nature’s way.

There’s no doubt George Monbiot is not seized only by the conservation and restoration possibilities. He’s carried away by the romance and the adventure of it – the
possibility of us all living wilder, more magical lives.

Further east, in the Netherlands, rewilding is already creeping across the landscape – “great nature in a small country” (grote natuur in een klein land) as new documentary De nieuwe Wildernis describes it.

Oostvaardersplassen, the first example, is a man-made ecology, built on rewilding ideas: a permanent reserve of wild, free-ranging grazing herds, flocks of birds and wetlands that recently saw an otter arrive, though other animals – European bison and top-level predators like wolves – have yet to arrive or be introduced.

It has given birth to a vision for Rewilding Europe, an initiative co-led by WWF-Netherlands, which aims to rewild at least one million hectares of Europe’s land by 2020, “creating ten magnificent wildlife and wilderness areas”.

These are very different ecologies from our own. Britain and the rest of Europe had a megafauna similar to Africa’s. In a world where elephants and mammoths once
dominated everywhere else, Australasia was the exception.

Our own, infamous Acclimatisation Society was the last to have attempted the “Serengeti on our doorstep”, as Monbiot has called his new world.

Our own big browsers – the different types of moa and their predator the Haast’s eagle – are gone. Recent Landcare Research work, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, considered moa’s ecological role and legacy effects of their extinction.

It had been wondered whether the emu and ostrich might carry out the same ecological role that moa used to.

However, this recent study concludes that moa extinction caused “irreplaceable loss of ecological function in New Zealand’s ecosystems”, which big browsers such as the emu or ostrich will never match.

No herbivore could replace the broad range of feeding ecologies shown by different sizes
and species of moa as shown in their fossilised faeces.

It describes how the big birds’ extinction forever changed the face of our forests by reducing seed dispersal of herbs and forest plants, creating more dense forest understoreys as previously browsed species flourished, inhibiting podocarp regeneration and altering fire frequency.

As for the “ten magnificent wildlife and wilderness areas” Rewilding Europe aspires to, you might say New Zealand already has this in our vast national parks and public conservation lands spread out across the wild, rugged (and largely uninhabitable) third of New Zealand.

Oostvaardersplassen, though, is not the Netherlands’ wildest idea. It enjoys a government-led, government funded commitment to give 17.5 per cent of land back to
nature, this in one of Europe’s most densely populated countries. In a country one-sixth the size of New Zealand with four times our population this is a vision that seems to
have sold politically.

Secondly – and the reason why the Netherlands’ 17.5 per cent leaves our one-third in the shade – there’s a commitment to establish a Dutch National Ecological Network, joined up by wildlife corridors and crossings. It’s the ecology, stupid.

Here, I suggest, is New Zealand’s rewilding model – the next major step for our terrestrial conservation, alongside defending what we’ve already won and a parallel vision for a predator-free New Zealand.

It’s a vision of hope and restoration, bringing to life three of Forest & Bird’s strategic priorities: conservation beyond protected areas, an ecologically sustainable economy and bringing nature back to town.

How odd, or perhaps appropriate, that in New Zealand rewilding should be more about the browsers and predators we remove than reintroduce. But we need the other half of the story: habitat restoration.

Neither habitat restoration nor a predator-free New Zealand can succeed in
making living landscapes without the other.

Mine is a gentler vision than Monbiot’s but it is in some ways even bolder than that tried by the Europeans. There are no wolves in our story. It’s working with communities to find
and build spaces for nature in the interstices of their lives.

Whereas Rewilding Europe’s vision is built on land abandonment – in the forests springing back around gardens and marginal lands to make whole living landscapes wildlife-rich and ecologically alive.

Forest & Bird has local projects like this with ecological integrity and massive ambition of their own. For example, the North-West Wildlink, which spans Auckland west to east, establishing wildlife corridors to join up habitats and communities from the Waitäkere Ranges to the islands of the Hauraki Gulf.

Or the Kaimai Connection project, which links the Tauranga Harbour all the way across the Kaimai Ranges and the forest park to the middle Waihou in the Waikato.

Described as a “rich mosiac of interconnected and overlapping projects”, it aims for a “connection of protection”, bringing back birdsong and native wildlife.

It includes the Aongatete Forest Restoration project and pilot
Land for Wildlife project.

Recently I joined a workshop where local authorities and others talked about Land for Wildlife’s possibilities. Land for Wildlife helps private landowners, in a wholly voluntary
way, to make their land and gardens living places.

Starting in Victoria 30 years ago and picked up in New South Wales, Queensland, Northern Territory, Western Australia and Tasmania 15 years ago, maps now show a mosaic of
spreading green Land for Wildlife dots across Australia beginning to cluster in ways that make sense, fanning out from forested areas, across formerly bare ground.

Sometimes communities will do it for themselves, in a way begun in south Wairarapa by the Aorangi Restoration Trust, which runs from the mountains and the Aorangi Forest Park to the sea.

I’d like to think that in 50 years, piece by piece, Forest & Bird might have championed, led and supported projects of this kind joining all parts of New Zealand. I’d like to think we might start to plan where they ought to be, taking joined-up thinking within regions and catchments and spreading out from public conservation land and from region to region to make parts of a whole.

George Monbiot has named his vision. He’s telling it as a story, with a beginning (the aurochs and megafauna), a middle (heavy on suspense) and an end in which, he hopes,
we’re living wild lives. In a way, the bigger the picture and the bolder the story the easier for people – and a government – to grasp it, to lend support, for example, through the missing Biodiversity Strategy.

One of our dubious New Zealand distinctions is to have managed a mass extinction more swiftly and viciously than any other country before. I suggest that we can come (not
quite) full circle and that we already do have a vision for the (partial) mass restoration of our own ecosystem. It’s just a matter of starting to join up the dots