What is 'rewilding' and will it have an impact on Welsh farms?

The term 'rewilding' has become a buzz word recently as more ways are being looked at how to tackle climate change and alleviate the growing pressure on the planet.

It is a term and concept that is being endorsed by celebrities, including the singer Ed Sheeran, who said last December that he wanted to “rewild as much of the UK as I can”.

The pop star also said that he is trying to buy as much land as possible and plant as many trees as he can.

But it is an idea that comes with controversy, with members of the farming community concerned that quality agricultural land will be taken over for rewilding purposes.

With Wales being heavily dependent on the agricultural industry, farmers here have been voicing their concerns.

Ed Sheeran wants to "rewild as much of the UK" as he can.

But what does rewilding actually mean? And is it as simple as replanting trees on farm or unused land?

For the charity Rewilding Britain, they say the term is being used in its loosest sense and a better understanding of the concept is needed. According to them, rewilding is:

"The large-scale restoration of ecosystems to the point where nature is allowed to take care of itself. Rewilding seeks to reinstate natural processes and, where appropriate, missing species – allowing them to shape the landscape and the habitats within."

For Gemma Rose, a farmer in the village of Llanbadarn Fynydd in Radnorshire, she has been planting hedgerows and thinks the best way to work the land is to always have nature in mind.

“Planting a hedge provides shelter for our livestock, it’s a barrier for the spread of disease and improves our biosecurity but then also provides a home for the natural wildlife.”

Gemma has been planting hedgerows to help rewild part of her land.

But Gemma feels the whole debate over rewilding has gone too far. 

“I believe there has become such a fashion around the word rewilding that there needs to be more education to understand that yes there is a place for planting trees, allowing for places to go wild where it’s not suitable for food production.

"However it’s no more beneficial than having top quality soil to grow grass, to therefore have a sustainable food production for our nation, which is essential.”

The Marteg Valley in Mid Wales has been home to the Gilfach Nature Reserve since 1987 and it has been committed to rewilding the natural landscape there. It's an example proponents of rewilding would use to show the success of the idea.

The area has seen a large numbers of oak, beech and hawthorn trees grow there and even though some livestock is still reared on the land, it only takes place at certain times during the year.

But the key message from James Hitchcock from Radnorshire Wildlife Trust, the body taking care of the land, it that rewilding is about "nature and farming working in harmony."

James Hitchcock say the work to rewild the Marteg Valley is helping to increase the number of rare species of butterfly.

For the director of Rewilding Britian, Alastair Driver, he says the celebrity endorsement of rewilding can detract away from the main objective of the project.

“People will use the word rewilding in a very loose way and it’s really important that we distinguish between what is genuine rewilding which has a set of key principles going with it and for example carbon offsetting, just buying up huge tracks of land for planting non-native trees, that is not rewilding.  

“We’ve just run a YouGov poll on rewilding and actually it shows that 81% of the population are in favour of rewilding and actually there’s a stronger level of support than that even from rural communities.”

For Abi Reader, the Deputy President of NFU Cymru, she like Gemma Price has been rewilding a small patch of her own farm. She says the faming community is looking for common ground on what can be achieved when it comes to the idea but is often stopped in its tracks.

"I think there’s a lot of break down in dialogue with these organisations because they’re still giving that message that actually they want to depopulate the countryside and there doesn’t seem to be any respect for the food we need to produce for the people of this country.

"It just feels like we get forgotten and there’s a lot of large companies that are a long way from us who seem to be dictating what is going to happen within our little patch in Wales."  

Rewilding Britain says there are several ways that people can rewild land, including:

1. Do nothing for a while

The charity advises people not to dive in head first with a chainsaw. If you’ve just purchased land, or you’ve been managing it in a particular way, then leave it be while you work out what you want to do.

2. Gather information about your land

Now is the time to find out what you have on your land. Is your woodland ancient? Is that special species-rich grassland growing over there? Why is that field flooding? A proper inventory of what you have, and what is going on, will reveal important habitats and wildlife features, the state of your soils, important geological and hydrological features, seed sources and more. 

3. Get expert help and advice

You need to find someone with expertise and knowledge – especially for large-scale rewilding projects. Ecologists can help you understand what’s on your land and can help you navigate publicly available resources – such as regional biodiversity records and DEFRA’s MAGIC mapping of the natural environment.

  • See more on this story on Sharp End on Monday evening at 22:50 on ITV. You can also catch-up here.