Herds of bison march across a vast expanse of grassland, as bald eagles soar overhead . . . This iconic vision of the American West is rare these days—the mammals, which used to number in their millions, have dwindled to just 31,000 herds and are considered “near threatened” in the United States. However, it’s not all bad news. Rewilding is a key way to tackle issues such as this.
In Montana, for example, the American Prairie organization is working to reverse the decline, understanding the bison’s critical role in shaping the biodiversity of the Great Plains. Allowed to roam freely across its 707-square-mile (1,831 sq km) nature reserve, the bison distribute a wide variety of seeds as they graze the vegetation—leaving clearings in which birds such as the thick-billed longspur and the ferruginous hawk can breed—and wallow in the dust and the mud, creating mini wetlands, ideal for all manner of insects, birds, and amphibians.
Rewilding is absolutely vital to our own survival, as well as to the survival of the species that we love and enjoy—Isabella Tree
“Prairies were one of the most ecologically rich landscapes on earth but are now one of the most globally impacted and threatened biomes,” explains American Prairie president Alison Fox. “Across the world, less than two percent have been permanently conserved. Numerous species and ecological functions have been dramatically reduced and are imperiled.” American Prairie aims to restore—or “rewild”—a complete and fully functioning prairie ecosystem, the largest of its kind in North America.
It is a grand-scale example of the global rewilding trend that is essential for both nature recovery and climate action. Founded in 2001 as The Prairie Foundation, in collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund’s Northern Great Plains program, American Prairie’s aim is to stitch together a 4,688-square-mile (12,142 sq km) ecosystem complete with migration corridors for all native wildlife. This is achieved through the purchase of willingly sold private land adjacent to existing public parkland, secured through “philanthropy and the generous donations of our supporters, which helps to protect the prairie ecosystem,” says Fox.
American Prairie’s land is now home to at-risk animals such as prairie dogs, swift fox, black-footed ferrets, pronghorn, countless grassland birds, and cougars—an essential apex predator.
Rewilding in the U.K.
In the U.K., Rewilding Britain supports the doubling of the country’s woodland cover in the next decade to help absorb greenhouse gas emissions and restore wildlife, and works on peatland restoration projects. Globally, peatlands store more harmful carbon than the rain forests, removing it from the atmosphere.
Individuals are getting involved, too, buying plots of land and letting them return to their natural state. Knepp Castle in West Sussex, England, was a dairy and arable farm that was failing due to its heavy clay soil when Charlie Burrell inherited it in 1983. In 2000, Burrell and his wife Isabella Tree set about rewilding the estate’s 3,500 acres (1,416 ha). They began by sowing wildflowers in the park surrounding the house, before introducing fallow deer to graze the plants.
“Before human impact in temperate-zone Europe, we would have had huge herds of aurochs [an ancient cattle species] and tarpan, the original European horse . . . bison, reindeer, elk, wild boar, beavers by the million,” says Tree. Inspired by the regeneration of the park, they decided to roll out a more ambitious rewilding experiment across the whole estate.
After several years of leaving the former arable land to its own devices, the couple noticed a huge variety of plant life growing there, with thorny scrub providing refuge for songbirds, including the endangered nightingale. They then introduced free-roaming herbivores as a proxy for the ancient species, including Exmoor ponies, wild-boar-like Tamworth pigs, longhorn cattle, and red, roe, and fallow deer.
Thriving Wildlife at Knepp Estate
“All those mouthpieces in the landscape are doing very different things,” says Tree. “They’ve got different ways of eating, different preferences and disturbances, and those differing impacts create vegetation complexity and vegetation structure, and that’s what benefits biodiversity.”
Today, Knepp Estate—a successful business that runs wild camping vacations and safaris—is working with local farmers to help create a wildlife corridor stretching all the way to the sea. Turtle doves, purple emperor butterflies, and peregrine falcons are all thriving at Knepp, as are five owl species and 13 different types of bat. “Rewilding is absolutely vital to our own survival, as well as to the survival of the species that we love and enjoy,” observes Tree.
In Ireland, Randal Plunkett is taking an even more minimalist approach, having turned over his ancestral home, Dunsany Castle in County Meath, completely to nature, with hardly any human intervention at all. Again, it is family farmland that has been transformed into a paradise that is now home to woodpeckers, buzzards, and red kites. Otters, stoats, and hares have all been spotted regularly since he started his rewilding project a decade ago.
“We can learn so much about the land if we observe it very carefully,” Plunkett says. “There could be an opportunity here for medicine, for fixing the soil, for carbon to be sequestered. But we have to be willing to be patient, and to throw what we think we know out the window and look at it objectively. There’s really no reason why anyone should not rewild at this point.”
How to Rewild Your Garden
There is plenty that homeowners can do to play their part. The first thing, according to Tree, is to go chemical-free in our gardens, including avoiding herbicides. “That’s a huge thing for biodiversity. If you’re not killing your insects and you’re sustaining organic systems, that’s a massive plus,” she says. “We’ve got to get a lot messier—we’ve got to let our gardens allow our native species in, our beautiful wildflowers that we insist on calling weeds.”
She also recommends replacing fences with hedges to provide an easy natural corridor, as well as limiting outdoor lighting. “There are nighttime moths that are better pollinators than any bee,” she says. “So perhaps have lights that you can have on only occasionally, or take candle lanterns out when you want to eat outside.”
For the even more ambitious, the option of purchasing a large tract of land with the intention of turning it over to rewilding is a tempting and rewarding project. Hacienda Pucheguin in North Chilean Patagonia, on the market with Christie’s International Real Estate, is 500 square miles (1,295 sq km) of unspoiled forests, rivers, and lakes—a natural haven ideal for conservation.
“Hacienda Pucheguin is untouched and truly one of a kind, encompassing wildlife, mountains, lakes, and the beauty of the Patagonia region,” says Danielle Austin, Senior Vice President of Christie’s International Real Estate. “It is the perfect investment for someone looking to preserve, as the land is in its raw splendor and the community wants to continue with natural preservation.”
However great or small the steps you take towards restoring the natural balance of the landscape around you, your local flora and fauna will thank you for it.
Banner image: Reid Morth