Britain is dangerously underprepared for the onslaught of climate change, according to a new report from the Climate Change Committee. The report highlights six key areas of concern, with ‘Risk to the viability and diversity of terrestrial and freshwater habitats’ chief among them. Yet could tackling this risk through rewilding also help us to overcome the other risks listed in the report?

Unlike some of the threats addressed, our natural habitats and the species that depend on them are in immediate peril. In most cases, they have been for some time. Despite the belief among some conservationists that nature is a static affair and incapable of adaption, a changing climate is not always an inherent danger to wildlife. However, urban encroachment, the destruction of habitats, pollution, and the use of pesticides all are. If Britain’s natural environment is given the space and time to develop a healthy level of biodiversity, it can prove capable of remarkable resilience and adaptability.

Restoring habitats to a healthy level of diversity, and in particular ensuring the return of ‘keystone species’ and ‘ecosystem engineers’ such as beavers and earthworms, is key to creating a durable environment. A depleted ecosystem might not survive a changing climate without extensive human input. Once revitalised however, the natural world is quite capable of looking after itself. What is more, should we decide to return swathes of the British Isles to something resembling their natural diversity and abundance, then nature may prove capable of protecting us, too. We are, after all, just another species that calls these islands home.

So, can Britain benefit from rewilding? Let’s examine some of the risks.

Risk of increased flooding

One of the most tangible ways in which a wilder Britain could protect us from climate change is by preventing devastating floods. Floods are the second most significant risk in the report, and they happen for a variety of reasons. Whilst rainfall is naturally a factor, the capacity of the land to absorb, slow, and channel water is crucial. The deep and expansive roots of natural forest render the earth more absorbent. Additionally, broadleaf canopies — unlike the needles of Forestry Commission conifer plantations — slow rainfall, staggering saturation.

In short, natural woodland is an integral part of an organic flood defence system; a system that is far more holistic than our concrete barriers and ever-growing earthworks. A reduction in logging and livestock grazing, coupled with a commitment to plant diverse trees, will make Britain less likely to flood.

Just as important as natural woodland are natural wetlands. Whilst constructing traditional flood defences can mitigate the worst excesses of flooding in urban areas, they do little to protect soil and even less to combat the causes of flooding. Floodplains and water fields — ground that has long been drained for agriculture and development — are essential areas of expansion for floodwater, and part of the river’s natural cycle. On top of this, they are also a key habitat for a bouquet of plants and animals, many of which cannot live anywhere else.

One animal that once called this watery world its home is the beaver. The last beaver in England was killed in the 16th century. Efforts to reintroduce this ecosystem engineer have been repeatedly blocked by farmers and gamekeepers, on the false assumptions that they spread disease and eat fish stocks. On the contrary, by building dams that create pools, beavers increase the numbers of fish in the rivers they inhabit and protect habitats from flash floods. Some flood management plans have sought to replicate the leaky dams that beavers build. Instead, why not reintroduce the creature itself — saving money, and doing the job more efficiently?

Risk to natural carbon stores

Carbon stores are — usually — plants, which either sequester or recycle carbon in the atmosphere. They are important because too much carbon means too much heat, and too much heat means we’re all going to die.

Forests are generally touted as our global lungs. Yet whilst important, terrestrial forests inhale up to 20 times less carbon than their aquatic counterparts. Kelp, algae, and seagrass are a crucial ally in the fight against global warming but are particularly vulnerable to fishing trawlers. Establishing ‘blue zones’ — marine areas protected from industrial fishing — is at least as important as planting trees. Some may worry about the threat blue zones would pose to the fishing industry. In reality, such initiatives could revitalise the coastal margins of the UK by rejuvenating fish stocks in the surrounding seas.

Risk to livestock and supply of food

As I just mentioned, rewilding parts of Britain’s seas would mean more fish, which would mean a more sustainable food supply. This ‘spillover effect’ is also applicable on land. Few but the zestiest of rewilders advocate totally rewilding all arable land. However, industrial agriculture has rendered the land anaemic and nutrient-poor. As such, there is increasing interest in temporary or rotating rewilding, whereby areas of exhausted farmland could be returned to nutrient abundancy through nature. Whilst eventually returning these areas to farmland might seem perverse to some, nature is adaptive. If this policy was adopted on a regional basis, agriculture, nature, and our food supply could develop a degree of symbiosis.

Risks to people and economy from power failures

This is the risk where rewilding is least helpful. It may create a host of jobs that are less power-hungry, but we can’t all get work on whale-watching boats. Green energy has a massive part to play in the resolution of this problem, but that is a topic for another time.

Risks to human health and wellbeing

Immersion in nature is proven to improve human health. As aloof as we may have become from the natural world, we are still animals that originated from it. Just as a dog becomes despondent if it doesn’t get its walk, human psychology benefits immensely from exposure to wildlife. Just three to five minutes spent looking at trees, flowers and water can reduce anxiety, stress, and physical pain according to a number of studies.

A biodiverse environment doesn’t just protect us from flooding, food shortages and carbon dioxide, it fortifies our minds and our bodies.

Creating a wilder Britain is the right antidote to our weakened ecosystem and depleted environment.

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