Aligning rewilding with natural capital can create ambitious nature recovery policy

Posted by Daniel Allen on 17/11/2020


In a recent Zoological Society of London Conservation Event titled "What's next for rewilding?", Ecosulis Nature Recovery Lead Dr. Paul Jepson outlined how a bold new synthesis between rewilding and natural capital could enhance and accelerate nature recovery. Here he explains how.



Unlocking the potential of rewilding

The next decade presents us with a unique opportunity to recover our degraded ecosystems. With the UN declaring 2020-2030 the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, the UK's exit from the EU has prompted a new 25 Year Environment Plan and two major new bills. Guided by the political ambition to "leave nature in a better place than we found it", these aim to transition our land economy from one based on agricultural subsidies to one based on a "payments for public goods" - including environmental public goods.


These political developments coincide with the rise of rewilding, which offers a new conservation action philosophy to move society from a defensive focus on nature protection towards a rewarding process of ecosystem recovery. Over the last five years, advances in ecology and interdiciplinary conservation science have settled into a coherent body of theory to guide ecosystem recovery. Furthermore, pioneer rewilders across Europe have formulated a set of principles that underline the potential of rewilding to help solve environmental and social challenges.


Unfortunately, this potentially transformative new body of science and practice may not gain expression in UK policy. This is because the space for policy innovation is already occupied by the natural capital approach. While this approach has merit, its current application in policy is locking in outmoded concepts around habitats that are rooted in Victorian natural history traditions and 1970s community ecology. This is preventing the potential of rewilding from being fully realised. 


New approach, outdated thinking

The UK government has decided that the natural capital approach will guide the country's nature recovery policy. The basic premise is that if we maintain and enhance our stocks of natural capital assets (such as soil, air and water) to generate ecosystem services that benefit society and the economy, we will all be better off. The advantage of this approach is that it gives nature a positive value in public policy and economic cost analysis, which is clearly important.


Institutions of government resist change and seek to to align new policy concepts with the established order. For the last half century the UK has had a strong and stable nature protection regime; this has been supported by the discourse on biodiversity and implemented through systems of habitat and species classification that are grounded in ecology and Victorian traditions of natural history.


The Natural Capital Committee (NCC) and Natural England have reframed habitats as natural capital assets able to produce a range of ecosystems services that benefit society and the economy. While this has the benefit of maintaining established practices, it overlooks two important things.


Firstly, while ecosystem services are a property of ecological and social interactions, habitats - as defined in policy - are plant associations. It is a leap of scientfic faith to assume plant associations offer a proxy for ecosystem service provision.


Secondly, the habitats first described by Victorian naturalists were the product of thousands of years of human modification and management. There is a risk that a habitat-based natural capital approach to nature recovery will lock in the ecological degradation that has taken place over such timeframes, creating relatively static areas of wild nature that constrain potential societal returns from investments in nature recovery.


A bold and creative synthesis

So what next for rewilding and rewilding-related policy? One option is to keep rewilding while natural capital remains aligned with the idea of habitats developed for policy in the 1970s. As we have seen on the Knepp Estate - which has become something of a rewilding showcase in the UK - this can result in beneficial outcomes for wild nature.


A second, more preferable option, is to develop a bold and creative synthesis between rewilding and natural capital that sets a new ambition for nature recovery and an imperative for a new policy approach. Natural capital and rewilding share the same aim: to demonstrate the value of nature to society and the economy. Economists have long influenced the decision-making mechanisms of governments and their work to integrate nature and the environment is vital and welcome. But the knowledge of how to restore natural systems and generate value for society and economy lies within the field of natural resource management. 


With its innovative new take on such management, rewilding is increasingly capturing the public imagination. Yet if the existing habitat-centric natural capital approach to nature recovery stays in place, we may end up looking back on the forthcoming Decade on Ecosystem Restoration as an opportunity missed.


Through rewilding, our generation could be the first ever in human history to upgrade rather than downgrade nature. This would be truly amazing. A step towards this vision would be to establish a nationwide network of "nature innovation areas" where existing policy could be relaxed. This would enable the creation of rewilded natural assets capable of generating a bundle of ecosystem services and other forms of value. Such areas would act as living laboratories where new policy instruments could be designed from the bottom up, with the specific goal of supporting and accelerating nature recovery. 


It is time for a constructive and creative dialogue between thought leaders in rewilding and natural capital.