Why Homo Sapiens Are A Keystone Predator in Rewilding Projects

Written by Caroline Grindrod

Rewilding is a hot topic at the moment, especially in Britain due to the release of Isabella Tree’s superb book ‘Wilding’ and the success of two significant funding bids for landscape-level ecological restoration; the ‘Summit to sea‘ project and the ‘Cairngorms Connect‘ project have been awarded significant funds to achieve their aims.

So, what is ‘rewilding?’ Rewilding Britain explains on its website;

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

Rewilding is getting some significant and exciting results in some parts of the world and I love the principles behind it, but there are several factors rarely discussed within the rewilding world that will determine the success of a project. As holistic managers we understand these factors well; brittleness and the predator-prey relationship.

There are significant differences between these ‘self-willed’ ecological restoration projects across the world;

Some rewilding projects are catchment scale applications or even smaller and others, like the Cairngorm connect project or Yellowstone Park, link huge areas of wilder spaces to create wildlife corridors that potentially foster genetic diversity and migration patterns.

Several rewilding projects involve removing all livestock and fencing out the wildlife, some involve the inclusion of sedentary domestic herbivores and others involve the reintroduction of wild predators and wild herbivores.

All projects, however, need humans to manage them in some way.

On Rewilding Europe’s website, it says;

Nature knows best when it comes to survival and self-governance.

We can give it a helping hand by creating the right conditions – by removing dykes and dams to free up rivers, by stopping active management of wildlife populations, by allowing natural forest regeneration, and by reintroducing species that have disappeared as a result of man’s actions.

Then we should step back and let nature manage itself.

As we holistic managers know only too well, if we are rewilding land in areas of the world that has reliable year-round humidity then there is some truth to this statement. But in areas of the world that have long dry seasons, it’s a very different story.

In these parts of the world ecosystems co-evolved with enormous herds of large ungulates all kept bunched and moving by their pack hunting predators. This drove the process of birth, growth, death and decay in the absence of active soil microbes that disappear underground in the long hot dry periods.

If we reduce the numbers of herbivores in these environments or allow their behaviours to become more sedentary the whole system breaks down and desertification soon follows. The tool of ‘rest’ alone will never facilitate the regeneration of vegetation to the point it would sustain large herds of wild herbivores in these ‘brittle’ environments. And the reintroduction of large enough herds of herbivores along with their associated predators would never be possible without the forage to sustain them.

Simply allowing herds to gradually expand in the wild won’t work either. The delicate balance of the predator-prey relationship required to create a behaviour change significant enough to disrupt capped soils and seed new growth is unlikely to be achieved without active management. That needs homo sapiens with a big problem-solving brain and ideally a herd of domestic livestock to be used as a proxy for the wild herds.

On the other side of the world here in Britain, we have plenty of year-round moisture but no large predators to change the selection behaviour of the grazing animals enough to prevent overgrazing. In these cases, we are unlikely to get good ecological recovery without the help of humans to manage numbers and plan for forage requirements.

So perhaps we need to stop throwing ourselves psychologically out of our own ecosystem – we are a part of nature after all!

In our Wilderculture projects, we tackle rewilding projects in Britain using the holistic management framework to manage this complexity and help us make good decisions that significantly improve all the ecosystem processes.

Holistic management also helps us to deal effectively with the factor that so often causes the failure of these rewilding projects in highly populated places such as the UK – the people involved and communities surrounding them.

Caroline Grindrod is a professional educator in holistic management and regenerative agriculture. Her passion is for wild spaces and upland farming and as a Director of the not for profit organisation Wilderculture she works with UK upland landowners to use holistic management in their rewilding and farming projects. Caroline also runs the 100% grass-fed meat company www.primalmeats.co.uk and helps rewilding organisations and farms practising regenerative agriculture to strengthen every link in the supply chain including their marketing and communications through her company www.primalweb.space

Savory Institute

Savory Institute

The Savory Institute is on a mission to regenerate the grasslands of the world and the livelihoods of their inhabitants, through Holistic Management. Since 2009, Savory Institute has been leading the regenerative agriculture movement by equipping farmers, ranchers, and pastoralist communities to regenerate land within culturally-relevant and ecologically-appropriate contexts.
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