Last week I went to Rewilding: From Vision to Reality – a thought-provoking film and discussion panel with a group of people involved in the rewilding movement in Britain, played out in front of a packed and appreciative audience. George Monbiot, author of the book Feral and fellow-soldier in the battle against ‘eco-modernism’ was there, as was Colin Tudge, my colleague from the Campaign for Real Farming and wise voice in the alternative agriculture movement, along with various other interesting thinkers and practitioners. The event was filmed and is available here.

I came away from the evening thinking that what was being proposed could be really, really good. And alternatively that it could be really, really bad. Like almost everything in life, changes in one domain knock on to changes in other apparently unrelated ones, and in order to achieve the really, really good outcome changes in wildlife policy will need to be accompanied by appropriate changes in housing policy, tax policy, planning policy, food policy, farming policy and trade policy. A prime case for ‘joined up thinking’ in fact. I’m a great admirer of George Monbiot’s writing, and it’s to his credit that he writes thoughtfully and persuasively about all of these areas. The other participants, too, made a lot of subtle and convincing points. Nevertheless, I left with a few nagging doubts, centring mostly on the relationship between rewilding and agriculture, so here I want to work through them. I’ve got to admit that I’m not hugely up to speed on the rewilding movement – George’s book has been sitting in my in-tray for a while – but if you can’t think out loud on your own blog site, then where can you…?

Just the briefest of summaries of what’s on the table: ‘rewilding’ involves restoring to parts or all of Britain species that have been casualties of modernity – top predators like lynx, wolves, maybe even bears (a matter discussed on this site recently with Andy McGuire); keystone species such as beaver; and a huge variety of other organisms, birds, fish, invertebrates and the many plant species which have suffered huge losses as a result of modern fishing, farming and other land-use practices. George presented rewilding as a positive environmentalist agenda which ordinary people could rally behind, rather than the doom-and-gloom negativity of much environmental campaigning. He identified upland sheep farming as a particular problem: an environmentally-destructive yet economically marginal practice which is only sustained by EU subsidies. And he raised one of the greatest cheers of the evening with his attack on the EU farm subsidy regimen: a hugely regressive tax that rewards landowners the more that they own land. In the uplands, he argued, the subsidy incentivises ecological destruction, while in the more productive lowlands farmers don’t need it.

For his part, Colin inveighed against the fear-based productivist paradigm of mainstream (and indeed ‘ecomodernist’) agricultural policy in its obsession with raising productivity. We know how to produce enough food while farming in wildlife-friendly ways, he argued. And he raised a big cheer in turn with his comments on land reform and the possibilities for a people’s takeover of rural landownership through collective and commoning models to produce food and wildlife benefits locally.

I’m pretty much with them on most of that, but I think too glib an interpretation of these arguments can lead us astray and…well, those big cheers worried me a bit. Although I was impressed by the subtlety of the panellists’ thinking – none were arguing for a naïve rewilding uninformed by the needs of agriculture – I nevertheless sensed a possibly somewhat naïve anti-farmer and anti-private property sentiment underlying some of the proceedings. Most of us nowadays are so divorced from farming that it’s easy for misunderstandings to build up, and I for one have become less inclined to be critical of farmers since I switched from the lectern to the plough. Sheesh, it’s been an education. And while God knows there are farmers (and farm organisations still more) who deserve the opprobrium of anyone who cares about the land, let’s pause a moment to reflect on what we’re asking of our farmers – to be financially successful self-employed entrepreneurs, to produce healthy food at high volume and unprecedentedly low price, and to safeguard the environment, the landscape and its wildlife within those parameters. Is it any wonder that so many of them fail at some or all of those onerous demands? Or that there’s a recruitment crisis in farming, with a new cohort substantially failing to replace the old? As I’ve said before, a country basically gets the farmers it deserves.

So now let’s look at how a rewilding programme might pan out in a bad way. Over the next few decades, EU farm subsidies (Pillar 1…and Pillar 2?) are slashed to zero. Not a bad thing in many ways – it’ll end the scandalous subsidy of rich land speculators and have the effect George desires on upland sheep farming (I do have qualms about the upheaval in hill country pastoral traditions, but I think he’s right that things have got to change somehow). I haven’t looked in detail at the data, but I suspect however that without concomitant changes in food and trade policy it’ll also put paid to a lot of lowland farmers, including quite large-scale conventional ones, because I don’t really agree with George that lowland farmers don’t need a subsidy to stay afloat in present economic circumstances. Bear in mind that farmers are often selling below costs of production, working crazy hours and doing non-food production related things to stay in business. In this sense, in contrast to the wealthy landowner, the jobbing family farmer is not the real beneficiary of the EU subsidies. That honour goes to the processors, retailers and consumers who aren’t paying a realistic price for their food. Without subsidies or any protection from global commodity markets, agricultural margins will be shaved still further, putting family farmers out of business. Once in the hands of the corporates, I suspect that local agri-environmental outrages of the kind recently identified by George may diminish. Global agri-environmental outrages, however, will surely increase.

The ending of subsidies may disincentivise land speculation, but not too much – without wider land reform, rural landownership will still be a pursuit of the rich. Doubtless some landowners will be happy to rewild their estates. Doubtless too there’ll be local community buyouts. But if the lottery’s Local Food programme is anything to go by, these projects will likely do a much better job at making their lands wildlife friendly than at producing much food. It’s noteworthy that social enterprises set up with complex community management structures under the programme are now seeking individual entrepreneurs to make the farming work. In that sense, while I agree with Colin that it’s not so hard to farm in productive, sustainable and wildlife-friendly ways it is quite hard, and to be sure of success it involves a lot of hard work from people with strong personal motivations and incentives to do it over the long haul. I’ll wait to read Colin’s new book on these issues with interest, and I’ll talk in more detail about tenure systems and sustainable farming in future posts. For now I’m inclined just to say that anyone contemplating the establishment of a community food-producing social enterprise will probably find that obtaining the land is the easiest part of the struggle. And also that while commoning and collective land tenure systems can be very effective, things are more complex than ‘common good, private bad’. Let me put it this way: would the cheers that evening have been quite so loud had the suggestion been to socialise private home ownership rather than private land ownership?

Still, it won’t really matter if agricultural productivity in the UK goes down. There’ll still be high intensity farming in parts of the country that are well suited to it, which will gladden the hearts of the ecomodernists and the ‘land sparers’. The rest of our food we can buy from abroad. It may be produced in ecologically vulnerable regions (notably the semi-arid continental grasslands, of which I’ve written previously) and by economically vulnerable people, but that’s not really our problem. Or at least not for the moment it isn’t. The main driver of food production will still be price. Without reform of housing and planning policy, most people will remain crippled with massive expenditures to keep a roof over their heads and so will be looking for savings in other areas, such as food. The land-sparing, labour-shedding, capital-intensive model of agriculture will win out. Indeed, perhaps an omission in the discussions around agriculture at Vision to Reality was the issue of arable cropping, and even horticulture, in contrast to pastoralism which is probably an easier form of agriculture to rewild within extant agricultural thinking, but makes a relatively minor nutritional contribution to overall agricultural productivity. How should we rewild and reform lowland arable farming?

There’s always been a loose confederation of folk with an interest in keeping the hoi polloi out of the countryside and the result of the ‘bad rewilding’ that I’m imagining here is that the re-wilders will throw their lot in – deliberately or not, knowingly or not – with rich landowners, housing speculators, ecomodernist ‘land sparers’, agricultural ‘improvers’, rural heritage geeks, crusading planning departments and seekers after pliant urban wage labour to keep people out of the countryside, living in expensive and dysfunctional urban housing, eating cheap and questionably produced food, but at least with the opportunity to see more wildlife in the British countryside than presently on their occasional visits there.

However, I can also foresee a much more positive way in which rewilding might go if other policies move with it. To do so policymakers will need to place joint emphasis on food sovereignty, social equity and ecological restoration. In this scenario, housing and planning policy are reformed, partly along the lines admirably sketched by George here, to make housing more affordable, end land market speculation, revitalize market towns and small villages, and sponsor appropriate rural development. Agricultural emphasis shifts to the sustainable production of most food needs as locally as possible, with appropriate price supports, agricultural extension and so on, rather than being dictated by world market prices. What this looks like on the ground will be quite varied, but generally speaking it will involve a shift towards smaller scale, more labour intensive, more agroecological and more mixed farming methods, probably producing less meat, less simple carbohydrates and less food waste than at present, all of which would be no bad thing. The return of small fields, arable weeds, hedgerows, fallowing and cover cropping, small farm native woodlands and the like will be what Ivette Perfecto et al1 have called the agricultural ‘matrix’ which is a necessary complement to wilder wilderness. In this sense, the land sparing vs land sharing duality will come to be seen as a false and ideologically-driven opposition: as I argue here, as George argued at Vision to Reality, and as Joern Fischer argues in this nice essay drawn to my attention by Jahi Chappell, we clearly need both ‘land sparing’ and ‘land sharing’ simultaneously.

But all this will require more people living and working in the countryside. On that point, I feel obliged to note with some concern that one of the distinguished panel members at Vision to Reality objected to my planning application for residence on my small mixed farm on the grounds of its wildlife impacts. I think instead he should have supported it for that very reason. So I think there’s a job to do in steering the rewilding movement away from ecomodernist affectations concerning urbanisation and decoupling, and towards a rethinking and re-peopling of agriculture. More farmers in the countryside are needed for the sake of both rewilding and sustainable agriculture. They’ll come if we create the right policy and economic environment. They’ll provide the demographic injection that farming needs. They’ll learn how to farm productively but sustainably. They’ll be deeply grounded in the life of their land, and they’ll become a keystone species opening a new niche for knowledge about wildlife, farming and the countryside in the wider society, which will run much deeper than if rewilding is only a matter of urban tourists going off on jaunts to look for wolves in the Scottish Highlands.

I think rewilding will probably work best long-term if it’s built upon that backbone – cheaper housing, dearer, better food, local food security, more labour-intensive, agroecological production and wider societal knowledge about both farming and wildlife. It may be difficult to set up the incentives correctly to discourage speculative landownership while encouraging productive, sustainable and wildlife-friendly farming. But economists are good at figuring out that sort of thing. We just need to get them working on problems like that, rather than on setting economic policy itself – something that, for wildlife, for farming, for social justice, and for the reasons set out in my previous post, is much too important to be left to the economists.

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