A display entitled A Rewilding Britain Landscape emerged as the overall winner, Best in Show, at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show. The winning garden imagined a landscape in South West England that is rewilding following the reintroduction of beavers, a keystone species extinct in the UK for several hundred years. 

Beavers are considered ecosystem engineers. Their dams and canals change the landscape dramatically, creating wetlands and meadows that in turn provide habitat for many other species of plants and animals. 

The winning display features regenerating alders and willows, favourite beaver foods, framing a small stream with a beaver dam surrounded by flowering indigenous plants along the edge of the stream and in a small meadow. Human presence is visible in a small wooden hut and pathway, plus a stone wall. 

Rewilding emerged in the 1990s as one type of ecological restoration. Rewilding initiatives repair degraded natural environments, increase biodiversity, restore natural processes, and create self-sustaining ecosystems. Rewilded landscapes enhance biodiversity and mitigate climate change. They help nature heal.

Philosophically, rewilding initiatives differ from other types of ecological restoration by having no specific target outcome and by limiting human intervention. Initial management often requires re-setting baseline conditions. These could include removing sources of pollution or eradicating dominant invasive species such as rats, stoats, and possums as has now begun nationally with the Predator Free 2050 initiative. 

Once the re-set is complete, the rewilded landscape is left to its own devices to re-establish natural processes and determine ecological outcomes.

Given the chance, nature heals itself. Respecting nature’s intrinsic capacity for self-restoration is a matter of principle for proponents of this method.

The Chelsea victory for the Rewilding Britain display has proven controversial in the gardening community. Gardening guru Monty Don slated the display, asking if it’s really a garden if beavers are the main focus. Don dislikes applying the term rewilding to a garden, calling the display “a polemic around beavers”. 

The rewilding community, however, will love the concept of nature making its own argument for renewal. Go beavers!

Although the term was seldom used, ‘rewilding’ has been standard New Zealand conservation practice for more than a century. Beginning in the early 20th century, more than 100 islands have had invasive mammals eradicated, far more than any other country, according to AUT Emeritus Professor David Towns. These pest mammals became destructive ecosystem engineers, either by exterminating indigenous species by predation (rats, cats, possums) or by changing habitats by grazing and killing indigenous plants (goats, possums, rats). 

Eradicating invasive mammal species re-sets island ecosystems, much like re-booting a computer. A few important species with limited mobility (tuatara, giant weta, poorly flighted bird species like hihi and saddleback) may need to be reintroduced, but many species re-colonise on their own. Birds like kereru from the mainland or nearby islands carry seeds that re-populate the native flora.

The Mercury Islands off the Coromandel coast exemplify successful rewilding. All seven islands had been invaded by kiore, and cats and ship rats had colonised the largest, Ahuahu/Great Mercury Island (1872 ha). Rat eradications on the six smaller islands saved remnant populations of tuatara, lizards, and tusked weta in the 1990s, effectively re-setting the ecosystems on each island and allowing recovery to occur naturally. 

Beginning in 2014, the Fay and Richwhite families who own Ahuahu worked in partnership with the Ngati Hei people and the Department of Conservation, including Professor Towns, to undertake invasive mammal eradications. These ecological re-sets have succeeded, and natural ecosystems are re-establishing. 

Ahuahu is now open to the public as are other well-known rewilding islands such as Kapiti Island off the Wellington coast and Tiritiri Matangi Island near Auckland. Predator-free fenced mainland sanctuaries such as Maungatautari near Hamilton and Zealandia in Wellington demonstrate similar rewilding projects on the mainland.

Rewilding is scalable. Landscape scale rewilding initiatives are underway on all continents (see: https://rewildingglobal.org) and across New Zealand. The challenges to mainland rewilding are enormous, substantially greater than on most islands. It’s hard to re-set the ecology of a whole country. Professor Bruce Clarkson of the University of Waikato recently summarised those obstacles and the prospects for reversing biodiversity decline in Aotearoa. In a future column, I’ll explore those further with respect to Hawke’s Bay. 

However great the challenges, though, the scalability of rewilding offers each of us a starting point. Rewilding can be undertaken on small parcels of land. Hundreds of iwi- and community-led projects are underway, removing invasive mammals and replanting damaged local environments. These environments can recover quickly following an ecosystem re-set.

Individuals working alone can make a difference too. Excellent web resources, especially from Europe, describe how any renter or property owner can begin their own rewilding project (for example: https://www.tinyecohomelife.com/how-to-rewild-your-garden). 

Beginning is simple – set aside a small area of your property for rewilding. Even a few square metres are sufficient to create a wildlife corner. Do nothing to it for a year and see what happens.

Other straightforward actions: plant a tree; create a compost heap; fill your garden with plants to attract bees and other pollinators; get ambitious and replace your lawn, reducing your use of fertilisers, pesticides and water.

Will such tiny steps make a difference? A few square metres or a single rewilded section may not, but 10,000 similar projects can. Why not do what you can to help nature heal? We can all be rewilders. 

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4 Comments

  1. Great to read that rewilding is being done in New Zealand. Recently I read Wilding by Isabella Tree which is about the rewilding of an estate in Sussex, England. It is a fascinating process.

  2. I really enjoyed the Rewilding article & am keen to do make changes to an area of my lifestyle block (will need to get the other half’s agreement as I am mobility-compromised).

  3. I am reading a book I got from the library published this year ‘Rewilding the Sea, How to Save our Oceans’ by Charles Clover. The concept of rewilding the seas has lagged behind the land, but wonderful people have been working for a while to make it happen, an early proponent being New Zealander Bill Ballantine in the 1970’s. He put his idea of stepping back and letting nature restore the whole ecosystem into practice, creating a no-take marine reserve at Goat Island, 50 miles north of Auckland. The result was amazing to scientists. I recommend this book.

  4. Very well composed Charles.
    We all must participate in conservation and restoration for our future generations. Pest control remains vitally important in both urban and rural situations.

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