Guest blog from Kabir Kaul

Rewilding: from country to city

Thick mud squelches beneath our feet, as we cautiously navigate the saturated paths. It’s a cold, wet December afternoon, and Andrew Waddison of Wild Ken Hill introduces me to the site’s rewilding area. We enter an expansive area of wet woodland. The ground is scattered with gnawed deadwood, bathed in pools of light cast by the sun. Streams twist and turn between pools of water and the forest floor, and calls of Redwing and Long-tailed Tit flocks reverberate around the canopy above. In just four years, this woodland has been transformed by Beavers, and I am thinking about the power of rewilding from the country to the city.

Excitement about rewilding has grown rapidly in recent years. Although Wild Ken Hill is one of several rural, large-scale projects of this kind in England, urban areas too have begun to use rewilding to solve issues facing both city residents and the environment. London, where I live, is one city where nature recovery projects are gaining momentum thanks to residents, conservationists and decision-makers.

Over the past few years, I have been lucky to have a glimpse of how effective rewilding can be on the ground. We urgently need to restore nature now, at scale and at pace – reshaping landscapes and galvanising communities is key, if we are to foster a nature-rich, climate-resilient network of habitats, both urban and rural. To illustrate the contrast between country and city rewilding (and how they work), I’ll use examples from both Wild Ken Hill and London, derived from my own experiences.

Why can rewilding work in both rural and urban areas?

At scale, nature takes the lead. Regardless of whether large-scale rewilding takes place in a rural or urban environment, the end result is a self-regulating ecosystem. In fact, there may not be an ‘end result’ at all; the course of rivers may alter naturally and the distribution of animal and plant populations can change over time, for instance. In urban areas, large-scale rewilding often takes place on the city fringes, leading former golf courses, agricultural land and existing habitats to coalesce into one another. However, urban features such as main roads and villages will inevitably impede the growth of ecosystems and the movement of certain species.

But for a site to embark on its rewilding journey, traditional conservation methods are needed to kickstart natural processes. For example, Wild Ken Hill’s conservation grazing has encouraged the growth of a rich, emerging grassland, with – for example – at least five Woodlark pairs in 2023. In North London, Enfield Council is leading the restoration of the 1,148-hectare Enfield Chase. So far over 50 ponds have been restored, to reduce the risk of urban flooding downstream in the north of the borough.

Of course, cities often simply do not have the space for rewilded landscapes. I’ve used ‘large-scale’ to describe traditional rewilding, but in cities, these projects will complement smaller, far more ubiquitous nature recovery initiatives in urban parks, wetlands, green roofs and other habitats. Human intervention in these initiatives will be far more frequent for multiple reasons, including urban pressures and the small size of their ecosystems. But like their larger cousins, they are capable of reducing flood risk, improving access to nature and connecting populations of animal and plant species. So while the idea of scale and location may differ to an extent between urban and rural areas, rewilding can achieve positive outcomes in both contexts.

What makes rewilding more exciting than other methods of conservation?

We all love a cute Beaver. Species reintroductions have demonstrated rewilding’s ability to capture the public’s imagination, re-engaging them with nature, whilst enhancing biodiversity. When I visited Wild Ken Hill’s own beaver enclosure, the presence of gnawed tree trunks makes the woodland appear quite otherworldly! Wood from the trees has been used to create dams, holding water and encouraging carbon sequestration; and felled trees allow light to reach the forest floor, allowing more seeds to germinate, reversing some damage caused by excessive deer browsing.

Since 2022, London has become well-known for its own species reintroductions. Beavers in both Enfield and Ealing have seen similar results, albeit on a smaller scale. Also, both attracted significant media attention; indeed, at the Ealing release in October last year, I had to jostle past at least fifteen journalists and film crews to catch a glimpse of them! The Beavers’ impact can be seen fairly quickly. In Ealing, Beavers took just five days to construct their first dam. As a result, many local residents have become keen to learn about the mammals’ impact on their environment. Even the Mayor of London proudly heralded their return on social media, with graphics reading “the Beaver is back in London”.

It’s not just Beavers that have been reintroduced in London. Ealing Wildlife Group has released Harvest Mice, and conservation organisation Citizen Zoo has released Sussex cattle to a meadow in Tolworth, South West London in 2022. In the latter example, over 100 residents signed up to monitor the cattle’s grazing for one year, eager to meet their new neighbours.

By contrast, traditional conservation methods may take more time, money and effort to have a transformative role in an ecosystem. Also, visitors to well-established nature reserves may learn about the benefits of conservation management, but may not observe the memorable, potentially rapid changes that reintroductions bring. Both traditional conservation and species reintroductions are beneficial to habitats, but Beavers and cattle might ‘rewild’ people’s minds as much as the landscapes they engineer.

How do people and organisations start rewilding?

The foundations of rewilding projects have many components; here are a few prominent examples I’ve come across over the past few years.

First, understand your land. What bird species are singing in the woodland? Why is that flower growing there? When and where does flooding take place, if at all? Collecting data on habitats, species and any natural features will influence your long-term management plan for your site, and the interventions needed to kickstart rewilding. You might use the help of the local community and experts, like ecologists, during this process.

Funding is also key to a project’s longevity. Wild Ken Hill also operates a commercially-successful regenerative farm and receives money from the Countryside Stewardship Scheme, as well from running guided tours. In London, the Mayor has granted over £2m to rewilding projects across the city through the Rewild London Fund since 2022, with both Beaver sites being beneficiaries. Although grants appear to be the main source of funding for London’s rewilding at the moment, perhaps we might see ecotourism or carbon credits growing in popularity in the near future, as urban rewilding gains momentum.

Engagement is another key pillar. From discussions with neighbouring landowners to workshops with local communities, working with key stakeholders may help to build consensus from an early stage and create new opportunities for the site. Perhaps a partnership with a local school could lead to conservation sessions for young people. For example, both Wild Ken Hill in Norfolk and Citizen Zoo in the Hogsmill Valley host schools, encouraging them to appreciate their local ecosystems, and allowing them to gain a valuable understanding of nature and its recovery.

With steps like these to secure a plan and its longevity, the road to rewilding can begin.

How you can support rewilding in city and country: Restore Nature Now march

Although rewilding in London has gained prominence very recently (and very quickly), we have not yet seen its long-term characteristics. Aside from differences in location, scale and age, the capital’s emerging rewilding network could take multiple pages from Wild Ken Hill’s successful book. As the afternoon, and my visit to the site, draw to a close, the Beavers continue building their dams, and the cows, their grazing. Imagine the impact these ecosystem engineers could have in our cities – revitalising our urban patchworks of green spaces, while reconnecting the hearts and minds of city-dwellers with their new landscapes.

Ahead of the General Election, we must call on our politicians to bring back biodiversity. Join us on the Restore Nature Now march in central London on 22nd June. Pledge to march here!

Kabir Kaul