Rewilding and targets

A frequent criticism made of those in favour of ‘rewilding’ is that they are unable to set conservation targets. If the system is driven by natural processes – if it’s natural, not human-controlled – how can ‘we’ know that the project is a ‘success’?

This seems to be a peculiarly British obsession, which has rubbed off to some extent on other countries through the CBD and its National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan requirements. The target-led obsession is displayed most starkly in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan process. Starting in the 90s with the publications of the Biodiversity Challenge Group, UK conservation adopted the idea that each and every habitat, and each and every species that was big enough and cuddly enough to be noticeable, or was in trouble, should have a Habitat Action Plan or a Species Action Plan for it, within which shall be set explicit targets for its area, population, range etc.

The UK BAP process consumed the better part of many careers and thankfully seems to have lost momentum. People got pissed off with so many meetings at which loads of bored souls were set the task of defining precisely how many hectares of CG1 grassland shall be created over the next five years in Purbeck. Or how many Bittern Units were required to ‘deliver’ a fixed number of bitterns in x years. Having gone through such torture, the various action plan groups were then set the task of reviewing all the targets, again and again.

The target-led approach sort of reflects the tight management of habitats and species that characterise UK conservation: most UK wildlife survives on farmland, and usually on patches of ‘old farmland’ spared from agricultural improvement but now in need of very tightly prescribed conservation management to maintain it as it was when the long vanished farming systems sustained it.

By necessity, a Habitat Action Plan for chalk grassland in Purbeck will contain prescriptive targets for maintaining the area of particular chalk grassland sub-communities. We are aiming to ‘lock’ these habitats and their constituent species in place and so to sustain the biodiversity that is assembled within these habitat patches.

This is absolutely right because if we get the management wrong, we run the risk of losing wildlife communities in the only patches of decent habitat remaining. Most terrestrial wildlife in the British lowlands is associated with old pre-industrial-farming systems.

But we also want to expand habitat, and perhaps less fortunate has been the habit of assuming that newly created habitat should take the form of such surviving ‘old farming’ patches – i.e. that we need targets to expand, say, CG1 chalk grassland specifically (rather than just open grassland on calcareous soils). Or hedgerows – we have targets for, and spend a huge amount of cash on, extending the length of old-farming style hedgerows.

Perhaps the most extreme (or explicit) example of this target-led approach in the UK is the task set for Natural England (NE) to maintain or restore Sites of Special Scientific Interest at or to ‘Favourable Condition’. To check that NE is delivering on its service-level agreement to government, it instigated Common Standards Monitoring – a process whereby very precise ‘attributes’ were identified for each distinctive habitat type found across the suite of SSSIs in England. So, you have attributes like percentage of bare ground, percentage cover of a given plant species, population size of a given bird species. And, with targets for these attributes set, each and every SSSI unit is monitored now and then.

These kinds of precise target setting exercises sort of work where, as I say, the aim is to ‘lock’ surviving patches of particular old farming habitats in place, with particular plant and animal communities.

Do we need such precise targets when we’re in ‘expansive’ mode – when we’re aiming to expand biodiversity beyond – outside of – old farmland habitat patches?

I’ve just returned from Colombia, where I looked at the efforts of a local conservation charity to secure patches of montane forest habitat critical to the survival of endemic species in areas undergoing active deforestation. Having purchase patches of habitat and added these to their expanding nature reserve network, these conservation charities don’t then set targets for intensive management. These organisations are also acquiring cleared areas between habitat patches. Here, they engage in assisted natural habitat regeneration: basically, they exclude livestock, foster any ‘volunteer’ shrub and tree seedlings that appear, and sometimes harvest seedlings of the less dispersive species from other areas and plant these. Other than that, they allow these areas to develop in their own way, including under the influence of seed dispersers, predators and herbivores . They’re not overly concerned about precisely how the habitat developed, what the population size of a given frog or nematode might be at a given date, etc.

Are the Colombians getting it wrong? And, if it’s right for them for adopt such a relaxed approach to biodiversity recovery, why not us?

I’d argue that it’s right a proper to have pretty explicit targets for the condition of SSSIs and other bits of surviving old farmland of high biodiversity value. I think it would be wrong to abandon tightly prescribed management of these sites – reckless in fact – other than where there’s a good case for doing so.

But I suggest we don’t need to be consumed by endless targets and infinite monitoring in new conservation landscapes – rewilding areas. If we must have targets, maybe ‘area’, i.e. to ‘rewild 5,000ha’, or a ‘target’ population density of a few influential beasts, say ‘roughly x deer per square km capable of supporting roughly x breeding female lynx across xx,000ha’. One could set and monitor such targets without endless target-setting and review meetings, thus freeing up staff time for actually delivering stuff.


2 thoughts on “Rewilding and targets

  1. You make some good points here Steve and you nail it at the end where you say that where SSSI’s and other designations are intended to preserve particular species or assemblages that are rare or at risk then we’d be reckless to abandon the current BAP target-based management. However, as you and I both know, these have often been applied willy-nilly across a range of landscapes and habitats that were never natural in the first place, with the result that management under Favourable Conservation Status (FCS) principles to achieve BAP targets is just keeping them that way. This is then preventing natural processes from allowing them to “rewild” when the management regime that created the conditions for which they were originally designated have long since ceased (traditional grazing and burning regimes on margin lands comes to mind here). This itself must be considered unnatural and is keep the land in stasis when what it wants to do is progress to something else via the processes of natural succession.

    So, a few points here that are worth making about rewilding and the current status quo of nature conservation in the UK (and elsewhere)…

    a) Rewilding is a process which is “nature-led” and therefore doesn’t take well to the “bean-counting” mentality of BAP target setting. Humans set targets, nature doesn’t. Therefore, what we end up with under a rewilding scenario might not be what we expect, but it will be wild and it will be natural.

    b) We shouldn’t confuse biodiversity with wild and natural, they are different things, though they are inevitably linked at some spatial scales. Research we did at Leeds (see Dymond et al. 2003 shows that at global scales biodiversity is driven by warmth and moisture availability, while at local scales it is driven by micro-scale processes (disturbance, micro-climates, soil moisture, etc.). Only at regional scales is there a relationship with wilderness quality. Counting biodiversity is easy enough, but monitoring wildness and naturalness isn’t, especially when human management constantly intervenes.

    c) Rewilding will inevitably mean either losses of biodiversity or biodiversity swapping. Many species for which BAP targets are set are only in those locations in the first place because of human management and the landscape niches that creates, or have been displaced from their favoured habitats elsewhere (e.g. farmland birds and ground-nesting waders on grouse moors). Allowing these landscapes to rewild might involve some species being lost or displaced as they are out-competed by species that the removal of human management will allow to flourish, therefore replacing one biodiversity with another.

    d) Rewilding can also take place anywhere along a continuum of spatial scales, approaches and levels, and so can help with BAP targets as well depending on how it is applied, the level set and over what landscapes. However, we should be minded to just monitor rather than actively manage for BAP targets and only intervene if there are specific problems with non-native invasive species for example. BAP targets ought to be flexible and moved or reset to suit the developing habitats as natural succession proceeds under rewilding landscapes.

    We have suggested previously that in those cases where it is possible and appropriate that the FCS ought to be natural succession (i.e. process driven rather than management in stasis). See the document “A Vision for a Wilder Euope” while I have written about the rewilding continuum in ECOS, see:


  2. Great comments, Steve, thank you. I’m not really sure what we should do to surviving ‘old farmland’ patches in the longer-term, once land sparing and large-scale habitat expansion takes hold (I’m an optimist – it will take place!). I live on the chalk, and all around me are patches of SSSI chalk grassland, set in a sea either of a) arable, b) previously ‘improved’ pasture on the flatter bits or c) arable reversion to species-poor tussocky grassland. Much of the biodiversity is obviously confined to the surviving ‘old farmland’ chalk grassland patches. The improved grassy bits in particular aren’t doing anything useful to anyone other than the land owner, who gets farm subsidies for keeping it open, topping it off once a year, tossing out the odd herd of cattle when there’s nowhere else to stick them. What to do in this scenario if subsidies go and the farmers give up? I suggest two things: 1) carry on with prescriptive management of the ‘old farming’ chalk grassland patch, because that’s where all the biodiversity is and to simply let go would result in avoidable loss of biodiversity; 2) instigate rewilding type management of the useless, species-poor grassland that surrounds the intensively managed chalk grassland patch – stick out some proto-aurochs and equids of some sort to compliment the deer and see how the grassy habitat develops. Being a half-open landscape sort of a person, my guess is that the grazers and browsers will together maintain a half-open-sort-of-a-landscape, and species will gradually shuffle out from the old farming chalk grassland patch. In the longer-term, once we know how the expanded grassy landscape has developed, and whether open habitat species have spread out and are holding g their own, we might wish to relax the management of original chalk grassland patch too.


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