Beckenham Place Park - Bluebells © Ben Stockwell
Categories: Rewilding925 words3.5 min read

Urban Rewilding – A World of Opportunity

DATE

19/03/2021

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Urban Rewilding – A World of Opportunity

Rewilding, like many concepts, is complex. It is synonymous with returning nature to a historical state and is often bemoaned for looking to the past and trying to create long lost ecosystems that are not fit for purpose in the modern world. However, the truth is humans have caused an irreversible change and 99% of the planet could never truly be ‘wild’ again. Wherever you go, humans have likely stood and through direct and indirect actions, altered the ecosystem. Where rewilding offers hope, however, is that if we provide the right conditions, nature can bounce back. While we may not ever recreate the same landscape we once had, we can look to the future to enjoy new diverse, resilient and functioning ecosystems.

Beckenham Place Park - Bluebells © Ben Stockwell

Beckenham Place Park’s bluebell woodlands showcase the pockets of incredible wildlife we have in urban areas © Ben Stockwell

In its infancy, rewilding focused on the three C’s: Cores, Corridors and Carnivores. This theory focused on large scale restoration of landscapes through the conservation of core habitats, such as national parks, linked up with corridors of viable habitat that allow animals to move freely throughout large swathes of land. Carnivores were envisaged as a vital component to driving trophic cascades (interactions that can alter entire ecosystems).

Yellowstone is often heralded as the most impressive and ‘complete’ example of a rewilding project, where reintroducing grey wolves to the national park led to a series of changes throughout the landscape – even changing the flow of rivers. Their absence had widespread impacts – the booming elk (Cervus canadensis) populations overgrazed trees, leading to a decline in bird species and prevented beavers damming the rivers. In turn, river flow sped up and banks began to erode. In 1995, wolves were returned and within 20 years, the ecosystem was flourishing again. Elk populations subsided and with that, willow and aspen trees recovered. Songbirds, eagles, foxes, badgers, and beavers returned. The latter began to dam the rivers again, changing their flow, slowing the speed of the water, creating vital wetland habitats in which a diverse range of species could thrive. A trophic cascade in action.

When you mention rewilding, however, I dare say not many urban landscapes spring to mind. While its original intention of landscape-scale restoration using grazing herbivores (and carnivores) may not be feasible in our towns and cities, by sticking to its core principles of increasing connectivity and restoring ecosystem functionality, we can make a big difference and help our wildlife to move through complex cityscapes.

In much the same way that the three C’s originally focused on connecting core habitats across vast rural areas, we must begin to look at our cities as a microcosm of this. Instead of agricultural fields and pockets of woodland connected by hedge lined A-roads and rivers, cityscapes contain a complex mishmash of ecosystems ranging from our windowsill planters right through to the 2500 acre Richmond Park, all interlinked with the web of networks we use to traverse the landscape every day. By managing these spaces with wildlife in mind, we can bolster their populations at each scale and help wildlife move through the cityscape with ease and hopefully bleed out into the wider countryside.

Simple acts, like planting wildflowers can provide a valuable food source for many insects, including the early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum) on the thistle flower photographed here © Ben Stockwell

Everyone, however, has a duty of care here and must play their part. Every small action, when weaved together can have a big impact on wildlife in our urban landscape. Personal choices, such as feeding the birds or growing wildflowers, combined with decisions over our public spaces, including planting more trees on our streets or leaving ‘wild’ areas in our parks, can increase the resilience and connectivity of our ecosystems for a variety of species, including birds, butterflies, bees and other insects. These are simple actions, that not only benefit wildlife, but us too. The impact of green spaces on our physical and mental health is well documented, and the COVID-19 pandemic has sparked our interest in the natural world. Conservation organisations fielded high numbers of calls and questions about local wildlife during the lockdowns and we seem to have developed a newfound appreciation for the great outdoors.

We must harness this if we are to make progress. This is especially true in urban areas, where most people live. On the face of it, a high population density may seem a hindrance to any progressive rewilding projects, but we believe this can be used to our advantage. Change happens with people power and where better to galvanise support than in our cities? Take our Water Vole Reintroduction Project. To date, over 100 volunteers have helped to coordinate the project, running a series of surveys, habitat restoration days, ongoing invasive species monitoring and a successful Crowdfunder (raising money for the voles themselves!). This is not to say rural projects do not garner the same support, but where urban areas have an advantage is a greater number of potential people to get involved. By rewilding people and their mindsets towards the natural world, we can make a huge difference both to the wildlife in our towns and cities, but also throughout the wider countryside as wildlife bleeds out.

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