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19 January 2022

India Bourke

Why rewilding isn’t just for toffs

Small-scale farmers can play their part in conservation – Monty Don risks putting them off.

I usually consider myself “full Monty” – the UK’s leading writer and broadcaster about gardens, Monty Don is a brilliant advocate for many things green and growing. From his campaign to end the use of peat compost to his call for more community gardens, the Gardener’s World presenter has been an undeniable force for good in British environmentalism. But this week he needs a dressing down.

Speaking in an interview with the Times, Don has decried the government’s new scheme to pay landowners to rewild the landscape by setting aside land for nature. Plans to provide up to £800m a year for projects that will help restore around 30,000 hectares of English countryside were condemned by the BBC presenter as being for “toffs”, or for others with access to “thousands of acres” and a “private income”.

It is true that the rewilding movement is supported by some prominent former Etonians, such Ben Goldsmith, brother of Zac Goldsmith. And if the strictest definition of rewilding is followed, then large swathes of land are necessary: the recent government funding for landscape recovery will require individual projects to cover “at least 500 hectares”. 

But Monty Don’s comments also suggest he understands rewilding in the narrowest of ways. As numerous existing projects in the UK show, rewilding is already under way in many forms. A new book by photographer Jo Metson Scott, People in Rewilding, documents the varied initiatives that exist across the UK; from teenage amphibian breeders in a Staffordshire back garden, to community schemes that are working with farmers not against them. The RSPB’s landscape restoration project at Haweswater in the Lake District, for example, is large at 1,483 hectares, yet could hardly be said to be being run by “toffs”. In Scotland, meanwhile, a fundraising initiative in Langholm has secured Scotland’s biggest community land buyout for nature.

Reading between the lines of Don’s interview, its seems that in directing his ire at the very rich, he intended to come out in support of small-scale and often struggling farmers – many of whom fear rewilding initiatives as yet another change in a long line of top-down policy that has seen their livelihoods and communities suffer. 

But in implying a hard distinction between landscape-scale rewilding efforts and smaller-scale nature recovery, Don perhaps makes his most dangerous blunder of all: alongside the funding for landscape-scale recovery, the government is also promising an equal sum for “local nature recovery”, aimed at tree planting and habitat creation. This is not rewilding in its strictest definition, but it is part of the same family. Don’s comments risk fuelling a divide between farmers and conservationists – a divide that money for nature recovery holds a hope of healing.

This is not to say that the government is off the hook: there is a way to go before its plans are fully clarified and can be properly assessed. But at a time when Britain feels more racked by division than ever, a movement that can help reconnect people to their landscape needs support – not a virtue-signalling attack.

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[See also: Is the UK’s post-Brexit farming plan truly green?]

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