November 29, 2020

Rewilding and construction: a self-sustaining symbiosis?

With the nationwide attention Isabella Tree’s bestseller Wilding has received, the creation of ‘Heal’ a charity crowdfunding large-scale purchase of land with the goal of rewilding it, and the transforming public attitudes to green spaces and nature during the Covid-19 lockdown, Harry James, Environment and Sustainability Advisor, believes the topic of returning to nature has never been stronger. Here he discusses how the construction industry, often seen as the antithesis to nature, fits within this space and how, by adopt rewilding principles, it can achieve Biodiversity Net Gain targets, carbon emissions reductions and transform its image.


Rewilding, one of the words of the moment it seems, has different meanings for different people. A topic of great controversy, for some it is a beacon of hope for nature and for others it is a symbol of overzealous conservationism harking back to a bygone era.

Rewilding is defined by Rewilding Britain as the ‘restoration of ecosystems where nature can take care of itself’[1]. It is the idea that when left alone, nature, ecosystems, and their billions of years of symbiotic evolution, can thrive with no, or minimal, human intervention. It is about helping nature to restore itself and letting the natural processes and functions of ecosystems, such as flood management, carbon sequestration, ecological balance and climate adaptation, thrive in a self-sustaining way, as they had prior to the large-scale human intervention of the past few centuries.

Rewilding can manifest itself in many ways and includes a broad spectrum of approaches. From the large-scale projects dedicated to reintroducing native species to the UK, such as beaver[2], lynx[3] and wolf, species made extinct in the UK within recent centuries; to simply allowing parcels of land to regrow and become self-sustaining.

Increase in popularity

Despite the furore that encircles the topic, rewilding has slowly been growing momentum within the UK in recent years. It has come to a head with the bestseller, Wilding, authored by Isabella Tree, and her account of turning Knepp Estate in West Sussex, a former farm ravaged by decades of intensive agriculture, into a flourishing wildland by allowing nature to restore itself. The creation of the charity Heal Rewilding, in March of this year, intends to use crowdfunding to buy ecologically depleted land across England, allowing the land to naturally recover, without planting nursery trees. Furthermore, the largest community buyout in southern Scotland is underway to purchase and convert Langholm Moor[4] into a nature reserve and white-tailed eagle, beaver and white stork reintroductions have captivated the public’s imagination for a wilder UK. This is not just a community-led idea, rewilding has had backing from the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party, with the Nature for Climate Fund included in the 2020 Budget[5].

With the onset of COVID-19, the lockdown has transformed public attitudes towards local green spaces, neighbourhood nature and wild species. We have seen people rushing to the Peak District and Snowdonia in record numbers as they reconnect with nature during the pandemic. Sightings of wildlife across the world in canals, rivers and city centres have gone viral, showing the public first-hand the ability of nature to recover in a short time; igniting calls of a greener ‘new normal’. Never in recent decades has there been a more vocal, fervent and sweeping call for environmental rehabilitation than today.

Benefits to construction

Whilst a wild environment can seem to contradict the inherent nature of the built environment, this need not be the case. By adopting principles of rewilding, there are myriad opportunities where the sector can benefit.

  • Biodiversity Net Gain

The landmark introduction of Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG), the mandatory 10% increase in biodiversity for new developments, will cause shockwaves through the sector. Ensuring BNG is a major challenge but adopting and promoting rewilding principles can simplify the process. Natural regeneration (when trees develop from seeds that have fallen from a nearby woodland) is much cheaper than planting nursery saplings, often better adapted to local conditions and have a better chance of survival and longevity[6]. Rewilded areas also generally have greater biodiversity improvements than heavily managed land. A looming question in BNG is the maintenance and management period after the development has been completed. By letting natural processes shape our landscapes and ecosystems, instead of active management that often requires high, recurrent costs[7], there is a potential for significant savings and better biodiversity. In a potentially slumped construction sector[8], can we afford to completely disregard the existing habitats on the land we develop?

  • Carbon sequestering

Planting trees has rightly been at the centre of our climate change debates, however a more holistic view than pure tree targets can show greater potential. Questions over the nursery sector’s capacity at producing enough saplings to meet the UK Climate Change Committee’s targets of 30,000 hectares of extra woodland per year must not be overlooked[9]. The quantity of carbon contained in the atmosphere increases by 4.3 billion tons every year. The world’s soils contain 1,500 billion tons of carbon in the form of organic material. Increasing the quantity of carbon contained in soils by just 0.4% a year – through restoring and improving degraded land – would halt the annual increase of CO2 in the atmosphere[10]. Could the public open spaces on developments become parcels of hyper-biodiverse carbon sinks, instead of manicured lawns and engineered spaces that require constant inputs and maintenance? This could have monumental positive impacts on Scope 3 emissions targets. 

  • ELMs

The forthcoming Environmental Land Management scheme is the post-Brexit subsidy for land managers, aimed at ensuring ‘public money for public goods’; subsidising land that performs environmental functions such as water storage and purification, pollination and carbon sequestering. Could parcels of rewilded lands on developments be attractive and an extra incentive to the purchasers of land?

  • Image

Arguably the most important factor of them all is the sector’s image. For so long, the construction sector has had the lions’ share of resentment for environmental degradation.

The construction sector can use this opportunity to display their commitment to the natural environment and show that in a world where humans are increasingly encroaching, that we can live in harmony. If we can embrace these changing societal views, land developers can take another step in revamping our image in society.

Challenges

Despite the positives, there are steep barriers to overcome with rewilding our land and developments. From the manicured hedgerows and immaculate lawns that cover the country, to the countless miles of engineered canals, straightened rivers and complex drainage systems, controlling nature and our landscapes is a quintessentially British notion. Since the vast landscape changes first implemented by the Victorians, our view of the countryside is that it should be tidy and sterile. We see decaying trees as eyesores instead of havens for fungi and their myriad ecological functions. We view scrubland as fringe wasteland, exiled to railway sidings, docks and abandoned quarries, where it could represent some of the most biodiverse parcels of land in urban areas, with 15% of all nationally scarce insects recorded on such brownfield sites[11].

Challenging these ingrained notions within us will present difficulties. As wild landscapes are inherently transitional, predictions on biodiversity outcomes can be tough. Additionally, the age-old struggle between wildlife and those who depend on the land for their livelihoods, such as farmers and gamekeepers, must not be disregarded. Any aspects of rewilding we choose to integrate into our developments, whether it is simply avoiding vegetation clearance for BNG targets or partnering with rewilding organisations, should consider all stakeholders’ viewpoints, as well as the holistic view of the environment as a whole.

Summary

The appetite for rewilding is only increasing and within the construction sector, we cannot resist this growing movement. There is no ‘one-size fits all’ approach but adopting a more holistic view of the environment and ecosystems can provide unprecedented benefits for the construction sector and pave the way for a more symbiotic relationship with the natural environment.


[1] https://www.rewildingbritain.org.uk/rewilding/rewilding-principles

[2] https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/saving-species/beavers

[3] http://www.lynxuk.org/

[4] https://www.eveningexpress.co.uk/news/scotland/new-nature-reserve-could-be-created-in-community-buyout/

[5] https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/news/budget-2020-significant-new-funding-needed-restore-nature-and-tackle-climate-change

[6] https://www.suffolkwildlifetrust.org/conservationadvice/woodlands-and-hedgerows/woodland-natural-regeneration

[7] https://rewildingeurope.com/what-is-rewilding/

[8] https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/may/06/uk-construction-sector-suffers-its-biggest-slump-on-record-coronavirus-lockdown

[9] Professor Christopher Collins, Natural Capital Committee

[10] https://www.4p1000.org/

[11] Wilding; Tree, Isabella