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The Battle for the Countryside: Britain Should Rewild its Uplands

Four speakers who care passionately about the countryside debate how we should manage it.

Imagine if swathes of the British countryside were allowed to be wild once again, if trees and rare plants could flourish and beavers, boars and white-tailed eagles could retake their place in the ecosystem. That’s the goal of the growing numbers of nature-lovers who support the idea of rewilding Britain’s uplands. We tend to think of these uplands as ‘wild’ and ‘natural’. But in fact, as the rewilders point out, they are entirely man-made, the result of clearances by man to make way for millions of sheep whose grazing over the last 200 years has rendered the land bare. Sheep farming, once a major source of Britain’s wealth, is now largely uneconomic and depends on billions of pounds of subsidies. But where rewilding is taking place, in Britain and in Europe, a boom in tourism is providing a more sustainable local economy. We must make space for wild nature in places where farming does not make sense.

That’s romantic tosh, say the opponents of rewilding. People matter too, and the idea that we should do away with traditional ways of life for the sake of wild bilberries and wolves is getting things out of proportion. Get rid of the farms in the uplands and you will destroy not just the livelihoods of farmers, shepherds and vets, but also the village schools, shops and pubs that are at the heart of rural communities. Yes, upland sheep farms are subsidised but so is almost every other kind of agriculture. And do we really want rampant scrub to replace peaceful scenes of grazing sheep and gambolling lambs, and introduce dangerous animals who will all too soon encroach upon the outskirts of our towns and villages?

Intelligence Squared brought together four speakers who care passionately about the countryside but disagree profoundly on how we should manage it.


For the motion

Mark Cocker

Author and naturalist

Acclaimed author and naturalist. In his latest book, Our Place: Can We Save Britain’s Wildlife Before It Is Too Late?, he argues that our world has become increasingly ‘denatured’ – bare of flowers and animals and birdsong – and he examines the threat to the British countryside posed by agribusiness and landed estates.

George Monbiot

Guardian columnist, environmental campaigner and author of Regenesis: Feeding the World without Devouring the Planet.

Author, Guardian columnist and environmental campaigner. His bestselling books include Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea and Human Life, Heat: How We Can Stop the Planet Burning, and Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis. He co-wrote the concept album Breaking the Spell of Loneliness with musician Ewan McLennan, and has made a number of viral videos. One of them, adapted from his 2013 TED talk, How Wolves Change Rivers, has been viewed on YouTube over 40 million times. Another, on Natural Climate Solutions, which he co-presented with Greta Thunberg, has been watched over 60 million times. His new book is Regenesis: Feeding the World without Devouring the Planet. 
Against the motion

Minette Batters

President of the National Farmers' Union

President of the NFU, which represents agriculture and horticulture in England and Wales. She runs a tenanted family farm in Wiltshire which includes cattle, sheep and arable. She co-founded the campaigns ‘Ladies in Beef’ and the ‘Great British Beef Week’.

Rory Stewart

Former Conservative government minister, whose new book is Politics On the Edge: A Memoir from Within

Former UK Cabinet as Secretary of State for International Development, and before that Prisons Minister, Minister for Africa, Minister for Development, Environment Minister and Chair of the Defence Committee. He ran against Boris Johnson for the leadership of the Conservative Party in 2019. Earlier in his career he was briefly in the British Army, before serving as a diplomat in Indonesia, the Balkans and Iraq, establishing and running a charity in Afghanistan, and holding a chair at Harvard University. His 21-month 6,000-mile walk across Asia, including Afghanistan, is recorded in his New York Times bestseller, The Places in Between. His other books include Occupational Hazards, and The Marches. His new book is Politics On the Edge: A Memoir from Within. Stewart is now the president of the non-profit organisation GiveDirectly, a visiting fellow at Yale's Jackson School and the co-host with Alastair Campbell of the UK's leading podcast The Rest Is Politics.  

Jonathan Dimbleby

Broadcaster, documentary maker and author

Broadcaster, documentary maker and author. He has chaired BBC Radio 4’s topical discussion programme ‘Any Questions?’ since 1987.