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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 journalist, activist and polemicist

Guardian journalist, activist and polemicist, whose bestselling books include Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain; The Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order and most recently Out of the Wreckage, which argues for a new politics based on scientific findings proving that humans are by nature supreme altruists and cooperators. He is author of the forthcoming book This Can't Be Happening, a call to action on climate change to be released in September 2021.
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 diplomat and bestselling author

Conservative MP and bestselling author. His career has included a 6,000-mile trek through Afghanistan where he founded an NGO, and an official posting in wartorn Iraq. He has presented television documentaries on subjects including Lawrence of Arabia and Afghanistan. His books include The Prince of the Marshes and Can Intervention Work (co-authored with Gerald Knaus)

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.