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.