Innovation That Matters

Rebecca Wrigley of Rewilding Britain on Tackling Climate Change by Restoring Land

Wise Words

We spoke with Rewilding Britain's chief executive to understand rewilding's role in the climate crisis and how the organisation operates to create sustainable change.

With Britain being one of the world’s most nature-depleted countries, Rewilding Britain wants to see rewilding – the large-scale restoration of nature – flourish across the UK. The charity’s Rewilding Network is bringing together a wide range of major nature recovery sites, while its Wilder National Parks campaign is calling on the UK Government and devolved administrations to create nature-rich rewilding areas across public land in these precious places.

To help support this incredibly important work, we, along with our sister company Re_Set, recently announced a new partnership with Rewilding Britain, which will include financial support through our membership with 1% for the Planet. We will also take a collaborative approach to highlight Rewilding Britain’s vision and explore the ways in which we can protect and learn from our natural world.

In order to fully understand and appreciate the work that Rewilding Britain is doing and the people driving its mission, we recently spoke with its chief executive, Rebecca Wrigley.

Could you please provide a bit of an origin story of Rewilding Britain? How did it all start? 

The catalyst to setting up Rewilding Britain was George Monbiot’s book Feral. Its publication inspired an eclectic group of people to come together and ask ourselves “how can we make rewilding happen?”. We canvassed opinions about whether a new organisation was needed and, if so, what its unique contribution should be. Most people said yes and that it should focus on raising awareness and pushing the boundaries of the debate about rewilding whilst also inspiring rewilding in practice. And so in 2015, Rewilding Britain was born!  

What was your background prior to co-founding Rewilding Britain and how has it shaped your current work? 

I have been working in the conservation and community development sector for 30 years now across four different continents. For example, in Mexico, I worked for WWF on a forest conservation programme supporting local communities to develop the sustainable use of their land and natural resources.  And in Uganda, I was involved in building local community participation in decision-making.  During this time I have been lucky enough to have many experiences of wild nature — including watching gorillas in their rainforest habitat, seeing turtles hatch on the beach and diving with sharks. But more than anything it has taught me that people are part of nature and that if we are to find a positive future we need to find ways for both to flourish.  

One particular experience has stayed with me that can illustrate this. There is a small community called Ixtlan nestled in the mountains of Mexico. The community came together to plan the use of their land and its resources. They grow crops and keep livestock on some land, sustainably harvest timber from their native pine forests whilst protecting and restoring large areas of cloud and rainforest. But they are also entrepreneurial. They set up a sawmill and produced furniture from them timber, employed community members and invested in their future by supporting young people to gain the skills they need to stay and work in their communities.

For them what worked ecologically also worked economically by providing diversified jobs and income for the community. So I believe that we can find ways to address the climate and ecological emergencies that we are facing that also works for people and communities and the livelihoods that sustain them. 

What does success look like for Rewilding Britain? What are your key objectives at present? 

Our vision is to see rewilding flourishing across Britain – reconnecting us with the natural world, sustaining communities and tackling the climate emergency and the extinction crisis.  We are calling for 30 per cent of Britain to be rewilding by 2030, specifically including five per cent core rewilding areas (at least 1 million acres) where natural living systems are driving dynamic changes in ecosystems, flanked by 25 per cent nature recovery areas that allow for a mix of natural and human activities such as regenerative land uses and sustainable tourism. To this aim what we want to achieve over the next three years is:  

  1. Catalyse: At least 200k hectares of land and 12 marine areas are in process of rewilding with support through the collaborative Rewilding Network, where natural processes are beginning to be restored and nature-based economic opportunities established. 
  2. Influence: Rewilding is increasingly mainstreamed within government – particularly in how it delivers on its pledge to protect 30 per cent of Britain’s land and sea for nature by 2030 — and in other key organisational policies, with financial support available for its application.  
  3. Engage: Key audiences have increased awareness, understanding and engagement in rewilding and with Rewilding Britain, and are inspired to take action.   

The world we want to see encourages a relationship between people and the rest of nature where we all benefit and thrive. We want to see opportunities for communities to diversify and create sustainable, nature-based economies. We want to see people reconnecting with the wonders of wild nature, improving their physical and mental health. We see this transformation as a long-term commitment, secured for the benefit of future generations. 

The world we want to see is one of hope — where the incredible hum and thrum of life replaces pollution, decline and destruction. It’s a world where our soils are healthy, our rivers are clean, and our land and seas rich and diverse. And it’s a world we know is possible, if we only choose to make it happen… 

Through your work so far, are you seeing a genuine paradigm shift in how businesses and consumers approach rewilding in general? 

Yes. Five years ago rewilding was a new idea for most people – exciting for many and threatening to others. It certainly stimulated debate across the country. More than anything it started a shift in people’s perceptions of nature and how we use land, and what might be possible in the fight against climate change and species extinction. 

Today, rewilding is well on the way to becoming mainstream. We like to think we’ve played a part in making this happen by adopting an accepted definition of rewilding and ensuring it is more widely understood and defining a set of pragmatic principles and priorities to back this up. 

We’ve also widely promoted the positive benefits of rewilding on land and in seas and produced a wealth of research to evidence the positive impacts of rewilding and launching our Rewilding Network where landowners and project managers can connect and share rewilding advice, practical help and support.  

As a result, we’re now receiving an incredible number of enquiries from landowners, businesses, NGOs, local government and communities large and small wanting help and advice on rewilding. Over the last year alone more than 50 private landowners have contacted us with over 100,000 acres of land between them with potential for rewilding and over 385 people have joined our Rewilding Network.  

Within five years, this positive shift in attitudes and support for rewilding at all levels has been truly remarkable. Even our social media channels are buzzing and our e-newsletter continues to grow – showing the huge appetite for rewilding. Added to that, we’re also getting businesses who are inspired by the rewilding movement – creative industries, food and drink, tourism etc – keen to show their support and become a partner and champion for the cause. 

What are the key challenges you face in your efforts to restore and connect 30 per cent of Britain’s land by 2030? 

Setting the ambition of 30 per cent by 2030 is maybe the easy part – actually implementing it requires a level of integrated action that is much more challenging. It’s not simply a question of some big nature restoration projects linking up across the country — there’s a real need for different people and organisations to work together, to help different areas of land — in terms of ownership and in terms of location and habitats — to rewild, and to connect wherever possible. This requires a change of mindset for many, moving away from defined targets and outcomes. It also needs the right kind of incentives to make it a viable proposition. Some of this can be achieved through dialogue, but we also need to show what can happen, to help people to imagine what’s possible, and where change can benefit people and nature.  

Some of the challenges are inevitably political – but there are opportunities here in Britain too. There are lots of promises and pledges being made around 30×30, but without mandated action and financial incentives for those that need them, then these are empty ambitions. A lot of what Rewilding Britain does is to work behind the scenes with politicians and policy-makers (at Westminster and in devolved governments) to make sure rewilding is a recognised and incentivised process within land-use policy.  

We are pretty confident that the ambition is absolutely achievable, and it’s becoming increasingly important for us to play a role in helping others understand what they can do to make sure we get there as soon as possible.  

Re_Set and Springwise are proud to be partners with Rewilding Britain. Can you talk a bit about the importance of partnerships in reaching your goals and what you look to achieve through collaboration?        

Rewilding Britain is also proud of the partnership – and incredibly grateful for Re_Set’s support, financially and in terms of driving awareness and engagement with rewilding. We fundamentally believe that we all need to work together to address the climate emergency and the catastrophic extinction of species. This is why we work with a diverse and growing range of partners and allies to create a healthier, wilder future.

We also believe that local people working together and taking action in places dear to them is a powerful force for change. Partnerships across different sectors and in different communities of interest can be so valuable to driving awareness and change and helping to influence others too. We welcome the valuable role that Re_Set can play in helping rewilding flourish across Britain — especially a partner who shares the same values and vision as us. We’re excited to see where we can go! 

What keeps you motivated during times of frustration? 

I think that rewilding brings an incredible message of hope. During the difficult times that we have all faced over the last months and years – with COVID-19, the climate emergency and the biodiversity crisis – people have turned to nature more than ever for solace and inspiration. We are all part of nature, within its intricate web of life. And we know now more than ever that if nature heals, we heal. So I feel hugely privileged and also motivated by being part of an incredible team of people that are helping to make that happen. 

Who or what inspires you personally?  

This may seem obvious but I am hugely inspired by nature. From sitting on my Dad’s lap watching Attenborough programmes as a child, to breathlessly watching young beavers emerge from their lodge on the river Otter and snorkelling with basking sharks (I don’t know who’s mouth was wider open!). What truly moves and enthuses me has been sharing such experiences with the people I love and care about. And I would love for many others to have the privilege of having similar experiences on their doorstep. 

Do you have any other thoughts or wise words for aspiring purpose-driven entrepreneurs or environmental activists?  

I think rewilding brings a whole new world of potential entrepreneurial opportunities that harness the ingenuity of people in support of the genius of nature. We need to encourage a range of new nature-based enterprises – ones that help nature heal whilst supporting prosperous communities – to emerge and thrive across the country through supporting business innovation. These could be in anything from wildlife adventure tourism to seaweed harvesting, rewilding gin or furniture design using high quality locally grown timber.

There may even be products and services we haven’t even thought of yet!  I would love to see nature-based economies become a key part of a wider green recovery – and entrepreneurs are ideally placed to help drive that.