I grew up in a farming community in the east of England. The hedges were ground out and the flat land was optimized for industrial agriculture, but on the edges were forgotten woodlands and marshy creeks filled with life. I’ve had a lifelong desire to see life spread from those margins and reinvigorate our world. I spent many years working on various farms, where I heard varying viewpoints and saw change begin to occur.
You may not know this, but the British Isles are among the most nature-depleted places in the world. The country is in a dire ecological state – its woodlands cleared, its bogs drained, and its countryside coated in a layer of toxic chemicals.
Since coming to British Columbia at the start of 2023, I have been grateful to experience pockets of true wilderness, and I’ve met people who spent their childhood summers in remote cabins surrounded by forests, something you could only daydream about in the UK. Bears and cougars still roam in many places; even in Victoria, it is not unheard-of to see orcas at close proximity.
Coming from an ecosystem that has slowly had its diversity chipped away, I feel it’s important to warn of the losses created by monocultures.
However, there are also major signs of trouble in BC, like rampant wildfires and catastrophic floods in recent years, and the loss of old-growth forests – major issues that are undoubtedly interconnected. Coming from an ecosystem that has slowly had its diversity chipped away, I feel it’s important to warn of the losses created by monocultures. Replacing diverse forests with just a few commercially beneficial species is the same mistake that has been made across the UK. The outcome is always the same: some species adapt, but more sensitive creatures and plants struggle in this newly homogenized world.
In Britain, we arrived in this position slowly. Over thousands of years, the forests were cut back, grazing animals gained ascendancy, predators were hunted to extinction. In BC, although centuries of logging have taken their toll, the balance is still in favour of the wild.
In many ways the west of the UK is very similar to the Pacific Northwest. Both are defined by their mild and wet climates. Both areas have been used for, and depleted by, extractive industries. These regions are not populated by people making millions, but rather by people with strong ties to their locality.
Rewilding in Dartmoor
Before I came to Canada, I worked on a rewilding project in Dartmoor National Park in the southwest of England. Centuries of overgrazing have left these hills naked. On either side of this project were fields stocked with hungry sheep; across the valley was a dense stand of western hemlock, planted so it could be chewed up and pressed into paper.
The project focused on restoring a former forestry plantation, with the help of Eurasian beavers and a lot of positive human activity. A valley that was all mashed stumps and churned ground was transformed into a mosaic of habitats and a richness of colour, even in winter, its most dormant period. The call of the nuthatch can now be heard. In the spring, wetlands formed by the hardworking beavers house an abundance of insect life. Scarlet elfcups grow on fallen mossy logs. The wildness has shown its resilience.
Based on my experience with rewilding projects, I believe the greatest challenge is to convince divided rural citizens to embrace the changes that habitat restoration has to offer. In some cases, these divisions are due to insensitive campaigning from well-meaning outsiders. In others it is due to entrenched views around climate change. Creating viable employment options and meeting people with respect is of utmost importance.
Ecological restoration lessons for BC from the UK
British Columbia, with its rural communities formed of logging, fishing, and mining families, is similar to the west of the UK, where people have raised sheep for centuries. These are good people who work incredibly hard to make a living; most are not wealthy. They have strong ties to their locality. Any rewilding project must be sensitive to their traditions and their needs.
Like the UK, BC faces many challenges: restoring diversity to second-growth forests, protecting and restoring herring and salmon populations, protecting water quality so that bivalves and molluscs retain healthy populations, and more. The seas are rich, but they can’t be exploited endlessly; if you do, the result is an ecosystem like the North Sea. It once supported an enormous herring run that whole communities would follow down the east coast throughout the winters. So many fish were caught that they were used as fertilizer on the fields. That abundance is long gone now.
BC, which still has large predators, herbivores, and sea mammals, is in a position of relative strength, but if the province continues endless extraction and the manipulation of waterways, BC will eventually need to restart its wild pulse.
As the people calling for change, we must sell our vision to even the most skeptical of people. I believe the answer is to map out a more hopeful future.
As the people calling for change, we must sell our vision to even the most skeptical of people. I believe the answer is to map out a more hopeful future. Rewilding was initially largely dismissed in the UK, but over the last year or so, the movement has shifted into the mainstream. Hundreds of projects are creating new and meaningful work for people who want to restore the hills, valleys, and seabeds that once held so much for so many.
The time to start is now. I believe rewilding is feasible – in fact, it is exciting. If we want to ensure a successful transition to a more sustainable economy, we have to convey that excitement and bring everyone along with us. The most important thing to remember is that hope is infectious. If we can harness it, in the UK, BC, and around the world, we have the chance to recreate something beautiful.
Jasper Pryor is a young English environmental writer. He hopes to share his passion for wilderness with others.