Poking at the ordure with a stick, Cipollone pointed out the beech mast and berries on which the bear had fed. He used two twigs to bring a piece of scat up toward his nose. The digestive system of the bear never does a very thorough job on the berries, he explained, as he inhaled the faintly fruity aroma.
“It’s like a fine wine,” he said with pride. A healthy pile of scat meant that at least one bear was thriving.
Rewilding is not just about saving charismatic animals, as Wouter Helmer, a co-founder of the Netherlands-based Rewilding Europe, is eager to point out. To him, this practice, which developed in response to theories about the harms of fragmented habitats, is as much about restoring natural processes as it is about saving wolves and bears.
Helmer views wild nature through a characteristically Dutch lens of free-flowing rivers, sedimentation, and floods. “Landscape should surprise you,” he says. “Give nature the tools to express itself.” The underlying systems deserve free rein as much as the creatures that pad across their surface.
But Helmer admits that restoring natural processes sometimes requires a heavy human hand. Permanently removing selected dikes in the Netherlands so that rivers can flood, for example, can mean weeks of earth-moving using heavy machinery. Even then, nature is not always left entirely to its own devices. In one case, a municipality wanting to rewild a river struck an agreement that allows a brick-making company to come back in 10 years to dig clay out of the new floodplain.
If these human-manipulated landscapes really count as rewilded, then wild no longer means what it did when conservationists such as Aldo Leopold first championed the idea in the 1930s. It is no longer a synonym for untouched. An uninterrupted lineage connecting rivers and the animals walking their banks to the evolutionary dynamics of the Pleistocene no longer exists. But thanks in part to Helmer’s organization, there is a resurgence of interest in restoring wildness across Europe. This new view values ecological systems acting as much as possible outside of human control, even if they’re not historically pure.
A few hundred miles away from Rewilding Europe’s Dutch headquarters, Charlie Burrell and Isabella Tree are two decades into a conservation experiment at Knepp Castle Estate in West Sussex. This highly tamed agricultural belt south of London might seem too heavily managed to support anything wild, and the experiment is riven with questions about whether Knepp’s land can ever really reach that mark: Conservation purists point out that humans have reshaped the land substantially through farming since medieval kings hunted Knepp’s woods. But Burrell and Tree don’t care about the purists.
As Tree describes in her book Wilding, the heavy clay soil of Knepp, Burrell’s family land, was never very well suited for an arable farm. There was a reason the local Sussex dialect possessed 30 different words for mud. Inspired by a site they visited in the Netherlands, Burrell and Tree wondered if allowing the estate to rewild would offer them a viable economic future.