February 1, 2023 | By:

‘Rewilding’ Ambiguity 2: Impressions of an American in Denmark

Conservation grazing to maintain open landscape on Danish island of Nyord (photo: author)

Conservation grazing to maintain open landscape on Danish island of Nyord (Photo: Kate McFarland)

In the last instalment of “Take Back Rewilding,” I presented a case that ‘rewilding’ is ambiguous. Specifically, the North American and European uses of ‘rewilding’ should be considered to differ in meaning, since these uses correspond to distinct traditions in conservation and to markedly different prototypical projects. In that post, I considered famous exemplars of European “rewilding” – naturalistic grazing – such as the Netherlands’ Oostvaardersplassen and England’s Knepp Estate. (Note that the claim here is that the types of projects taken as canonical examples of “rewilding” differ significantly and systematically. It is not to say that ‘rewilding’ is never used in Europe to refer to projects other than naturalistic grazing; the latter is, however, the idea most prominently associated with the term, in my experience and that of numerous other commentators.)

However, it was my experience in Denmark that provoked my concern that ‘rewilding’ is transatlantically ambiguous. What eventually clued me into the ambiguity hypothesis was the way that the new context influenced my own willingness to verbally endorse “rewilding.” Prior to leaving the US, I was happy to agree to the sentence “I support rewilding.” However, when I was in Denmark, I was unwilling to tell conservationists “I support rewilding,” since I would be interpreted as declaring my support for naturalistic grazing, and I have yet to be convinced that I ought to support this practice, especially with the zeal that it is pursued in Denmark and elsewhere in Europe. It’s not that I was truthful in the US but a liar in Denmark or vice versa; it’s that I realise that the sentence “I support rewilding” would be interpreted as entailing different things in the respective contexts. In this post, I will back up and revisit the learning experiences that brought me to this point.  

The author in Denmark's North Zealand area, the region that would ignite her desire to live abroad and, ultimately, to'take back rewilding.'

The author in Denmark’s North Zealand area, the region that would ignite her desire to live abroad and, ultimately, to ‘take back rewilding.’

Denmark will always have a special place in my heart as the country in which I became aware of the real-world possibility of car-free rural living – an experience that upended my life by rendering me incapable to accept any other lifestyle, even if it meant leaving my homeland, living abroad on tourist visas, and spending most of my time on a continent with nothing analogous to North America’s bold, inspiring, and steadfastly ecocentric rewilding movement. I’d hoped to encounter a Danish or European organisation that could inspire me as much as The Rewilding Institute did back in my motherland. I never found that. I did learn that forests are surprisingly unpopular in Danish conservation, that domestic cattle are surprisingly popular, and that one cannot use the word ‘rewilding’ to indicate interest in large-scale conservation efforts involving habitat connectivity, large carnivores, and the absence of agriculture or other human use, since in Denmark the word ‘rewilding’ merely denotes a specific approach to the use of grazing animals to prevent the growth of vegetation (“naturlige græsning”). The approach was, moreover, blandly functional; the idea of a moral duty to respect for self-willed land never seemed to surface.

In fact, I found myself largely sympathetic with an opinion piece titled “Naturnationalparker, nej tak. Rewilding hører ikke hjemme i Danmark” (January 2022), including the specific unease at the thought of Tisvilde Hegn, a forest that was very special to me, being ravaged by livestock. And when one reads how the author defines ‘rewilding,’ it should be clear why my uneasiness about that thing is consistent with my support of what Dave Foreman had in mind when he introduced the term: the Danish practice is said to “involve fencing, for example, horses, cows, moose, or bison in forests and letting them live on what they find without any kind of care or supplemental feeding … It is called rewilding, even though neither horse nor cows are wild.” In retrospect, my entire argument for the semantic ambiguity of ‘rewilding’ could have rested on such a quotation followed by a mic drop. 

Nonetheless, I will describe a few more of my discoveries as an American in Denmark: 

1. MANY instances of domestic cattle on “protected” land to “help nature” by “preventing the growth of trees and bushes.” From the outset, I found this bizarre. I’d always taken for granted that there was ample scientific evidence that the cattle industry was detrimental to the environment, and that afforestation was generally a sign of ecological recovery, and it was a little shocking to find signage that presupposed that the regeneration of trees was a bad thing that should be prevented – as though this were simply common knowledge. On the other hand, I did realise that many species do prefer grassland and other types of open landscapes to forest, and back in Ohio I never protested the use of prescribed burns or other forms of human management to maintain such landscapes. So, despite scepticism, I tried to give conservation grazing the benefit of the doubt – but, damn, there was A LOT of it.

I mention this not because these run-of-the-mill conservation grazing plots were labelled ‘rewilding’ but precisely because they weren’t. To understand what is called ‘rewilding’ within Europe, one must also understand how pervasive the practice of conservation grazing is. My American friends find it strange when I tell them tales of foreign lands where conservation areas are full of domestic livestock, yet in Denmark this is an established practice. 

Protected lichen heath on Anholt, resulting from massive deforestation of the island (photo: author)

Protected lichen heath on Anholt, resulting from massive deforestation of the island (Photo: Kate McFarland)

2. Anti-afforestation efforts to protect an extremely degraded landscape on the remote island of Anholt (which is otherwise hands-down among my favourite places I’ve lived). In the case of Anholt, there is no doubt that the expansive lichen heath (called Ørkenen or “The Desert”) was originally covered in forest, prior to its near-total deforestation at the hands of humans. Despite this history, Ørkenen is now praised as a unique landscape and conservation priority. I describe this case at length in “In Memory of Anholt as I Never Knew Here” (July 2022). My fondness for Anholt, and subsequent heartbreak over the force subjugation of the island’s landscape, left me with deep scepticism of the European conservation industry and its emphasis on the preservation of open landscapes, especially as I now realise that Ørkenen is merely an extreme instance of a general trend of preserving degraded landscapes like heath.

Once again, the relevance here isn’t that the subjugation of Anholt was labelled ‘rewilding’ – it wasn’t – but that this case study illuminates more background information that may be useful to contextualise “rewilding” in Europe: organisations like Rewilding Europe are helping to perpetuate a longer-standing and more widespread fixation on preserving open landscapes.

3. Molslaboratoriet. Molslaboratoriet, a 120-hectare enclosure in Nationalpark Mols Bjerge, brands itself as a “rewilding experiment” on the basis that Galloway cattle and Exmoor ponies have been introduced into the enclosure, where they live year-round without supplemental feeding. However, in compliance with national law, the fenced livestock are monitored on a daily basis, and sick or starving animals are removed (and park officials accept calls from visitors to check on animals of concern). Due to the latter policies, Molslaboratoriet lacks the particularly controversial aspect of Oostvaardersplassen (OVP) – the presence of sick and starving horses and cows left to die within the enclosure, their carcasses in plain view of visitors. This, of course, also removes part of what might have been said to have made OVP “wild” or “natural” in its original incarnation, moving in the direction of human management and plain ol’ animal husbandry. (Despite this, Molslaboratoriet remains controversial for lack of attention to its herbivore herds, with detractors claiming to have seen starving and suffering cows or horses at the park, at least in comments left on Danish conservation-related social media pages.)

Molslaboratoriet, one of Denmark's flagship "rewilding" (naturalistic grazing) sites (photo: author)

Molslaboratoriet, one of Denmark’s flagship “rewilding” (naturalistic grazing) sites (Photo: Kate McFarland)

Within Denmark, Molslaboratoriet seems to be the most well-known prototype of so-called “rewilding” – perhaps along with bison introduction on Bornholm, another stereotypical case of introducing large herbivores (sans carnivores) for the express purpose of preventing the vegetational succession that would naturally occur in the absence of “humans, livestock, or machines” (as described on the page linked above). But Bornholm is way out there and really basically Sweden, and thus it was never so much the focus of my thought.

4. Lille Vildmose. Jutland’s raised bog Lille Vildmose was the first European Rewilding Network project that I visited, although I hadn’t realised it at the time of my visit, and the word ‘rewilding’ was not prominent on the park’s signage (as far as I noticed). What was most shocking to me was the description of the LIFE+ Nature project to restore the bog, which included the entrapment of a population of red deer in a fenced enclosure for the purpose of suppressing the growth of birch trees and other woody vegetation. The reintroduction of moose – the specific project vaunted by Rewilding Europe – was to serve the same purpose. Unlike Anholt’s Ørkenen, the formation of the raised bog was not itself a product of extractivism but natural geological causes, and the LIFE+ initiative aims to mitigate degradation of the bog landscape by anthropogenic causes, chiefly drainage for agriculture. The claim is that birch and other trees would not have grown on the bog but for the drainage, and that the tree growth leads to further draining of the bog – which is why conservationists desire to remove trees from the area, whether directly or through the service of cervids.

I imagine that the description “reintroduction of moose to Lille Vildmose” would strike a North American audience as a more-or-less familiar example of rewilding – especially in contrast to domesticate-reliant projects like OVP, Knepp, and Molslaboratoriet – since the project does indeed involve the reintroduction of a native charismatic species, Alces alces. But context and motive also matter. Typical of “rewilding” in Europe, the reintroductions are driven by the recognition that large herbivores can be useful organic tools for restoration of an open landscape. The moose, like the red deer, have been introduced not to counteract the extirpation of native species per se, but to counteract the literally downstream effects of agriculture drainage (i.e. tree growth). As such, they are fenced within the areas of the park that they’ve been enlisted to “restore” (entailing, for one, that the moose are not free to so much as wander outside the enclosure to enjoy the more liberal laws on alcohol sales that no doubt enticed them to agree to relocate from Sweden to Denmark in the first place). 

Meanwhile, while corridors are thus purposefully absent, carnivores are neither encouraged nor excluded – according to an interview with Aage V. Jensen Naturfond’s Jacob Palsgaard Andersen regarding the sighting of a wolf in Lille Vildmose (“Ulv set i Lille Vildmose”). Andersen admits that Aage V. Jensen Naturfond makes no efforts to attract wolves to its conservation areas and that the organisation is neither a “supporter” nor “opponent” of wolves in Denmark. It is difficult to imagine a North American rewilding organisation declaring such a non-committal position on wolves, especially in an area where wolves have already been beginning to reestablish themselves. 

Tree-felling to preserve raised bog landscape at Denmark's Lille Vildmose (photo: author)

Tree-felling to preserve raised bog landscape at Denmark’s Lille Vildmose (Photo: Kate McFarland)

5. Debates about “rewilding” that would seem utterly incoherent or nonsensical if we were to assume that the speakers were using the word ‘rewilding’ in the sense of Foreman, Soulé, Noss, and other American pathbreakers. For me, this linguistic evidence was the initial giveaway that ‘rewilding’ is simply a semantically ambiguous term. I hope that my descriptions of particular projects and prototypes are useful for something, but as far as the overarching argument that ‘rewilding’ is ambiguous, nothing more is needed than to cite local sources such as the aforementioned “Rewilding hører ikke hjemme i Danmark” article or – the one that first got to me – Danmarks Naturfredningsforening’s statement piece “Ingen rewilding-dyr skal dø af sult eller lide i naturen” (“No rewilding – animals will die of hunger or suffer in nature”). Danmarks Naturfredningsforening (DN) is Denmark’s largest conservation NGO, and although the organisation is a staunch proponent of herbivore grazing in “natural” areas, it is also adamant to differentiate its activities from “rewilding” – on the basis that horses, cows, and other animals should not be left to starve behind fences.

Let’s pause here to reflect on how utterly ridiculous such objections would sound if speakers were using the word ‘rewilding’ in its traditional sense in North America: “Rewilding should not be implemented because it is unfair to allow fenced domesticated animals to go without adequate food and health care.” The appropriate response would be something along the lines of “W. T. F.” But I contend that DN and other Danish speakers who say such things are not necessarily ignorant or confused in their use of the word ‘rewilding’ – although they would do well to familiarise themselves with the American literature for its ecological and ethical insights – but merely using the word in accordance with a different tradition of use, one that has already become entrenched in their country and may be too late to reclaim.

6. Still more open landscape conservation, via horse grazing, at the behest of an organisation called “Verdens Skove” (“The World’s Forests”) – and, oh, it’s also called ‘rewilding.’ In the wake of the devastating experience of educating myself on Anholt’s history of deforestation and its present conservation status as a protected wasteland, I attempted to see if any Danish organisations were actually committed to reforestation. After all, Denmark had without question been extensively deforested prior to 1800, and much of the “reforestation” that has occurred since that time has been in the form of conifer plantations (i.e. not forests).

I discovered the promisingly-named Verdens Skove only to learn that its vision of a “natural forest” in Denmark is, first and foremost, one with herbivores like boar and bison (see “Vi vil have mere vild skovnatur i Danmark”). As an added bonus, I learned that Verdens Skove has its own “rewilding” (its term) project, Tirsbæk Bakker, a 17-hectare enclosure on which Konik horses have been introduced to eat the vegetation. They are not provided with supplemental food during the winter, which means that they will clear the land of blackberry thickets, their winter food source (see “Rewilding ved Tirsbæk Bakker”). 

I never visited Tirsbæk Bakker, but it’s another instance of what should be boringly familiar by now: in Europe, ‘rewilding’ is used to refer to a practice involving the introduction of (sometimes domesticated) herbivores in enclosed areas without predators to eat up the vegetation. I’m beginning to feel like I’m just beating a dead horse – which, come to think of it, is a really apt metaphor for the context [insert image of horse carcass putrefying at OVP]. 

7. A “carbon negative” beef farm at Klintholm Gods – and, oh, it too is called ‘rewilding’. In the summer of 2021, I left Columbus, Ohio on a one-way ticket to Copenhagen and headed directly to Møn, a Dark Sky Island and UNESCO Biodiversity Reserve. I remain enchanted by Møns Klint and its surrounding forests, and even the historical city of Stege, but as a non-eater of beef, I couldn’t help but scoff when I heard that the popular local farm and market Klintholm Gods was peddling “carbon-negative beef” (a phrase that seemed to disingenuously ignore the fact that methane is the greenhouse gas for which the beef industry is notoriously responsible). I didn’t think much else about it at the time, but later I visited the company’s website, only to discover that it also bills its farming as rewilding, on the basis that its grazing animals have access to their full enclosures 356 days of the year (sic; I assume they mean 365 days, but, hey, Danish numbers are hard) and that their grazing activity maintains an open landscape that allegedly promotes biodiversity. (Incidentally, ‘kokasser’ actually means faeces, not “coke boxes” as Google translate currently favours.) 

To reiterate: under the European usage of ‘rewilding’ it is not necessarily relevant that Klintholm Gods, like Knepp, is straightforwardly an agricultural operation. If ‘rewilding’ is defined to mean naturalistic grazing, then a farm can call its activities ‘rewilding’.

8. The neo-Pleistocene “trophic rewilding” intellectual leadership of University of Aarhus’s Jens-Christian Svenning and colleagues. Because it was seldom highlighted in the signage, it took me a while to realise the Pleistocene rewilding aspirations of some European naturalistic grazing projects. By the time I’d encountered Svenning’s work, I’d already become aware of the seeming ubiquity of conservation grazing, the Danish/European fascination with the conservation of open landscapes (including ones that are openly admitted to be the product of human-caused degradation), and the use of ‘rewilding’ as synonymous with a specific type of conservation grazing that employs “free-living” livestock. However, these practices were seldom explicitly linked to restoring late Pleistocene or post-glacial faunal assemblages or landscapes. On Anholt, for instance, the anti-afforestation efforts are unquestionably devoted to preserving a human-created landscape, and I often took for granted that many conservation grazing sites existed to protect “cultural landscapes” (as some openly do, as when grazing is used to maintain healthland, pasture, or meadows).  

Large grazer used to maintain heathland at Denmark's Melby Overdrev (photo: author)

Large grazer used to maintain heathland at Denmark’s Melby Overdrev (Photo: Kate McFarland)

It was in discovering Svenning that I not only learnt the phrase ‘trophic rewilding’ but was also forced to reflect on the idea of Pleistocene rewilding and its accompanying practices of taxon substitutions and even more extreme proposals like synthetic biology. Svenning defines ‘trophic rewilding’ as “species introductions to restore top-down trophic interactions and associated trophic cascades to promote self-regulating biodiverse ecosystems” (Svenning et al, 2015, “Science for a wilder Anthropocene: Synthesis and future directions for trophic rewilding research,” PNAS 113:4, p. 898). To an American audience, this so far will just sound like the Yellowstone wolves (for example), but Svenning’s own interest is replicating communities of megaherbivores from the Pleistocene. In the same article, he goes on, “a key development for trophic rewilding has been the proposal for ‘Pleistocene rewilding,’ advocated to restore ecosystem function by rebuilding rich megafaunas, thereby overcoming the massive prehistoric extinctions linked to Homo sapiens’ global expansion …” (p. 899), and he even goes so far as to suggest biologically “engineer[ing] organisms to resemble extinct species genetically, phenotypically, or functionally” (p. 903). 

Coming across Svenning’s advocacy for the restoration of Pleistocene baselines (or, well, functional approximations thereof) broadened the context in which I conceptualised the Danish herbivore grazing obsession and its putative connection to (a type of) rewilding. In future articles in this series, I will have more to say critically about trophic and Pleistocene rewilding, especially regarding their underlying moral assumptions. For now, suffice it to note that the work pursued by Svenning and colleagues at the Center for Biodiversity Dynamics in a Changing World does not seem to be guided by the moral assumption that most of the world ought to be wild (as TRI believes) but, instead, begins with acceptance of the defeatist assumption that Earth’s ecosystems that are destined to anthropized (e.g. “due to globalization’s transport of organisms around the world and due to the rise of anthropogenic novel environmental conditions,” “Fundamental Biodiversity Dynamics”). 

9. Femten nye naturnationalparker! Around the same time I last left Denmark, the government announced the establishment of 15 new “nature national parks” in the country – all involving large grazing animals like cows, horses, and bison being released into enclosures in forested areas to eat the vegetation (as is described immediately after the assertion that the forests will be left “untouched” and that no agriculture will take place in the nature parks; huh). Sound familiar? I stopped following Danish conservation publications and social media around this time, but from what I noticed, most positive publicity seemed to shy away from the use of the term ‘rewilding’ – not because Danish environmental journalists are purists who believe the word should only be used in the sense expounded by Foreman, Soulé, and Noss, but because the word seems to have bad connotations amongst the Danish public, associated as it is with starving horses and cows due to the influence of OVP and copycat projects (note here that we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that there’s some kind of rhetorical and strategic need to embrace OVP as rewilding; in fact, the opposite might be true). 

10. Absence of evidence of uses of ‘rewilding’ in any way closer to its traditional North American sense. Despite investigations, I never encountered the term ‘rewilding’ used in Denmark to refer to anything other than naturalistic grazing. Specifically, I never found it used to refer to anything like large-scale connected habitat allowing the movement of wildlife including large carnivores – despite the fact that wolves have made their own way in and around the country, suggesting that something akin to the traditional North American concept of rewilding is indeed relevant in this small and nature-depleted country. Moreover, the practice called ‘rewilding’ never seemed to emphasise the creation of new, larger, or connected protected areas, as opposed to merely the creation of enclosures with large grazing animals in existing parks and forests. Finally, the ecocentric moral foundation of North American rewilding – with its emphasis on the intrinsic value of wild nature – seemed absent.

11. At least 85 rewilding projects? Although I discovered it after leaving Denmark, I would be remiss not also to mention the major report on “rewilding” published in 2021 (Fløjgaard, C et al, Biodiversitetseffekter af Rewilding: Videnskabelig rapport fra DCE – Nationalt Center for Miljø og Energi). According to the report, as of 2020 there were “at least 85 projects” in Denmark with “a minimum of rewilding” (p. 9). Of course, this is – again – using the word ‘rewilding’ synonymously with ‘naturalistic grazing.’ Indeed, the “rewilding” projects are subsequently described as follows: “The vast majority of grazing projects today involve cattle and horses, but although many have an estimated natural density of large grazing animals, only a few of the projects allow natural population dynamics. In addition, the majority of the areas are small (<100 ha) and use only a single herbivore species.”

The preceding series of revelations made clear to me not only that ‘rewilding’ means something different – very different – in Denmark but also that this meaning is embedded in a culture of conservation practices and goals that seemed on the whole rather alien. When speaking to a Danish or European audience, I would no longer dare utter the sentence “I support rewilding,” for I have come to expect that Danish and other European speakers familiar with the word ‘rewilding’ are likely to draw certain inferences that I don’t want to endorse. This seems like strong evidence that ‘rewilding’ is transatlantically ambiguous.

* * *

At this point in the “Take Back Rewilding” series, I have drawn evidence from Denmark as well as canonical projects in the Netherlands and England. I have not, however, said much about the organised “rewilding” across Europe – notably, the foundation Rewilding Europe. In the next instalment, and the last with a focus on semantics (although not the last in the series!), I will remedy this deficit.  

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Jeff Hoffman
1 year ago

When I look at maps of European countries, I see roads and cities or towns everywhere. No large open spaces like the western U.S. or the Adirondacks in New York. The colonizers of the Americas came from Europe, and it’s clear to me that they destroyed their own continent long before they came here. Therefore, I have no doubt that Europeans have no concept of real wilderness (allowing for rare exceptions of course), because it was all destroyed on their continent so long ago. The fact that people in Europe would oppose forest restoration in areas that had been forests before humans destroyed them clearly shows this. What Europeans think is wild is actually human-managed areas that aren’t totally destroyed with gross human overpopulation and industrial things, and that is very far from what “wild” is or what Dave Foreman’s goal of rewilding is.

As to grasslands v. forests: Whatever the ecosystem was before human interference is what it should be restored and rewilded to. What humans prefer or what we think that other species prefer should not be a factor in what type of ecosystem the land is restored and rewilded to. While there are obviously natural grasslands and deserts, the plurality if not the majority of terrestrial land on Earth was forest before humans started killing trees. Restoring a former forest to a grassland is not rewilding by a long shot.

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