Take Back Rewilding: ‘Rewilding’ Ambiguity

The first claim I will defend in the “Take Back Rewilding” series – in this article and the next two instalments – is that the word ‘rewilding’ is best understood as semantically ambiguous. Specifically, the word corresponds to different traditions of use in North America and Europe, and these dominant traditions of use are associated with significantly different conceptual prototypes (as cognitive linguists might say), as I’ll explain below. The upshot is that saying “I support rewilding” implies different things in the respective North American and European traditions – not unlike the way that saying “I like football” or “I’m not wearing any pants” implies different things depending on whether one speaks to an American or British audience. 

Some rewilding advocates might prefer to dismiss disputes about the meaning of ‘rewilding’ as, well, just arguing semantics. In what follows, I will indeed just argue semantics. However, it is crucial to do so, since failing to acknowledge this disparity in word meaning leads to a great deal of confusion as to what types of projects are actually happening where. Worse, attempts to force a single shared meaning upon the North American and European uses of ‘rewilding’ threaten to gut the term of its vital essence as it was used by originators. The prevalence of the use of the word ‘rewilding’ in Europe might cause the naïve onlooker to believe that the continent is blessed with a strong movement for continent-scale conservation for the sake of wild Nature; that would be a mistake. As we’ll see, what Europe has is better described as, say, “livestock grazing in fenced enclosures” – or, in other words, “a load of bull.” 

Rewilding = horses and cows living in an fenced enclosure? (Signage at Denmark's Molslaboratoriet) (photo: author)

Rewilding = horses and cows living in a fenced enclosure? (Signage at Denmark’s Molslaboratoriet) (Photo: Kate McFarland)

1. A Familiar Observation 

It is not a novel observation that ‘rewilding’ corresponds to different traditions of use in North America and Europe. The facts are not in dispute. There is no disagreement, for example, that North American rewilding tends to emphasise carnivores whereas European rewilding emphasises herbivores, or that European rewilding has different roots – specifically as an outgrowth or rebranding of the Dutch concept of Nature Development (Natuurontwikkeling) with its flagship project of the controversial Oostvaardersplassen (see §3.2). 

In the summer of 2021, almost as soon as European borders opened, I left my flat in Columbus, Ohio, to live nomadically in Europe, primarily in Denmark. At the same time, I was eager to involve myself in inspiring conservation projects. I was shocked to discover that, although the term ‘rewilding’ is commonly used in Denmark, it is almost invariably used as a synonym of ‘naturalistic grazing’ (I will describe my observations in Denmark in the next instalment of this series). In retrospect, however, it seems I was the last to know, for it was already a well-established fact that ‘rewilding’ is used in Europe to refer to naturalistic grazing, as the following quotations illustrate: 

In the European model, greater importance is afforded to naturalistic grazing, that is, grazing hardy animals outside of a field-based farming system […] European rewilding through naturalistic grazing generally focuses on re-establishing a guild of large herbivores—cattle, horses, wild boar, beavers, and bison—whose grazing and browsing would restore or create complex and species-rich ecosystems on reclaimed areas or those previously used for agriculture or forestry (Lorimer, J, et al, 2015, “Rewilding: Science, Practice, and Politics,” Annual Review of Environment and Resources 40, p. 44).

In much of Europe, at the turn of the century, rewilding quickly turned its focus to ‘naturalized grazing’ (rewilding without predators) as a means to preserve and develop particular kinds of landscapes, where grazing was perceived as a natural process that had been lost (Nogués-Bravo, D, et al, 2016, “Rewilding is the new Pandora’s box in conservation,” Current Biology 26, p. R87).

Whereas North American rewilders have emphasized the role of predation by large carnivores, Dutch and, subsequently, European rewilders have focused on naturalistic grazing by large herbivores (Keulartz, J, 2020, “Philosophical Boundary Work for Wildlife Conservation: The Case of the Oostvaardersplassen,” A Guide to Field Philosophy: Case Studies and Practical Strategies, p. 129).

In Europe, participants [in a “rewilding pioneers survey”] predominantly cited the influences of Frans Vera (2000) and the Dutch policy of Nature Development. Here, the emphasis is on more functionalist approaches to nature management compared with the classic compositional approach. Emphasis was often on the use of large herbivores to maintain disturbance through grazing, which is assumed to result in heterogeneous mixtures of open areas and woodland or wood pasture (an open landscape with scattered trees), sometimes in association with commercial ecotourism (Carver et al, 2021, “Guiding principles for rewilding,” Conservation Biology 35, p. 1888). 

The difference in European and North American rewilding traditions has also made appearances in TRI’s Rewilding Earth Podcast. In Episode 12, Paul Jepson notes that “rewilding” in Europe is effectively a relabelling of Nature Development, in contrast to the “3Cs” rewilding tradition in North America, and he emphasises the movement’s present focus on grazing and “reassembling guilds of megaherbivores” of the Pleistocene. Although Jepson speaks in their favour, the practices that he describes are the same as those denounced by Mark Fisher in Episode 17 – grazing livestock in fenced areas in the name of “rewilding.”

2. Different Meanings of ‘Rewilding’ – Not Different Types of Rewilding

I submit that differences like the above are best understood as indicative of semantic ambiguity. It’s not that there is some core essence – “rewilding as such” – that morphs into different forms on different continents. It is simply that speakers use the word ‘rewilding’ to pick out different types of conservation activities depending on whether they’re entrenched in the tradition of the Wildlands Project and Dave Foreman’s Rewilding North America, say, or within that of Nature Development and Frans Vera’s ideas on grazing and the maintenance of open landscapes. 

Like ‘football’ or ‘biscuit’, ‘rewilding’ is best understood as simply referring to a different concept in its prevailing uses on either side of the Atlantic. Correspondingly, proponents of North American and European rewilding are no more in the same game than players of North American and European football. In the latter case, we might note that the games share some superficial similarities: players run around on a field and try to score goals against an opposing team. However, no one in their right mind would say that ‘football’ is an unambiguous term, and that football is simply something that assumes different forms depending on whether it’s being played in North America or Europe. Likewise, I claim, ‘rewilding’ should not be considered to have a single univocal meaning, despite the fact that there may be some surface similarities between North American rewilding and European Nature Development. The traditions are distinct, as are their guiding ecological assumptions and ethical frameworks. Attempts to force a univocal definition upon ‘rewilding’ are not only misguided but dangerous, for they mask substantive disagreements about ecology, ethics, and practice – disagreements that I will explore in more depth in future articles in this series.

With few exceptions, previous commentators have not interpreted the transatlantic divide as a case of semantic ambiguity. One exception is British wilderness advocate Mark Fisher, who has repeatedly criticised the rebranding of Nature Development and naturalistic grazing as ‘rewilding’ over the course of more than a decade, as chronicled on his website (self-willed-land.org.uk). In an important contribution to Rewilding EarthDrifting from Rewilding,” (2019), Fisher describes this use of ‘rewilding’ in Europe as a “drift in meaning” of the term. It is an apt expression. Semantic drift is a common phenomenon of natural language, and it does appear to be what happened when the word ‘rewilding’ became affixed in Europe to the tradition of Nature Development and archetypal examples like Oostvaardersplassen.

In a subsequent contribution to Rewilding Earth, philosopher David Schwartz criticises Fisher for insisting on a “canonical and purist definition” (“European Experiments in Rewilding: Oostvaardersplassen,” 2019). Schwartz’s criticism here is odd. From a prescriptive standpoint, there are good reasons to resist the application of ‘rewilding’ to projects like Oostvaardersplassen, which seem to defy some of the most basic ecological principles of the North American rewilding movement; Fisher makes this argument clearly and directly, and I will revisit this important topic in subsequent articles. But from the standpoint of descriptive semantics – my present focus in this article – Schwartz’s complaint seems entirely misdirected. Insofar as he describes the use of ‘rewilding’ in Europe as a drift in meaning, Fisher seems just to be saying something factually true: the word has been co-opted to refer to a different concept, and this “shifted” meaning has become entrenched. It is scarcely a “purist” point to correctly identify that a word means different things in different contexts, or to insist that this ambiguity be cleared up on pain of rampant confusion. 

3. ‘Rewilding’ Prototypes: North American vs Europe 

At the heart of my claim that ‘rewilding’ is transatlantically ambiguous is the observation that the two linguistic traditions correspond to different entrenched conceptual prototypes that speakers associate with the term. These different associations systematically lead to different inferences when the term is used. I won’t say much about conceptual prototypes in North American rewilding discourse, since nearly all content produced by The Rewilding Institute lies within this tradition. I will say a bit more to describe the two most famous exemplars of what is called ‘rewilding’ in Europe: Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands (§3.2) and the Knepp Estate in England (§3.3). Then, in the following section, I will relay further observations from my experience in Denmark, which confirm the same European “rewilding” stereotype.

3.1 North American Prototypes 

Druid wolf pack chasing bull elk, Yellowstone National Park (Photo by Doug Smith, NPS, December 2007)

There is little need to inform readers of Rewilding Earth of the prototypes of North American rewilding – such as the much-heralded example of the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park, the pioneering work of Dave Foreman, or the ubiquitously cited “Rewilding and Biodiversity: Complementary Goals for Continental Conservation” article by Michael Soulè and Reed Noss, which famously articulated the “3Cs” of rewilding: Cores, Corridors, and Carnivores. Indeed, The Rewilding Institute’s “What Is Rewilding?” page continues to state, in big bold letters, “The shorthand definition of Rewilding is the ‘3 C’s’ – conservation of Cores, Corridors, and Carnivores.” The reintroduction of recently extirpated large carnivores like wolves and cougars (or pumas or mountain lions) is prototypical, as is an emphasis on the ecology of trophic cascades and the need for predators to limit overbrowsing and overgrazing by herbivores like deer and elk. Habitat connectivity is a dominant theme in practice as well as theory – with a goal of large-scale “continental wildways” adjoined to the celebration of paradigmatic local successes like dam removals or the construction of wildlife crossings over roadways. Outside of the 3Cs, themes like natural disturbance regimes (e.g. wildfire), removal of livestock from public lands, and protection of old growth forests are common in both past and present discourse. And whether or not non-anthropocentrism is considered to be semantically entailed by ‘rewilding,’ there is a long-standing close conceptual link between the North American rewilding movement and ecocentrism or biocentrism in morality, especially manifest in the former journal Wild Earth.  

In future articles, I will take a deeper look at some of the dominant ecological and ethical themes of the North American rewilding movement, while examining the substantive disagreements that seem to parallel the linguistic difference. For now, though, I mean only to flag the marked difference between these prototypical associations and those of the European “rewilding” concept. 

3.2 European Prototypes 1: Oostvaardersplassen

In Europe, on the other hand, the most widely cited example of what is called ‘rewilding’ is probably the Dutch project Oostvaardersplassen (OVP). The distinctive attributes of Oostvaardersplassen included (a) the introduction of high numbers of large herbivores meant to represent indigenous communities of species, especially red deer, Konik ponies (intended as a proxy species for the extinct tarpan), and Heck cattle (intended as a proxy species for the extinct auroch) and (b) the fact that these herbivores were to be free-living, e.g., not provided with supplemental food or cover during the winter. The starvation of large numbers of these “free-living” herbivores resulted in widespread animosity toward OVP and the concept of “rewilding” as used in the Netherlands (and, through expansion, most or all of Europe). 

A Heck bull amongst a herd of Konik ponies at Oostvaardersplassen. (Photo by GerardM, CC BY-SA 3.0)

There are many sources describing OVP in more detail, including the previously cited pieces by Fisher and Schwartz in Rewilding Earth. (If you wish to learn useful Dutch terms while reading an overview of OVP’s ecological collapse, visit the page “The Oostvaardersplassen – What went wrong?” in the Dutch Language Blog.) For now, it suffices to note that Oostvaardersplassen embodies multiple prototypical characteristics of projects labelled ‘rewilding’ in Europe. The practice of “naturalistic grazing” is perhaps most central, and with it an emphasis on conservation of open landscapes and acceptance of Frans Vera’s “wood pasture hypothesis” that open or “mosaic” landscapes, rather than closed-canopy forests, represent the natural landscape of post-glacial Europe. Other tightly associated attributes include the introduction of species and communities of large herbivores – “free-living” in “natural densities” – including non-wild “de-domesticated” breeds meant to replicate the phenotype and ecological role of Pleistocene fauna.

Clearly, OVP is something quite different from prototypical rewilding in North America. Carnivores and corridors are salient in their absence. Carnivore reintroduction has never been seriously proposed, despite the fact that its depletion of vegetation by unchecked grazing and browsing exemplifies the very type of ecological breakdown that the restoration of top-level predators is supposed to prevent (strongly reminiscent of Leopold’s “Thinking Like a Mountain”). Moreover, the reserve is fenced, precluding movement of animals into and out from the reserve, and surrounded by motorways and development. Furthermore, unlike stereotypical species reintroductions in the North American context, the Konik ponies and Heck cattle are neither native nor wild species. It is questionable whether OVP could even be considered a borderline case of the North American rewilding concept. Certainly, it is not a prototypical case. In his apology for the project, Schwartz states, “OVP certainly is not rewilding in the Foreman/Soule/Noss sense of cores, carnivores, and corridors.” Despite his criticism of Fisher’s “purist definition,” Schwartz thus effectively affirms Fisher’s semantic point: ‘rewilding’ means something different as it’s come to be used in Europe.

What cannot be under-emphasised is that, in the European context, OVP is not considered a controversial borderline case of “rewilding” but a widely accepted core case, a canonical example. In the European context, that is, OVP is essentially the example that defines the term. It’s not that Europeans use the term ‘rewilding’ more broadly or loosely to accommodate more peripheral cases; it’s that the concepts differ at the very core. This is further reflected in the transference of the term to other projects throughout Europe.

3.3 European Prototypes 2: Knepp “Wildland”

Possibly the second most famous project dubbed ‘rewilding’ in Europe, England’s Knepp Estate – er, I mean, Knepp Wildland – was directly inspired by OVP and Frans Vera, implementing naturalistic grazing by six herbivore species (Old English longhorn cattle, Exmoor ponies, Tamworth pigs, red deer, fallow deer, and roe deer). In at least one respect, it diverges even farther than OVP from North American rewilding: it is still a working farm. Whereas OVP infamously allowed herd sizes to decrease in winter via the natural processes of starvation, Knepp selectively culls its livestock to enable “our animals to overwinter in sustainable herd sizes” and sells the product (see “The Wild Range Selection”). 

Longhorn cattle at Knepp Wildland

Longhorn cattle at Knepp Wildland (Photo By Matt Ellery, CC BY-SA 2.0)

To some extent, the semantic divergence of ‘rewilding’ might actually be obscured by the fact that Knepp is undeniably in the business of agriculture. When speaking loosely, some rewilding enthusiasts do say things like that their neighbours “rewilded their lawn” by deliberately ceasing to mow, and in a similar vein they might say that Sir Charles Burrell “rewilded his farm” by de-intensifying its grazing practices. In the North American tradition, such usages of ‘rewilding’ can only be regarded as loose use or perhaps a conceptual metaphor, shifting the idea of “to make more wild” from its original domain of entire continents to other domains like lawns, farms, cities, or ourselves. Beneath such loose talk, North American rewilding advocates tend to continue to recognise that the core notion of ‘rewilding’ implies continental-scale conservation with large wilderness cores, habitat corridors for wildlife movement, restoration of large carnivores, natural disturbance regimes, and so on. Personally, I have no qualms about loose or figurative use of the term – poetic licence, if you will – as long as the core, original meaning is not forgotten.

However, the essential point here is that, like OVP, the Knepp Estate is put forth in the British and European contexts as a paradigmatic instance of what is meant by ‘rewilding’ – not merely ‘rewilding’ according to some loose or metaphorical use of the word. Arguably, this has contributing to the shaping of the European concept in a way that makes its difference from the American concept even more stark: if enough other prototypical attributes are met (e.g. naturalistic grazing, attempt to replicate indigenous population of herbivores with domesticated proxies, emphasis on restoring an open/mosaic landscape, etc), then even the absence of agriculture isn’t needed for a project to be considered an exemplar of ‘rewilding.’ Indeed, this trend has lately reached its oxymoronic culmination in proposals for “agricultural rewilding” (as I have criticised elsewhere). 

* * *

Due to their relative fame and attention in the international press, Oostvaardersplassen and the Knepp Estate are examples that no commentator can ignore when analysing the use of ‘rewilding’ within Europe. However, neither was the impetus behind my own concern for the prevalence of naturalistic grazing in Europe, its rebranding as ‘rewilding,’ and the apparent failure of American rewilding supporters to recognise this rebranding as ambiguity or misuse of the term. As foreshadowed above, I was inspired to address this topic due to my experience in Denmark. In the next instalment of “Take Back Rewilding,” I will describe my observations in this country.

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Leland Searles - January 20, 2023

I think this distinction between North American and Euruopean rewilding is crucial. So many times, a word with a fairly precise meaning hits the bigtime and loses its precision. We no longer know what we’re talking about (examples: “greening,” “organic,” “wheat bread”). What you’ve done is renew the discussion about appropriate types of rewilding. I can understand the European point of view, with this in mind: we can’t say if the ecosystems we cherish today will even be around in 500 years, and Europe in general is such a disturbed geography that there isn’t a good baseline for natural systems a thousand years ago.

Here in North America, we are closer to that presettlement baseline, and it may be possible to salvage much of it, given the correct placement of priorities. Yet we still can’t say that our ecosystems will survive the next centuries. In that way, “rewilding” becomes acceptance of what happens well beyond our lifetimes, whatever it might be.

As far as actions on the ground, North American conservationists, restorationists, and rewilders are in a somewhat better position, not only to attempt to save our ecologies of 200 years ago, but also to have those larger impacts on the atmosphere and land surfaces and all the cycles and processes that make up the whole.

Again, you’ve used your insight to keep this all up for discussion. Good work. Looking forward to the next installments.

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    Dr Mark Fisher - January 22, 2023

    You are falling into the same old trap. Just because Europe has a longer history of land modification does not mean that we don’t have a view of what the early Holocene landscape was like, nor that it means that wild nature cannot reassemble given as much of the pieces as we can reinstate. Moreover, it is wrong to assume that Europe doesn’t have the will to preserve that reassembly when the evidence of legislative strict protection is already there, and since it has become a priority in moving forward nature protection in the EU. While the target of 2% wilderness in Germany by 2020 under its National Biodiversity Strategy was not achieved on time, at least 3.5% of German land has the potential to become wilderness. Compare that to the 2.7% of the contiguous United States that protected as wilderness.

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    Mark Edwards - January 23, 2023

    Well said and looking forward to the exploration of what is possible to ensure the biodiversity of our home.

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