The conversation with my neighbour’s tenant was a turning point in my approach to farming, and in the following months and years, I became obsessed with the idea of going with the flow; trying to gauge the natural direction of travel and working with it. This approach has led me to some of the most satisfying projects I’ve been involved with as a farmer, regenerating wetlands and encouraging native woodlands.
I suppose this places me somewhere on the vast and complex spectrum of rewilding, but that word is horribly tricky in farming circles.
My farming friends and neighbours make quick associations between rewilding and a celebrity conservation culture, which often seems like it has landed on an alien space ship. It is hard to overstate the value of ownership when it comes to land management; not the literal bureaucracy of Title Deeds and heritable assets, but a sense of control and agency. Rewilding often feels like something which is imposed upon farmers and country folk by strangers, and it gets doubly complex when you view it through the lens of class and nationality. In Scotland, rewilding can feel like a middle-class English daydream being foisted on isolated working-class communities, and that’s when the conversation gets horribly muddled.
So much of this conflict depends upon a wider historical context. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, early government agri-environmental schemes attempted to address the decline of key farmland species. Many of these schemes served as a masterclass in how to alienate farmers from the natural world. Farmers were blamed for creating problems, then disempowered from fixing them. Conservationists seemed to be saying “you can’t be trusted with nature - let us take care of it,” and that led to some painful readjustments. It’s not surprising that new environmental ideologies are now treated with suspicion in the countryside. Besides, we mustn’t forget that things haven’t got better. Many farmers feel vindicated in their frustration because they had been pushed aside by “experts” and scientists who then failed to improve the situation themselves.
Many farmers believe that rewilding is just another name for the same old green claptrap. This is even harder to bear because it seems to deny the fundamental value of human connections as part of a landscape. I have a complex and often contradictory relationship with my part of Galloway, but it’s nevertheless very real and I can be quite prickly about it. We have some major environmental problems here, and my community cannot fix them on our own, but proposals which come from elsewhere need to tread carefully. It’s clear that rewilders have pinned down some excellent science to endorse their philosophy, but communication skills often need work.