One of Britain’s often overlooked key macroeconomic objectives is sustainable use of the environment. The role of GDP growth, often the dominant indicator of the health of the economy, may need to be altered in the face of climate change.  A reimagined goal proposed by Kate Raworth is “to achieve human prosperity in a flourishing web of life”. To achieve this, we might want to consider rewilding as an environmental and economic policy. As Daniel Etsy, professor at Yale University says, “Society faces a ‘sustainability imperative’ which requires that we all do things we do in new and better ways that minimise environmental degradation, increase short-term economic opportunity, and promote long-term prosperity.”

Rewilding is defined as a conservation effort that restores an area of land to its uncultivated state, which may involve the reintroduction of wild species. Rewilding is key to economic prosperity, as the environment becomes ever more important to the survival and success of future generations. Environmental costs of economic growth often go unaccounted for in current markets, creating negative externalities that continue to harm the world. These effects have brought us to the point where we are on the outer limit of critical planetary degradation. Rewilding can help bring us back below this ecological ceiling. As Oswald J. Schmitz, professor at Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies says, “These limits have profound implications for sustaining all of humanity. They entail most fundamentally humanity’s ethical obligations to humankind and all other species with which we share the planet, and…how humanity ought to meet those obligations.”  Without stable ecosystems, sources of food and water become unreliable and humans are forced to deal with unexpected and unwanted change. This makes rewilding vital to our goal of rebalancing the world’s ecosystems, keeping surface temperatures low, and securing a basic standard of living for all humans. However, as Isabella Tree, author of Wilding, says “No matter how important the public benefits, no farmer or landowner can be expected to turn their land over to nature out of altruism. It has to make financial sense.” So, is rewilding economically viable for British farmers and for the UK as a whole?

Rewilding is a form of environmental conservation that uses natural processes to return land back to its natural state. For example, after realising that farming was not a financially viable option, Knepp Estate, a dairy farm in Sussex, introduced herds of wild cattle, horses, Tamworth pigs and deer. By imitating original British wildlife, they aimed to run a farm without any management at all. Through grazing and the natural use of the land, the farm has returned nutrient-depleted, ploughed fields into a thriving habitat. Knepp represents a viable alternative to commercial farming. It now makes returns of 40%, a margin far above the returns of an average British farm, at 1.6%. The main source of profits come from wild animal meat and eco-tourism with minimal management costs. Overall, rewilding for Knepp has been a great success, helping to save the local environment while producing greater income.

For many other farms in Britain the option of rewilding is increasingly appealing. After 47 years of EU membership and 28 years of EU subsidies, 2021 is the first year where the government will phase out these subsidies and introduce UK support measures, which look to be unable to cover previous costs. The Basic Payment Scheme (BPS), the main farming subsidy, will be phased out entirely by 2028. In addition, the Environmental Land Management Scheme, launched to finish covering the losses from EU subsidies has yet even to be laid out.

Figure 1: Reduction in Basic Payment Scheme, over the next four years.

Figure 2: Effective % cutback for different farm sizes

For a larger than average, 405 acre arable farm in Surrey , the BPS paid £38,240 (£94/acre). Even with EU subsidies, a farm of this size will make a loss. Farms must decide what to do with this declining payment and whether they can afford to continue. (See figure 2). However, economies of scale play a large factor in rewilding. The larger the area available the greater the cost advantages reaped, especially with the level of management needed for a given area of land. Derek Gows successfully rewilded a 150 acre farm in Coombshead, showing that even small farms can be financially viable.

In the next decade, customers looking for ethically sourced food will be willing to pay a premium for rewilded meat. The consumer will have an ever-increasing importance in food markets, as information about products will become directly accessible. The scope for ethically, sustainably, and rewilded products is growing. Advancements in RFID (Radio-frequency Identification, a technology similar to barcodes but with greater information storage capacity) will increase product information available to consumers. The unique set of characteristics of rewilded meat will result in further demand for these products, ensuring their future viability.

Rewilding can be economically viable for many farms if Britain wants to move to a more sustainable and environmentally-friendly future, rewilding may be considered at the forefront of a forward-looking economic strategy. However, as Schmitz states, “[Establishing] parks and nature reserves on its own is not enough…, [these] safeguards by themselves will not work, because they [don’t] foster the kind of behavioural changes needed to decelerate humankind’s environmental impact.” To have a meaningful environmental impact, rewilding must be adopted as a viable agricultural policy.

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