Why Rewilding and Land Reform Are Deeply Connected Topics

The concept isn’t without its own ethical and political pitfalls and conundrums.

Balmoral Castle Estate
Wildcard says allowing the 50,000-acre Balmoral estate in Scotland to rewild would have massive biodiversity impacts. Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images / Getty Images

A few weeks ago, a petition organized by Wild Card began circulating with calls for the British royal family to step up its fight against climate change by rewilding all or some of the millions of acres of land that they own. Here’s how Treehugger contributor Michael d’Estries described the potential of such a move at the time:

“According to one estimate, the royals own 1.4% of the United Kingdom, or over 800,000 acres. Even allowing a small portion, such as the 50,000-acre Balmoral estate in Scotland, to rewild would have massive biodiversity impacts. In this example, Wild Card explains, Balmoral should be a temperate rainforest but has instead been converted into a sporting estate for deer hunting and grouse shooting.” 

Certainly, given the ongoing, catastrophic extinction event that we’re in the midst of, efforts to bolster biodiversity and sequester more carbon are largely speaking a good idea. And because traditional British country estates have been disastrously managed for intensive farming and sporting purposes in the past, there’s good reason to believe that the legal property of royalty and the landed gentry is as good a place as any to start. 

That said, the concept isn’t without its own ethical and political pitfalls and conundrums. These were hinted at in a comment left on d’Estries' original article: “Not a bad idea that these people give back after all they have taken from the natural world.”

In other words, we can’t ignore the fact that the families who are now being asked to help in fact owe their wealth to economic and social systems that were based on the extraction of that wealth—both through the class system at home and the British empire abroad. While rewilding would help reverse some of the ecological damage done by centuries of so-called tradition, it does not address the vast inequities or exploitive practices that created these land ownership structures in the first place. 

That’s led some within the environmental community to call for more fundamental land reforms that move beyond management practices and instead take on the question of ownership too: 

There are, of course, those who defend the existence of the monarchy as an institution they cherish. And there are those who, ideology aside, simply argue that we can’t wait for the question of monarchy and land ownership to be resolved before we step up for biodiversity. It’s certainly true that perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of the good, and that a country estate managed—or allowed to manage itself!—for wildlife is going to be ecologically preferable to an estate that is managed for hunting or aesthetics. If simply winning a change of heart from powerful individuals will result in a potential lifeline for endangered species then I, for one, hope that this change of heart happens fast. 

Yet the larger conversation still needs to be had. This isn’t simply a case of tying one desired outcome (land ownership reform) to another (ecology). In fact, justice and the environment are deeply intertwined. And relying on the intentions of a few extremely wealthy individuals and/or the grant and subsidy regimes that sustain them is a precarious basket in which to be placing all of our eggs. It was actually a topic that came up a few weeks before the Royal petition when I raised a question among friends about the economic and class implications of current approaches to rewilding: 

So by all means, let’s encourage aristocrats and royals to rewild whatever land they own. But let’s also take a long hard look at how they came to own that land in the first place and whether those ownership structures still (or ever did) serve the common good. After all, when a baron or lord, or a king or a queen, starts talking about areas of "no footfall" and "militant" practices to keep people out—as Baron Randal Plunkett did in the d’Estries piece—history suggests we can’t simply assume they have the best interests of the broader community at heart.