Living wildly – the rewilding movement flourishing in the UK

All over the country, rewilding projects are allowing nature to reclaim spaces, and helping the land to recover from the damage humans have caused


In my corner of a London borough, between the railway and the A406, I squeeze nature into my apartment in the form of fuzzy, torpedo-shaped seeds. When I planted them on my tiny Juliet balcony, it was in the hope that they would provide food for passing bees. The seeds are cornflowers, one of the most hardy UK wildflowers, and my plant pot on the balcony is my token contribution to the rewilding movement.

What is rewilding?

According to Rewilding Britain rewilding is the “large-scale restoration of ecosystems to the point where nature is allowed to take care of itself.” Rewilding is allowing nature to reclaim spaces, and helping the land to recover from the damage humans have caused.

Rewilding involves removing land from intensive agriculture. Examples include:

Open woodland with spring flowers on the ground, part of a rewilding project
An old stone structure covered in overgrown foliage, part of the rewilding project at Balmacaan

Rewilders often continue to farm on a smaller scale. They remove the monocultures and overgrazing typical of modern farming and replace them with small herds of animals native to the ecosystem. At Knepp Estate, Exmoor ponies roam alongside Longhorn cattle, Tamworth pigs, and red, fallow and roe deer. In 2022, bison were released at the Blean – the first time bison have roamed the UK in thousands of years.

One of the areas owned by Highlands Rewilding, Bunloit Estate, is a self-proclaimed “open air laboratory” where conservation groups, community members and scientists are researching sustainable land management practices. Records of farming on the estate go back to 1545, and in 2021 Highlands Rewilding undertook a detailed survey of the land and the wildlife living there (the survey report was launched at COP26 and you can check it out here).

A rewilding landscape with grass, bushes and trees, and a group of longhorn cattle grazing by a shallow stream.

Free-grazing longhorn cattle at the Knepp Wildland Project Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA)

A variety of well-managed stock encourage the regrowth of native flora. They kick-start a dynamic ecosystem by breaking up the soil, eating plants, defecating and dying. The resulting organic produce can be sold (as at Knepp’s wilding kitchen) to fund further rewilding projects.

In areas prone to flooding, rewilders focus on re-establishing natural waterways. Allowing rivers to meander, introducing beavers, and simulating ‘soft dams’ means much better water retention across a river watershed and so not only reduces flooding but also significantly improves the health of ecosystems.

An otter swimming through dark water. Just its face is visible above the surface.

An otter surfaces in the River Severn. © Will Rose / Greenpeace

Small-scale rewilding

Sometimes true, landscape-scale rewilding projects are impractical. But rewilding a huge estate is not the only way to positively impact the local ecosystem – small-scale rewilding projects can create welcoming spaces for nature amongst human infrastructure. These smaller scale projects promote the spirit of rewilding in allowing native plants and animals to flourish.

Research shows that in 2017 44040 hectares (440.4 km²) of the UK was public parks and gardens. This is not counting roadsides and sports facilities.

When these valuable spaces are mown into eco-disaster lawns, they fail to support local biodiversity.

Rewilding these urban spaces provides habitat for invertebrates and small animals. Flourishing native plants improve soil health, catch carbon, and reduce the effects of climate change.

A harvest mouse standing on a bunch of plums on a tree. Rewilding helps creatures like this to thrive.

A Harvest Mouse on plums in autumn, UK Please credit David Tipling /

A key benefit of small-scale rewilding is creating pathways for wildlife. These nature recovery corridors allow populations to mingle, provide food and shelter for roaming species, and connect larger areas of habitat. As the climate becomes more extreme, it is important for native species to be able to move and adapt.

Hedgehogs, for example, roam up to two kilometres in a night. Creating hedgehog holes allows them to search for food and mates (check out this interactive map of hedgehogs and holes!).

Hedgehog peering through the entrance of a hedgehog house in a rewilded garden

Hedgehog coming out of a Hedgehog house in Norfolk Please credit David Tipling (

One urban rewilding initiative is Plantlife’s ‘No-Mow May.’ For a month, councils and gardeners let green spaces run riot with wildflowers, grasses, saplings and ‘weeds.’ The resulting meadows provide food and shelter for pollinators. The increased biomass reduces pollution, locks away carbon, and increases soil stability.

Colourful wildflowers growing around the perimeter of an ancient castle

Flowers planted in the moat area at the Tower of London. 2022 Getty Images

After ‘No-Mow May,’ Plantlife calls for gardeners to continue rewilding into Let it Bloom June and beyond. Even letting a small patch of lawn grow long is a welcome respite for wildlife.

Why is rewilding important?

As the adverse impacts of the climate crisis continue to increase, rewilding is an important tool in slowing the destruction.

The ecological benefits include:

The movement is a shift towards a more eco-centred way of building communities. Rewilding involves a change in mindset: away from the idea that humans are above ‘the ecosystem’ and towards the idea that we are part of it.

A swollen river rushing through woodland

Flooding in the town of Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, UK © Steve Morgan / Greenpeace

Rewilding the community

Rewilding improves community engagement with the land. Kirsty Mackay of Highlands Rewilding has coined the term ‘re-peopling.’ Re-peopling includes regenerative agriculture, but also community-led educational and recreational activities. Most of Rewild Britain’s vision is for “mosaics of nature-friendly land and marine uses — including farming, forestry and fishing.”

One of the Highlands Rewilding estates has gone from zero employees to 20. At Knepp Estate, visitors can wander the woodland paths and educational visits are encouraged.

At Langholm, the community owns the 2,000 hectare ‘backyard,’ and the managers make a point of employing local contractors.

The villages in the Solway catchment downstream of Langholm also have a reduced flood risk because of the work of the rewilding initiative.

A flooded river running through an old city in watery winter light

The swollen River Ouse in the city of York, North Yorkshire. The floods inundated large areas of York after Storm Eva hit the north of England. © Peter Caton / Greenpeace

Rewilding minds

In the age of eco anxiety, when 75% of adults in Great Britain are worried about the impact of climate change, rewilding can offer a sanctuary from the storm.

Getting out in nature is one of the best remedies for a busy mind. The community focus of rewilding projects means they are often open for walking, forest bathing, and animal spotting.

An adult carries a child on his shoulders. Sunlight shines through the trees in the background and illuminates the child's blonde hair.

If you have access to a garden or community space, participating in activities can improve emotional and mental wellbeing. Rewilding part of your space – even one as small as a pot of cornflowers on a balcony – can help you feel grounded and remember that small actions can make a difference.

Get involved

Inspired to rewild? Check out these tips for rewilding your space or joining existing rewilding movements.

What's next?