Rewilding The Dales?

First, a question for all you, who live in and around these Northern Yorkshire Dales, “When was the last time you saw a bear or perhaps a beaver from your back door step? Or what about a wildcat, or a golden eagle?”

‘Rewilding’ is a word that first appeared in the dictionary not much more than a decade ago. When I studied ecology it wasn’t a ‘thing’. Back then ‘conservation’ of the natural world was what we were striving for, and at its centre was the desire to safeguard endangered species by protecting their natural habitats. Conservation is a human activity. Rewilding on the other hand is what happens when humans either leave an environment completely alone and let nature do its thing, or what can be achieved if native species that have been lost because of human activity are reintroduced to an area in a carefully managed way.

I would be the first to say that I love the way these Yorkshire Dales look, the moors topped with huge expanses of heather and bracken, the dales a painters-scene of dry stone walled meadows, field barns and clusters of stone built and roofed houses and hamlets. I would also be the first to defend the people whose families have made the decision to call this place their home, and especially those who work unbelievably hard to make their living from the land, or from serving the local community and the unpredictable tide of tourists who travel here to enjoy the wonder and the welcome of these northern Dales. I love the way it appears to have changed little from the first time its vastness took my breath away as a small child. But, also, over time I have come to appreciate that this is not a ‘natural’ environment. It has been created by people.

It is a wild place, especially when the wind is blowing and the rain makes your face sting, but it is as unnatural as a city street. It is the activity of humans that has determined what these moors and dales look like and what wildlife is able to survive here today. Our ancestors over millennia have felled trees, diverted streams, hunted, farmed, grazed, built, quarried and mined and together they have shaped the landscape we now enjoy. Government agencies, economic pressures, landowners’ desires and even the creation of the Yorkshire Dales National Park have all contributed to these changes. Even my decision to drive along its roads, walk across its moors, visit friends or encourage my children to play in its streams has an impact.

As the ice retreated at the end of the last ice age the curves of these hills and dales that we love so much were revealed for the first time and the valley bottoms filled with fresh meltwater lakes. Yet, what was exposed soon became hidden again as a blanket of mixed broadleaf forest rolled out across the land. This was where bear, elk and beaver found their niche alongside, wolves, wild boar, lynx and golden eagles. And yet when we walk in the dales today, we glimpse none of these, expecting instead to see pheasants, rabbits, grey squirrels, and maybe even a rat or house mouse only present because our ancestors brought them here by boat.

I love the idea of rewilding, of stepping back and letting the natural world do its thing. The thought of large mammals and mighty birds of prey inhabiting wild forests is so exciting. Nature unbridled by human intervention seems right to me, but yet things are rarely quite so simple. A quick look at the Rewilding Britain website suggests 12 steps for those who have land and are considering rewilding as an option. It involves experts, opinions, licences, local knowledge, planning, measuring and monitoring. One person’s dream to see a predator returned, is often their neighbours’ nightmare of livestock taken.

In its opening sentences the bible speaks of a God-given responsibility, which we all inherit from our ancestors, to ‘rule over’ (radah in Hebrew) the natural world (Gen 1:28), and to ‘serve’ (Heb: abad), ‘guard’ and ‘preserve’ (Heb: shamar) it (Gen 2:15). When we consider the choice of these words and the fact that, to God, ruling is about loving and giving as much as it is about justice and fairness, then we can start to gain a Godly perspective on how we might continue to care for this beautiful part of the world.

Those who spend their days working the land, those who maintain the miles of footpaths, tracks and roads that cross it, those who have responsibility for planning services, managing resources, and welcoming tourists and locals, know that it is hard work and that there are very few easy answers that will please everyone. But, maybe this is how God intended it to be, not the bits we get wrong from time to time, but the things we achieve together when we serve our neighbours, and guard and preserve the natural world around us. Not just because we love it, but because this place is a precious gift entrusted to us, and to our children and the generations beyond them, to enjoy and to treasure by the God who loves us and made us in his image.

In his recent book, Rewilding the Church, Steve Aisthorpe invites us to imagine what might happen if the church itself was rewilded. Instead of trying to conserve the landscape of how the church was in the middle of the 20th century, what would emerge if we allowed God to shape it into what he intends it to be. But this is a subject for another blog.

Be encouraged.

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2 thoughts on “Rewilding The Dales?

  1. Rewilding the church, not preserving a nostalgic version of 1950 is where we need to be in mission. One definition of renewal is ‘to return to the original state’ – original, in this case, being first century not nineteenth or twentieth! Church needs to say ‘welcome to life in it’s fullness’ not ‘welcome to Beamish’.

    1. Amen! We serve a God who is always doing something new. As society and culture change, he is already going on ahead of us, preparing a way and he simply asks us to follow him.

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