Rob Stoneman, based in the UK, joined Rewilding Europe as Rewilding Area Coordinator on May 1. He brings huge experience, having worked for the UK Wildlife Trusts for 26 years, as well as having international experience. We caught up with Rob to find out a little more about him and his aspirations.
How did you first hear about Rewilding Europe?
I first heard about Rewilding Europe on Twitter. The more I read about rewilding, the more I wanted to get my previous organisation – the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust – involved.
As part of that, I started to follow anyone who seemed to have a connection to rewilding, to direct me towards rewilding research, reports and projects that might have relevance to Yorkshire. I soon came across Rewilding Europe and started to follow the initiative with keen interest. Reading the press releases and reports on the Rewilding Europe website, I became well and truly hooked.
Why did you decide to become involved with rewilding?
I’ve been involved with nature conservation for 26 years. I’ve always been based in the UK, though I’ve worked and travelled abroad extensively, particularly in relation to the conservation of peatlands. One of the initiatives that the Wildlife Trusts is involved with is the “State of Nature” reporting system. We helped to compile the first report in 2013, and the second in 2016. The findings were truly devastating, with Sir David Attenborough concluding that the UK is one of the most “nature depleted” nations on Earth. Worse still, much of this documented decline has happened over the last thirty years, while I’ve been working.
These reports have led me to do a lot of thinking over the last few years. I co-wrote a book designed to give town planning professionals and students an oveview of nature conservation. I also read George Monbiot’s book “Feral” and Isabella Tree’s brilliant book “Wilding” about the rewilding of the Knepp Estate in the British county of Sussex.
The more I thought about British nature conservation, the more I felt we were getting it wrong. Our focus was on sites, and small sites at that, managing them to emulate pre-war traditional agriculture. In an era of climate change, this makes no sense and is severely lacking in vision.
Today the UK and Europe need a far more ambitious approach. We need to rewild, to restore natural processes at landscape scale to really rejuvenate wild nature. A wild nature that is adapted to a new climate and which can benefit European people in a variety of ways.
The need for rewilding
What would you say are the biggest conservation challenges that Europe faces today?
Most Europeans live in wealthy countries. This wealth is driving our quality of life to ever higher levels. We’ve never had it so good: we live longer, healthier lives, and we’ve been at peace in most of Western Europe for over 70 years.
Yet now we are starting to see this quality of life decline. In some parts of Europe life expectancy is decreasing, our children are suffering from diseases related to overeating and a lack of physical activity, and politically we are regressing from peace back to division. The reasons for this decline are obviously complex, but I believe the collapse of European nature is part of it.
Economic growth is important, but only if it improves the quality of our lives. Ecological collapse – the collapse of fish stocks in our seas, the destruction of so much habitat, the local extinction of so many species across Europe, and the sheer dreariness of intensive agriculture – is part of this picture.
Yet within this bleak scene, there is so much hope. Wolves have returned to their old haunts across most of Europe; expansive nature reserves have preserved some of our best nature; areas that feel wild (even if actually they are far from it) still exist in places like the Southern Carpathians, northern Sweden and Scotland; vultures are returning to the skies of Bulgaria, and so on. Nature can be restored and restored quickly – if we choose to create the conditions for such a recovery.
Marginal soil agriculture (where soils are too dry, too wet, too infertile or too thin) is no longer economic, and has little part in the future prosperity of Europe. In southern Europe, some of this farmland has already been abandoned and nature is returning. This is so exciting. If we rewild these areas, we can create new prosperity and restore our connection with wild nature.
In short, rewilding can help Europe reclaim the wild and we’ll all be better for it. To use an English expression, “we can have our cake AND eat it”. Rewilding is a win-win-win for nature, economy and people.
What would you like to see achieved in your area of work over the next five years?
As Rewilding Area Coordinator, I act as the link person between the rewilding teams in Central and Northern Europe and Rewilding Europe’s central team. I want to ensure that the drive, skills, knowledge, passion and networks of the central team are leveraged and channelled into the rewilding teams, enabling them to develop the core rewilding areas in the best way possible, and establishing these areas as rewilding showcases for others to follow and be inspired by.
Rewilding Europe has captured the zeitgeist of European nature conservation. It is already an incredible organisation after only eight years – still a start-up, but what a start-up! It is now time to mature the organisation into one of Europe’s leading nature conservation NGOs, leading the charge for a far wilder Europe. A Europe where full-scale restoration leads to a new and far wilder nature that can help to mitigate climate change and benefit Europeans in myriad other ways.
These days a lot of the news about the environment, biodiversity and conservation issues is negative. Are you optimistic about the future of wild nature in Europe and across the world?
I’m hugely optimistic. Society has always had a choice. Should we keep our nature or destroy it (typically for some supposed economic gain). In the past we often chose to destroy it, but the people of Europe don’t want this any more.
Nature organisations are some of the biggest institutions in Europe, and we have the practical expertise to restore nature. The tide is with us, and the rewilding of Europe is firmly within our grasp.
Moreover, rewilding makes so much sense. We know that uneconomic forestry and agriculture, intensive development, the draining of wetlands and the straightening of rivers worsens our quality of life and destoys our life support systems. It also costs us money as a result of flooding, climate change, poor health, poor water quality and so on.
Rewilding in the context of sustainable land use sets a positive narrative for a more prosperous Europe. I envisage a future with a network of core rewilded areas, where people can enjoy an African national park-type experience, right here in Europe, close to where they live. These areas will be surrounded by wildlife restoration zones, which in turn merge into sustainable food production areas, with green and blue wild infrastructure connecting our towns and cities.
This will be a Europe where wolves, bison, rewilded horses and deer can roam from Russia to the English Channel, from the Arctic to Gibraltar. A Europe bursting with wildlife and opportunity – a Europe for the future.
Can you tell us about a couple of conservation-related stories that you find particularly inspirational?
I love three things about this wonderful tale. Firstly, they started not as expert ecologists, but farmers struggling to makes the land pay (the soils of the Sussex Weald are just too heavy and difficult to drain to farm economically). Rewilding completely turned the economics around, creating new enterprises that made the estate profitable.
Secondly, Knepp Estate is on the edges of surburbia, just a few tens of miles from London. If you can rewild here, you can rewild anywhere.
Thirdly, the wildife comeback at Knepp is just astounding. After just a decade, the estate has the largest population of turtle dove, nightingale and purple emperor butterflies in England – wow!
I had another inspirational experience a few weeks ago. We were in deepest mid-Wales, somewhat lost at the end of long valley. We turned around and saw a sign saying “beavers”. So we explored and came across a slice of natural heaven – beavers had been reintroduced into a pond, were thriving, and all around the hillside was rewilding under a new canopy of native trees. At the heart of the venture was a sustainable horticulture enterprise supplying vegetable boxes to local people. Small-scale, but nevertheless amazing.
Above this gorgeous scene were serried ranks of non-native Sitka spruce, managed by the State Forestry Company (Natural Resources Wales); almost devoid of wildife, costing the taxpayer money, polluting local streams and degrading the beautiful Welsh landscape. The case for rewilding sparkled in the early spring breeze.
One of Rewilding Europe’s aims is to reconnect people with wild nature. Do you need wild nature in your life?
We all need wild nature in our life. We need it to support the life support systems that we on Earth are so utterly reliant on. But more than this, wild nature is food for the soul: it’s our stress-buster; a way to rebalance our busy lives; a source of joy, inspiration and culture; our hope for the future.
I’ve been to some spectacular places in the world – the rainforests of Borneo, the Grand Canyon, and the High Andes. But if I was to pick a few jaw-droppingly outstanding wildlife sites, I’d go for Handa Island (northwest Scotland) for its unbelievable seabird colonies, the Perenthian Islands (Malaysia) for their corals and turtles, and the Po Delta (Italy) for its flamingoes and waders.
What’s your favourite animal, and why?
I’ll cheat a bit and use my favourite plant – Sphagnum moss. On the face of it, a flat soggy carpet of vegetation is not an obvious choice. But get close in and a world of wonder reveals itself – a multi-coloured magic carpet of different Sphagnum mosses, suporting bejewelled carniverous sundew, tufts of heather, and cotton grass.
Sphagnum is a primitive moss, but one with the ability to manage its whole environment. When times are dry, it holds the water table up by turning white to boost reflectivity. When things get wetter, it reduces the number of hummock species, thereby increasing the number of pools to boost drainage. This is truly an ecosystem engineer – a floral version of the beaver!
Rob takes over from Alexandros Karamanlidis, who has taken up a position in the Central Team as Scientific Coordinator, responsible for all scientific and monitoring work across our initiative and with related partners.