February 7, 2021
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The explosion of reactor No.4 at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 1986 released four hundred times more radioactive material into the environment than the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima put together.

Nearby animals perished, more than 200 people suffered acute radiation sickness, and the trees in a local pine forest – subsequently nicknamed “The Red Forest” – withered, turning brown before dying.

Radioactivity spewed across the entire northern hemisphere, impacting human and animal life as far afield as Wales, where restrictions on the sale of contaminated sheep lasted until 2012.

Today, Chernobyl remains abandoned, with radiation levels still too high to support long-term human residents. For animal and plant residents, however, it’s a remarkably different story.

In the three decades since it became famous for all the wrong reasons, Chernobyl has inadvertently become the world’s most fascinating nature reserve. New trees have pushed up roots in the forest once turned brown by radiation, plants have reclaimed buildings, and bears, wild boar, bison, elk and even wolves roam the abandoned city in numbers exceeding those of neighbouring areas.

Though the health of this animal and plant life is still hotly debated by scientists, Chernobyl stands nonetheless as an example of nature’s astonishing ability to bounce back; even from the most extreme damage.

Few other places on Earth have suffered the same form of environmental catastrophe as Chernobyl. Instead, a different kind of environmental catastrophe, driven by decades of human activity, is fast unfolding in all corners of the globe. Today, ecosystems around the world are in crisis – and, unlike Chernobyl, few have been gifted the time to recover.

In Britain alone, intensive farming, increased use of herbicides and pesticides, hunting, burning, tree felling and overgrazing have led to a decline in 40 per cent of all species, degraded soils, air pollution and water contamination.

It’s long been evident that the natural world needs space to recover – yet removing humans from the picture is, for obvious reasons, a non-starter.

Instead, a growing movement – rewilding – proposes a middle path forward for restoration: hand some managed land back to natural processes and key reintroduced species, while practicing improved, nature-friendly agriculture on the rest.

The idea has been gathering momentum in Scotland for some time, with individuals, charities and environmentalists taking advantage of the country’s sparsely populated land for restoration projects ranging from beaver reintroductions to planting pine forests.

Like any vision of such scale, however, rewilding is much simpler in theory than in practice. In theory, it’s a simple, hands-off way to revive natural processes, revive biodiversity and store carbon. In practice, rewilding rubs up against farmers worried for their livestock, ramblers concerned for their walking rights, and communities doubtful of the benefits to be reaped.

As rewilding seeks to firmly establish itself as a mainstream conservation policy, the movement now stands at a critical juncture: to have a significant net impact on the environment, rewilding must happen at scale, demanding the cooperation of farmers, NGOs, government bodies, charities, businesses and experts. Some, however, are still unconvinced.

Already, practitioners around the world have proven it possible to rewild sea beds, peat bogs, woodlands and forests. Their remaining challenge is rewilding mankind.

‘The old approach has failed’

Every year – with perhaps the exception of 2020 – millions of people visit Scotland in search of “wild” landscapes: craggy, dramatic mountain ranges, lush green glens, glittering ‘fairy pools’ and unspoiled white sand beaches.

Scotland’s natural beauty is both a source of national pride and a seductive draw for tourists across the globe; it would surprise most to learn that it ranks among the most nature-depleted countries in the world.

To rewilding advocates, what many perceive as “wild” today is merely a shadow of the wild landscapes that once dominated Scotland; a country formerly covered by so much forest that the Romans aptly named it “Caledonia” – meaning “wooded heights”.

Scots rowan, birch, oak, aspen and pine trees sprawled the landscape alongside thriving wetlands and peat bogs, wild meadows and thick carpets of moss, lichens and ferns. Lynx, wild boar and wolves roamed the country, and rivers shimmered with salmon and trout.

As human populations grew, however, several key animal species were hunted to extinction, while tree felling for timber and farmland decimated forest and woodland cover.

Red deer, which browse on tree saplings and thus stunt forest growth, exploded in number without wolves preying on them, with estate owners further breeding them for recreational hunting. Over-grazing of sheep and regular burning, meanwhile, led to soil acidification and erosion, flooding and a decline in biodiversity.

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