REWILDING need not mean the cessation of farming and the surrender of farmland to wilderness – not when hardy native breeds of livestock can be used as modern day equivalents of the wild grazing animals of old.

Conventionally, rewilding seeks to remove or reduce human intervention in a landscape in order to restore damaged ecosystems.But a collaborative project involving English and French researchers has argued for 'agricultural rewilding' as a way of achieving ecological benefits such as habitat restoration, tree planting, and natural flood management, while still allowing for human management of land –and a farming livelihood.

In a paper first presented at the conference of the European Society for Agricultural and Food Ethics, Virginia Thomas from the University of Exeter, England, and Aymeric Mondière, Michael Corson, and Hayo van der Werf from the French National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food, and the Environment, maintain that, with the right breeds, ecosystem benefits can go hand in hand with the production of high-quality, high-welfare, high-value meat.

Dr Thomas said: “Agricultural rewilding offers the potential for win-win scenarios in which biodiversity is increased and ecosystems are restored along with active human intervention in landscapes and the provision of livelihoods which are financially and environmentally sustainable.

Read more: Rewilding land risks losing agricultural property relief

“Agricultural rewilding can potentially have biodiversity benefits over those of conventional rewilding since it can create and maintain habitats which may be lost in 'hands-off' rewilding practices and whose loss would pose a threat to habitat-specialist species.

“Furthermore, extensive farming as part of agricultural rewilding offers an advantage over more intensive agriculture in that animals can be kept in naturalistic conditions and in accordance with high welfare standards,” said Dr Thomas.

“Domestic livestock can be present in the landscape, restoring biodiversity and regenerating ecosystem function, while still contributing to agricultural production where their lives are lived to high welfare and environmental standards and their deaths provide high-quality meat, thus contributing to food self-sufficiency and reducing the outsourcing of food production to systems with higher environmental impacts."