Rewilding for Culture as well as Ecology

In my last blog, I mentioned how rewilding threatens UK farmers’ identities, particularly as food producers. My own experience of the social and cultural dynamics surrounding a rewilding project was in a very different context. I was working with Clio Smeeton and Ken Weagle of the Cochrane Ecological Institute in Alberta, Canada where they bred swift foxes for reintroduction. A request for swift fox individuals for a rewilding project came from the Blackfeet Tribe in Montana who were (and still are) attempting to restore the biodiversity on their lands to something approaching that before colonisation and I was lucky enough to manage the project for a few years.

The swift fox is a cultural icon for the tribe and its extirpation from the Lands probably occurred due to overhunting for its pelt, habitat degradation etc. The Tribe had a Swift fox Society, the members of which were warriors. Thus, the species has high intrinsic cultural value for Blackfeet Tribe members both on and off the reservation. Awareness of the programme was high among reservation residents but lacking in people off the reservation who were not Blackfeet tribe members. Such a difference can only be attributed to the lack of discussion about the project off the reservation perhaps indicative of deeper divisions. However, when I asked ranchers farming off the reservation for their opinion about the foxes, they expressed positive views because of the small sie of the fox so it poses no danger to livestock and it preys on ground squirrels which most ranchers hate with a passion.

There were numerous challenges working with the Blackfeet who viewed the fox as an old friend returning home and didn’t really care what the outside world thought of the programme. Like many Native American groups, they were uncertain about the necessity of invasively monitoring the released foxes to ascertain survivorship. However, they did very generously allowed us to radio collar a small percentage of the released individuals. The release site was sacred to the tribe and each release took place there every year. This may have meant that each tranche of released foxes had to move further from the release site to set up a territory apart from that of foxes released in preceding years. None of this really made any difference to the foxes who bred in the spring after the first release and have continued to do very well. However, as a zoologist, I wanted data for publication but because of the rather unsystematic way we went about the work, reviewers were unconvinced by our results. That didn’t faze the Blackfeet though because they can now see the swift fox daily and are happy that an important part of their cultural heritage has returned. This experience was instrumental in my evolving into a conservation social scientist because it taught me that conservation and rewilding isn’t all about science – it’s about hearts and minds too.


Thoughts on Rewilding I

Between 2000 and 2003, I was privileged to take part in a biological and cultural rewilding at the instigation of the Blackfeet Tribal Lands in Montana. I was part of a team reintroducing the swift fox, a small canid iconic to the Blackfeet Tribe and absent from their lands for some years. I’ll blog about my experiences and how they affected my conservation practice in part II. Here I share my thoughts on rewilding in Wales, where I live.

A few weeks ago, ​I was lucky enough to attend a rewilding meeting at Bangor University. I was keen to see how the human dimension is being embedded in the various projects planned and in progress in Wales and elsewhere. I wasn’t disappointed – there were some great talks which inspired lots of debate. After the presentations, we split into groups to list our priorities for successful rewilding. How to effectively engage and recruit communities, particularly farmers and landowners, to the rewilding philosophy was a top priority for attendees.

Most rewilding projects will take place in sparsely populated rural areas where generations of farmers have spent their lives managing and controlling nature and producing food for people. These individuals identify as farmers just as we identify as conservationists and, like us, they have tremendous commitment to and pride for their work. Unfortunately, for these individuals, the connotations of the word “rewilding” conjure up images of wolves killing defenceless sheep on the mountainside. Media hype about large carnivores being reintroduced probably contributes greatly to farmers’ alarm because reintroducing large carnivores goes counter to farmers’ instincts, threatening their identity and their sense of control over their environment.

Away from the sparsely populated landscapes of mid Wales, the Welsh Valleys are undergoing a spontaneous rewilding process. For example, the river running at the bottom of my garden was once polluted and its banks treeless. I now often see dippers in the river and have buzzards and occasionally red kites flying over my house. However, older neighbours, used to barren coal tips and dirty rivers, find this very modest restoration alarming. One elderly lady called me for help last summer as she had been scared by a huge bird (a heron) taking flight suddenly close to her garden and telling me  that “There are too many trees now – they belong down the country not here”. Her observation nicely Illustrates the metaphorical boundaries that we, in the west, use to persuade ourselves we are in control of nature. No matter how odd or inaccurate such concerns of urban and rural communities’ concerns seem to us, they must be addressed sensitively and not necessarily by the direct presentation of scientific data running contra to local beliefs. Prioritisation of scientific knowledge over local beliefs and perceptions has led to communities feeling threatened by “outsiders” leading to polarised beliefs and entrenched conflicts in many places. Engaging sincerely and meaningfully with communities will bear future fruit for rewilding projects everywhere and it was heartening to find this to be a priority by attendees at the Bangor meeting.

Dogs (and Monkeys) Behaving Badly

It’s an unfortunate situation in which to find yourself when your favourite domestic animal likes to harass and kill your study species. That, however, is the scenario we have to deal with regularly in Bouhachem where domestic dogs owned by villagers harass and sometimes kill the Endangered Barbary macaque. Apart from worrying how this might be affecting macaque mortality, there is the tendency to want to “do something”, but anything we do has to be done carefully as the Barbary macaques are as scared of people as they are of dogs. In the example of the wounded female in the article, we saw off the attacking dogs and stayed around to ensure the female was unmolested as she made her slow, painful progress from the ground up into the tree. As soon as she was safe in the tree, we left because her nearby family members were too frightened of us to return to her side. You can download the article here:

Another notable heart in mouth moment was watching an exhausted,  heavily pregnant macaque sleeping on the forest floor and praying that no dog would suddenly, silently run in and attack her and watching an adult male desperately trying to take a very small infant to safety as it defiantly clung onto a plant only feet away from a charging dog. Thankfully the male succeeded!
Our work showed that spring was the period when dog attacks took place most often and lasted the longest. Unfortunately, this behaviour coincides with Barbary macaques heavily pregnant, giving birth and lactating, so they need to feed for long periods, finding most of their food on the ground. We have no idea how this may affect infant survivorship. However, one dog had the misfortune to get grabbed by the throat by a male macaque demonstrating that monkeys are not always the victims.
We have worked with the villagers who own dogs, vaccinating the animals against rabies. Our field team regularly monitors macaque groups and stops any dog harassment. We continue to work with village communities on dog health and welfare issues as part of our holistic approach to conservation.

Conservation and development – socio-cultural considerations

My conservation project is based in Bouhachem in the region of Tangier-Tétouan in north Morocco.  It is a remote mountainous area with the last extensive area of mixed oak forest in the region.  The forest is home to the Endangered Barbary macaque and I initiated a research and conservation project in 2009. Ten villages are located on the periphery of the forest. These village communities are marginalised and suffer various disadvantages because of their physical location. Part of my research was to discover the historical, political and social influences in the context of past activities by outside agencies in the area in order to facilitate the development of conservation strategies to the local situation.


Bouhachem is in line to be upgraded to Natural Park status.  In preparation for the expected rise in tourism this upgrading will bring, some development NGOs in collaboration with the regional authorities are driving development projects with variable results. For example, two villages (called Village 1 and village 2 to preserve their anonymity), were the recipients of fuel-efficient bread ovens. The idea behind the ovens is to reduce the amount of wood being used for fuel and to reduce the amount of time women spend collecting the wood is perceived by outside agencies as time-consuming and arduous.


According to the oven manufacturer, each one is meant to be shared by 5 – 6 households and the villagers must work together to build and maintain a shelter for their oven. A woman from Village 1 told me that “We don’t want these ovens as we all [each household] have our own.” I suggested that a fuel efficient oven would require less work collecting firewood but she laughed and pointed to the store of large store of dead wood around her house “We have plenty of wood, that’s what the forest is for”. Her remark suggests that villagers perceive no shortage of firewood. Social factors might also explain the women’s resistance to the ovens as another woman told me:

We don’t mind collecting the wood; we all go together and sing as we work.

The outside agency responsible for the project failed to consider whether the collection of firewood could have positive social significance for village women. To date, neither village has used the ovens which remain where they were placed on delivery. Development workers were left frustrated at the women’s disregard of the ovens and were puzzled by what they perceived as the women’s reluctance to decrease their workload. It is unsurprising that some NGO employees express their frustration towards the villagers negatively. One told me:

The villagers are impossible to deal with as they are stubborn and don’t want to change or listen to new ideas and they won’t work together.

Villagers are well-accustomed to working together, fighting fires, and collectively herding their goats. The employee’s perception of intransigence may stem from the villagers’ reactions to the imposition of development initiatives on villages without prior consultation which might have identified the social significance of firewood collection for village women. It is thus imperative for conservation NGOs wishing to become involved in development work to understand that social as well as cultural mechanisms may affect project outcomes.