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When is river restoration rewilding?

June 24, 2016

Rewilding the River Waal at Millingerwaard. Image: Twan Teunissen/ARK Nature

Last month we published an article on rewilding and environmental policy, asking the question: what might rewilding ‘do’ for degraded freshwater ecosystems that widespread and established restoration projects aren’t doing already? 

This week Paul Jepson from Oxford University School of Geography and the Environment, author of the new rewilding policy brief with Rewilding Europe, responds to this question, describing a positive rewilding approach for freshwater management.


Back in May I presented a policy brief authored by Frans Schepers of Rewiding Europe and myself to a Rewilding Dorset meeting organised by Adrian Newton and Arjan Gosal of the University of Bournemouth. The county of Dorset is located on the South coast of Britain and a system of smallish chalk rivers flow into the natural harbour of Poole. The meeting brought together local conservation groups to ask: could we do rewilding and would we want to?

Our brief outlines seven emerging rewilding principles.  One of these is the principle of “moving up a scale of wildness within the constraints of what is possible”.  I like this principle because it is inclusive.  From the perspective of ecological function many of our landscapes are in poor shape and this principle invites everyone to engage with rewilding, not just for those living or working in wilder landscapes.

At the meeting Fiona Bowles, presented the ecological restoration work of the Poole Harbour Catchment Initiative (PHCI) and outlined some of the obstacles they face in the efforts to restore river dynamics: the noise of a weir being legally designated as ‘heritage’ was one of the more absurd! At the end of her presentation she commented that based on what she’d heard the PHCI was already doing rewilding.

This suggestion troubled me.  The work Fiona described was great but it hadn’t struck me as rewilding. On the one hand it flagged the prospect of the ‘move up a wildness scale’ principle being adopted to rebrand business-as-usual. On the other hand I am aware that restoration is writ large in the Water Framework Directive and that concepts of living rivers, ‘renaturation’ of small rivers, wetland restoration and practices of restoring fish migration, removing dikes etc. were influential in the rise of rewilding ideas. There are loads of such initiatives along the Rhine, Meuse, Danube, Oder, Elbe, Loire, Allier. Could it be that river managers have been rewilding for years but their work isn’t recognised as such?


Rewilding Millingerwaard. Image: Twan Teunissen/ARK Nature

I mentioned these ponderings to Freshwater Blog editor Rob St John who confirmed that river managers are always trying to improve degraded freshwater conditions but rarely, if ever, refer to this as rewilding. The question he put to me was: what does rewilding do (or imagine) that river restoration doesn’t?

In this blog I will attempt an answer. I am conscious that my knowledge of aquatic biology, freshwater conservation and river management is limited so this is a preliminary answer and offered up in the spirit of promoting discussion and reflection. My hope is that it might lead to a collective view on the extent to which restoration as guided by the WFD equates to rewilding.

Millingerwaard in the Netherlands sets a benchmark in my mind for what constitutes river rewilding. I visited the area a number of times with my students as part of rewilding study tours. For me it was an eye-opener in terms of conservation ambition and vision and a river restoration project radically different from anything I had seen previously.

One difference was the link between river restoration and high-level policy, in this case flood protection and climate adaptation. The River Waal was experiencing higher peaks flows and needed more space. The rewilding solution was to remove the summer dykes, peel of the unnatural clay layer to restore the old river morphology, reintroduce beavers and two big grazers (konik ponies and Galloway cattle) and let the area go.  However, this necessitates the removal of the huge volume of clay that had built up behind the summer dykes.

Kleiwinning Millingerwaard Twan Teunissen

Construction work at Millingerwaard. Image: Twan Teunissen/ARK Nature

The Millingerwaard solution was to do a deal with a brick company and allow the pace of restoration to be determined by the market and capacity of the factory.  For me this connection between ecology and wider policy – climate change, flood management, new nature-based economies and so forth – is part of what makes restoration rewilding.  In The Netherlands, now every brick that is being produced and sold is contributing to river rewilding, as it became a common policy that clay extraction in river floodplains is only allowed if it contributes to both river restoration and flood protection.

Johan Bekhuis, of Ark Nature Foundation, hosted our visits and introduced us to river restoration rewilding style. One of his stories has stuck with me, perhaps because it epitomizes the ‘restore the dynamics and species will rebound’ ethos of rewilding. Johan told how the black poplar (Populus nigra) was super-rare in the Netherlands until they started excavating the old river meanders which led to an abundance of black poplar seedlings appearing.

They realized that by restoring the river braids they were also restoring warm lapping water conditions and these were the conditions poplar seeds – carried down from Germany – needed to germinate.  The same principle applied for other plant and insect species that had become extinct in the Netherlands but were present in the upper catchment and suddenly found a habitat to settle and reestablish.


New habitats at Millingerwaard. Image: Twan Teunissen/ARK Nature

This story illustrates another key distinction – restoration becomes rewilding when river engineering interventions are design to restore dynamic process rather than pre-specified conditions and outcomes. From this perspective rewilding is easy to distinguish from restoration in retrospect because it will have generated unexpected outcomes that extend knowledge or unsettled images of what a river is.  For instance until I visited Millingerwaard, I thought European rivers had banks and that beaches and dunes were confined to the coast!  This pleasant unsettling, the realization that river landscapes could be better than what we have, captures the hopeful ethos of rewilding.

It perhaps also expresses the rewilding challenge for river engineers: designing dynamic restoration projects that produced the unexpected and accepting that outcomes may not always be desirable. In practice this probably means engineering designs that create the ‘rough’ starting conditions for the river and its dynamics to then shape the landscape, rather than being two technical and specific on designs that deliver certain habitats, species and/or conditions.

Another difference from the river restoration projects I knew and had been involved in was the relaxed – and in many ways radical – attitude to recreation in the restoration area. Millingerwaard is located on a circular cycle route serving the city if Nijmegen and the project facilitated a community wilderness café, a beautiful tea garden and other successful enterprises to encourage visitors.

Fietsen Millingerwaard

Cyclists in the river meadows at Millingerwaard. Image: Twan Teunissen/ARK Nature

Unlike many reserves in Europe there are no signs specifying routes and rules of behavior.  People are free to do what they want and this seems to be working out just fine. Perhaps because most people worry about getting lost, or wet feet trails quickly formed and were followed by the majority. In addition because clay extraction and recreation commenced simultaneously the footpath routes are emerging in interaction with people and commerce. I was one of the ones who ‘went in’ and it was a wonderful primordial nature experience. I saw beaver but got scratched and muddy and felt the fear when I encountered a herd of wilded cattle occupying the high ground I needed to traverse.

George Monbiot termed such experiences “rewilding the self” and argued that as our societies become ever more regulated and efficient citizens need and seek out opportunities to reclaim our authenticity as human beings.  The rise in popularity of wild swimming can be understood as a manifestation of this sense of entrapment. Such ideas capture two additional factors that for me characterize river rewilding – an effort to interact with trends in society and culture and to create (or recreate) opportunities for citizens to choose how they wish to engage with landscapes and nature. Within reason of course!

So when is river restoration rewilding? I suggest it is when restoration focuses on restoring abiotic dynamics, restores trophic flows (e.g. fish migration) and levels (e.g riverine herbivores), embraces uncertainty, re-connects the river with wider policy and societal trends and unsettles. Or maybe it’s just a feeling – when those involved with a restoration project feel they are pushing the boundaries and re-imaging the possible.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. June 24, 2016 19:24

    So you might say that restoration strives to create wildness or wilderness, while restoration has a specific ecosystem or ecosystem service that it is trying to restore. Very interesting article.

    • June 28, 2016 07:05

      Thanks Dashiell, this is an interesting way of looking at – that restoration has something specific to restore – a state or service humans want, whereas rewilding restores dynamics that may produce something novel. Personally I try to focus on ideas of wildness rather than wilderness because I associate wilderness with concepts of nature that emerged in the US context rather than the concepts of nature which shape European culture.

  2. Rousselot Jean permalink
    June 27, 2016 07:24

    To me, as long as there is an integrated approach (see rivers and wetlands as a part of landscape with functions) a lot of restoration project contribute rewilding to a point. For us, this point is limited by water use (agriculture, hobbies, energy…). Even if some projects like Millingerwaard goes much further

    • June 28, 2016 07:12

      Thanks Rousselot, I think you have flagged a key point here – that we need to think beyond the river channel and see consider how river/wetland restoration contributes to the restoration of processes and functions in the wider landscape. Presumably we are already doing this with watershed and flood management. I’m not sure I know how to think about this. I feel very terrestrial orientated and look at or towards aquatic systems rather than out from them. Any ideas?

  3. fiona Bowles permalink
    July 19, 2016 18:28

    I arrived at the Dorset conference assuming that re-wilding was a large-scale release of land to natural processes (biotic and abiotic) and that in the south of England at least I felt that there is currently insufficient space for rivers to be allowed to run wild, flow wise. So to an extent I was disappointed when I heard that ‘rewildling’ could have a much narrower definition of making a move towards a more naturally processing system, on a small scale. On that limited basis I felt that the river restoration that we now promote-i.e. restoring the geomorphological processes in the river and its flood plain was ‘rewildling’.
    However the huge constraint that I see is for humans to release control and this is especially true on rivers with their potential for destructive flooding, erosion of property and infrastructure. . Our language is about ‘restoration’ and ‘management’ whereas I would feel that true rewildling is about letting go. Given the state of most rivers, and especially low energy lowland chalk ones, we may need to provide support to the geomorphological processes and replenish the biotic process ( e.g.with plants or larger herbivores) to stimulate recovery of natural processes before letting go.

    Protecting a corridor for the river and floodplain- as SEPA is contemplating in Scotland, might be a good first step to letting go, taking off some of the pressures to restore to a detailed specification. How much of overcrowded southern England though can be freed up and how much constraint on natural processes (weirs, hatches, urban infrastructure and discharges and abstraction) can a river experience and still function without ongoing management?
    I hope that the recent Government interest in Natural flood Management will provide opportunities for river rewildling on a catchment scale and look forward to at least testing how far we can go.


  1. When is river restoration rewilding? | Paul Jepson

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