The UK parliament has declared a "climate emergency". As a nature-based climate solution grounded in rewilding principles, natural grazing could (and should) play a role in averting disaster.
The Tauros, derived from an extinct species of wild cattle called the auroch, has been successfully used as a natural grazer in a number of European rewilding projects. Photo: Daniel Allen
Last week a climate emergency was declared by the UK government. MPs are calling on the government to make changes that include setting a new target of reaching net zero emissions before 2050, with some British cities saying they want to be carbon neutral by 2030.
But how can the UK get to net zero - the point where its GHG emissions are balanced by the amount absorbed from the atmosphere - in the coming decades, while feeding itself and ensuring continued prosperity?
A transformation in many areas of society will be required. A new report by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) calls for the phasing out of combustion engine vehicles, the development of hydrogen, lifestyle changes such as eating less meat, and significantly scaled up efforts to "pull" carbon out of the air through tree planting.
More trees is undoubtedly a good idea. As well as capturing carbon, reforestation would benefit wildlife, flood management and air quality. However, to simply plant trees would be missing an opportunity, particularly since seedlings don't sequester anywhere near as much carbon as ancient woodlands. Advances in rewilding are showing that wood-pasture landscapes grazed and shaped by free-roaming herds of herbivores generate more "net gain" in terms of carbon emissions than plantations and closed canopy forests.
Involving groups of mixed herbivores (such as bovines, horses and deer), natural grazing has already been proven to restore the structure and fertility of soil, which in turn boosts its carbon sequestration capacity (soils are hugely important reservoirs of carbon). As an added bonus, natural grazing can significantly enhance wild nature through the creation of mosaic landscapes and generate multiple revenue streams (through offerings such as wild meat and experiential tourism).
Enabling a new pastoralism
At a global level, agriculture is estimated to account for anywhere up to a third of all human-induced GHG emissions (in the UK it is responsible for around 10 percent). As an industry, farming is a primary emitter of the potent greenhouse gases methane and nitrous oxide. Depending on land use and management, it can either generate or absorb carbon dioxide.
Minette Batters, President of the National Farmers' Union recently called on British farmers to reach net zero GHG emissions by 2040. So far, however, industry-led initiatives - such as the Greenhouse Gas Action Plan in England - have primarily focused on improving agricultural efficiency, overlooking the importance of sustainable land use and management as an integral part of climate-friendly farming. Underpinned by a more enabling policy enviroment, there is potential for agriculture to contribute far more when it comes to climate change mitigation.
At the Cambridge Conservation Foundation Rewilding Symposium in January, Ecosulis convened and facilitated a workshop (view / download the workshop report here) to brainstorm opportunities to advance natural grazing within current regulations, and to identify areas where more supportive policy is required.
"Adoption of natural grazing in the UK is constrained by a range of policy, cultural and practical factors," says Dr. Paul Jepson, Ecosulis Nature Recovery Lead. "The effects of these constraints are compounded by the absence of established markets, payment schemes and transition finance for the products, services and environmental outcomes it can generate."
The 25-year Environment Plan and the forthcoming Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMs) offer an opportunity to explore policy approaches that would support natural grazing across the UK. Participants in the CCF workshop found an area rather than herd-based approach to be the most effective policy approach. This would see specific natural grazing areas designated where veterinary surgeons and government officials could adopt more flexible and supportive interpretations of livestock regulations, thereby enabling the development of the most beneficial natural grazing models.