In his startling new book Beyond Conservation, Peter Taylor, a Somerset-based environment consultant, argues for a radically different approach. He believes that traditional nature reserves are based on a kind of scientific control-freakery that may work in the short term but which is ultimately doomed. Nor do they feed the growing interest in wilderness as a source of spiritual, as well as ecological, fulfilment. More than previous generations, we have been able to travel the world and see truly wild places. We begin to notice the contrast between the vast plains of Africa and our home-grown, pocket-sized wild spaces. For one thing, we have no big, fierce animals.
Taylor wants to populate our wild spaces with big animals: wild ponies and cattle, beavers and boars, lynxes and wildcats, and eventually wolves and brown bears. To do that, he argues, we need shift our thinking from "small and neat" to "big and wild". He urges us to recognise "the wildness within our own hearts" as a stepping stone to recreating it as a physical reality. He believes we cling to an "industrial attitude" towards nature. We seem to want to bludgeon it into control with targets for species and habitats. The solution, he suggests, lies at a personal level. We should wander the hills, leap into streams, visit woods after dark and let nature work its magic. Only then will we be ready to prepare the countryside for the big beasts.
Because we lost most of our big animals hundreds of years ago, British ecologists have tended to underrate the role of big wild animals in maintaining natural landscapes. However, that view is starting to change. No one has been more influential in the new idea of "rewilding" landscapes than Frans Vera, a Dutch ecologist who, in 2000, wrote a heavy tome called Grazing Ecology and Forest History. Vera turned on its head the idea that the prehistoric landscape of northern Europe was uniform dense forest. In his view, it was closer to a cooler version of the African savannah, with herds of bison, wild cattle, wild horses and deer busy keeping the trees at bay. This was a dynamic landscape in which natural processes decided which bits were woodland and which grassland at any moment.
Something close to this beast-haunted Eden has now been recreated at Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands, on land reclaimed from the sea. Since 1968, a vast pseudo-wilderness of marsh, woodland and grassland has developed there with the help of Heck cattle and Konik ponies, primitive breeds which behave like wild animals. With introduced beaver and soon-to-be-introduced bison, the Oostvaardersplassen may well be the nearest thing to the prehistoric wilderness in western Europe. And yet it lies within 20 miles of Amsterdam.
Meanwhile, in the Alps, brown bears have successfully been reintroduced, their tiny population boosted by 10 bears captured in Slovenia. They have begun to multiply, somewhat to the consternation of locals and tourists, though conservationists insist that humans and bears can live safely alongside each other.
Although nothing comparable has yet happened in Britain, first steps towards a conscious policy of rewilding are being taken. The National Trust has become a key player. At Ennerdale in the Lake District, it has teamed up with Forest Enterprise and the local water company to reduce the level of grazing livestock and replace them with hardy breeds like Highland cattle. They are clearing plantations of exotic conifers and encouraging the natural regeneration of native woods, as well as moving towards all-organic farming.
The trust also has ambitious long-term plans to recreate a large swathe of the Fens on the doorstep of Cambridge. It has already introduced Konik ponies to Wicken Fen, and hopes one day to preside over a wilderness of re-created wetland managed not by conservation volunteers but by wild animals.
Taylor identifies three areas with potential for rewilding and returning big wild beasts to the landscape (see below). Glen Affric in Scotland is remote, wild country where the Forestry Commission and the National Trust for Scotland are making great strides in reafforesting. He sees the area as suitable for a variety of animals, including moose, wild boar and beaver, as well as a wolf pack or two. With a bit more woodland, brown bears could live here.
On Dartmoor and the Rhinogs in Wales the aim is for integration of the "cultural" landscape of farms and history with an enhanced wild landscape of native woods, regenerating heather and more flower-friendly grass. There is little prospect of wolves and bears here, but Taylor is optimistic that people will accept the lynx. In many ways it is our missing top predator, and we have lots of its favourite food: roe deer and rabbits.
Not long ago, the idea of introducing big wild animals was frowned on. But since the Seventies the sea eagle and red kite have been successfully brought back, and in Scotland they are in the stages of reintroducing European beaver. Taylor's recipe for a wilder Britain is unlikely to get official sanction soon. But a Wildland Network has been set up to pursue the idea. Rewilding in one form or other is now on the agenda: the past has become the future.
Fierce creatures set to return
Extinct in Britain since the Middle Ages. Present in small numbers in parts of Spain, Italy, the Balkans and the Baltic.
Advantages: Spin-off ecological "rewilding", creating more attractive landscape.
The excitement of knowing that we are no longer at the top of the food chain.
Disadvantages: Bears are dangerous. They raid rubbish tips and campsites. Lack of forest in top ecological condition. Resistance by practically everybody.
Extinct in Britain since the 16th century. Successfully reintroduced to over 50 river basins across Europe.
Advantages: Suitable habitat in parts of Scotland, Wales and England.
A useful "conservation tool", helping to create more natural river floodlands.
EU money available for reintroductions.
Disadvantages: Not many. Fears of flooding largely discounted. The main obstacle is lack of political will - the beaver needs more friends.
Extinct in Britain since Roman times. Reintroduced to France, Austria, Switzerland and Slovenia.
Advantages: Britain teems with lynx food. They would help to control roe deer, muntjac, rabbits and squirrels.
Suitable forest in Scotland, Wales, possibly Dartmoor. Would contribute towards saving an endangered species.
Disadvantages: Elusive animal, with low tourism potential. Conflict with sheep-farming interests.
Extinct in Britain since the late 17th century. No direct releases in Europe, but naturally recolonising wilder parts of France, Germany, Switzerland and Norway in small numbers.
Advantages: Would help business in remote areas.
"Rewilding", creating more attractive and productive landscape.
Would help control deer.
Disadvantages: Conflict with sheep-farming and game interests.
Potential introduction sites, like the Isle of Rum, too small to sustain a pack.
Fear - free-roaming wolves would certainly collide with the safety culture.
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