Interview: Holly Gillibrand – we need rewilding to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss

Our planet faces a climate crisis and an ecological crisis. Scottish student Holly Gillibrand, one of the UK’s leading climate and rewilding advocates, is urging delegates at the COP26 climate summit to do more to save nature. Chloe Goode reports

Generations of humans have exhausted the world’s natural resources and stripped it of biodiversity – we have already lost so many plants and animals. Some campaigners believe rewilding offers a solution, re-introducing native plant and animal species, giving nature the space it needs to take its own course.

Supporters argue that rewilding brings back once-lost biodiversity and helps us to fight the climate crisis, working in tandem. The climate benefits of rewilding range from capturing and storing huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere to providing natural protection against flooding and wildfires.

Rewilding is gathering momentum. Parts of England, Scotland and Wales have reintroduced beavers to the natural landscape, 400 years after they were hunted to extinction in the UK. As nature’s ecosystem engineers, beavers reduce flood risk by creating complex wetland habitats.

And, for the first time in over 100 years, white-tailed eagles have been spotted at Loch Lomond, Scotland, another UK success story for rewilding and restoring healthy ecosystems. These triumphs give us hope for the future of rewilding.

Lochaber school student Holly Gillibrand is a leading Fridays for Future activist. She is also campaigning to restore our landscapes. Linking climate to the state of nature has transformed the way she sees environmentalism, she says; “It is synonymous with the hope that a better world is possible.”

Not everyone agrees. Some Scottish farmers say bringing back predators threatens their livestock. But Gillibrand believes rewilding advocates can win the argument. We cannot forget where people fit into rewilding, she says. Until we reconnect people to the natural world, we will struggle to engage communities in the fight to protect the planet from climate and ecological destruction.

Rethinking our landscapes

Gillibrand wants to shift people’s mindset about nature. “For me, rewilding is also about rewilding people back to nature,” she says. “We live in a capitalist society where nature is viewed as a thing. We should be viewing nature as something we are a part of…

“How we can connect back with nature would require a whole system change and a different way of viewing the planet. If we continue to view it as something we extract profit from, then we won’t reconnect with nature and we won’t fix these crises.”

Gillibrand is 16. At 13, she was inspired by Greta Thunberg to join the school strike for climate and is now a national organiser for Fridays for Future Scotland, a spokesperson for Heal Rewilding and a youth ambassador for Scotland: The Big Picture.

Next month, Scotland hosts the COP26 climate summit. Gillibrand urges the Glasgow summit to deliver action – not empty promises – to make our planet greener, healthier and more biodiverse. World leaders must take responsibility for the climate crisis – but she is not pinning her hopes on this.

“We need to start treating these crises like crises, but I think fundamental change is not going to just come from political leaders at conferences like COP26,” she says. “My hope lies with groups like school strikes and protest groups that are trying to get change and are seeing change.”

World leaders focus too much on climate-mitigation measures such as tree planting, she says, and may not even discuss rewilding at COP26. Governments fail to understand how complex our planet’s ecosystems are; everything is interconnected and only understanding this will prevent ecological collapse.

“World leaders are talking about tree planting while signing new oil deals,” she says. “They want to reduce our emissions without changing the way we act. We can’t view the crises as being solved by one action, it’s all about system change, changing the way we think, act and treat the planet. We cannot do that by continuing with business as usual.

“Rewilding ensures we can draw down carbon while preventing wildlife loss; these two issues are interconnected, you can’t solve one without the other.”

Rewilding leadership

Here, Scotland is ahead of the pack. The Scottish Rewilding Alliance (SWA) is pushing to make Scotland the world’s first “rewilding nation”. But “it does not take much for a country to be a world leader at the moment”, Gillibrand says.

In fact, Scotland has failed to meet its greenhouse-gas emission targets for the third year in a row, she points out. “There is not enough change happening – global emissions are still going up, which says all you need to know.

“This isn’t a race or a competition and there is a continuing inability for countries to take responsibility for their part in solving this crisis. Saying we are a world-leading country while missing our targets isn’t going to solve it.”

Scotland faces significant rewilding challenges. Fewer than 500 people own half the country's land. “It’s not just an environmental issue, but a social-justice issue,” Gillibrand says. “We need to change the way that land is owned, bringing land back to communities and away from a small number of rich land owners. Communities will need to drive rewilding and getting that message across is incredibly important.”

Winning the argument can be hard. Opponents fear losing land to rewilding, “when in all honesty, people and communities will gain land”, Gillibrand says.

Completed in March, the Langholm Moor community buyout demonstrates this. Local people raised £3.8 million to buy 5,200 acres of land to restore and protect as a nature reserve. It’s the largest land buyout southern Scotland has ever seen. “This is so exciting and shows that we need communities on board to drive rewilding.”

Community buy-in will be critical if the UK is to reintroduce lynx over the next few years and wolves over the next decade, as Gillibrand hopes. “You shouldn’t do anything without the support of the local communities, it won’t work if you don’t have it.”

Scottish farmers have been particularly unhappy about reintroduced sea eagles, claiming the birds threaten their livelihoods by snatching newborn lambs.

We can overcome these kinds of conflicts if we explain rewilding’s wider benefits, Gillibrand believes. “We can get past these conflicts with compromise and working together; awareness and educating, but most importantly making sure that key community members who are affected can partake in decision making.

“Giving people agency while making sure they are educated and aware will create less conflicts between these different parties.”

Wilder towns

We can restore nature on a smaller scale too, Gillibrand says. Rewilding can start anywhere. Having more urban rewilding would help to blur the boundaries that exist between cities and the countryside.

“Right now, we think of cities as human spaces where wildlife can’t come,” she says. “I don’t think that is right at all; humans and wildlife can co-exist perfectly well.

“You don’t need thousands of acres of land to get involved; it can happen in your back garden or on your windowsill. Small actions add up, and if you do want to get involved on a larger scale, check out local organisations.”

Three years of youth strikes for climate have mobilised millions of young people. Many focus on the topic that matters most to them. What sets Gillibrand apart is her ability to see the bigger picture – to join the dots.

“We need to lead the conversation away from extinction of certain species such as pandas and polar bears,” she concludes. “It is much more than that. We need to talk about how ecological collapse will lead to our own inability to survive.

“We are trying to separate these issues into different boxes of climate change, topsoil loss, wildlife loss – these are all symptoms of a greater issue, which is our current society; it’s the way we function.

“Rewilding is very important to changing that.”

Holly, she/her, 16, is a climate and rewilding activist and writer from Scotland. In her spare time you’ll find her up her local climbing wall and exploring different walks around her house

Chloe, she/her, 27 is membership-engagement executive at CIWEM. In her spare time you’ll find her in nature in one way or another. She is an avid explorer of the UK and loves camping, wild swimming, hiking and yoga

The Environment Agency has issued the warning as part of it's third adaptation report to Defra, and also includes details of key climate reality checks and dire climate change forecasts.

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