Alex Lee is a PhD Researcher at the School of Applied Social Sciences at the University of Brighton. His research is taking a political ecology approach to critically examine rewilding in the UK.
My research is focused on rewilding, a new concept in conservation science that has gained popularity in the last few years, particularly since George Monbiot’s book Feral was published in 2013. Rewilding focuses on creating low-management “wild” spaces, with the aim of creating fully functional ecosystems that require little or no management from humans once the ecosystem is established.
This is a different approach to traditional conservation practices, which are costly and labour-intensive ways of managing land. Rewilding is an idea that has attracted a lot of excitement from those looking for solutions to our environmental crisis, with celebrity support from the likes of Chris Packham and Greta Thunberg. However, it has also resulted in a backlash from farmers and rural people.
My research methods involve interviewing people involved or near to rewilding projects to see how they understand landscape differently, to examine issues of power, language, and community relationships.
I heard that SCDTP provided support for PhDs to take internships during my induction, including funding. I saw this as an opportunity to improve my research project, to make connections, and to gain a better understanding of how rewilding has been institutionalised. I wanted an internship that would enable me to spend time with people working on rewilding projects, with the aim of learning from those who are doing practical work.
I set about finding my own internship by emailing the obvious candidate in the UK – Rewilding Britain. This organisation is quite small, relatively new, but has a big influence over the rewilding in this country. They are working directly to support projects on the ground, helping with ecological knowledge, practical advice, as well as working with government and other organisations to develop policy.
Rewilding Britain were not actively looking for an intern, but since the SCDTP funding for internship costs the host organisation no money I didn’t think there would be a reason for them to turn down this opportunity. I just had to somehow find someone to speak to! This proved difficult… but after sending reminders for a few months, I finally got to speak to someone. My advice is to be persistent! It turned out Rewilding Britain were launching a social network for landowners and having an extra person in to help was very useful for them.
The process of getting the placement organised was really simple. After agreeing an outline of my tasks with Rewilding Britain, I send a document to SCDTP and then it was all sorted. It was very straightforward.
I was quite nervous the first week or two on the internship. It’s harder to build relationships with colleagues over video calls. However, my internship supervisor was always warm, helpful and supportive of my work. Soon I got used to mainly working on my own, and I enjoyed our twice-weekly catch ups. She was also very understanding about my health issues that are probably due to long-Covid.
My tasks were varied. Some days I would be looking up rare breeds of cows and their characteristics. Other days I would be building a data monitoring prototype on Google Data Studio. At other times I would be looking through technical research papers on how beaver dams affect river wildlife. It is perhaps one of the benefits of working for a small NGO that you have more freedom to choose what you are interested in doing from a long list of tasks. Sadly, I could not visit any sites due to the pandemic.
Rewilding Britain work with many people who are pursuing rewilding projects, and some of the conversations I was involved in were fascinating. It was particularly interesting for my research around social relationships, power and language to understand what things rewilding advocates generally agreed on and which things caused disagreement.
I got a lot out of my internship, learning more about the practicalities of the knowledge I’d learned from the academic point of view – about how rewilding theory is actually implemented in practice by institutions. This is not something you can find out from reading papers on the subject.
Although I cannot use any of the internship as data for research, it has given me some pointers to the kind of things I will ask people in interviews about rewilding projects during my data collection. I have also networked with people, got to know various people inside the organisation and outside.
It also meant I got a chance to talk about my research, and I will be able to share my thesis findings with an organisation that may be able to do something practical with it. Work experience was not something I was focused on, but who knows, maybe Rewilding Britain will need a sociologist to work for them when I finish my PhD!