In Conversation with: Derek Gow

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking with my friend Derek Gow. Derek was one of the first rewilders in the UK, known for his work reintroducing beavers, water voles, white storks and wildcats in the natural habitats at his farm in Devon. Derek has been an inspiration and a teacher to me as I embark on my own journey of regenerating nature.

It was great to be able to talk to him about his journey with rewilding and about his exciting new projects! The following is a transcript of our conversation.

Mandy Lieu: Hi Derek! Thank you so much for joining me today. I’m very excited to be able to speak to you about all the amazing work that you’re doing. Please tell us a little bit more about your background and how you got into rewilding.

Derek Gow: I’ve always been very interested in animals. When I was little, I read old Gerald Durrell books. He travelled the world catching creatures to bring them back to the zoos. His rationale was that zoos should be ‘arks,’ focused on the species that needed time to recover. That you could capture, breed and then reintroduce these species then that was something immensely appealing to me. In 1990, I went to work at Gerald Durrell’s Zoo in Jersey. After that, I was employed for a project in the New Forest. We had a big captive breeding program for species and that’s really where my involvement started.

ML: You spearheaded the captive breeding movement and there’s not many people in this country with solid experience. Tell me how you came to the captive breeding program for the beavers.

DG: Beavers are amazing creatures. They redistribute plants and the bundles they create along riverbanks provide homes for reptiles, amphibians, and a whole host of other small mammals.

In the mid 1990s, I went to Poland to have a look at importing the first beavers. I saw an incredible scene of big swamps with floating islands with lodges in the middle and wolves hunting rodents, and frogs everywhere and water walls everywhere, and I realised – it’s the beavers. It was at that point that I started to seriously look at importing beavers and pushing the idea that this animal should be reintroduced.

When I started to work with them in 2004, it was estimated that their numbers had declined by 97% because there’s just no space left for them. It became completely obvious to me that there had to be someone out there that was making living space for the little things.

ML: Incredible. And for any Sublime readers that don’t already know, Derek wrote this amazing book Bringing Back the Beaver that I highly recommend. It’s such a great story. Derek is also coming out with a new book, which we’ll talk about in a second. I also wanted to touch on the fact that political change and policies is such a major key factor as well, as you say in your book. There was political change in Scotland in 2007 that contributed to a major shift because of fresh thinking.

DG: You’re absolutely right. I was at one of the first meetings of Scotland, because the whole thing had been discussed as an idea there since 1994. If the government plays two opposing sides off against each other, and does nothing concrete, you achieve nothing at all, nothing happens.

ML: As we are aware that rewilding actually contributes to the fight against climate change, if there’s one key message that you could share about rewilding, what would that be?

DG: It brings hope. With the example of an animal like the beaver, we know from other countries that this animal is a force of nature. By reintroducing them to Britain, we’re not just working with a single species anymore. We have given nature the ability to start recovering itself to start healing.

We have largely destroyed our landscape. You’re right, rewilding creates huge carbon sinks such as natural wetlands. The wetland plants regrow their mosses and big sages which all absorb carbon. Rewilding basically means that we’ve given the natural world the vibrancy to inherit something of its old vegetation and an ability to restore itself.

ML: Moving on into a more joyous and fun-filled space, tell us more about Wilderfest. I think it’s spectacular that you’re doing this and I am 100% going to be there this year. It’s amazing how you’re injecting so much fun into rewilding. Tell us a little bit more about it.

DG: Fact is, when you work in this field, you meet some amazing people. Wilderfest is an opportunity for people to come together here at our rewilding farm to take a look at what we’re doing, and to sit and have conversations with some people who have done truly remarkable things.

We’re going to have bands playing folk music in the evenings. The tone of it is going to be completely unscientific. The whole idea is that it becomes a bit of a fun celebration of nature, with some very good thinkers giving people the opportunity to talk to them about what they think should be done.

Very seldom does the nature conservation community come together, just to have a bit of a laugh and think about where we should be going next. The whole point of this is exactly that, and if it works well this year, and it’s looking as if it’s going to do just that, then we’ll repeat it again and again.

ML: I think it’s wonderful because, like you were saying, it’s so rare that we have the opportunity to just get together in a more relaxed way. It’s always quite serious if you’re in a meeting with policymakers for instance, and you know there’s so much potential of just brainstorming with each other. It’s important to just celebrate what we’re all doing because it’s not without its challenges. My hat’s off to you, Derek. You have been doing this for a long time and for me coming to this space relatively recently, I’m thinking to myself wow – you guys have some serious patience and perseverance. It’s not easy, but I think we are all holding on to that hope that you were talking about.

Now tell us how we can get tickets for Wilderfest! I’ve already got mine so let’s take this opportunity to tell our readers – anybody from people with a serious interest in rewilding to those who just learned about it – why they should come and how they can get a ticket.

DG: Tickets are available! You can see them on our website. Attendance is limited to 150 people, so get your tickets soon. It’s going to be quite small, quite intimate and quite good fun.

ML: Exactly! There’s good music, an open fire at night, good food, and good people. It’ll be fun, no doubt about it. Now before we say goodbye to go about our day, tell me a little bit more about this new book that’s coming out. I’m quite excited about it myself.

DG: The new book is called Birds, Beasts and Bedlam and it’s really a compendium of funny stories, but covers some changes and events that make you think more about conservation.

I also included some funny old zoo stories, some of the things that happened to me, and then wider scale things like the white stork project. It’s actually honestly telling people about some of the background politics that make restoration projects happen. It’s a clear look behind the scenes at nature conservation.

ML: Amazing, I can’t wait to read it! Thanks so much, Derek. It was wonderful speaking to you today.

DG: Thank you very much indeed.

*Please note that the above interview has been edited for length and clarity

A huge thank you to Derek again for his time, and I can’t wait to see him (and maybe some of you!) and Wilderfest in a couple weeks.


Read more of Mandy’s articles in Sublime Magazine


To find out more about derek’s farm and rewilding projects, check out his website
Derek’s new book is available now: Birds, Beasts and Bedlam
To learn more about Wilderfest and get tickets, visit here