Dave Bangs reviews George Monbiot’s latest book.
“Feral”, is both a passionate polemical demand for a rethinking of nature conservation strategy and a love tribute to the kind of wildlife and habitat which is central to his proposed way forward – big beasts, forests, and the sea.
In it he proves himself to be a superb nature writer, on a par with Williamson (‘Tarka the Otter’) and modern writers like Michael McCarthy (‘Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo’). I hope this new turn to explicit nature writing is something we will see more of from him.
Monbiot’s book galvanises the debate around an already controversial subject – rewildling. He defines it as the reinstatement of significant areas in which natural processes will be left in charge, with no defined management outcomes. Top predators and herbivores are to be encouraged or reintroduced, both for their intrinsic interest and as ‘keystone species’, stimulating all sorts of beneficial and unpredictable changes in ecosystems (“trophic cascades”).
His main focus is on the uplands of Britain and he places his vision in the context of major rewilding initiatives in Eastern Europe and beyond. This review looks at that and does not discuss the issues around marine conservation.
Monbiot wants to rid the uplands of livestock farming, chiefly sheep, end the monopoly of big landowners’ recreational usage (deer stalking, grouse shooting) and return the uplands (the Cambrian Mountains in Wales and the Highlands in Scotland) to unmanaged forest. He wants to bring back the wolf, the lynx, wild boar, possibly the bear…and maybe even larger beasts…
…Indeed, as he does the rounds promoting his book his name is tied more and more to the story of the straight tusked elephant. Though extinct, now, for 40,000 years, that beast, he writes, played a keystone role in the development of our temperate broad leaved forests. It is hypothesised that this species was a forest browser that knocked broad leaved shrub and timber species over and smashed their crowns (much as tropical elephants do today) and that the evolutionary response of these species was to develop the pollard and coppice habit of re-growing from the broken crown or basal stool. (There appears to have been no equivalent in the boreal conifer forests. If their trees are cut down they simply die). All those many generations of smallwood coppice workers, charcoal burners and tanners were performing the ecological role that elephants had once done.
I don’t doubt Monbiot’s honesty, and I absolutely don’t doubt his commitment to nature. His polemic, though, will make enemies where he could have made friends, risks doing actual harm to nature conservation and wildlife, and will confuse as much as clarify the issues.
A Welsh example
The most significant chapter for me (The Hushings) was that in which he describes going to visit Dafydd Morris-Jones, a Welsh farmer and activist for the language and his community who believes that “conservation should be about how we can live in nature”. Morris-Jones knocks spots off Monbiot and throws him in turmoil (“cognitive dissonance”) as he tries to weigh up supposedly intractable alternatives (“rewilding” versus “the sheep farming that kept Dafydd’s…culture alive”). Yet Dafydd’s approach, as Monbiot describes it, is not at all intractable. He helps run a community woodland that has replaced a local conifer plantation (a sort of rewilding, in fact) whilst also working as an educationalist, translator and conservationist.
I was struck by the question of why it took that encounter for Monbiot to face up to the social politics of rewilding. Why was it not more formative, more obvious to him ? He lives, after all, in a nation whose endemic language culture is both strongly held and deeply threatened, and in which the farming economy is one of its strongest redoubts.
He does attempt an honest appraisal of earlier rewilding projects, such as the big National Parks of eastern and southern Africa, of the United States, and Slovenia, in the former Yugoslavia. He writes with great feeling of the decline of Masai pastoralism in Kenya, where he spent much time and made close friends. In Africa and the United States such rewilding has been at the expense of the long-present native inhabitants. In Slovenia it has been a part of the fall-out from genocidal ethnic strife and population transfers.
He does not, however, see the destruction of small, mixed, and low intensity farming in Britain as a social and productive regression that should be rectified. Though he confesses that his position changed after his encounter with Dafydd, it only changed towards proposing an amelioration of hill farmers’ distress, whereby they would receive agricultural subsidies without a requirement to farm – a sort of dole, if they no longer wished to farm.
He dismissed the productive contribution of upland farmers with the assertion that Wales imports by value seven times as much meat as it exports, though, as Simon Fairlie comments[i], “that sevenfold influx of meat into Wales is supplied through an agricultural system that is widely regarded as unsustainable”. Monbiot’s figures are predicated on continuing major imports from countries like New Zealand, whose endemic ecosystems and erstwhile forested highlands have their own need for ecological restoration, from Europe outside Wales, and from the Americas, where far greater destruction to far richer ecosystems continues at a primary level – through ongoing forest clearance. Those imports are dependent upon massive food miles, use of fossil fuel derived fertilisers, pesticides, excessive irrigation, on imported animal feeds, notably South American soya, on appalling animal welfare standards, and on an inflated dietary usage of meat.
His dismissal of upland productivity says little about the wasted potential of wool, too, mouldering in barns for decades, whilst our clothing importers collude with Bangladeshi sweatshop owners. In lowland sheep country such as my own South Downs the primary roles of sheep, historically, were as producers of wool and of dung, transferred from the biologically diverse, but productively poor high ground to fertilise the arable of valley and plain, via the nightly folding thereon of the flock. The Lord Chancellor sat on a wool sack, not a mutton pudding.
I discussed these issues with a Welsh livestock farming friend (an English speaking lowland Gwent socialist) who had no knowledge of the rewilding debate. He had none of Monbiot’s tardiness in acknowledging the social implications of the removal of farming activity from the Cambrian Mountains, and needed no prompt to assert that “it’s just another form of ethnic cleansing”. His father would have said the same, I am certain, though he characterised the Cambrians as a ‘green desert’ many years before Monbiot used his phrase the ‘Cambrian Desert’.
Monbiots’s focus on the rewilding of the uplands is leaking down to the lowlands, too, as I see in my own Sussex Wealdencountryside with the removal of 3500 acres of agricultural land on the Knepp Estate from tillage to ‘wild land’, though it was cropped for perhaps a thousand years. Simon Fairlie rightly comments that, with our current population, the “rewilding of upland Britain[ii] is probably dependent upon the continued existence of industrial agriculture and in particular chemical fertilisers. Or conversely, one argument in favour of intensive chemical agriculture is that it allows a measure of rewilding”. And one of the things that has most surprised me is the enthusiasm with which elements of the political right have jumped on the bandwagon. This agreement of some of the most destructive, most productivist elements of food industry capital with the rewilders is only one manifestation of the governing tendencies which are at work across all of our British and European countryside. Marginal lands are left derelict, subtracted from agriculture, exploited in stripped-out, single product versions of old mixed farm economies (as with the upland sheep pastures), and converted to owning class recreational usages. The most productive lands, by contrast, are super-exploited for intensive food production, and all their prior ecosystems, landscape features, and physiographic nuances are levelled and simplified on a unified production ‘floor’.
If we are to cater for our current and increasing population, break our dependence upon fossil fuel and chemical applications, and necessarily return to organic systems, then we will not have the option of removing farming from our marginal lands. As Fairlie says: “The more we rewild in Britain, the more food we will need to import and the more we are likely to dewild land in countries that provide us with substitute food. Conserving our natural environment at the expense of other peoples is a neo-colonialist agenda”.
Monbiot’s use of language vis a vis other parts of the nature conservation movement is harsh, polemicising vigorously against those who value open habitats (pasture, meadow, moor, fell, heath). He denounces the atavism of many nature conservationists, who wish to “preserve the farming systems of former centuries”, whilst celebrating the atavism of rewilders who call for the return of ecosystems which pre-date significant human modification. He doesn’t even want to call the sites conserved by those who focus on open habitats ‘nature reserves’. For him they are best described as ‘culture[iii] reserves’. He does not, by contrast, wish to emphasise the cultural nature of the rewilded areas, which will likely contain different humanly introduced species sub-species and geographical varieties from those species which have been lost, hopefully to act as surrogates for those rendered extinct.
As for the “sheepwrecked” Cambrian Mountains, the steep decline over the past 40 years of their extant wildlife assemblage – with black and red grouse, golden plover, merlin, curlew, harriers, to name just a few charismatic species – runs in tandem with the abuse of sustainable pastoralism encouraged both by post-war UK and EU agricultural support systems and the ‘natural’ process of capitalist farming’s productive intensification. Monbiot omits from his account that the Cambrian Mountains formed the last haven for the polecat and the red kite, from which they have now re-emerged across Britain. It was there, too, that the wild cat and pine marten had their last refuges south of the Lake District, only to be extinguished there post 1850 (the former) and in the twentieth century (the latter).
The modern leader in British ancient woodland ecology, George Peterken, has none of Monbiot’s contempt for open habitats, developing a profound involvement with meadow ecology which has brought him in late life to the writing of a definitive study of them[iv]. His appreciation of them could not be more different from Monbiot’s damning faint praise. (“I do not object to[v]…protecting meadows of peculiar loveliness in their current state”). For Peterken, meadows have a strong link with woodland. They are one part of a larger matrix, and meadow-like vegetation communities can be evidenced from more than 70,000 years ago, that is, more than 50,000 years before the mega beast cave paintings of Lascaux. Peterken’s book has a photograph of a huge and colourful upland meadow taken close to the spot near the Elan Valley reservoirs, where Monbiot expounds his contempt for the management of upland grazed nature reserves.
Let me take two examples relevant to this debate from my own countryside.
– In the High Weald I have surveyed an area of tiny fields and smallholdings excised over the centuries from the fabric of a large heathy common. Fragmented ownership, the rumpled landscape and poor soils have served to preserve not just this pattern of fields, but much of their rich archaic grassland, too. It is an extraordinary collective survival, and the small grazed pastures and hay meadows provide a haven for such species as chimney sweeper moth, cowslip, pale sedge, heath spotted orchis and pepper saxifrage. By contrast, the surviving areas of common have been abandoned (rewilded) for a century, and have grown over to a banal mixture of dense bracken, holly, birch, and oak. The common’s rich open vegetation survives only on a few bits of mown lane verge, where cow wheat, bitter vetch, betony, hawkweeds, et al, give a hint of the richness that has been lost.
– In the centre of a Mid Sussex town, there is large Victorian cemetery, which was created on the site of ancient heathy woodland. It is vigorously maintained, mown at least every fortnight, and its turf is, in many places, as short as a bowling green. Despite this over-enthusiastic management it provides a refuge for an extraordinarily rich suite of woodland, marsh and heath species, including many scarce plants such as ivy leaved bellflower, bog pimpernel, wood horsetail, indigo pinkgill, marsh pennywort, sphagnum mosses, and many colourful waxcap fungi. Next to it is an area which has been fenced out of the managed cemetery and designated a “nature reserve”. It is left to natural processes – rewilded. It is a rank place of stinging nettles, Himalayan balsam, Japanese Knotweed, beer cans and rotting litter.
Does all this matter? Is it all a matter of personal preference for different types of nature, a matter of nature conservation fashion
Sadly not, for the real problems that the nature conservation movement faces are all too obvious: – gigantic cuts in public funding, redundancies, staff teams in public and voluntary sector organisation reduced to skeletal levels, loss of whole projects, neglect of critical management tasks, deteriorating sites and ecosystems, monitoring and survey work left undone, and lost opportunities at the very point when public consciousness was ready, at last, to accept the need to fund the conservation imperatives.
Statutory wildlife protections are under attack (badgers, harriers, buzzards, pine martens), ameliorative planning protections are undermined, the public conservation estate is everywhere threatened (public forests still, local authority lands).
Erstwhile common birds, plants, and invertebrates continue in the most shocking declines. Cuckoos and turtle doves, willow tit and wood warbler will soon be nationally extinct at these rates….and what will follow ?…starlings, house sparrows, mistle and song thrushes ? Macro moths shrink to a fraction of their former abundance. Ecologists argue that only ponds – sealed off from the polluted and over-extracted river system – can act as guaranteed refuges for the national freshwater wildlife assemblage.
Massive continuing habitat losses, habitat fragmentation, continuing pollutions, dangers from invasive disease, parasitic, and competitor species, dangers from climate change, (as “species”, to paraphrase Maggie Thatcher, “find themselves in the wrong place”), massive competition for land….these are the real issues.
Yet for Monbiot, the matter of personal preference is crucial. He makes no bones about his feeling of kin with the world of the big beasts, extols the pleasures of the hunter gatherer (foraging for fungi, fishing, shouldering a dead deer carcass). He tells us that before his breakthrough to the rewilding project he was suffering from “ecological boredom”.
But how seriously should we take his boredom, given the golden opportunities with which his class background, good fortune and talent have presented him ?
For most people, cooped up as we are, the chance to see wild deer or a rabbit is a thrill. For most people, a summer afternoon blackberrying, or fishing on a reservoir or canal, offers peace and connection with nature. For people in my life, on several occasions, the sight of a wood with bluebells in full bloom has brought them to tears.
It is imperative to plan the return of some of the lost big beasts in some places. It is essential to make the conservation of nature an imperative across large areas of our countryside, and to have large areas where natural processes are given much greater autonomy (both forests AND open habitats).
It does not help, however, if rewilders like Monbiot diminish the efforts of us folk to preserve the extant wildlife communities near our homes and in our countryside.
It does not help if rewilders argue the case for large scale nature conservation without embracing the fundamental need for an alliance with our friends who are struggling for sustainable mixed, low impact, and organic farming systems.
The preservation of nature can only be won in alliance with the struggles of small and disempowered food producers, in alliance with the struggles of those who wish to preserve existing rural communities of poor and middling folk, and in alliance with those who are struggling to preserve the existing wildlife of their localities.