Wildness and freedom: a banner to unite George Monbiot and Jeremy Clarkson

Wild British LandscapeIf there has been a silver lining to the large cloud currently sitting over UK environmental policy it has been that environmental thinkers have gone back to check their assumptions and think anew about what really matters.

The case for going wild
For George Monbiot this has meant spending more time reconnecting with nature and the state of the British countryside. The result is his recent book Feral and it’s a triumph. It is the best piece of big thinking to emerge in British conservation for many years.

He describes his boredom with British nature, and his despair at the ‘sheep-wrecked’ Cambrian mountains in mid Wales where centuries of heavy grazing have created a dull grass monoculture. As he returns from a particularly bleak walk he describes the shock of realising that the road verge on which his car is parked is infinitely more diverse than the upland nature reserve he has just visited. The same story applies to most of Britain’s hills where millions of sheep and deer teeth have felled every young tree sapling and kept many of our mountainous national parks in a state of suspended animation.

Monbiot’s answer is to ‘rewild’ Britain’s hills by removing sheep and allowing trees to regrow, to increase the diversity and complexity of thes ecosystems . He eschews fences to protect these new habitats, in favour of introducing predators such as the lynx and the wolf to reduce the number of wild herbivorous teeth. The return of the Caledonian pine forest to Glen Affric and beyond, nurtured by the visionary Alan Watson Featherstone, is the most heart-warming example of rewilding in action. They have not reintroduced wolves yet, but a waft of wet pine came off the page as Alan described the progress he has made in his 250 year plan to reforest a thousand square miles of the Highlands.

A provocation for British conservation
George Monbiot says some rather rude things about British conservation, and he makes the mistake of blaming his natural allies rather than focusing on the vested interests of some very large upland landowners. Much of the disagreement he has with British conservation is about the value of habitats influenced by human culture. He is a dendrophile, believing mature woodland to be superior to any other habitat which such land can support. He discounts the positive impact that conservationists have had on protecting the corn bunting, meadow orchids and butterflies that require open habitat, because they are often protecting ‘cultural habitats’, created from old farming practices rather than naturally derived. It an interesting reversal of the usual critique that conservationists don’t care about people, but it also assumes that biological diversity is always the greatest without interference. That might be the case on acid or neutral soils, but it is not the case on the nutrient-starved chalk downlands where I live. I’d prefer the wild marjoram, cowslips and chalk hill blues of the sheep grazed grasslands to the rather sterile elder and hawthorn scrub which would dominate without herbivores and scrub clearance.

Nevertheless, Monbiot’s provocation to British conservation should be welcomed, because it both highlights the risk of low expectations, and offers a bigger vision which could raise everyone’s sights. As the landmark State of Nature  report, by the RSPB and others, showed earlier this year the majority of British wildlife is in decline. Despite their great efforts, conservation organisations don’t have the financial or political muscle to transform patterns of land use and reverse this trend. Wildlife groups have succeeded in making us aware that there is a problem, but they haven’t yet sold us an exciting solution. Rewilding could be a big part of that.

My hunch is that the 200,000 people who have watched George Monbiot’s TED talk in its first month reflect a much bigger public interest in the wild, and that with the right approach rewilding is a tide that could refloat British conservation’s boat. I’m one of many, largely passive, members of my excellent local wildlife trust, but if I heard that it was starting a 50 year project to rewild our very domesticated local estuary, I’m sure we would become more generous with our time and money. This would put them in a stronger position for the bigger challenge of uniting the interests of people not motivated by wildlife with those of us who do care about it.

An alliance of feral people?
One of Monbiot’s most perceptive observations is that it’s perfectly understandable for people to “Kick against the prohibitive decencies we owe to others”, because in modern urban life “everything we do we must now be mindful of the lives of others, cautious, constrained, meticulous.” This reaction against the constraining rules of modern life helps to explain why Jeremy Clarkson sees environmentalists as a threat to his world , but it also tells us why rewilding could be powerful if it offered people new rural freedoms in return for their urban restraint.

Could we imagine a rewilded Pennines which allowed Jeremy and his friends to run their four wheel motors (at a price) through the newly wooded landscape, at the same time that wolves rummaged around the edges of Malham Tarn, and a group of inner city Manchester residents could build holiday shacks in the Peak District National Park? This is an economic question as well as a philosophical one, because rewilding has to generate an income for the rural economy if it is not to turn the countryside into a museum.
The economics of UK’s upland are very fragile. Hill sheep farming is hanging by a thin thread of EU subsidy, and CAP payments are only likely to decline. On the big estates of Scotland’s Northern Highlands only one person is employed for every seven kms2 of estate land whereas, on Mull alone, tourist activity generated by the reintroduction of the white-tailed eagle is estimated to support 110 full time jobs.

A quality of life economy is the way forward for our uplands, but it has to be a less elitist version that the grouse shooting variety, which employs few people and does not offer escape for many. To be open to all it has to be more permissive than the rules-based system of our protected areas. It should embrace the breadth of British outdoor culture from caravanners and their barbeques to adrenalin seeking four wheel drivers.
It would be a big step to unite these different outdoor cultures around a banner of ‘wildness and freedom’, but it is politically powerful. It is a message that would appeal to the right as much as to the mainstream in British politics. It also challenges the strange but common idea that loving the environment is all about self-denial. Rewilding allows us to tell the story of letting go, of taking risks, of being surprised by life in all its forms. As such, it’s the perfect antidote to urban living and the responsibilities that come from living in a crowded and warming world.

17 comments

  • Your blog raises some very interesting ideas, but also some rather thorny problems. Whilst sympathetic to much of what you say, In particular, I would have to take issue with the suggestion that a re-wilded landscape “should embrace the breadth of British outdoor culture from caravanners and their barbeques to adrenalin seeking four wheel drivers”. The problem here is that such an approach, however attractive its libertarian ideals may be, is fundamentally at odds with the concept of re-wilding. A landscape that is home to acreages of caravan parks, and that echoes to the sound of off-road vehicles (to say nothing of the damage they do to the land, and the air pollution they generate), is ultimately not a wild one. These high-impact activities destroy the very wildness that you would be attempting to re-kindle.

    • Thanks. They might disturb the tranquillity of some areas, but they wouldnt stop the trees, the wolves and boar repopulating the uplands. It’s a compromise, but if conservation makes no deal with non-conservationists then there is a strong likelihood that we will continue to see wildlife decline.

  • Hmmm… As you say, they wouldn’t stop the re-population of the uplands by trees, wolves and bears, but there’s surely much more to wildness than simply the presence of such flora and fauna. I would see wildness as a ‘state of being’, as it were, of which these are essential components. However, in themselves, they do not make a place wild. For example, a zoo may well have trees, wolves and boar, but I don’t think anybody would pretend that a zoo was a wilderness. If we stop ‘managing’ a landscape (by farming, conventional conservation, etc), but then allow highly intrusive leisure activities, how have we lessened human interference in that landscape?

    We should also remember the smaller flora and fauna, such as plant and insect communities. These are equally as important as the trees and the large mammals, yet suffer massively as a result of off-roading, for example. Anyone who doubts this need only look at the large areas of South Pennine moorland that have been devastated by illegal off-roading.

    I’m also confused as to why you are keen to form ties with those who seek to destroy the landscape in any case. It is always good to build bridges, but you would surely do far better to seek the support of, for example, the walking and climbing communities, which have far more members than the trail-riding and off-roading brigade, and who would no doubt be much more sympathetic to the concept of re-wilding. These are activities that can sit very well within a re-wilded landscape, with little negative impact.

  • Perhaps what is envisaged here is the idea that the human species has its wild side too, and we should rewild ourselves. We tend to regard our works and behaviours as outside nature rather than an expression of our own species’ adaptive evolution. We should see homes as super-enhanced nests, guns as highly evolved stings, and cars as improved limbs. So perhaps if Clarkson and co were willing to engage in a truly wild experience – ie with well armed human predators in pursuit, then it might work. Come to think of it, the next Grand Theft Auto – set in Emmerdale – could be the Rewilded Edition.

  • Thanks for this excellent review Matthew.

    I was a bit tougher on George than you are when I reviewed Feral (which you can find here http://wp.me/p3vKib-5e) but then again I have been arguing with him about it for the past two years. I have to say that, as someone who has worked in nature conservation for the past 25 years (and I now am much less sure about it than I was to begin with!), my views have changed as a result of this ongoing debate, but I am also pleased that George’s have too. He does now recognise the value of semi-natural habitats like the chalk downland you cherish, as does his re-wilding guru Mark Fisher. Mark up until very recently argued for re-wilding to best be pursued on semi-natural sites, because they might act as innoculation points for species to spread into currently sterile landscapes. Mark also recognises now that this is “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”.

    George picked you up yesterday on your comment about sterile scrub, though he mistakenly claimed that scrub was more biodiverse than the downland. You’re both wrong! “Southern Mixed Scrub” is a very rich, though transient habitat. Conservation managers often attempt to maintain a mosaic of chalk downland of differing types, and southern mixed scrub at various stages of development. This is an extraordinarily rich habitat for wildlife and it is the dynamic boundary between the grassland and the scrub which makes it so rich. Many of the rarest species of this habitat occur on this boundary. It is so important ecologists have a special name for it – “Saum”. It is also extremely difficult to manage, because it’s effectively balancing on an ecological tightrope – the system is always tending towards one state (grassland) or the other (scrub to woodland). I think that in prehistory (especially in previous interglacials) this was a significant habitat in its own right, created as a result of wild herbivore grazing, fire, drought and storm. It’s the British equivalent of mediterranean garrigue or phrygana. Elephants would undoubtedly have helped maintain it.

    And it’s for this reason that I don’t agree with George about re-wilding the uplands. First there is the knotty problem of Carbon – much of the uplands is now covered in carbon-rich soils (peat) – reforestation, if even possible on deep peat soils, would cause a large amount of C to be released. Secondly as you say the entrenched elite will not be pleased to lose their playgrounds.

    But re-wilding would be so much more exciting and effective if it occurred in the lowlands, especially if it included a large coastal area. I don’t have a problem with the Clarksons of this worled paying handsomely to off road through it, or even shoot the odd bear. The key thing is scale. Mark Fisher estimates that an area of at least 250,000ha is needed to support 9 wolf packs. Back of the envelope sums suggested that would cost around £5bn. Which actually isn’t an unachievable figure.

    Ultimately this isn’t about either conservation of semi-natural habitats OR re-wilding. I think we need both approaches, one for one set of reasons

    – these cultural habitats are the lifeboats (most of them are badly leaking though) in which our existing biodiversity currently sits; these are also the places that hold so much of our history, culture and sense of place.

    The other for the future

    – re-wilded areas will be new sanctuaries for nature, and probably new nature (or a return of nature from previous interglacials) that will thrive under much warmer conditions.

    I’m having a debate with George on re-wilding at the Linnean Society on 13th November. The event is already full but I am hoping that LinnSoc will film it and put it on the web.

    • I let it go, Miles, when you put words in my mouth back in September – that “re-wilding should be complementary to protecting existing biodiversity, not as a “better” approach”. That is not what I wrote, nor could it be implied from what I did actually write (http://anewnatureblog.wordpress.com/2013/09/03/feral-by-george-monbiot-a-review/comment-page-1/#comment-140):
      “If SSSI cover 6% of the UK, whats wrong with a proportion of that being wilder? Say 0.5% out of the 6%? That still leaves 5.5% or 10 times the area. To be honest, I’d rather not go for areas of SSSI for a number of reasons, and so ecological restoration doesn’t have to be a threat to any of the managed diversity”

      I don’t see that you can construe from that anything about babies, bath water and the relative merits of semi-natural versus wild areas! Firstly, I don’t use the word “rewilding” nowadays. Secondly, the main reason why I would rather not go for for areas of SSSI is because of the compositional approach to nature conservation that the SSSI system embodies, and which holds land in stasis, as evaluated by reference to the ridiculous criteria in Common Standards Monitoring. Thus ecological restoration is inimical to the SSSI system, as its very intent is to inhibit natural processes. Its a nonsense that natural processes and wild nature are thus “illegal” in Britain, because they are effectively in breach of the requirement to maintain stasis. It is very worrying to me that the small number of protected areas in England where there is a locally originated policy of non-intervention have no status in nature conservation in Britain, and that the gains in wild nature in these areas could be lost if the local policy is over turned. Since the SSSI system is unlikely to be reformed any time soon, then it makes sense not to jeopardize any approach to ecological restoration – or reinstatement of trophic diversity as George may put it – by being constrained by SSSI designation.

      Please – not a guru! Too heavy a load. I would have to say, anyway, that George doesn’t need a guru to come up with similar conclusions when faced with the same evidence.

  • Pingback: Saum, Clarkson, re-wilding and whither British Conservation? | a new nature blog

  • Agree with the comments above that wildness is more than just a tally of biodiversity. Yes, perhaps there could be some room for offroad vehicles and the like but in all honesty this is a very small island for the number of people and we will need to re-wild in different ways to the North Americans or Australians. Being left alone matters to wildlife to.. We need to about creat value in the concept of wildness as well as in the species themselves. Of course there is no single answer to any of this. The best way of thinking about re-wilding is as a cascade. Wilder cities, wilder farms, wilder semi-natural areas and wild areas.

    The biggest problem with ‘conservation’ is that the idea of management at all times seems totally engrained in its psychology. Chalk farmland is okay, but it is totally barren. I do not understand this dislike of srcub – it reminds of those attacks on wasteland I used to see everywhere, ivariably meaning the little patches of messy brambles and trees which harboured actual life. In the absence of farming the scrub would quickly fill up with small mammals and birds. Would it not be better to have 1000 acres of unfarmed scrub that 1000 acres of farmed scrub? From a ‘wildness’ perspective obviously…

  • Oh for an edit button. Okay – chalk grassland is not totally barren, but it is very poor in species, bar a few specialists that require it, and cannot survive without constant intervention.

  • Matthew
    I live and work in the uplands (and interviewed Monbiot) and as Miles King says, it is not one or the other, but for a push for something we all hate – change.

    There is no time for ‘them & us’ – whether rich landowners, urbanites ‘clawing at the walls’. agri-business farmers, text book ecologists or conservation NGO members’ whims – but a unified need to understand the complexity of a countryside full of trade-offs and synergies that form an unstable balance of human requirements within a vaguely ‘natural’ environment – on which both we and biodiversity depend.

    An ability to provide us with affordable food cannot avoided within any tough conversation on conservation today – it comes from the same place, we are all in it together and need to starting finding common ground solutions that work:

    Rob

  • Thanks to Matthew for his piece. I’m not sure where Jeremy Clarkson comes into it, but George Monbiot is on to something – as he usually is.

    The TED talk is indeed a bravura presentation of the case for a new approach. The book, Feral, is less impressive. What for Matthew was a triumph (see above) was for me a disappointment. Some of the science, scientists say, is sloppy; the evidence reviewed was an unrepresentative sample of the mass that is available – and if I read once more how fearless, intrepid and fit (by his own account) is the evergreen George, I shall reach for my revolver.

    Where George is plain wrong is to suggest – as I heard him say at a recent London rewilding event – that there is no constituency for this in the UK. Where have you been, old friend? In Scotland he highlights the work of one organisation. Without even trying, I can think of half a dozen others also at work on this idea – including perhaps the foremost zoological and land management organisations we have. And all over the country – from the Borders to Sutherland, and in the island districts too.

    Matthew, above, makes the same mistake. The Glen Affric experience may be heart-warming: I’m quite willing to believe it. But I don’t know – because despite having an interest in rewilding, I’ve not visited. There are too many other places to go first.

    That’s enough criticism. We should thank George for spotting just how big this could become, and how illogical have been so many of our approaches and experiments so far. He puts it very well in his own blog, published courtesy of the RSPB, here.

    http://www.rspb.org.uk/community/ourwork/b/martinharper/archive/2013/07/15/going-wild-a-guest-blog-from-george-monbiot.aspx

    Maybe Green Alliance should organise an opportunity to discuss these issues face to face.

    • Hugh – I’m not sure if George was that good on his RSPB guest blog – a rather long cherry picked ramble; get more of his true essence (not glossy Newsnight words that outwit the average punter) but by his own words on why he’s on his mission http://www.clickonwales.org/2013/09/boars-should-replace-sheep-on-the-welsh-mountains/

    • Hugh, I’m intrigued by this. I’ve seen reviews by a number of scientists, and none of them have complained that the science in the book is sloppy – far from it. Could you point us to some instances, and some examples of where I got it wrong? Thanks.

      • Hello George,

        Thanks for your message, and sorry to take so long to reply.

        I heard surprise – exasperation, almost – at your dismissal of Frans Vera’s work. His challenge to the closed canopy paradigm is supported by an increasing wealth of research.

        Peter Marren’s disagreement is that your approach would sacrifice a great deal of wildlife, very quickly: the habitats you deplore in fact support many important species. I don’t think he found your elephant suggestions credible.

        You know Miles King’s critique better than I. He’s vexed by what he thinks is a contradiction at the heart of the book – between the notion of self-willed land, on the one hand, and the resurrection by humans of long-extinct creatures on the other. I see what he means. Megafaunaphilia, he calls it. Nor, like Peter Marren, does he relish contemplating the loss of those habitats you’d like to see succeeded.

        On an entirely positive note, it gets clearer by the day that you’ve added prominence to an important movement – so you’ve done us all a favour.

  • Those interested in wilding rewilding might like some of the story that has led to Feral, George Monbiot’s book. And discussion of our particular UK situation – as an island etc. and with such a strong cultural landscape tradition. See

    http://banc.org.uk/node/13
    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Rewilding-Peter-Taylor/dp/0954706420

    I was at WILD10, the World Wild Congress, Salamanca, Spain early October to keep up with interesting developments in Europe. George’s speech was a highlight for many folk. But I came back with a lasting regret. The Congress is well attended by indigenous and tribal peoples representatives who spent several days sharing tales of indigenous and communal projects as well as often despairing over what is happening to their lands. No surprises there. But although in the same place, I did not see commitment to the idea that there would be much to learn by bringing together the experience and learning of these people with our own experts and decision makers for conservation and land management. I wont say ‘Worlds apart’, but not together enough.

    Alison Parfitt
    Wildland Research Institute
    School of Geography, University of Leeds, UK, LS2 9JT
    http://www.wildlandresearch.org

  • This a reply to Hugh Raven, 8 December 2013

    “His challenge to the closed canopy paradigm is supported by an increasing wealth of research”

    Inference and wishful thinking, more like! In monitoring published research over the last 13 years, I haven’t come across a single paper that substantiates Vera’s hypothesis. On the other hand, there are many “grazierphiles” who wish it were true, and brush past the inconvenient lack of substantiation. For a list of papers that explicitly discount Vera’s hypothesis (but which needs updating for the even more papers of the last two years) see http://www.slideshare.net/panparks/mark-fisher-a-review-of-naturalistic-grazing-versus-natural-processes

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