If 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 these 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 is 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 offers 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.