George Monbiot and the Great Rewilding
On 29 May 2013, the day before he officially launched his book Feral, and thus before anyone except book reviewers had read it, George Monbiot gave a talk on his ideas in his former home-town of Oxford; he used to live just round the corner from me and we were on chat-in-the-street terms.
His talk was both different in tone and approach from the book (which I have only skimmed to avoid 'contaminating' my impression of the talk), more objective, less personal.
He began by listing the megafauna that roamed Britain in interglacial times before humans arrived – elephants, rhinos, hippos, lions, hyenas, claiming that to this day our trees show signs of having evolved with elephants – they are able to coppice/pollard from very damaged stems (though I can think of other explanations, such as storms). He didn't say so, but dwarf elephants survived into much more recent (post-glacial) times on some Mediterranean islands, only to succumb rapidly to the first human hunters.
Having set the Serengeti-style scene (he kept coming back to 'Serengeti in the UK'), he discussed the very real problem of 'shifting baseline syndrome', whereby conservationists in whatever paradigm tend to want to return to the past that is within living memory, or at least that of their grandparents, rather than taking it right back (in the case of nature) to what it was before humans arrived. I remember over 40 years ago witnessing a discussion between two ecologists, an American and a Korean, over whether Korea's bare hillsides should be preserved their barren beauty or (the view from outside) restored to the forests they once were. The same issues apply to 'natural' heather moorland here in the UK.
He then discussed a number of instances of ecosystem collapse caused by humans eliminating key species, 'trophic cascades'. Eliminating horses and musk oxen as grazers in Beringia (east Siberia & Alaska) turned permafrost steppe into tundra – ungrazed grass grows tall, insulates the ground from melting, permafrost develops, grass dies and moss thrives. In shallow tropical seas the loss of grazers (dugongs, turtles) to hunting caused seagrass to grow long, which trapped detritus and created the ideal conditions for turtle grass wasting disease to devastate the seagrass 'meadows'. When whaling decimated stock, krill numbers collapsed too, because whale dung fertilized the waters, and the movement of whales up and down to deep water churned up the sea bringing sinking phytoplankton back to the surface and the light. Whales sequester huge amounts of carbon – calculations suggest 100 million tones of carbon dioxide were released into the atmosphere from 19thC whale slaughter. In Australia subfossil evidence shows the climate 'flipped' some 40,000 years ago despite no appreciable climate change – humans slaughtered the marsupial megafauna that kept leaf litter down in the forests, it built up and caught fire in the dry season destroying the forests. Even the mini Ice-Age known as the 'Younger Dryas' around 12,000 years ago may have been caused by humans killing all the North American megafauna and thus reducing the methane output such that temperatures fell – this explanation of George's is not offered on Wikipedia, and may be fanciful; although mammoths, mastodons etc died out, we know that huge numbers of bison survived until Europeans arrived to kill them. The 'Little Ice Age' in the 14th-19thC could be related to the disappearance through European diseases of the Amazon civilisations and the consequent forest regeneration which took 10ppm of CO2 from the atmosphere, but again it started before Europeans reached the Amazon, though its peak in the 17th-18 centuries could be connected.
These processes can be reversed if the missing animals are replaced – the recovery of the Yellowstone ecosystem after the return of wolves has been shown on television, but according to George's account is more dramatic than the documentaries portray. Not only do the wolves control deer numbers so trees regenerate once again, but trees bring songbirds and beavers back, the beavers create ponds, which result in fish, which bring otters... Bears thrive on the increased berries and carrion from wolf kills. As river banks are less damaged by deer and stabilised by beavers, gravel beds develop again, where fish spawn. Etc. Etc.
Having discussed the theory he turned to the UK and the economics of upland agriculture, where apparently Welsh sheep farmers are given an average of £53,000/year in EU agricultural subsidy, but their income is only £30,000 – thus each is in fact losing £20,000/year in trying to ranch sheep on the hills, in addition to overgrazing the land because the EU pays more if you have more animals, irrespective of the carrying capacity. In order to get the subsidy the land must remain in 'agricultural condition', i.e. have no 'unwanted vegetation' (trees) – this last rule was instigated in 2008, and a lot of land all over the EU that was naturally regenerating has been cleared since then to retain the subsidies. Is flooding in the Severn floodplain, as in lowland India/Bangladesh, related to deforested hillsides? He complained that conservation organisations are locked into the shifting baseline syndrome, trying to conserve what was there before chemical agribusiness arrived, rather than going back to a more original state. While this may overstate the case overall, it is true that SSSIs are based on the wildlife value of the site at the time of designation, and that management policies are geared to maintaining that status quo, thus effectively 'fossilizing' the site.
George told us that 76% of Wales is agricultural, mostly producing meat – but apparently Wales imports seven times as much as it exports. The EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) he argued, was feudal – in that large landowners were the main beneficiaries, and that if retained at all, it ought to be capped for holdings above 100 hectares, and the 'agricultural condition' rule removed. He noted that in Europe, the CAP notwithstanding, there has been more retreat from the land than in the UK, apparently because farmers in isolated areas can't attract partners – young women refuse to live in remote areas. Hence wolves, bears, lynx, and bison are returning. Again a pinch of salt here – the Spanish lynx is severely endangered, and bison are only making a comeback in specially managed nature reserves.
Back in the 1770s century, Oliver Goldsmith could stand on the English shore and watch immense herring flocks, dolphins, sharks and whales – all drastically reduced through overfishing. At sea all you have to do to re-wild it is to stop fishing, whereas on land the megafauna that still exists elsewhere would need to be re-introduced. George made the point that while in the USA 10 people a year were killed by vending machines falling on them, no-one was killed by wolves. Hence the existential paranoia about big carnivores was unwarranted, and we could have our own Serengeti in the UK.
George said he's left Wales, where he had moved some years ago, because it wasn't wild enough, did not provide him with the experience of the untamed he sought. However he thought that if the economic pointlessness of sheep farming on unproductive hillsides was recognised and accepted, then re-wilding these uplands could provide large areas of self-reforesting terrain into which the wolves, bears, lynx, beavers etc could be reintroduced. I would add that there are much larger, emptier areas in Scotland and parts of northern England, many managed solely for the purpose of rich people shooting large overstocked herbivores with branchy things on their heads, or noisy chicken-like birds.
George is an excellent speaker, and certainly carried the packed audience of the Holywell Music Room with his rhetoric, but does his vision make sense ? In the talk, at least, he confined his suggestion to sparsely populated upland areas where agriculture is marginal. He explicitly said that fertile lowlands needed to be retained to feed us humans. However, he didn't explain how he would keep the wolves out of populated areas with easier prey, nor did he bring up some of the bizarre anomalies of UK law that have dogged re-wilding attempts to date. One of the most absurd is the rule that if you have a fence round your re-wilding zone and place animals in it, it becomes a zoo, and in a zoo it is illegal to have carnivores killing the other animals! If you don't believe this try to revisit a television series 2 or 3 years ago about a landscape-scale rewilding project in Scotland that was scuppered by just this. Oddly, it is not a 'zoo' if you fence it with animals already in, or fence it to keep others out. Bureaucratic absurdities apart, there is a lot of sense in what George proposes. A recent report highlighted the gross excess of deer in the UK, mostly unhindered by hunting or culling – lynx would make fine lowland predators, large enough to take fawns, shy and solitary enough not to be a danger to anyone. Beavers, how can you not love beavers: their bioengineering has many environmental benefits – yet George told of how despite years of information Scottish landowners were still prone to believe these herbivores would eat their salmon and trout! Wild Boar have managed, through escapes, to establish on their own. Wolves, bears, bison, elk (moose) and back-engineered aurochs would, I suspect, have to be confined to vast fenced areas in Scotland, but there should certainly be pilot studies with a view to future 'Pleistocene Parks', the term half jokingly put forward for a similar proposal in Madagascar. As it is, there is really nowhere is Europe except Białowieza in Poland where there is a truly near-complete set of Eurasian megafauna living in a natural environment – they also have the real ancient forest to go with it, with more woodpeckers than you can shake a stick at (not that one should do that). In Britain the fauna would have to grow with the forest, so the project would have to evolve over a century or two.
But George, please don't knock the dedicated volunteers who are doing their best on tiny wildish patches scattered across the lowlands – in a scrubby semi-urban nature reserve, local people are actually delighted to see roe deer and (alien) muntjac, and hope to glimpse a badger or fox. But we have to put a 4ft tall protector around every tree we plant – where are the lynx when you need them?
Ecologist Anthony Cheke is co author (with Julian Hume) of Lost Land of the Dodo
The Ecological History of Mauritius, Réunion, and Rodrigues.
Dr Cheke, an expert in the chronology and interactions of introduced animals and plants with the extinction process of native species, led the British Ornithological Union expedition to the Mascarene Islands in 1973 and has returned many times since. He lives in Oxford, and is chair of Friends of Aston's Eyot (http://friendsofastonseyot.org.uk) an urban wildlife group in east Oxford.
Other published work: