Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding, by George Monbiot
It’s time to get rid of the sheep and re-create the wilderness, argues a leading environmental activist
Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding
To read this seminal, subversive, sometimes intoxicating book could mean never to look at our landscape in quite the same way again. Take that marvellous drift of spring bluebells flooding the woodland floor with colour. What a monocultural menace it is, after all, allowed to crowd out every competitive plant. How much better nature does it in Bialowieza, the ancient, unspoilt Polish forest, where gouging snouts of wild boars and sharp hooves of wild bison contrive a lovely, mixed, flowery Persian carpet.
And take those lofty hills of the west, with their nobly bare plateaux. As farming shrinks from the uplands, let’s get rid of the sheep (never a native European herbivore) and plant with Scots pine, oak and birch for martens, squirrels and songbirds. In Britain, at least, add lynx and wolverines, beavers and moose – even, conceivably, revive the ancient elephants with straight (not curly) tusks that once shaped Europe’s woodlands.
As for the sea, just keep the trawlers off it.
“Rewilding” is where we’re at, the sudden, uplifting buzzword of postconservation philosophy. Or not so much philosophy as fiercely felt intuition. Nature must be set free, wherever we can find room in this overpopulated world. It will help us liberate the richer, rawer urges still haunting our genes. George Monbiot’s genes, anyway.
This trenchant and radical environmental commentator, writing highly regarded columns in the Guardian, looks back on a young life of uncommon adventure: zoology at Oxford University, then helping the distressed Yanomami of the Amazon, then on to life with the natives in Papua New Guinea and the noble Masai of the African savannah. Watching a young warrior, Toronkei, reach a vibrantly active maturity, Monbiot considered “defecting” to his community but then saw the future closing in on the chance of bracing lion hunts and battles with the neighbours.
Monbiot entered middle age, one might think, with a very particular, perhaps enviable set of itches. But he sees them commonly shared in the sublimated lives around him: football as a substitute for hunting, violent films an as outlet for unexorcised conflict, a growing fan base for new extreme sports, an avid attention to celebrity chefs (to “engage once more with the fruits of the land and the sea”). An especially British sublimation invents fictive “great cats” to roam through the midnight countryside.
Monbiot found himself fretting at “the drought of sensation that had persisted since early adulthood; a drought I had come to accept as a condition of middle age, like the loss of the upper reaches of hearing”.
He sought wild adventure on the doorstep of his home in Wales. His accounts of fishing mackerel from a kayak in rough seas in Cardigan Bay or spearing flounders in a sandy river mouth are intensely involving, sensual and exciting. As powerfully as he could have wished, they express the “escalating pitch of attention” that takes him “stepping through the back of the wardrobe”.
They are also nature writing with Britain’s contemporary best. Feral belongs on the shelf with Roger Deakin, Richard Mabey, Robert Macfarlane, Kathleen Jamie and other fine writers who have engaged in the human reunion with nature.
Rewilding large tracts of manmade countryside would serve as its arena, but Monbiot’s scenario goes far beyond most current ambitions of conservation, or even “ecological reconstruction”. With other vocal protagonists, such as Mark Fisher of Leeds University, he seeks a wilderness of “self-willed” nature.
This may, indeed, mean reintroducing absent plants and animals, pulling down fences, blocking drainage ditches, but then human management ceases. The aim is not re-creating some ideal historic ecosystem but offering nature the means to let rip with its own, quite unpredictable solutions, then standing back to enjoy them.
The scientific principle, Monbiot explains, is the ecologist’s “trophic diversity”. It enhances and multiplies the opportunities for animals, plants and insects to feed on each other, rebuilding the intricate strands in the web of life.
“Almost everywhere,” Monbiot tells us,“except Britain and Ireland, large charismatic species are returning.” Wolves, for example, “have spread across most of Europe” – 20 packs at least in France, a dozen in Germany, perhaps 2,500 animals in Spain.
By culling invasive deer, wolves let woodland regenerate. In Yellowstone Park, in the US, deer took to the hills in avoidance, letting river valleys grow trees again and saving their banks from erosion. Salmon, birds and small animals responded to the richer ecosystem.
On the hills and mountains of Slovenia and Croatia, wolves helped rapid regrowth of forests and now join bears, lynx, wild boar, ibex, martens and giant owls in a lucrative attraction for high-end tourism.
The World Wide Fund for Nature is helping the Rewilding Europe movement protect a million hectares of the Danube delta and the Carpathians, linking national parks and wildlife reserves.
The variety and scale of rewilding explored in Monbiot’s “search for enchantment”, from bison-haunted glades of Bialowieza to beaver-enriched valleys in the Scottish highlands, can often amaze. But many of the projects fall short of the pure, untrammelled measure of human neglect that Monbiot and Fisher demand. (Both, for example, deplore grazing areas with “wild” cattle to keep heathland growing favoured kinds of flowers.)
Rewilding may or may not compensate marginal sheep farmers with income from hotels and B&Bs, and Monbiot’s radical social conscience, so evident in his journalism, will not let him urge its imposition without full consultation with stakeholders. He does not, in fact, use that bland cliche, but he does allow that elephants “would first require a certain amount of public persuasion”.
Michael Viney is a columnist with The Irish Times.