I think conservationists in this country have a dysfunctional relationship with nature. They’ve become afraid of it. They want to contain it and prevent it from getting out of control but the whole thing about nature is that it is out of control.
My book Feral is about ‘rewilding’ – allowing the natural world to regenerate and find its own way rather than managing and controlling it. Conservation in the UK is often about trying to preserve a particular assemblage of species, to let none in, to let none out, to prevent successional processes from taking place, and to keep the ecosystem in a state of arrested development.
‘Rewilding’, for me, isn’t an attempt to recreate a primordial wilderness; it’s an attempt to allow nature to have its head, to take down the fences, block up the drainage ditches, reintroduce the missing species, and then stand back and see what happens. We would never know how it will end up, but it will never end up, it will be forever changing and evolving.
For a long time I’d had a sense that I wasn’t engaging with most of the ecosystems in Britain. I found a lot of them, in a way, repulsive to me. And also that, in some ways, I wasn’t fully engaging with my own life; I wasn’t finding it sufficiently exciting or compelling.
We’re equipped to live in more interesting times. Each of us has ancestors who lived among ferocious wild beasts with tusks and horns and claws and fangs, and we had to survive in that environment. We had to catch our own food and not become food. Now we’re living in much tamer, more predictable circumstances and, judging by myself, I believe, a lot of the time that’s not enough for us. We have unfulfilled needs and desires.
I’m not an anarcho-primitivist. I’m not saying we should abandon civilisation and become hunter-gatherers; we don’t have the ecological space. But once we’ve created these more captivating environments and reintroduced wolves, lynx, beavers and wild boar, we can reintroduce people, and supplement and enhance civilisation by having a great place to go when we’re not working.
The western half of Britain was once a very lush and rich rainforest system, but due to a 6,000-year assault from sheep, it has been reduced to little more than a bowling green with contours. We fetishise this bare open upland environment but it’s the product of thousands of years of heavy grazing. And there’s almost nothing up there. Birds are a good indicator of the health of an ecosystem, and you can sit in a bushy suburban garden and see more birds than you would walking across any part of the British uplands.
Without those sheep you would have something much richer and much more interesting. You would also have fewer floods downstream and fewer droughts, and the river flows would be much more constant year-round. And you would have higher carbon storage in the hills and, most importantly, dynamic, vibrant ecosystems, as opposed to the endless sheep pastures that are cropped into, I think, ecological collapse.
The main problem with current farming policy is the subsidy system. I question whether we should be paying agricultural subsidies at all – a lot of the recipients in Britain are rich. And the perverse nature of subsidy rules promotes environmental destruction by insisting that land has to be clear of surplus vegetation before a farmer can claim the main subsidy.
Nature isn’t about destinations, it’s about continuing ongoing processes. The processes I find most thrilling are those that take place when we’re not intervening and we’re not seeking to manage. If we reintroduce trophic layers – top predators and large herbivores – then all sorts of fascinating and unpredictable things take place in the layers beneath.
Not knowing what’s coming next is part of what makes nature so fantastic. We’ve tried to manage it as if it’s any other part of the human economy, where everything is nailed down and under control and we know exactly what it’s going to be like year after year. That’s not nature we’re conserving, that’s something else.
I think we have the potential to enthuse more people about protecting the natural world because they would be protecting something that could be exciting. It wouldn’t be a slightly less bad version of what we have today; we would be calling for something fascinatingly and delightfully different, and invoking a world of wonder. I want to see our silent spring followed by a raucous summer.