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George Monbiot on the future of rewilding

George Monbiot on the future of rewilding
27 Nov
Laura Cole speaks to George Monbiot, environmental journalist and author of Feral, on the rewilding debate, carnivores and being human

It’s been two years since Feral was released. What kind of reaction have you seen?

Well it’s been extraordinary, there has been a great sense of gathering momentum and excitement. There has also been a change in perceptions. Before the book came out, I went to talk to all the major conservation groups and their responses varied from mild interest to outright hostility. With one major conservation group I couldn’t get beyond junior management – no one would see me. But that has radically changed now and all the conservation groups have become very interested in rewilding and to greater or lesser extents are beginning to adopt it into their conservation plans and policies.

Now obviously I’d like to see them go a lot further, but out of the excitement has also come a new environmental group – Rewilding Britain. We now have a director running it at the UK level as well as a Scotland director because there’s absolutely no point in people in England telling Scots what to do. It has to be owned in Scotland too.

All this movement must be gratifying?

I feel really happy about the way it has gone and that things are beginning to shift – slowly. There’s an awfully long way to go and we’re starting from a very low base in this country, something we find very hard to see as we’ve become so used to it. But I think we’re going to go there.

It seems the debate is now about different kinds of rewilding. Is there a difference between how Britain would want to rewild from the rest of Europe?

It is true that the debates are now within rewilding more than rewilding versus not-rewilding and that has been a great shift. It’s just what we needed. A lot of the debate comes down to the use of herbivores. Britain has a huge number of wild and domestic herbivores, while elsewhere in Europe, herbivore numbers are more depleted as they tend to be hunted intensely by humans and other predators. There’s a peculiarity in Britain, in that we have all these herbivores and no carnivores at all. The biggest terrestrial carnivore we have in Britain is the badger, which is hardly going to control deer.

The reason for that difference is that the continent has a lot more forest cover – 37 per cent on average in comparison to the UK’s, which is either 12 or 13 per cent depending on which estimate you trust, and much of that figure is commercial forestry anyway. So the European perspective is to bring in more herbivores to open up the continuous forest a little bit and create a mosaic structure of habitats. Meanwhile, in Britain, we desperately need fewer herbivores and more forest with some carnivores. It’s that clash of perspectives that informs much of the debate within rewilding. So when I hear people across the Channel saying we desperately need more herbivores – I say ‘what? That’s ridiculous, all our hills have been depleted by them’.

It seems an odd imbalance.

Well, even in Europe carnivore levels are low by prehistorical standards. One of the interesting aspects of rewilding is not just the species that we’re missing but the abundance of species and the abundance of animals and indeed plants within the ecosystems. There’s some very interesting work by UCLA, which shows that there were a lot more carnivore species around at one time. Before humans turned up, the skulls of carnivores show much more wearing down of the teeth and breakages. What that suggests, is they were consuming the whole carcass – they were cracking open the marrow bones and all the rest of it to get the meat. Nowadays, carnivores just tend to take the prime cuts, wander off and leave it to the scavengers to finish, there’s much less competition. So if you think about it, when we were knocking around the savannahs as hominids two million years ago, it wasn’t just that we were surrounded by sabertooths and other megafauna, but these carnivores were desperate and really hungry. We have it very easy co-existing with carnivores now, because by comparison there’s a lot more wild herbivores for them to eat.

Right across Europe, we are still way below the natural level of abundance of carnivores and there are less herbivores as well. In Britain we just have a phenomenal over population of deer, which is made even worse by our utterly peculiar overgrazing of the uplands – something we hardly see anywhere else in Europe.

wolf6Wolves, often the subject of myth and demonisation, could control populations of deer in the Scottish highlands (Image: Shutterstock)

What is the natural state of the uplands?

In Britain, the lowlands are largely bare and the uplands are even barer. In fact, almost nowhere in Britain are there trees above 200 metres, which is exactly where you would expect the trees to be because that’s where the farmland is of very low quality.

Trees could grow almost across the entire land surface of Great Britain yet our uplands look like arctic tundra.There’s hardly anywhere in Britain that is too high for trees. The likelihood is, after the last ice age there would have been pretty much continuous temperate rainforest from John o’Groats to Land’s End. That bareness is entirely an artifact of human intervention, of cutting and burning and grazing. In the rest of Europe, it’s just as you would expect – lowlands are largely bare from farming while the uplands are forested because that’s where the farmland is of low quality.

The main reason we have so little wildlife is that the place you expect to find the great wildlife refuges are in an even worse ecological state than the arable lands of the lowlands. They’re treeless, they’re almost birdless, they’re almost insectless and their rate of decline over the last 50 years is worse than the lowlands. They are in an even worse state, even though hardly anyone is living there and hardly any economic product is coming from there at all.

Why are our uplands home to so much sheep farming?

I believe that comes down to the average size of landholdings in this country. Britain, on one estimate, has the second-highest concentration of land ownership in the world after Brazil. What that means is the land holdings are big enough to make subsidy harvesting a worthwhile occupation – you watch Countryfile and you could easily form the mistaken impression that people make their living by farming sheep. People do not make their living by farming sheep. Sheep are a loss-making activity. You make your living by harvesting farm subsidies and the sheep are ornamental in economic terms – worse than ornamental because they make a loss. But your subsidy payments are issued by the hectare, so the more land you own, the more you earn by subsidies. The landholdings in Britain are big enough to give you a viable living by harvesting those alone. And I think that’s what explains the difference here, that’s why our hills are not recovering whereas hills in Europe are doing so.

deerBeautiful or barren? The Scottish Highlands are kept bald by deer populations (Image: Matthew Dixon)

Why do you think Britain is slow to encourage its wild ecosystems?

The change has to start with people’s perceptions – we’ve got an extraordinary situation in the hills, partly because we consider these bare landscapes to be natural and normal. Because of some very effective propaganda by the National Park authorities and the Farmers Unions and other organisations, we have been led to believe that not only is sheep farming compatible with the protection of the natural world, it’s also essential to it.It’s incredible how little is produced – one sheep per two hectares is not unusual. Yet that is enough to ensure that those entire tracts of the uplands are kept bare, with soil eroded because there are no trees and plants to hold it together. We celebrate scree slopes for god’s sake! If overgrazing happens over a long period of time, scree slopes are what you are left with.

Why is that?

It comes from various sources. One, is the biblical tradition. The Bible is full of references to shepherding. Second is the pastoral literary tradition, which goes back just as far. This is really the idealisation of the shepherding life as being a place of purity and innocence, a refuge from the corruption of the city. That tradition is delivered by the Roman poets, Virgil and Ovid and then picked up again in the Great English Classical revival by Spencer, Marlowe, Shakespeare and then again by the Romantics. Because of these revivals in Britain, we come to celebrate this industry which causes a phenomenal amount of harm.

What would be a way to rewild and restore sheep and spruce plantations?

A lot of the focus has been on commercial forestry, even though it is far smaller in terms of land area than commercial grazing. There’s a lot more you can do with an old spruce plantation in terms of turning it very quickly into something that’s good for wildlife. You let some of the dead trees remain, you bring in trees of other species, you create a little bit of structure and you suddenly find you’ve got all sorts of stuff. Pine martins, goshawks and red squirrels are happy in old plantations, whereas very little is happy in sheep plantations. Sheep plantations can be restored but over a longer period of time.

pineFelled logs at a commercial forest, Callander, Scotland (Image: Kay Roxby)

You talk a lot about ecological boredom in the book, which you counterbalance with a feeling of hope. Where does that hope come from?

There wasn’t any single moment, but I began to see that the possibilities for restoration are tremendous. That was a very exciting thing for someone who’s spent far too much of his life documenting a lot of the damaging things that are happening.

In so many ways, we are seeing a great acceleration of environmental impacts and it is terrifying. At the same time, the potential for restoration is still there and we are seeing that in some places – particularly in Europe and the Eastern seaboard of North America. I’m not saying that compensates for the destruction going on – it doesn’t – but it does demonstrate how quickly ecosystems can recover if they’re allowed to. This is especially true at sea, where large protected areas are being left alone by commercial fishing – you see an amazing bounce back of life.

How has the discovery of trophic cascades – the idea that carnivores can have positive knock-on effects on depleted ecosystems – transformed how people think about conserving ecosystems?

The discovery of trophic cascades has really transformed people’s understanding of what ecosystems are and how inappropriate our current conservation models are. Protecting ecosystems is as much about protecting their function and dynamism as protecting individual species. You cannot preserve an ecosystem as if it were a museum and pick an arbitrary point in ecological history to maintain. It’s got to be able to shift and move and change and those shifts turn out to be driven by large animals towards the top of the food chain.

Who knows just how powerful those trophic cascades would have been when we had our full compliment of megafauna, they would have been tremendous, those animals would have shaped almost everything on Earth. The horizontal transfer of nutrients on land, the vertical transfer of nutrients in the sea, the composition of vegetation almost everywhere – it would have been huge! There are still very powerful trophic cascades taking place, it just turns out that our old bottom-up view of vegetation dictating ecosystems was an artifact of the depleted ecosystems that we studied. While the first trophic cascades were discovered quite a long time ago, there’s been a gathering storm of understanding that they might very well have been the norm. Every area had a megafauna.

Could humans ever cause a positive trophic cascades?

With some exceptions, human systems do cause trophic cascades all the time but not in ways that the ecosystem can handle. When we remove large predators, such as removing sharks from marine ecosystems, it causes a cascade. They’re not impacts that other species can usually live with.

So generally, where do you think human systems leave us?

All modern systems lead to monoculture unless checked by public opinion. That’s the logical destiny of all economic systems. The human power to change the living world has been growing as a result of technology and as a result of having available finance. The fundamental change, of course, has been the use of fossil fuels.

The only thing that restrains the transformation of diverse living systems into monocultures, is civil society mobilising against it. If you go anywhere nowadays that fills you with delight, it’s because people have fought for it. It doesn’t happen by accident. If it’s somewhere that’s worth having, you can be sure that people have already fought hard to protect it.

Where can rewilding go from here?

I helped to found Rewilding Britain, although I hasten to add that I am not involved with it anymore. However, it has some very specific aims. Its objectives are to have 300,000 hectares rewilded by 2030 and one million altogether by 2100. It would like to see 30 per cent of the UK’s territorial waters protected. Meanwhile, it wants to rewild as many missing species as politics allow.

Ecologically you could bring back most of our missing species tomorrow. Wolves would be perfectly happy foraging in London’s dustbins. Admittedly, you have to win people over first. There is a long road of public persuasion because none of this can be imposed on people, none of this is the sort of thing which can be done by some distant decision maker. You have to show people what’s in it for them and they have to be active and enthusiastic participants. Otherwise, even if you are able to implement the project, it will be destroyed: introduce lynx without large-scale consent and they will simply be shot.

Lastly, rewilding must re-engage children. Of all the species that need rewilding, our children probably need it more than any other. All this hysteria about feral youth – youth isn’t nearly feral enough.

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