Feral – George Monbiot

Buttermere from Haystacks – a man made landscape dominated by sheep – for Monbiot a desert!

George Monbiot’s Feral is about rewilding.  You can probably guess what that means – though if you read this book you’ll find out a lot more about it, and about Monbiot’s own views about how we should go about rewilding the world – and perhaps more specifically the Welsh mountains, and the seas around the coast of the UK.

Monbiot would like to see the reintroduction of a range of species now extinct or largely absent from Britain – from lynx and beavers through boar and moose to, as he says, in the long term elephants!!  That might sound a bit fanciful to you, but it’s unfair to imply that Monbiot is impractical.  This book is well researched, he’s a well informed writer and most of what he wants to achieve makes eminent sense.

I first came across Monbiot in an article he wrote for the Guardian about flooding in Yorkshire:

Publicly subsidised flooding in Yorkshire

That’s a link to the article and also to some quite shocking footage of the flooding itself.  His argument is that the barren moors of north England are not natural, but a creation of man.  The clearing of the moor, and the digging of drainage to provide an ecology suitable for grouse to flourish has created an unnatural environment in which water rushes straight from the high moors and onto the streets of Hebden Bridge.

The article is especially interesting as it points to corruption or at least duplicity and feather bedding in the allocation of grants by the Conservative government to support their traditionally favoured sport of grouse shooting.  It’s so absurd it’s almost a caricature – beyond belief but true apparently.  Enough of that.

Monbiot lives in Wales and is especially critical of the role of sheep in damaging the rural environment.  Now I’ve spent a lot of my life walking in the British mountains and fells, and they are beautiful in part because of the open rolling hills and mountains that allow for easy walking, clear paths and stunning distant views. This openness is the result of sheep grazing.  Nothing is allowed to grow higher than a blade of grass.  Government agencies are tasked with ensuring this does not change.  Farmers are given grants, hedges and trees rooted up, and rearing sheep is encouraged despite low farm gate prices.

For Monbiot this is a ridiculous use of money and manpower, and what is being maintained is not a natural world but a specific ecology created by man at a particular time in the past, and one which is actually detrimental to the flourishing of nature.  These hills should be forests filled with wild animals. Beaver should be building dams, holding back the waters so that they don’t flood the towns below.  Trees should be soaking up rainwater, their roots and fallen leaves holding back the floodwater, and encouraging the growth of a divers range of species that would exist naturally in the pools and woods created if the sheep were removed.

Monbiot suggests that rewilding would actually have beneficial effects not just for nature but for the economies of Wales and Scotland, in fact wherever it was introduced. The opportunities for tourism are easy to see.  He also mentions the importance of trophic cascades, giving the example of the Yellowstone park where the introduction of wolves has stopped deer from lazily browsing on the riverside, and allowed the proliferation of formerly rare plant and animal species. He suggests that this would happen elsewhere were predators reintroduced.

I suppose this is Monbiot’s basic argument.  I won’t go on to develop it in detail as it applies to the sea, or to enumerate all the different ways that he explores rewilding experiments in Britain, Europe and America.  I’m not going to list the species that he wants to reintroduce and the reasons he thinks that certain ones are more likely to survive.  You can read the book if you want to know more.

Suffice it to say that I’m right behind him most of the way.  I know the views from Skiddaw or Great Gable would never be the same, but it would be worth it.  Who doesn’t stop to watch a hawk fly, or a fox amble across an open field at dusk?  Who wouldn’t remember that rare encounter with nature – grass snakes on a warm step, an adder crossing the cycle track, a honey buzzard, even a gold finch in the garden?

You might want to read this book to find out more.  Disappointingly I don’t think Monbiot has started a wilding organisation, because at the end you might feel the urge to join something, to make a difference.  But he doesn’t answer the question, “What should I do?”

As a piece of writing there are weaknesses to this book. I found it quite hard going. There are long passages where we are given descriptions of nature: these can become tedious.  As a writer of non-fiction Monbiot has few narrative tricks up his sleeve.  The favourite is to begin a chapter or a section with an enigmatic statement like, “They had been spotted….” and then to make you read on to find out what or who “they” are.  I found these two aspects of the book a bit tiresome. Perhaps it could have been shorter, more factual.

Nevertheless this book is well worth a read, and should be compulsory reading for all government agencies tasked with caring for the environment.



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