Feral, Rewilding the Land, Sea and Human Life by George Monbiot might just be the most important book you’ll read this year. Living in the Cambrian mountains in mid-Wales, Monbiot is becoming increasingly concerned with the lifeless, barren monoculture that conservationists and environmentalists have imposed upon us.
Arguing fluently and passionately, he points out that Shifting Baseline Syndrome, or the modern tendency to try to restore the countryside to that which we remember as children, is inappropriate and hugely damaging. A symptom of a series of stagnant imaginations, conservationists remain rooted in the recent, rather than the distant, past.
Monbiot argues that we should be reverting to a much earlier time, a time when wolves, bear and beavers roamed the country, going on to suggest that many of our environmental ills might be prevented, and even reversed, were we to embrace trophic cascade, or the beneficial effects of reintroducing apex predators.
It’s a persuasive argument and one that is made in other books, including The Wolf by Nate Blakeslee, a highly readable account of the environmental changes – all of them positive – that arose as a result of the reintroduction of wolves to the Yellowstone National Park.
To be fair, we have made a small start here in the United Kingdom by reintroducing beavers into a small area of Scotland. Some enlightened conservationists – along with Monbiot – argue that beavers’ dams have a steadying effect on the flow of water in the rivers in which they live. This is important for many reasons, not least because slower flowing rivers are less likely to flood. Slower rivers also better retain their geographical shape and location, and support a more healthy and diverse range of animal and vegetable species than would otherwise be the case. That the UK Government has recently found it necessary to protect the beaver in law is a sad indictment of the misunderstanding rewilding generates
Monbiot is also critical of the current fashion for tidying up the countryside; it’s a truism that a dead tree supports more life than a living one, yet this habitat is entirely removed if we continue with our obsession with clearing up behind nature.
Yet, even if we ignore the micro-climate that dead trees provide, the fad of removing wind-blown trees and vegetation from our rivers and waterways actively contributes to the flooding that is becoming more prevalent in the UK. If we were to just leave the dead vegetation in place it would do much the same as the beavers’ dams: slow down the rivers and so help prevent them bursting their banks when their capacity to flow water becomes overwhelmed.
But Monbiot saves his greatest scorn for our sheep, and the monoculture their husbandry creates. In his home country of Wales it costs each farmer, on average, £20,000 a year to keep sheep. Farming, on a small scale at least, is now only possible thanks to huge subsidies; sheep farming has become an expensive hobby in both environmental and financial terms and one that is, surely, unsustainable in the long-term.
And before you dismiss Monbiot and me as urban idiots with no roots in the farming community, I too live in rural Wales and count sheep farmers among my friends and family. I have seen how reluctant some of them are to explore alternative sources of income, alternatives that wouldn’t replace their farming but would supplement it. Yet, the average age of a farmer is now 63 years and rising, so if we continue to do nothing the problem will take care of itself within a generation. None of us wants that.
So, something must be done because I too have seen the sheep-cropped mountains, and walked and run in an environment that sustains little in the way of wildlife. That our countryside has been decimated in the pursuit of a lifestyle that is only sustainable thanks to huge subsidies – and a subsidy is, let us not forget, a tax levied on all of us in order to reduce the cost of something that a small group of people wouldn’t otherwise buy or participate in – cannot be right.
Controversial stuff, but who among us hasn’t privately contemplated the massive EU subsidies that the farming community has taken for granted? And yet farmers seem to be immune to the sort of market pressures that affect the rest of us. That their income depends, by law in almost every case, on practises that are actively harmful to the very countryside they profess to love and want to protect, is to pile a further absurdity on an already preposterous situation.
Monbiot sets out an agenda for change and it’s an agenda that appears, even under close scrutiny, to be entirely sensible and workable. That it will almost certainly never come to fruition is another case study in vested interests and the lack of a political will to take a long-term view.
Feral is, therefore, encouraging and depressing in equal measure. I urge you to read it, and I defy you not to feel your spirit soar when you imagine a country in which wolves howl once more – and in which there are fewer sheep…
Carlton Boyce @motoringjourno