Listening to George Monbiot speak at the Hay Festival in May reminded me that the reason why most of us care so much about environmental issues is that we really love the natural world. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that, when we’re repeatedly faced with doom and gloom scenarios about sea level rise, the loss of species, and multiple natural disasters. So Monbiot’s message is partly about reminding people what is thrilling and fascinating in nature: we ourselves need rewilding. We need to become ‘feral’ again, which is the title he chose for his book on the subject.
The other part of his argument is about the natural world around us: that we need to stop managing it so closely. Various rewilding experiments in the UK (and many more in Europe) have trialled just leaving plots of land to do what they naturally do. Sometimes, people give a little push, by reintroducing helpful species like beavers, lynx, or (where appropriate) wolves. These species have a dramatic restorative effect on habitats, helping other creatures to thrive in the most surprising ways: they tend to ‘manage’ their environment in a much more sustainable way than we ever do. Fish stocks, trees, insects and bird life can flourish where a natural food chain starts to operate, or where beavers create a rich habitat for other creatures.
Monbiot argues that our current idea of conservation is unambitious, to say the least. He compares the ‘sheep-wrecked’ uplands of the UK to the Amazon, after corporate farmers have felled all the forest trees. Nothing grows on our hils and, therefore, very little animal life can survive in such deserts. Yet archaeological evidence of a rich plant and animal population, from times with similar climates to ours, and not so very many years ago, tell us how comparatively denuded these places now are. A rich and varied woodland, lions, hippos and elephants all lived here, and Monbiot even reckons our trees coppice themselves in an adaptation to elephant vandalism. But there were none of these accursed sheep, which are the least native of all of them.
The argument, however, is not that we should go backward. The soils are eroded, the world is different, and the land will need time to heal. But a future rewilded landscape would be so much richer than the one we now enjoy.
Financially, he has sound arguments. Through massive public funding (mainly from the Common Agricultural Policy) farmers are beautifully paid for keeping the land sterile.
“according to the 2010 figures, the average subsidy for sheep farms on the hills is £53,000. Average net farm income is £33,000. The contribution the farmer makes to his income by keeping animals, in other words, is minus £20,000.”
We could save money and the environment at the same time, if only a proportion of our uneconomic land were turned over to wildlife instead of sheep and deer. Early experiments in rewilding, in many places, have shown how much income a lush habitat full of gorgeous flora and fauna can generate, from watching sea eagles off the coast of Scotland, to encounters with beavers and the bigger mammals in Europe, to wolves in Yellowstone. Small farmers in the UK could only stand to gain from a change in the system. I would imagine plenty of them would be willing custodians of a newly-reawakened countryside (and Monbiot is not talking about strong-arming anybody.)
With friends, he is currently putting together a campaign or charity to advance this vision. Judging from the audience at Hay, he already has many, many supporters. This could be just the thing our countryside needs, as well as a much-needed positive message to counterbalance the warnings and threats that have not yet produced much of an impact on people’s attitudes to climate change.
You can read articles related to this at http://www.monbiot.com, and I can well recommend ‘Feral’ which is a really uplifting and beautiful read.
Basically, watch this space for a very interesting and timely campaign. Who fancies seeing lynx on Kinder and beavers in the Sett? I don’t think that’s so far-fetched, and I’d love to hear from local experts with contributions to this debate. Maybe we could start by talking about Kinder itself. I, for one, would love to see sheep permanently excluded from the summit of the plateau, or an even larger area. I’d love to know what you think.