One Big Thing for Nature: a comment on George Monbiot's book Feral

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One Big Thing for Nature: a comment on George Monbiot's book Feral

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Am on my way to one of the wild Scottish islands, Colonsay, to visit our seabird tracking team (more on this tomorrow).

It's given me an opportunity to reflect on George Monbiot's ideas for rewildling laid out in his book, Feral. It feels like George's One Big Thing, so I thought I'd offer a comment as part of this blog series.

Feral offers a powerful, perceptive and, at times, challenging vision for the future of our land and seas. It's central argument is for less human intervention especially in the seas and our uplands and, controversially, the return of very some big beasts. That it’s challenging, is a good thing.

As State of Nature showed, although we’re winning some battles, we’re losing the war. Part of the problem is that mainstream media have failed to grasp the scale of the problem and its profound implications for society. Short term crises hog the headlines usually linked to political shenanigans, war or the economy. Insidious problems such as climate change or environmental decline get a look in every now and then, but appear second order issues.

That George has a wonderful command of what’s happening to our wildlife, and reaches such a large audience can only be helpful. Whatever your personal feelings about their views, the commentariat has a crucial role to play in influencing society at large. If mainstream society is engaged, mainstream politics will follow. The more we get conservation issues frequently in the editorials and news sections of our papers, the better. George certainly helps fill the void. The book has already generated a fair bit of debate, in part because I sense there is a renaissance in our yearning for wilderness. Writers like Robert Macfarlane have helped create a new zeitgeist and I think George is capitalising on this.

But, the book also forces the conservation community to ask itself some rather difficult questions. Not least, what are we trying to achieve, and who are we doing it for? The complex natural world is inextricably linked to a wide range of human wants and needs. Broadly speaking, however, we would see our conservation objective as increasing abundance and preventing extinctions of native wildlife. We do this because nature has an intrinsic value, but we also do it for people. Not only does nature underpin our economy, it nourishes the soul. It makes our lives richer in every sense. The problem is that not enough people appreciate this value.

That is why much of ‘Feral’ strikes such a chord. Restoring natural processes, trophic cascades and the charismatic species upon which they often depend, would do much to inspire people to engage with nature, while invigorating our landscapes. That is why, for example, one day we would love to see the magnificent white-tailed eagle return to England, why we’ve enabled the regeneration of native pinewoods at Abernethy and the restoration of hugely important bog systems (for wildlife and carbon storage) in Forsinard following the massive removal of tax-break non-native conifers, why we're proud of the work we are doing with United Utilities to restore catchments in northern England and why the debate about the reintroduction of the lynx to Scotland continues to rage. 

There can and should be large-scale restoration of climax communities such as native pine, broadleaves, peatlands (sometimes masquerading as heather moor due to degradation) and (some) floodplains – not least for those free (life-giving) services that nature provides.

But we cannot forget the many semi-natural habitats and the associated, frequently endangered species that bring so much joy to so many people. If we want many of our wildflower meadows to persist, we must continue to intervene. High Nature Value Farming is a classic example of humans and wildlife coexisting harmoniously.

But regardless of where you sit on the climax – intervention spectrum, it’s the economic and social challenges of delivering your desired outcome that represent the real challenge. When somebody else owns the land, how do you motivate them to do what you believe to be right for conservation, when the economic drivers or their cultural preferences are pushing them to the contrary?

It is difficult to disagree with George that perverse, environmentally damaging subsidies must stop. Yet, we do think it is right that farmers should be subsidised for providing public goods, such as an attractive countryside rich in wildlife. Notwithstanding the current state of CAP negotiations, there is a time and a place for debating the future of farm support system. If the UK has a referendum on and then votes to rescind our membership of the EU, that debate may start sooner than we think.

But I struggle to imagine a future when we would not be arguing for a sustainable land management fund of some sort. One final thought, colleagues have recently returned from Chernobyl - a great, imposed experiment on rewilding.

But even here, some intervention is still needed but that's mainly to manage the radiation. You should read George's book and work out just how wild you want to be.

  • KC - deer control is, as I mentioned in my comment the other day, taking place on a number of sites to try to manage impact on vegetation.  Obviously at Abernethy, we are trying to encourage pinewood restoration to benefit a huge range of species including capercaillie, black grouse and twinflower to name but three.  Yes, our control is trying to do the job of a top predator.

  • Can I recommend googling "Julia" a singer of Sakha Yakutia for I have never heard the like of her. Listen to her sing the "song of the cuckoo" and the wolf and the diver is it, certainly the song of the wind and the wild? I would like her invited to the next RSPB AGM to perform and "rock some socks" as to the natural connections we have been lost. When you climb the rock where Churchill surveyed, from where St Columba stood, think perhaps and then you might act on my request ?

  • Martin, still ploughing my way through it, but as you allude to, there is some good stuff in there, as well as some left field unachievable dreams given the man-made, managed nature of   our overcrowded island home.  

    With respect to reintroduction of WT eagle to England, NW England & Cornwall seem far more appropriate than the last abortive attempt in East Anglia (which may in any case be naturally re-colonised by Dutch/German stock - a la Scottish osprey and Cornish chough).  As an aside, Devon/Cornwall/Somerset also strikes me as a good place for English HH re-stocking, with lesser divisive and damaging conflict potential.  As to Abernethy, presumably this is where the bulk of your deer culling takes place (as per 14 June blog exchange) in the absence of a full suite of top predators?

    Interesting point about Chernobyl rewilding, shades of the bumper year nature enjoyed during the F&M restrictions.  Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands is another good example but has led to some conflict with respect to animal welfare.  The kicker in these cases is that in order for those examples of rewilding to take place, human access and activity was/is severely curtailed.  Not conducive to refreshing of the soul if people are excluded - and no, visiting a reserve simply will not cut it for those of us who like to roam, unfettered but responsibly, away from duck-board tracks and hides, and find our own wildlife.

    Finally, looking forward to the return of elephants to the UK - Abernethy first perhaps?

  • Martin,what a dilemma it all is,personally think we will never find a compromise and there will always be a conflict.Majority of people will be against a cull of any animal and yet it is the only way with feral species also sometimes because man has even unintentionally interfered in the way numbers of some animals and birds have increased in numbers to the detriment of others then I believe a cull is justified(unfortunately we cannot have it both ways)or some species will become more or less extinct.Surely if Greylags are native then it seems wrong that reintroduction of White Tails a big project while stopping Greylags by oiling eggs,to me a complete contradiction(are Greylags native birds)

    No way can Lynx be introduced as Sheep would be the easiest prey it could find and would get slaughtered until the Lynx were shot by those affected by the Sheep killing.

  • This is a good response and I have nt read George's book yet. In tandem I strongly recommend this article entitled Do Elephants Have Souls? by Caitrin Nicol and published in the Winter/Spring issue of The New Atlantis, is available online (both as pdf and html) at:

    www.thenewatlantis.com/publication...  Bev Dahlen who has just won a global poetry prize in the US, a great nature poet sent me this in response .... "The greatest peril of life lies in the fact that human food consists entirely of souls".

    An Eskimo shaman named Ivaluardjuk. Of course for the Eskimo of that time this was certainly true.

    The quote appears as the epigraph to Solar Journal, Oecological Sections by Richard Grossinger. It was published in 1970 by Black Sparrow Press, Los Angeles.