George Monbiot: Feral

George Monbiot: Feral – rewilding the land, sea and human life, Penguin, £8.99, 317 pages.

George Monbiot is perhaps best known for his columns in the Guardian newspaper, although he has written several popular books and is also a high-profile activist in the environmental movement. He visited Hebden Bridge this summer and spoke to a packed audience at Hope Church about his latest book, Feral.

Feral is a collection of essays on the theme of rewilding of our countryside. Monbiot studied as a zoologist and worked for a few years for BBC’s nature department. He also worked for several years in the Amazon rainforest, in Africa and Asia and uses examples from this work in his book. His breadth of knowledge of nature and wildlife is amazing.

Monbiot makes the valid point that the UK has comparatively less land set aside for nature to show its wonders than other European countries. For example the UK has very small area covered by forests. This is not because the UK is more densely populated than other European countries.

The UK has large numbers of big landowners, many of whom want to use their land for hunting pursuits such as grouse shooting, not least because of the public subsidies available to landowners who maintain a landscape suitable for grouse shooting.

Similarly, Monbiot singles out sheep farming as a major reason for why we have so few trees, because sheep eat the new trees. Again, public subsidies keep hill sheep farming alive. Monbiot argues that sheep farmers should be given the choice between rearing sheep and leaving the fields to regrow with trees naturally, without losing out financially.

Although Monbiot gives examples of local communities abroad that have rewilded their land and now earn more from tourism, this would not necessarily be possible in all areas that could be rewilded.

Healthy and diverse forests are essential to create an environment with a rich biodiversity. It will – according to Monbiot – be necessary to reintroduce some animal species into such forests, partly to stop deer from eating re-established trees. Monbiot suggests reintroducing wolves and other predators to control the deer population. He would also like to see beavers back in our rivers and explains how the government is preventing this from happening. Once a biodiverse forest has been established it can be left to itself, allowing nature to take it course. Monbiot is very critical of conservation work that tries to keep a landscape in a fixed state.

So why does Monbiot want us to rewild large parts of the UK? He explains very honestly that the primary motivation is his fascination with wild nature. For him the human spirit needs to experience wilderness, not just nice gardens and parks.

He points out that he could have discussed other reasons too, such as the obesity endemic, particularly among children who play less outside than they used to, and the ecosystem services that forests provide for free, such as cleaning the water, absorbing CO2 emissions and so on. Perhaps Monbiot would get broader support for the rewilding project if he had spelled these out in his book – although to be fair, he has done this in his other writings. It is a matter of building alliances with the different groups of people who will have their own reasons to support rewilding.

As it happens, New Scientist magazine had an article this summer showing how other parts of Europe are being rewilded:

‘an estimated 4000 wolves [are] living on the Balkan peninsula of south-eastern Europe, a continent not usually known for its big, fierce predators. Twenty years ago that was quite right, but no longer. Europe – the most urbanised, industrialised and farmed continent on Earth – is now home to some 12,000 wolves, 17,000 brown bears and 9000 Eurasian lynx.’ New Scientist, 10 August 2014

Feral not only contains some amazing facts about nature, it makes you look at nature in a different way. As is usual in all Monbiot’s writings, everything is referenced to his sources, so you can check his facts and find other interesting material.