Feral – George Monbiot
I suspect this will not be a new book to many readers of Wildlife Articles. I discovered it 2 years after publication. However, there will be readers like me who do not keep abreast of everything going on in the world of wildlife. Hopefully this review will encourage them to read Feral and engage with rewilding.
There is no doubt that this is a book to make any conservation minded reader question what they may previously have thought were facts, especially regarding key processes and controls over the living environment. Likewise they may need to do some serious self-examination regarding conservation philosophy and what they want our landscape to look like. His use of the English language drew me in, often preventing me from eating, drinking, sleeping and even going to the toilet, for much longer than is healthy. His beautifully crafted prose, liberally sprinkled with unfamiliar words, often sent me diving for my dictionary.
Monbiot begins by painting a picture of his personal journey, leading him to his current philosophy, especially with regard to rewilding. He identifies the animal within man, largely subjugated as we become more civilised, which drives our basic need for engagement with the natural environment. He explains how the Maasai of East Africa and the Amazonian Indians have had their lives and cultures changed by modern society. He even uses the large numbers of apparent sightings of big cats in the UK, to explain our innate desire to engage with nature.
Living in Mid-Wales has brought him into close proximity with the Cambrian Mountains. He describes this area of hill-farming, largely devoid of wildlife, as the ‘Cambrian Desert’, where the attitudes of local landowners, NFU representatives and Welsh Government ministers are rooted in prejudice, fear and denial of scientific facts. He makes the particularly apposite observation, in these times of austerity and budget cuts, that we are each paying several hundreds of pounds per year to subsidise large landowners to farm in a manner that is destroying our beautiful upland landscape and causing misery through flooding, for large numbers of lowland dwellers.
Throughout the book he returns to ‘rewilding’, particularly with regard to the Scottish Highlands, through the re-introduction of the beaver, removal of sheep, fencing-off red deer and the potential reintroduction of top predators such as the wolf.
He draws heavily upon his own experience and his research into the history of conservation activity around the world, to provide the reader with case-studies. He points out the dubious motives behind both good and bad conservation activity and the erroneous thinking that has led to poor policy decisions in the past. Those that have now started to show success give us hope for the future. He points out that a critical requirement of any rewilding project must be stakeholder involvement, particularly the ordinary people who live and work in the areas in question.
He addresses how easy it is for us to deliver poor conservation practice, based upon our assumptions of reality; how we use childhood experiences as our ‘baseline’ for how the landscape once was and to which it should eventually be returned. He then turns his ire upon local wildlife organisations, over-managing nature reserves.
The issue of nature reserve conservation I found particularly hard to deal with, at least initially. He is critical of wildlife trusts using grazing animals (and one assumes machines) to control invasion of heathland and grassland reserves, by ‘unwanted’ plant species. He points out the folly of coppicing woodland instead of allowing it to return to more biodiverse high forest. He makes the valid point that many nature reserves are actually cultural reserves, retaining the landscape of 2 or 300 years ago and are little more than large scale gardening projects.
However, I feel that in his zeal to convert the world to rewilding he risks losing the support of large numbers of potential converts, by rubbishing much of the progress already made by local conservation trusts (particularly in the highly populated South East of England), which have had such great success attracting lay people to the cause. In my own experience of having run a nature reserve for educational purposes, our focus was on using our relatively small patch of land to enthuse children about the natural world, opening their minds to the possibilities nature offers and encouraging them to become the George Monbiots of the future.
In fairness Monbiot points out the importance of schools devoting curriculum time to get out into local woodlands. His philosophy is echoed by the Forest School Association, whose members use local woodlands to develop children’s love of and respect for nature; to foster self-reliance; to develop a responsible attitude and much of the rest of the school curriculum. Well managed local ‘garden’ nature reserves are essential to our work. Yes, where space exists (for example in upland Britain), then develop large tracts of ‘self-willed’ wilderness, but getting people active in local nature reserves is a vital first step. Even coppicing provides a source of firewood for wood-burning stoves, which is possibly a first step towards nature conservation and environmental awareness for some.
Monbiot finishes with the rewilding of the oceans. This is such a big topic, that it warrants a book of its own, rather than just being tagged on the end of a primarily land-based discourse.
Feral is a fascinating account of how man has gone wrong, with regard to his interaction with the planet. George Monbiot’s philosophy, regarding how it can be fixed, is a breath of fresh air. His book provides a standard for others to rally behind, in order to push the practicalities through.
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