In many ways, George Monbiot’s book Feral, is a curious amalgam of anecdote, ecological theory, polemic and autobiography. On two or three occasions, he seems to feel intimately and mystically connected to events (as he envisages them) in the distant geological past. These intense emotional experiences lead to ideas of a revelatory nature. So his nostrums for the correction of the UK’s environmental ills (as he sees them) are correspondingly muddled. Nevertheless, he has inspired a whole new movement of people devoted to returning large chunks of the British Isles to a state of natural bliss, as determined by Monbiot and his acolytes. This last post in the series looks at some more ecological definitions and a few objections to the idea of ‘rewilding’ as a scheme to do little more than introduce some large predators and let vast tracts of land revert to secondary forest, in an outwardly naive attempt to re-create a pristine ‘natural’ environment.
Part A – Definitions and Principles.
A large part of the intellectual shortcomings of this book are the use of terms from the science of ecology. This relies upon their everyday usage where the precise meanings have been muddied. So the following notes are a short discussion of the definitions and their implications for ‘rewilding’ on the scale that George Monbiot envisages.
An ecosystem is a ‘..discrete unit that consists of living and non-living parts, interacting to form a stable system. Fundamental concepts included the flow of energy via food chains and food webs, and the cycling of nutrients biogeochemically. Ecosystem principles can be applied at all scales. Principles that apply to an ephemeral pond, for example, apply equally to a lake, an ocean, or the whole planet.’ A closely related concept is that of the habitat which is defined as ‘the living place of an organism or community, characterised by its physical or biotic properties.’ Thus it can be seen that the habitat of, say, a Pied Flycatcher might be an upland Sessile Oak wood pasture, because that is where Pied Flycatchers like to breed. On the other hand, the Sessile Oak wood pasture can be viewed as an ecosystem in terms of the flows of nutrients, energy and species of plants and animals that live within it.
The above definition for ecosystem uses the words ‘stable systems’. This should not be confused with ‘static’. Within an ecosystem, most species will be in a constant dynamic flux, their populations waxing and waning within certain limits. Some of these fluxes will be diurnal, seasonal, annual or may even operate over decades or centuries. For example, the wood pasture will have originated as young trees. The influence of grazing animals upon it isolates those individual trees which reach adulthood, but will suppress any further young trees. The woodland takes on an open aspect with few younger trees. The trees themselves will also be deliberately pollarded by humans, to maintain green growth and fuel stocks, whilst keeping the regrowing branches clear of browsing cattle. This will also considerably extend the lifespan of the individual trees. After many decades, the wood will take on a distinctive open-floored appearance and many characteristic flora and fauna. However, if the grazing pressure is removed, the wood will produce many young trees, the open aspect will be lost, the old trees will die much earlier than otherwise; and so many species which were dependent upon its previous regime of fertilisation from animal dung etc, will be lost and may be replaced by others.
An ecological term which is in frequent use, and which is abused almost as often as it is used, is biodiversity: ‘A portmanteau term, which gained popularity in the late 1980s, used to describe all aspects of biological diversity, especially including species richness, ecosystem complexity and genetic variation.’ The problem with this term is that it frequently has an implied value judgement attached to it. In other words, if biodiversity for a particular habitat is described as ‘high’ this is seen to be a good thing. Conversely, if the biodiversity is ‘low’ then this is bad. The principle seems to rely upon counting the number of species in an area and calling this count ‘biodiversity’. This practice of counting species is endemic amongst that particular kind of birdwatcher known as ‘twitchers’. Amongst this group, there is a habit of collecting lists of birds seen: there might be a ‘British List’ for all birds seen in Britain; a ‘Life List’ for all birds seen so far in the birdwatching career of an individual; a “garden List’ for all birds seen in that person’s garden; and so on. The longer the list, the more pleased is the twitcher. A very long list may even confer status to the holder amongst his fellow twitchers. The pursuit of such lists is similar to that of a stamp collector or train spotter and is perfectly harmless.
However, this listing habit can lead to some obviously absurd conclusions. One example is contained within the National Biodiversity Network Gateway. This an enormous exercise whereby all official databases for UK flora and fauna have been collated to produce a vast interactive map showing which species has been recorded in which 10Km square of the Ordnance Survey grid. In one particular square in south-east Dorset, a total of 38,738 species of plants and animals have been recorded. This is because that square includes chalk downland, acid heathland, saltmarsh, sand dunes, built up areas, sea and a chunk of Poole Harbour. By virtue of a statistical quirk, it has accumulated species from all of these vastly different and varied habitats. In other words, we should not consider the Dorset square as being more important or valuable than this square which has 4,513 species recorded in it. The two squares just happen to be very different and each contain species which are characteristic of those habitats. The National Biodiversity Network has been created with very serious intent and it is important for research and assessing the impact of such things as development. But we should not run away with the idea that big numbers of species are necessarily more important than small numbers.
Contrary-wise we could consider an extreme example of the Antarctic, which has no predatory land mammals. Would we introduce – in the interests of ‘improving its biodiversity’ – Polar Bears into this place? Hopefully everyone would agree that this would amount to an ecological disaster, and so this act of vandalism would not be done. To return to the example of Welsh uplands, the relatively small number of species recorded in the upland moors are distinctive to that habitat. They play a part in the dynamics of the moorland and so are of importance in their own right.
This brings us to the concept of a keystone species which is defined as: ‘A species which has a disproportionately strong influence within a particular ecosystem, such that its removal results in a severe destabilisation of the ecosystem and can lead to further species losses.’ Note that the definition revolves around the word ‘influence’; and secondly that it is couched in terms of what happens when the keystone species is removed. There are two implied conditions within this definition. The first is that the keystone species has to be present in sufficient numbers to have influence; and secondly that there is a directional aspect to its influence. However, in the stories that are told to illustrate the keystone effect – wolves in Yellowstone Park and Sea Otters in kelp forests, there is the effect of removal, which is adverse, and the reverse effect of reintroduction which brings about the restoration of the affected ecosystems. In both of these cases, the removal of the keystone was only a matter of a few decades. Both affected ecosystems were otherwise unmanaged by humans. In both these cases, the keystone is a large predator – and this explains why Rewilding Britain wishes to re-introduce large predators.
The impact of a keystone species with the rest of the ecosystem starts with a predator-prey relationship. In the case of Sea Otters, the prey species are sea urchins. In the case of the Yellowstone Wolves, the prey species is the Elk Cervus canadensis. Predator-prey relationships are rarely straightforward. The longest running study of the dynamics of predator and prey is the Isle Royale project which has studied the way in which wolves interact with Moose Alces alces on this large 535 square km island in Lake Superior. This is a relationship which is outwardly simple: the wolves eat the moose, whose numbers decline as a result of predation. The wolf numbers decline correspondingly as the numbers of moose declines and the wolves have insufficient to eat. When predation pressure is thus reduced, the moose numbers build up again. Or that is the theory.
But reality is much more complicated:
Figure 1 – Isle Royale: fluctuations of wolf and moose numbers since 1959. Image from Wolves on Isle Royale project.
From Figure 1, the anticipated wave-form type picture, with wolf populations following fluctuations in moose numbers has not quite happened. As can be seen from the overview of the project, it’s a lot more complicated than expected from classical predator-prey theory. And this is in a geographical situation where the two populations are isolated from any other outside influence.
All of this unpredictability brings us back to the suggestion I made in Part 3 of 4 of this series, that characteristic species would be lost from the uplands if rewilding is conducted in the way that George Monbiot and Rewilding Britain seem to envisage. The other thing that we can say is that those characteristic species would be replaced by comparatively commonplace woodland species – except, of course, for the wolves and the lynx. The unpredictability is increased when a large predator is introduced into an ecosystem that has not known such predators for many centuries. Regardless as to whether a particular species is found in the fossil record, or if it appears in mediaeval records, introduction of such a species amounts to the release of an entirely alien species, with results that are completely unpredictable.
Part B – Can the uplands be made better?
None of the foregoing is an attempt to say that everything in the uplands of Britain and Northern Ireland are perfect as far as ecological health of the moorlands is concerned. There are some serious causes for concern. Almost all of the iconic bird species mentioned in Part 3 of 4 are in decline. Some seriously so. The reasons for these declines are not fully understood, but one reason may be related to the recent history of grazing and certain dominant species of vegetation such as Purple Moor Grass Molinia caerulea and Matt Grass Nardus stricta. These grasses are tussocky in habit – Molinia in particular growing tall dense tussocks which reduce the open habitat of the moorland to a much more hazardous, enclosed vista which hides predators from ground nesting birds. As the tall grasses encroach, the number of places in which a Skylark, for example, will wish to nest are seriously reduced. Another factor will also be related to the commercial afforestation of the uplands, and the edge effect, as explained in Part 3 of 4 of this series.
The traditional management practice has been to burn the Molinia and then allow cattle to graze the new shoots ensuing from the blackened stump. However, under the influence of previous incarnations of the Common Agricultural Policy, headage payments made for sheep meant that numbers of sheep on the hill rose and caused undoubted over-grazing. Furthermore, the hardy hill cattle breeds such as Welsh Black, Belted Galloway and Highland cattle were reduced in number and replaced by continental or other lowland breeds. These modern breeds are insufficiently hardy to be put on the hill and will not thrive on the poor quality grazing which the uplands have to offer. So grazing pressure has been increased at a lower level on the in-byes to each farm. This, in turn, has reduced habitat for the grassland species at lower altitudes such as Skylark and Lapwing. Ironically, it is likely that the encroachment of unfriendly grasses on the uplands has been exacerbated by the recent reduction of sheep on the hill (which has happened as yet another incarnation of the CAP has replaced headage payments with area payments). Although sheep do not control Molinia as well as cattle, they are better than nothing. Furthermore, cattle are better at keeping bracken under control, because Bracken does not like to be trampled. Moorland has thus suffered over the last 30 years from a high grazing density of sheep, a reduction of cattle and then a reduction in the numbers of sheep (since 2001), but not enough cattle. A summary of the grazing effect on upland pastures can be found in this 2012 report from the RSPB. Further experimentation and monitoring of cattle grazing Molinia can be found here.
Given sufficient practical science and experimentation; and coupled with a re-learning of traditional practices, it is quite likely that a sensible approach to grazing the hills can bring about a large improvement in the number of Curlew and Golden Plover nesting in our uplands. All it needs is a bottom-up demand from the farmers and the local people to drive demand. Government assistance in the form of flexible grant-aiding would cover any losses. The prospect of leaving the EU and our departure from the centralised and often damaging regimes dreamt up in Brussels will mean that opportunities for sensible management will soon become possible.
Part C – Food value of sheep.
George Monbiot claims that sheep occupy a huge amount of UK land surface area, but produce a mere 1.2% of our diet. In making this comparison, Monbiot is attempting to diminish the role of sheep in the national diet and so conclude that the loss of sheep from the uplands is of no significance – and by implication can easily be made up from other sources. He uses a rough calculation of the calorific value of sheep meat in our diet to justify this comment. In so doing, he uses this to lend strength to his idea that sheep should be banished from the landscape and replaced with trees and wolves. However, Monbiot’s statistics are never what they may seem at face value. His statistics are based upon the calorific value of sheep meat compared to the total average food consumption in the UK. At first glance, this may seem to be a reasonable comparison. But the UK has to import 40% of its food, so this makes the production of food from the UK of much greater importance in terms of food security and contribution to the economy.
A better comparison would be to compare sheep as a source of protein with the total amount of protein from animal sources produced within the UK.
From these two figures, it can be seen that sheep meat contributes 300,000 tonnes, of which approximately 60,000 Tonnes is protein. Clearly, the loss of such enormous quantities of food from UK production would amount to a serious loss in the nation’s ability to feed itself.
However, the story is not yet complete. Monbiot is assuming that the uplands are only producing sheep. In fact, the uplands produce both sheep and beef, so an element of the UK beef production needs to be added to the sheep figure in order to assess the importance of the uplands. This is difficult to assess from the statistics that I have found so far, but Welsh statistics provide us with an approximation which can be used:
Welsh beef production in 2014 was 42,600 Tonnes.
Welsh lamb production in 2014 was 64,200 Tonnes.
80% of Welsh farms are the Less Favoured Areas (i.e. the uplands), so the beef contribution to the upland output is 42,600 x 80% = 34, 080 Tonnes beef from the Welsh uplands. At 20% protein for a carcass, this is equivalent to 6,816 Tonnes of protein. If we assume most Welsh lamb is produced in the LFA, then using the same approximate calculation, the Welsh uplands produce about 15,000 Tonnes of protein from the combination of lamb and upland beef.
Whichever way you look at it, this is a lot of food and protein produced by some very poor grazing, and cannot be considered to be unimportant enough to dismiss.
Section D – The rewilding business plan.
The Rewilding Britain plan is much the same as George Monbiot’s. It amounts to statements that express a wish to reintroduce Lynx and Wolves amongst other things. Their plan also assumes that vast areas of upland Britain will be re-afforested in order to provide habitat for the large mammals they plan to bring in. As this will create environments which will be full of birdsong and so on, it will also draw in the tourists. This will compensate the farmer for his loss of sheep and grazing. Rewilding Britain has a stated ambition: “To see at least one million hectares of Britain’s land, and 30 per cent of our territorial waters, supporting natural ecological processes and key species.” One million hectares is ten thousand square kilometres, or just under half the area of the whole of Wales. The UK Exclusive Economic Zone (i.e. our territorial waters) is just under 4 million square kilometres, so 30% of that is 1.2 million square kilometres. It seems that they want to take control of much of our fishing grounds as well. We would expect to see a comprehensive plan involving lots of people, government and so on. Unfortunately, there isn’t any.
The principal thrust of Monbiot’s plan, which is backed up by Rewilding Britain, is that the upland sheep farming will be replaced, and even improved upon, by tourism. According to the Welsh Assembly, total Gross Value Added for the Welsh economy is about £55.8 Billion. Of this, agriculture contributes about 0.71%, or £396 Million. However, this includes dairy and lowland farming, so we have to multiply this figure by the percentage of Wales which is occupied by Less Favoured Areas (which is a proxy for upland farming). This gives a contribution to the Welsh economy by hill farming of approximately £317 Million. As Rewilding Britain wish to rewild the equivalent of nearly half of Wales, this would suggest an equivalent of £150 Million would have to be generated to make up in order to equal the losses caused by the departure of hill farming. Tourism in Wales already contributes 5% of the Welsh economy, or £2.79 Billion. So Welsh tourism would have to be increased by approximately 5 – 6%.
Furthermore, Rewilding Britain needs to demonstrate that they can generate this additional income from the act of rewilding itself. In other words, it is not enough to increase Welsh tourism by building more caravan sites near the beaches; they have to show how many more people will visit Wales in order to view the Wolves, Lynx and Blue Tits in their new forests. This may be tricky, because it is a well known fact that most tourists rarely walk more than 100 yards from their cars. The very small number who are prepared to walk miles uphill and then sit in a cold and uninviting hide for hours in the hope that they will see a Wolf or a Lynx will be perilously few in number.
Rewilding Britain and George Monbiot counter this objection by citing instances of the numbers of people who come to watch Ospreys. This is fair enough, but Ospreys have have a convenient habit of nesting in the tops of dead trees, or even on artificial platforms, which are easily arranged to be close to car parks and hidden approaches. This kind of arrangement suits any species which is static in its habitat and breeding sites. Beavers are a possible example of this kind of arrangement. But Wolves and Lynx are much less tolerant of human presence and are unlikely to breed in accessible places. Furthermore, their home ranges are vast in terms of area. The likelihood of seeing either of these species will be small; and the income generated from that possibility will be correspondingly tiny.
Section E – Risk and impact assessments
Aside from the economic impact of rewilding, it is essential that other impacts are considered. The first is the ecological impact of re-afforesting the uplands in terms of what species will be displaced by the new arrivals. Part 3 of 4 of this series gives an indication of the impact upon the bird species which would be adversely affected. Part 3a of 4 suggests that the archeological damage would be significant. The social and cultural losses in human terms are unquantifiable but considerable. But no thought has been applied, either by Monbiot or Rewilding Britain, to even considering these issues. It is as if, in their world, humanity is simply a hindrance to ‘nature’ and should be eradicated in the interests of this tiny group of activists.
Section F – Conclusions
Rewilding Britain acknowledge that the release of potentially dangerous animals into the UK environment has a number of obstacles, and mentions the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976. Surprisingly, it fails to mention The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, Section 14 (1) (a) which states that it is an offence to release into the wild any animal which ‘is of a kind which is not ordinarily resident in and is not a regular visitor to Great Britain in a wild state;’ Wolves and Lynx fall into this category because their absence from these islands is one of many centuries. Despite this omission, to their credit, they recognise that the obstacles to their principle objectives are likely to be many and considerable.
To put the ambitions of Rewilding Britain into perspective, their stated aim is to ‘rewild’ 10,000 square kilometres of Britain. As already stated, this is equivalent to an area nearly half the size of Wales. It is 4.2 times the area of the Lake District National Park – our largest national park. Alternatively, it can be said to be the equivalent of six and a half average UK national parks. Given their list of species which they intend to ‘rewild’, it is clear that they intend to re-afforest this area. They have not said what they intend to do with the farmers who currently produce food in these areas, but it is clear that the trees will have to move in, and the farmers, grouse moor owners and deer stalking estates will have to move out. How they intend to achieve this is unstated in legal or any other terms. It can only be assumed that they intend some form of compulsory purchase or other statutory instrument to achieve this aim. In proportional terms, it is on the scale of the wholesale collectivisation of Soviet Russia in the 1930s.
The very idea of this arbitrary seizure of our uplands is one of staggering arrogance, only equalled by its ignorance of the natural and human history of our island nation. It seems to be founded on the Monbiot principle that humans are, at best, a nuisance and only ever destructive to the ‘natural’ environment. It harks back to some period, perhaps in the Neolithic, when we as a species were deemed by Monbiot to be in some sort of harmony with our surroundings. The fact that most of the extinctions of some of the very large mammals, such as Mammoths and Sabre-Toothed Tigers, all took place in the Neolithic seems to have escaped them. The principles of this scheme do not acknowledge the upland species which we hold in this country, and which are themselves of huge importance. They are ignorant of the consequences of their proposals upon important ecosystems and they are careless of the human and historical impacts.
This plan is outrageous and preposterous in equal measure. If carried out, it would amount to a modern totalitarian equivalent of the Highland Clearances, but without the sheep. That it is proposed by a collection of comfortable metropolitan intellectuals, whose management abilities are unlikely to extend beyond the getting of funding, is irrelevant. The fact of the matter is that they have funding and they are serious. This, they say, will happen whether we like it or not:
 Allaby M, (2010) A Dictionary of Ecology. Fourth edition, Oxford University Press, Oxford.