NOTE. This article was originally published in Country Squire Magazine here, on 21st March 2017.
Don’t get me wrong about all this – I’m rather fond of George Monbiot’s writing. It is always entertaining and there is plenty to get your teeth into to get the argumentative juices flowing. His book – Feral – is just as you would expect. It is well written, almost poetic in places, spattered with knowledgeable asides about ecological systems and natural history. In many ways, it is a series of anecdotes in which the intrepid Monbiot paddles in tidal rivers, spears flounder with a home-made trident and generally does things reminiscent of the tight-shorted Ray Mears.
He tells us about an excursion into the Cambrian Mountains near his former home in Machynlleth – and it quickly becomes apparent that George doesn’t like the scenery. First, he doesn’t like the wood, because “The forest floor had been scrubbed clean” and was covered only in “moss, sheep shit and mud”. And then he leaves the wood and describes the treeless mountain landscape as “flayed” and “dismal, dismaying.” He sits down to eat his lunch by a reservoir and “glares” at the landscape and five Canada geese, the only birds he has seen since leaving the wood. So overwhelmed is George with this mournful scene that he gets up and runs all the way back to the wood: “When I returned to the glowing hearth of the wood, with its occasional birds calls, I almost wept with relief.”
These dismal ramblings have so grievously wracked George that he plans to change absolutely everything about many of the most beautiful landscapes in the country, using a concept known as “rewilding”. The first part of his plan is to remove the sheep. George does not like sheep and says as much, with a whole chapter entitled “Sheepwrecked”. He blames these mild-mannered creatures (whose meat, milk and wool have sustained and clothed us since the Bronze Age) for having eaten our uplands into a treeless desert.
Having removed the sheep, he contends that native woodland would be greatly extended into the hills and mountains. The awful bare landscape would be banished under a leafy green cover. The new woods would be teeming with game. Large predators like wolves and lynx would be re-introduced. These “keystone species” would keep the deer under control and stop them from eating all the young trees; and so there would be simply oodles and oodles of “biodiversity”.
The unfortunate sheep farmers, whose livings would now be extinguished under this scheme, would be amply compensated by the increase in tourism that would immediately ensue because millions would want to trek miles into the new forests and spend hours in a chilly hide, waiting to see a lynx.
This idea is so deceptively simple that it has attracted a number of credulous acolytes who have been inspired by George’s revelations and seem to have adopted Feral as a kind of manifesto. A new charity – Rewilding Britain – has been set up and it now has funding, staff and a pretty website. A conference has recently been held, funded by a cosmetics company. This attracted celebrity speakers such as the ever-fragrant Chris Packham who, channelling his inner Monbiot, declared that the Lake District was “a sheepwrecked holocaust”.
But let us stand back from this and take a little time to reflect upon the consequences of the Monbiot Plan. To do this, we need to consider a couple of the things which have upset poor George so much.
The ancient wood that he visited was, most likely, a Sessile Oak wood pasture for which the Welsh uplands are noted. These wood pastures, as their name suggests, are periodically grazed by sheep and cattle. As well as large numbers of bats and fungi, they are famous for two species of birds: Wood Warbler and Pied Flycatcher. Both of these birds need a high tree canopy, a mid-layer of branches from which to sing and feed from leaves, and a reasonably clear woodland floor from which they also feed. Both are migratory, breeding in these habitats only during spring and summer, and then migrating to Africa for autumn and winter. The dung from sheep and cattle ensures that plenty of invertebrates are there for each of these species. If the woods were to have the grazing animals removed, they would regenerate with young trees. A dense undergrowth would form and this would exclude our two iconic species.
Likewise, the treeless moors are the breeding grounds of such birds as Golden Plover, Curlew, Dunlin, Red Grouse, Merlin, Meadow Pipit, Whinchat, Wheatear and Ring Ouzel. These species all demand open ground or a mix of low shrubs such as heather or tussocky grasses. They feed on the invertebrates provided by the sheep dung. Except, of course, for the Merlin which feeds upon the Meadow Pipits; the Meadow Pipits feed upon the invertebrates; and the invertebrates feed upon the sheep and cattle dung.
These distinctive moorland species are relict populations which originally followed the retreating ice which covered the northern two-thirds of the British Isles ten thousand years ago. For example, the Dunlin is a small pan-Arctic wader which breeds in the tundra, mostly within the Arctic Circle. The young Dunlin gorge themselves upon the ephemeral bounty of Arctic mosquitos, then fledge in late summer and follow the adults to coasts much further south. In the autumn and winter, they gather in great numbers on our estuaries. The tiny British breeding population of Dunlin is the most southern population of all. It continues to exist because the sheep-mown upper pastures mimic the summer super-abundance of the Arctic tundra and the clear, unobstructed views needed for spotting incoming predators.
Except for the Red Grouse, by August most of the upland birds will have left, either for the coast or for sunnier lands. This is why George Monbiot did not see any birds near Llyn Craig-y-pistyll, because he went there in the autumn – long after they had left.
It is possible to forgive George his occasional errors, such as his assumption that our native Red Grouse Lagopus lagopus scoticus (which is unique to the British Isles) is exactly the same as its continental cousin, the Willow Grouse Lagopus lagopus lagopus.
It may be possible to forgive him for his unwillingness to recognise that our landscape in the UK is entirely man-made. The lowlands are much as they have been since the early Middle Ages; and similarly, our uplands since the Neolithic and Bronze Age. Our upland landscapes have been forged almost entirely because of grazing by sheep and cattle over the centuries; and this has maintained a landscape which would have been recognisable 4000 years ago. The diversity of landscape has brought with it a unique flora and fauna which has given these islands the vast range of habitats and ecosystems we now enjoy. These range from the near Arctic in the uplands, the steppe-like grasslands of Salisbury Plain, to the near-Mediterranean in the south and the south-west.
We could, I suppose, recognise that George’s preference for heavily wooded landscapes stems from what appears to be a mild form of agoraphobia – some people prefer to walk in the sanctuary of tree cover and find vast open spaces more problematic. We could also recognise that George’s almost paranoid contempt for sheep is psychologically unusual – perhaps a result of deep seated childhood fears – but can be taken in our stride on the grounds that it takes all sorts….
But I do not see why we should forgive him for his sweeping assumption that everyone should be like George.
I do not forgive him for his complete failure to recognise that his proposals, if carried out, would result in the losses of livelihoods for thousands of farmers and their families, as well as the communities which support them. Neither can I forgive him for his attempts to diminish the production of sheep to a calculation of mere calorific values just to show how dispensable they are.
I have difficulty in maintaining my equanimity in the face of his outrageous claim that tourism to a “rewilded” landscape will replace the economic, social, ecological and food value of lost farming. Given that the Peak District, the Lake District, Cornwall and much of Wales already have tourist industries which are at saturation point already, I await George’s calculations showing exactly how the extra revenue will be generated.
And I have no patience at all for his Victorian Romantic enthusiasm for the introduction of Wolves and Lynx back into our tiny and overcrowded country. Their absence over so many centuries make them as alien as the Sika and Muntjac deer which have eaten entire woodlands in Dorset almost into ecological oblivion; or Grey Squirrels which have displaced our native Reds; or the American Mink which have reduced our beloved Water Voles almost to the point of extinction; or Japanese Knotweed which will render a house un-mortgageable.
Monbiot’s evangelical zeal may have proselytized some of the more vulnerable and suggestible television presenters, but the rest of us should not be like George.
We really should not.