books conservation science

Book review: Feral, by George Monbiot

feralGeorge Monbiot is an investigative journalist and columnist by trade, and he is loved and loathed in equal measure for his views on social justice and the environment. His original training was in zoology however, and Feral finds him on his home turf. It’s a book about rewilding – the rewilding of nature, but also of our cocooned and tech-dependent selves.

“Rewilding,” says Monbiot, “is about resisting the urge to control nature and allowing it to find its own way. It involves re-introducing plants and animals, pulling down the fences, blocking the drainage ditches, but otherwise stepping back… It lets nature decide.”

Conservation, he believes, is often about protecting unnatural landscapes, or attempting to maintain the land in a perceived ideal state. While there’s a role for ‘curating’ special landscapes in some cases, we should be more confident in standing back and letting things go their own way. Nobody manages the wild places, and they thrive without us.

One of the key arguments of the book is that when it comes to our natural landscape, most of us don’t know what we’re missing out on. Our ancestors deforested Britain and drained its marshes centuries ago. Countless animals and birds disappeared from our shores. Some are extinct altogether. Others are still found elsewhere, like the wild boar or beavers that once graced our green hills. Since the natural state of Britain is for the most part woodland, many of our prized landscapes are actually artificial. The Cambrian hills are singled out in particular. They are not an unspoiled wilderness, but a ‘desert’ produced by centuries of overgrazing by a monoculture of sheep.

There’s more. Delving into paleoecology with obvious delight, Monbiot raises the question of our absent megafauna. When Trafalgar Square was being excavated, the builders found a fossil riverbed with hippo bones. There is evidence that Britain used to have elephants. We think of these sorts of animals as exotic African species, but they used to be universal. They’re part of our ecological heritage. “I have seen no discussion of the reintroduction of elephants to Europe” says Monbiot, “though I would like to start one.”

Predators are important too. Since the science of conservation has developed in countries already shorn of their top predators, we’ve been slow to understand the role they have in shaping the landscape. The book explores what happened in Yellowstone National Park when wolves were re-introduced, the rise in biodiversity and the improved health of the woods and the rivers. And they are rarely as dangerous in reality as they are in our imaginations.

What keeps us from handing over more of country to nature? Monbiot suggests that too much of Britain is controlled by small interest groups. In Scotland, the highlands are run by wealthy estates for the purposes of deer stalking. This is an uneconomic activity enjoyed by a tiny minority, but it dominates the last big unpopulated areas of the country. The Common Agricultural Policy, as usual, is a problem here too. Its rules compel farmers to maintain land for agricultural purposes, whether or not they actually produce anything. So farmers cut down trees, strip out hedgerows and drain boggy patches – essentially receiving subsidies for destroying habitats. The aforementioned ‘sheepwrecked’ hills of Wales are a product of subsidy as much as tradition, and the National Farmers Union and landowning interest groups are a major obstacle to change.

All of this is explored in thematic chapters, often with the author visiting a site or taking a walk with an expert guide of some kind. Accounts of personal adventures are scattered throughout, mostly off the Welsh coast in a seagoing canoe. I sometimes lose patience reading other people’s detailed descriptions of their own encounters with nature, but there’s an immediacy and enthusiasm here that kept me reading.

If you’re familiar with George Monbiot’s column in the Guardian, you’ll know that he can be pretty polemical. While there’s a little salting of righteous anger here, ultimately Feral is coming from a different place. It’s written with love, a love for nature and for adventure; a longing for a bigger, wilder, richer experience of the natural world. It’s compelling, hopeful, and offers a positive vision of environmentalism, of what our world was and could be again. Where Rachel Carson looked at industrialisation and foresaw a ‘silent spring’, Monbiot sees one season further ahead: “Rewilding offers the hope of a raucous summer.”

16 comments

  1. Hi Jeremy. Thanks for the summary and the encouragement to read the book. I’ll make it holiday reading next month.
    Incidentally, the uplands of Scotland (and parts of the Peak district) are strongholds of the grouse moor fraternity as well as deer stalkers. Members of the RSPB will know of the campaign it is waging to try and stop the persecution of birds of prey, notably the hen harrier. The culprits are the gamekeepers who poison and shoot these beautiful birds to protect the economic welfare of their masters – most of whom must know what’s being done in their name.

    1. Yes, the poisoning of birds of prey gets a mention too. It’s strangely paranoid, when you think of how many birds are bred and how many an eagle would actually kill in a season.

      Definitely a good read for a holiday. It’s nice to see a book focus on Wales and its landscapes too, which I think you’ll appreciate.

  2. Thanks for this. The bit on Wolves is interesting as we’ve just heard that there will be Wolves in our region of Germany again within 2 years, as they are wandering across from France and Switzerland without any help from humans.

    1. One thing Monbiot mentions is that there is a small but growing rewilding movement all across Europe, everywhere except Britain. Hopefully Germany will be more welcoming to the wolves than we have been to the entirely benign beavers – the first wild beavers were spotted in England for 500 years this summer, and the government plans to trap them and put them in a zoo.

      1. Here the wolves are a protected species: the biggest problem will be the Autobahn running along the border.

    2. I hope the wolves will be accepted in Germany unlike a few years ago when there was a unfortunate wild bear that had wandered across from Italy, through Austria and was shot within a day of crossing the German border.

      1. I remember that: I lived near where it was shot, although I thought it came from the Czech Republic. The main problem there was that bears are dangerous to humans and this one was heading for a more densely populated area: I doubt a bear would be treated any differently in the UK or most other of the more populous European countries.

        Wolves tend to avoid humans and there are about a dozen packs already in Germany. For the last 20 years or so there haven’t been any problems and they are protected by law.

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