Reflections on Feral


I have been thinking a great deal about whether I have the emotional reserves to keep pushing at immovable objects for another 10 years, and if anyone else will pick up some of the "heavy lifting". It’s not a bag of fun when it should be. An original aim of explorations of the magic of wilder locations, and wanting others to have the opportunity for that experience, just keeps turning to dust over the years when faced with a situation of systemic bias against wildness. Should I always be hopeful, when aspirations for wildness are repeatedly dashed? Would there ever be a rallying appeal that would successfully motivate the untapped constituency for wildness that I am sure must exist? What could be the catalyst?

It was during my correspondence with George Monbiot over 2011, while he was researching his book Feral (1) that it became clear that he had also come across this disjoint between his need for wildness – an “escape from ecological boredom”- and what he found in its place:
“I'm beginning to discover just how few people have this perspective, and how we encounter a massive wall of complacency, indifference and hostility even from the environmental and conservation NGOs, let alone government and industry. That, of course, is all the more reason to do it, but I hadn't realised what an uphill battle it will be”

Monbiot had come upon the absurdity of targeting for single species by the conservation industry that meant that wider landscape considerations became victim to achieving favourable conditions just for that species. He noted that the species that were targeted were often associated with severely damaged habitats, and to defend them the landscape must be kept in that state. He felt extreme specialisation and narrowness were the causes, with conservation priorities appearing to have less to do with protecting nature than with reflecting specialist interests, its practitioners creating niches for themselves and their choices. The example he gave was discovering that Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust was seeking to protect bracken-dominated slopes in order to maintain the presence of Climbing corydalis weevil (Procas granulicollis) (2). He ventured that a weevil ecologist would have little interest in lynx, and would respond with hostility to an attempt to expand lynx habitat at the expense of weevil habitat. Could it be that professional ecologists, who are relied on for expert assessments, are now among the greatest obstacles to the restoration of functioning ecosystems?

In return, I gave him an example of the futility of gardening for nature, a cautionary tale that exposed the fallibility of its presumption. Northumberland Wildlife Trust were delighted when two avocet chicks hatched and had been nesting on a sand spit in its Cresswell Pond reserve. Concerned that heavy rain may have swept the nest away, the Trust and Northumberland County Council used a mechanical digger in clearing the pond’s drainage channel to lessen the risk of flooding danger (3). A warden and volunteers were said to be guarding the chicks round the clock. So much for their gardening and guarding, because a heron came along and ate the chicks (4).

Horror stories from the farming industry

We also swapped "horror"stories from the farming industry, Monbiot suggesting I listen to a podcast of the radio program Farming Today on what the uplands are worth to the UK (5). The program explained that the National Ecosystem Assessment had proposed a reassessment of land values that was wider than just food production. There was an acknowledgement in the program that the continued presence of upland farming was reliant on subsidies, and perhaps it was time to withdraw those subsidies, and possibly withdraw farming. However, the farmers interviewed were given free reign in justifying a continuance of upland farming for the alleged benefits for ecosystem services such as beautiful views, water, and recreation. I found the self-serving arguments very hard going – I couldn’t get through it. My response to Monbiot was to point to some comments I had seen to an article by the Chief Scientific Advisor DEFRA, who had written about understanding the relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem services, and needing to get the economics right by removing subsidies to agriculture, but making payments to landowners in return for managing their lands in ways that protect and enhance ecosystem services (6). The first comment was from Josiah Meldrum, a young man with a track record in sustainability audits, and developing and supporting food supply chains (7):
“I can’t help but feel that the neo-liberalization of eco-systems and the reduction of their existence value to a set of monetised services will take us further from not closer to their long-term protection”

I would argue that the neoliberalising of any public good dooms it, but Oliver Harwood, Chief Surveyor at the Country Land & Business Association, would have none of this, demonstrating the simple hegemony of the farming delusion, and which obviously works to the financial benefit of his Associations members (and see (8)):
“Mr Meldrum makes the classic error (common to many commentators in this field) when he talks of ecosystem “protection”. Land managers will tell you that what maintains ecosystems is appropriate management, which costs money. Protection is putting a fence around it. Management is securing grazing mouths and manures for meadows, and culling or felling invasive species – the list goes on”

This is the characteristic combination of exploit and extract, while covering everywhere in excrement, as well as removing, with extreme prejudice, anything that gets in the way of that. Who encouraged these farmers to think they were “custodians” of the landscape, that their “management” was essential to maintaining “biodiversity” and delivering ecosystem services? Well, it is the conservation industry, of course, by their fetishising of species and habitats in degraded landscapes!

Eventually came a draft of Monbiot’s book. Whereas I thought it would be a long polemic, instead it contained a focussed, devastating and sustained critique of the conservation industry, which of course admires and works to retain a state of degradation. I wrote last June, just after publication of the book, about some of the feedback I had given Monbiot, and of our further correspondence (9). I felt then that there was too much of a temptation to compare versions for the feedback I had given him, and so I left reading the published version of Feral for some months before I would consider reviewing it. Now I think a review is such a small thing when reflections better represent the life the book has had before and after its publication. I am still highly appreciative of Monbiot’s dissection of the absurdity of contemporary “nature conservation”, using the sheepwrecked uplands as his prime example. There is a selfish reason: Monbiot and I have looked at the same evidence and come up with the same conclusions - the only valid conclusions available - that our cultural nature is the emperor with no clothes. We are condemned by a received wisdom to share in a collective ignorance of the obvious facts of its widespread degradation, that if we were to be free from this enforced myopia – with little else for comparison - then we would all recognise the absurdity of it being described otherwise.

He, like me, needs to live in a world where the wildness of nature is restored. In setting a framework for this restoration, Monbiot dismisses authenticity as too much of a tightrope walk back through evolutionary time to past ecologies. Instead, to him, it is about permitting ecological processes freely to resume, while not being above an understanding of what that means by reference to the unrestrained ecologies of past history, because it is only there that we find what is absent, and what must if possible be restored. Monbiot thus powerfully asserts a space for our thinking on wildness, where trophic diversity is the essential characteristic, and trophic cascades are its inherent ecological processes. This is the highly important, breakthrough context of the book.

The freedoms of wildness

Freedom and self-will are never far from Monbiot’s narrative, although few have since acknowledged the full significance of these to the message. I would have expected no less from someone whose track record in public discourse over 20 years has been about defending the better nature of the human species from its inherent failings. Here, then, is the apotheosis of that trajectory. It does not rely on any mentoring by way of the greats of the wilderness canon, nor of the classical British nature writers or scientific ecologists. Instead, as I noted previously, Monbiot shows an ability to observe nature, develop an understanding, make deductions and act on them. Along with that is a growing realisation of what his existence is and could be, and which reminds me of the land ethic of Aldo Leopold (10). In that ethic, Leopold characterised the land as one organism, its community inclusive of soils, waters, plants, and animals, and for which he affirms “their right to continued existence, and, at least in spots, their continued existence in a natural state”

Where authenticity is important in all this, is in the judgement of others that Monbiot is unqualified in what he writes, that he has no understanding of the achievable, that his proscriptions wholesale would fatally damage the cultural structuring that is the received wisdom, such is the tenor of the conversation he recounts during a visit to a sheep farmer in the Welsh hills; the reaction of the wildlife trusts to his book (11); the faux socio-political analysis in the review by the ubiquitous but tragicomic class warrior Dave Bangs, as lionised by Tony Whitbread, Chief Executive of the Sussex Wildlife (12); and the execrable invocation of “resettlement” and “historic clearances” because “there would be little for the farming community to do”, this from the equally execrable Jim Dixon, Chief Executive of the Peak District National Park Authority, and who hasn’t even read Monbiot’s book (13). As to the first accusation, my walks and correspondence with Monbiot confirm his determined understanding of the biophysical reality of wild land, and his prodigious capacity to research and absorb information. As to the others, I remarked on reading the draft that there is no overall route map but, as I observed then, his book didn’t have to provide finished solutions if it succeeds in putting down markers, and which I think he does, but without being highly proscriptive.

He could have done much more, because what worries me about the reaction to his book, and the constant reaction I get, is one of disproportionality. Thus in the absence of that road map, it is the easy course for the perpetrators of degradation, who habitually pour cosmetic syrup in the portrayal of the outcome of their work as beautiful nature, to fill the vacuum with exaggerated assertions that all “managed” nature everywhere is at threat from this ecological restoration. It’s a straw man argument that brooks no other reality, that there may be gradations along the continuum of wild land. It is the defence of the absolutist, the controlling hand of the gatekeepers whose power rests in keeping us ignorant, and keeping our land at such an unfulfilled and only point on the continuum. If nothing else, Monbiot’s book has exposed the ingrained duplicity and flushed these absolutists out. But it does more than that, as it gives hope to those who sense there is something better, that their instincts were right.

Monbiot hasn't really addressed the degradation of the lowlands. I asked him about this, particularly since he grew up near Peppard Common - a lowland site where the recent “restoration” was driven by agri-environment subsidy (14) - but he doesn’t seem to have had much exposure to the lost opportunities for wildness in marginal lowland sites. I guess he thinks there is greater mileage for renaturing in the uplands, as he can always argue that its agricultural productivity is so low. He is, however, very strong in his critique of maritime conservation, rehearsing arguments for the need for marine reserves, and suggesting that the restoration of marine ecology will be easier than restoring terrestrial ecosystems: firstly because the track record of extinction from human exploitation hasn’t reached the same level of murderous finality as it has with some terrestrial species; and because most sea species are mobile enough to reintroduce themselves to habitats from which they have been removed. Monbiot’s writing on maritime issues really benefits from his own obvious enthusiasm for the sea and its creatures, the tales he recounts, and the sheer physicality of his adventures.

The Heffalump story

I have given before my concerns about the consequences of Monbiot’s revelation of an elephant-adapted eco-system, that it risked encouragement for contemporary woodland abusers (9) and now I must return to it. It’s been my nightmare for years that there may be elements of truth in the herbivore story, that human-induced extinction of megaherbivores in the Pleistocene (mammoth, elephants) or human-induced extinction of midi-herbivores in the Mesolithic (aurochs, Irish elk) or both, may be the reason for the development of high canopy forest in the Mesolithic. Contrary to what may be thought, I do entertain doubts. However, I would be devastated if high canopy forest was ever shown to be an artefact of the consequences of human exceptionalism, as Frans Vera has maintained (15). I love high forest with a passion. It is where I feel at home. However, I am at least careful to ensure that my passion doesn't cause me to lose objectivity over evidence.

While Monbiot’s elephant story has been great fun, he has yet to indicate what significance it has for the post-glacial landscapes of the Holocene, other than misquote a reference that the extinction of straight tusked elephant was due to human overkill. I am sure Monbiot doesn't really believe that every species that has interacted with trees has to be reinstated. I would note that trees have been around for 196m years, and have thus seen many species come and go, including all bar one of the early hominids (arising only 4-8m years ago) and may yet even see off the destructive forces of Homo sapiens (arising perhaps 200,000 years ago). While I do see some similarities between the conservation industry and dinosaurs (especially with its obsession with heathland and consequent persecution of trees) I’m not sure of its claim of being an adequate substitute for the natural disturbance that was lost with the loss of the herbivores. As it is, the moral obligation to reinstate megaherbivores, even if we could do so, revolves around a need for a clear determination of their extinction – which is contested for some species, whether the extinction was in the Holocene or not (16, 17).

I find it amusing that most stasis conservationists cling to a human cause for extinction of herbivores while arguing that humans are still part of nature, even though our differentiation as a species from mammals predates the alleged overkill of the megafauna. Consider that hominids domesticated fire at least 400,000 years ago (thus more than 10,000 generations) and maybe even as far back as 1,400,000 years (18). However, if you follow the thinking of the stasis conservationists, then their extinction - if arising from a human cause - must have been “natural” and thus we have no obligation to reinstate extinct herbivores. So, the forest bashing that the stasis conservationists really are fanatical about has no validation. On balance, though, I tend to go with what Monbiot concludes in Feral about humans and their place in nature, other than an absolute indication that the loss of Pleistocene megaherbivores was our fault:
“The study of past ecosystems show us that whenever people broke into new lands, however rudimentary their technology and small their numbers, they soon destroyed much of the wildlife – especially the larger animals – that lived there. There was no state of grace, no golden age in which people lived in harmony with nature”

It was a bold assertion of Monbiot that the “incendiary idea” of elephant-adaptation in European trees that he took from an article by Oliver Rackham (19) had been discussed no where else than in his book (I leave aside the email correspondence we had about it before publication!). From my bookshelf, I found two other books that had indeed referred, before Feral, to Rackham’s observation. The late Roger Deakin in his book on Wildwoods thought that it was a mystery why trees had evolved their ability to sprout new stems when coppiced (20). He noted an “intriguing possibility” suggested by Rackham in his book Ancient Woodland (21) that coppicing could be an evolutionary adaptation in reaction to the destructive impact of the giant elephants of the Pleistocene. Deakin pointed to some bones found at West Runton near Cromer, which he described as “an animal the size of a London Bus”. These bones proved to have been a steppe mammoth (Mammuthus trogontherii) from 600,000 years ago, an elephant despite its name, and which is however regarded as being twice the size of an African elephant, standing 4m shoulder high and may have weighed 10 tons (22). Thomas and Packhams’ book on Ecology of Woodlands and Forests (23) points to a different article in which Rackham asserts that the large elephants of the Pleistocene could break down large trees (24) and they speculate that this “may have led to the evolved ability to sprout from cut or broken shoots”. It is no surprise to me that it was also picked up before Monbiot by Mark Cocker, another member of the East Anglian literary mafia, alongside Rackham and Deakin (25). In his book Crow Country, Cocker notes that Rackham had speculated on whether the coppicing reflex shown by cut deciduous trees was originally a means of coping with the destructive impact of elephants – “Although the latter no longer bulldoze through the European landscape, even now our trees retain their anti-pachyderm strategy for regrowing once knocked down”. Rackham himself has not updated or expanded his original observation other than to swap his descriptions to “super-elephants” and “living bulldozers” from “tree-breaking beasts” (26). In searching back through Rackhams’s writings, a previous foray concerned the dwarf elephants and non-aquatic hippos that inhabited Mediterranean islands after land bridges had disappeared (27). In the absence of a carnivore larger than a badger or a giant owl, Rackham ventures that it is “no accident that the island floras are rich in endemic plants that live on cliffs or have extraordinary adaptations to resist browsing”

I discount the spurious claim made by Peter Taylor in a recent article in ECOS, that his book Beyond Conservation from 2005 “addressed this head-on” (28). Taylor sought (demanded?) acknowledgement for his megaherbivore guild obsession and the “inimitable grazing and browsing pressure” from lost European megafauna. However, he misses the point of what Monbiot was claiming, because Taylor’s book has nothing about the evolutionary adaptation of trees in response to the impact of elephants. This may seem a picayune distinction, but I think it goes to the heart of what marks Monbiot out from the crowd. He took that relatively non-specific observation of Rackham and tested it against what he could observe today as possible adaptations. Thus he considers the slow growth of common understorey trees like holly, yew and box, leads to a trunk and a root system that is much stronger than canopy trees, even though they carry less weight. Monbiot believes this would have given them resistance to withstand breaking and toppling by elephants. He suggests that the elephant’s habit of snapping deciduous trees, such as oak, ash, beech. lime, field maple, hazel, alder and willow, could explain the regrowth coming below the break. I would add, as the 1987 storm amply demonstrated, the toppling of a deciduous tree does not kill it if up to a third of its roots are still in the ground – the tree just sprouts new branches at right angles to the fallen trunk.

Seeking out the pockets of land and water that might inspire

That Monbiot gets out and explores for himself struck me early in the draft when he recounted finding what appeared to be a remnant of Atlantic rainforest in a wooded gorge that has a river flowing down it. The oak woodland owed its existence to the inaccessibility of the gorge to sheep, and its character to a hyper-oceanic influence as evidenced by the trees hanging above the water being festooned with moss and lichen, and with ferns growing along their branches. It’s the kind of place I would dive into (29, 30). He was rewarded by finding a number of small-leaved lime trees, uncommon now in Welsh woodland, and which he took to be an indicator of ancient wildwood. I searched for more details of this woodland, finding it to be a SSSI, the description of which noted the extremely humid conditions that supported an interesting array of Oceanic bryophytes and ferns. The lime trees are not mentioned, although the National Biodiversity Network does register the presence of the tree in this area. Instead, it remarks on the presence of an uncommon Wood stitchwort, as well as the diverse snail fauna that includes three ancient woodland indicator species.

In the published book, Monbiot has given a pseudonym to this gorge. More importantly, he added in a return visit that he made to this woodland after he had circulated the draft. This time he didn’t use a public right of way to enter the gorge – “We wanted to walk where no one had walked for many years, and to see which trees were growing in the scarcely accessible parts of the wood”. On reaching a chute of water between two crags, he wildly speculated with his companion on whether they would see salmon leaping the falls. What follows then is the narrative that flowed between them after they saw the first salmon try to leap up the falls, and how they stayed to savour the moment of discovery. Monbiot is captivated, his imagination envisaging a reinstated bear “leaning over the falls, mouth agape, fur sodden with spray, knowing at that moment only the water and the fish and the rocks on which it stood”

This is a signal moment for Monbiot, for he says that he realised that by seeking out the pockets of land and water that might inspire and guide an attempt to revive the natural world, he had revived his own life:
“Long before my dreams of restoration had been realized, the untamed spirit I had sought to invoke had already returned. By equipping myself with knowledge of the past while imagining a rawer and richer future, I had banished my ecological boredom. The world had become alive with meaning, alive with possibility….. I had found hope where hope had seemed absent”

While Monbiot was researching his book, I asked him what he was hoping to achieve with it, and who would be his audience? His simple answer was that through his access to the media, he could push the arguments into places where they haven't been heard before, and try to widen the scope of the debate. Feral has certainly done that, and he continues to develop its themes through his Guardian column, the latest one on flooding attracting considerable approbation (31). His recent appearance, however, on television drew an hysterical response from farmers in Wales. He was on Countryfile, the BBC’s weekly farming program, where in a feature investigating claims that our uplands are in crisis and that farming is partly to blame, Monbiot asserted that sheep in the hills had destroyed vegetation and compacted the soils, such that they were the cause of flooding downstream (32). The by now familiar invective followed, reported in the Daily Post, the Highland Clearances being invoked yet again; that allowing nature to take over the uplands would be “social and cultural genocide”; that the program was too one-sided; and that Monbiot had no evidence to back up his claims (33). Then in the Farmers Guardian, Carl Walters, the sheep farmer from Penrith who was highlighted in the program, said that Monbiot was “living in his own dream world” (34) Walters trotted out the usual vacuous claim that “Environmentalists and farmers alike recognise the role of livestock farming in the uplands and appreciate that this managed landscape needs the animals and the farmers”. More proof, if needed, of how the conservation industry has blighted any real debate about our uplands.

If only I had written that article about floodplain woodland that I had been meaning to for years! At least Monbiot is getting on and doing some of the heavy lifting.

Mark Fisher, 14 January 2014, 25 January 2014, 29 January 2014, 7 February 2014

(1) Monbiot, G. (2013) Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding. Allen Lane

(2) Scrub & Ffridd Habitat Action Plan, Biodiversity Matters II, Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust

(3) Against all odds - round the clock guard for rare chicks. Northumberland Wildlife Trust 26th May 2011

(4) First avocet chicks for Northumberland - Eaten by a heron. Round the clock care failed to save them, Wildlife Extra June 2011

(5) Farming Today This Week, BBC Radio 4 4 June 2011

(6) Biodiversity as a strategic priority for commissioning and use of evidence, Professor Robert Watson, Chief Scientific Advisor, DEFRA 8 April 2011

(7) Josiah Meldrum, Provenance

(8) CLA news release: Public Goods from Private Land - Why Nature needs Farming. NEW CLA VISION FOR ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY 12 October 2005

(9) Ecological restoration in modified landscapes, Self-willed land June 2013

(10) Leopold, A. (1949) Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There. OUP

(11) Some thoughts on ‘rewilding’...... The Wildlife Trusts

(12) A review of George Monbiot’s “Feral” by Dave Bangs, 21 January 2014

(13) My Tangle with George Monbiot, Jim Dixon's Blog, Blog from the Chief Executive of Peak District National Park Authority 18 January 2014

(14) Contemplation of natural scenes. Self-willed land January 2012

(15) Vera, F. (2013) Can’t see the trees for the forest. In A European Perspective on Woodlands and Grazed Treescapes, ed. Rotheram, I.D. Routledge

(16) Barn owls confound the conservation industry. Self-willed land December 2010

(17) Prideaux, G.J. et al (2010) Timing and dynamics of Late Pleistocene mammal extinctions in southwestern Australia. PNAS 107: 22157–22162

(18) Goudsblom, J. (1992) The Civilizing Process and the Domestication of Fire, Journal of World History 3:1-12

(19) Rackham, O. (2009) Ancient Forestry Practices. In The Role of Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in Human Nutrition, Volume 2, 29-47. Ed. Victor R. Squires. Encyclopeadia of Life Support Systems Eolss Publishers Company Limited

(20) Deakin, R. (2007) Wildwood A journey through trees. Hamish Hamilton

(21) Rackham, O. (2003) Ancient Woodland: its History, Vegetation and Uses in England. Castlepoint Press

(22) West Runton Elephant, Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service

(23) Thomas, P.A. & Packham, J.R. (2007) Ecology of Woodlands and Forests: Description, Dynamics and Diversity. Cambridge University Press

(24) Rackham, O. (2002) What is coppicing for? Sylva/Tree News 1:1-3

(25) Mark Cocker (2007) Crow Country: A Meditation on Birds, Landscape and Nature. Jonathan Cape Ltd

(26) Rackham (2013) Woodland and wood-pasture. In A European Perspective on Woodlands and Grazed Treescapes, ed. Rotheram, I.D. Routledge

(27) Grove, A.T. and Rackham, O. (2001) The Nature of Mediterranean Europe: an ecological history. Yale University Press

(28) Taylor, P. (2013) The road to Salamanca. Little heart at the 2013 World Wilderness Congress. ECOS Winter 2013 issue 34(3/4)

(29) Searching out the wildness. Self-willed land May 2010

(30) Walking the wild places. Self-willed land September 2010

(31) Drowning in money: the untold story of the crazy public spending that makes flooding inevitable. George Monbiot, Guardian 13 January 2014

(32) Countryfile: Gwaun Valley. BBC1 26 January 2014

(33) Countryfile backlash: farmers angry after sheep blamed for flooding, Hywel Trewyn, Daily Post 28 Jan 2014

(34) Hill farmers hit back at Monbiot over rewilding calls, Alistair Driver, Farmers Guardian 30 January 2014