George 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.”