When George Monbiot was stood in his garden one day, he realised that there was more to life than his current domestic existence, in which “loading the dishwasher presents an interesting challenge”. That Proustian moment saw him diagnose himself with “ecological boredom” and kick-started his drive to reconnect with the wild. The resulting journey, which set him on a collision course with the British conservation movement, is recounted in this new book, Feral.
Unfortunately, he discovers that wilderness is hard to find. Certainly, it is not much in evidence in the conservation areas and National Parks of the British Isles, nor even at sea, where he repeatedly battles waves in a kayak as he tries to experience his own personal “rewilding”. A new term, apparently finding its way to the dictionary in 2011, Monbiot suggests his own definition: “Rewilding, to me, is about resisting the urge to control nature and allowing it to find its own way.”
This is really the burden of his song, and he spends most of the book explaining why it is a good thing: why it is not happening, but how we can collectively get things moving in the right direction.
The historical background is vivid and well researched, interspersed with accounts of personal encounters with the wonders of nature. Surprisingly, this works reasonably well, tempering the ecological manifesto with evocations of the beauty of a fully functioning ecosystem, buzzing and humming with life and abundant variety. Occasionally these passages induce a smirk — when he describes, for instance, how carrying a dead muntjac summons the caveman in him and makes him want to roar — but he generally avoids overdoing the purple prose.
Anyone who has ever walked in the Welsh hills will recognise some of the landscapes he describes, even if at the time they were sniffing the good, fresh air and endeavouring to appreciate the natural beauty surrounding them. Monbiot, in contrast, sees such hills as barren, empty and ecologically degraded, and asks why anyone should want to preserve them as they stand. “Whenever I venture into the Cambrian Desert I almost lose the will to live,” he explains. “It looks like a land in perpetual winter.”
He blames Shifting Baseline Syndrome, which means that every generation thinks that what they grew up with is normal, effectively shifting the goalposts generation-on-generation. The current conservation lobby, he argues, has no imagination for ecological potential and wants to preserve a landscape already virtually destroyed by human — and ovine — intervention, rather than allowing natural processes to resume and create a new landscape.
This “back-to-front conservation” seems to plague Europe in general and Britain in particular, for a variety of reasons. Monbiot puts much of it down to an unhealthy love affair with sheep. In fact he’s starkly anti-sheep, describing the creatures as “the woolly ruminant from Mesopotamia”, and blaming them for spoiling the great outdoors by munching their way through our native plants and once-abundant forests. “The sheep has caused more extensive environmental damage in this country than all the building that has ever taken place,” he explains. He’s is backed up by Ritchie Tassell, woodland officer and author of a Welsh re-wilding experiment, who concurs: “It didn’t take me long to see that the most radical thing you could do round here was to put fences around the woods and keep the bloody sheep out.”
The other main target of Monbiot’s ire is the European Union, and in particular its Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition Code, which requires farmers to “avoid the encroachment of unwanted vegetation on agricultural land”. In turn, it forces them to prevent wild plants returning to parts of their lands they are not even farming, denying them of funding if they have more than fifty trees per hectare. In Monbiot’s view this single code, seemingly invented to make sure farmers don’t get paid for doing nothing, has “helped precipitate an ecological catastrophe”. His solution is simple: drop the rule.
Whilst against officious conservation, stewardship or management, he does admit that nature needs human help to get started, though more in terms of freight transport expertise than anything else. Once we have exported sheep and imported wolves, black rhinos and elephants, he argues, the predators should be left in peace to establish a healthy ecosystem. Clearly, Monbiot is aware of the practical problems involved with some of his suggested re-introductions, commenting tongue-in-cheek that “the clamour for the lion’s reintroduction to Britain has, so far, been muted.” But other species on his list — beavers, wild boar, moose, spoonbills and night heron — are actually already slowly being re-introduced, and he explains that the predators among them will create beneficial “trophic cascades”, in some cases changing even the landscape and the atmospheric gases for the better.
Wide-ranging, thought-provoking and persuasive, this book will doubtless cause heated debate in ecological circles. It will be interesting to see just how it is received by conservationists, farmers and policy makers alike.