by George Monbiot, 2013. Feral

At Christmas, when I was in the UK, I was browsing the Nature section of the Waterstone’s in Leamington Spa. I was looking for a specific book, which wasn’t there, when I came across George Monbiot’s Feral. I was familiar with Monbiot’s work as an environmental columnist for The Guardian. I have generally been in agreement with everything of his that I’ve read, and I was keen to see what his long form writing might be like.

Unfamiliar with his ideas about rewilding, I picked up Feral on the same day I finished reading 1491. I couldn’t have chosen a better companion piece. So complementary are these two books that they, in places, tell the same stories – an account of the rise and demise of the passenger pigeon with which I was wholly unfamiliar, and a description of pre-Columbian Amazonian civilizations supporting vast populations.

Through example after example, scientifically researched fact carefully laid upon scientifically researched fact, Monbiot describes how the landscape of the United Kingdom that we think of as ‘natural’ is anything but. And he proposes that we set about ‘rewilding’ this land and returning it to a state that is rich in biodiversity.

At first, the book shocked me, on multiple levels. I was shocked by how much of the landscape of the UK has been transformed over hundreds of years by an invader from the Mesopotamia – the lowly sheep. That most ‘English’ of farm animals is an interloper, whose voracious appetite for grass has transformed the landscape into a sterile lifeless place. Monbiot offers examples of rewilding projects taking place in small patches across the country, through the simple act of keeping sheep out. The results are astonishing. Without sheep, tree growth is rapid, and plants, insects, birds and mammals return at rates that no-one could have predicted.

The barren ‘wild’ landscapes of the moors, of all of the UK’s national parks, of the Scottish Highlands are, according to Monbiot, dying sterile places. Without the removal of sheep, which are economically unviable and whose continued farming requires never-ending EU grant input, conservation projects will never work.

The other great enemy of UK wildlife, he points out, is the tiny number of people who own most of the land. Vast tracts of Scotland, for example, are owned by only a handful of absentee landlords, whose sole purpose is to hunt deer for a brief few weeks each year. The social, economic and political complexity of maintaining these hunting estates has the same effect as sheep farming.

By now my head was fit to explore with all these new ideas. I knew that most the UK and much of the rest of Europe has been deforested in the past 1000 years, with deforestation accelerating from the start of the Industrial Revolution. I knew that many of our farm animals were not native. I knew that every country has problems with invasive species – in Ireland we have rhododendron, in Spain we have eucalyptus. But the sheer extent – the depth and scale – of such transformation was flabbergasting.

But more was to come. Monbiot, as a proponent of rewilding, calls for the reintroduction of animals that have long been extinct in this country. He weighs up the pros and cons of reintroducing a variety of animals – elephants, rhinos, wolves, bears – at which point it’s all starting to feel like science fiction – and weighs in in favour of some and not of others. I was, by now, on a mind bending trip with George Monbiot and, although it wasn’t one I entirely agreed with, I was having a whale of a time (pardon the pun). Whether I agreed with the idea of reintroducing elephants and rhinos or not, I was certainly learning to read landscapes in a new way, to see the deep, and not just the more recent, human history written into those landscapes.

The more I think about Feral, the more I want to go back and read it all over again, this time making notes in the margins and following Monbiot’s environmentalism down whatever rabbit hole it takes me.