Book Discussion Series #4: Feral

nature animal playing wilderness
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George Monbiot’s Feral is a work of passion and inspiration, orignally published in 2013 it became the catalyst that brought about the founding of the rewilding charity Rewilding Britain. I’ve never read it until now and I’m sorry at being late to the party. The book was both a joy and a pain to read, packed full of information and incredible descriptions of his personal experiences, it left me with a funny feeling at times, and loads more questions than I had anticipated. In many ways this means it’s probably the best book I’ve read in a long time.

Monbiot is a notoriously outspoken journalist and writer who’s whip-smart and a tremendous advocate for the environment. Feral is a mix of well-researched science and depictions of Monbiot’s amazing experiences both within the UK and wider world. There is no doubt Monbiot has been a lucky, lucky man, having experienced things most of us can only dream of, and things that would probably also give us nightmares, his stories might seem a little self-centred at first but it becomes clear that he has a number of important points to make. He writes with flare, describing things in a colourful, masterful way. Before long I had no trouble imagining I was right there in the Kayak or traipsing through the jungle with him.

Monbiot proposes a number of interesting ideas and potential solutions. One of the most fascinating is that as a species we suffer from something he dubs “ecological boredom” which might explain some of our more risky behaviours. We evolved in harsh environments in the shadow of big predators, yet most of us now live with negligible to zero risk of predation. In this lack of fear we seek that rush of adrenaline elsewhere, extreme sports, risky investments, cheating etc. And perhaps this is an extremely valid argument. A kick of adrenaline can be as addictive as hard drugs after all. I found this concept fascinating and indeed Monbiot’s moments of insight are both surreal and extremely relatable.

We still possess the fear, the courage, the aggression which evolved to see us through our quests and crises, and we still feel the need to exercise them. But our sublimated lives oblige us to invent challenges to replace the horrors of which we have been deprived.

Monbiot also talks about our genetic memory, and how behaviours that seem alien to us now, sometimes overtake our bodies and we find that we just know how to do something. I can’t say I’ve ever felt the urge to pick up a dead deer (one of Monbiot’s moments of revelation) but when one of my trees gets fruit it gives me the strangest feeling. As well as being excited I get almost physically upset at wastage… it’s an emotional, primal feeling that I can’t fully explain.

Of course the book discusses animal reintroductions, including the wolf, poster child of all things re-wilding. Monbiot uses the facts about cold hard cash to reinforce the idea that reintroductions can be more profitable than existing uses of the land. He concludes that as a nation, although deprived of many of them, we are much more fearful of wild animals than countries where they are still present.

Researchers found that eight people have been injured by wolf attacks in Europe in the past twenty years, but no one had been killed. There are nearly 20,000 wolves in Europe.

One aspect of the book particularly captured my imagination is the concept of a “conservation prison”, when doing my degree I learnt about, and did a little work on heather moorland, blindly following conservation tradition, never questioning if preserving this man-made landscape was something we should be doing.

The reality is, in order to conserve some species we have to intervene, and this is where the terms rewilding and conservation perhaps need to be clearly differentiated. Conservation by its very definition means keeping things stable or maintaining something. In ecology this is usually a particular landscape in a particular way for a particular species.  Rewilding at its core is handing the reigns back to mother nature, it’s much less neat and tidy and may even mean the loss of certain species as the succession of the ecosystem progresses. Conservation of an ecosystem may very well also encompass conservation of a cultural aspect, a human use of the land. The question then is how much could or should be conserved or rewilded?

As ever, Monbiot’s writing does not steer away from politics, he is critical of the elite feudal control of our countryside, government spending, farmers unions, fisheries policy and the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). In the wake of Brexit and our current government’s 25 year plan it will certainly be interesting to see what will happen to land use and fisheries policy in the UK. Monbiot more recently has been highly critical of so-called “ecosystem services” or putting a price on the natural world, and ever-increasing aspect of government policy.

Sheep farming in this country is a slow burning ecological disaster, which has done more damage to the living systems of this country than either climate change or industrial pollution. Yet scarcely anyone seems to have noticed.

The book also addresses one of the biggest challenges of our time – feeding our ever-increasing population. Returning to an era of hunter-gathering and subsistence farming just simply is not an option, so large-scale farming is very much entrenched in our very existence. Monbiot does not dispute this, what he does do is make a number of extremely valid and well-researched points about the mis-management of farmland, and policies that drive some frankly insane land use practices.

I do not think that re-wilding should take place on productive land. It is better deployed in the places – especially in the uplands – in which production is so low that farming continues only as a result of the taxpayer’s generosity.

I write this as both a rewilding advocate and an admirer of George Monbiot, but I still have a number of questions about some of the ideas proposed.  Does cultural conservation not at the very least still deserve some of our attention? The concept of reintroducing big things (whilst exhilarating) is inherently unrealistic in many cases. Not to mention the concept of returning animals from thousands and thousands of years ago – by that very same logic you could argue for dinosaurs. Just where exactly do we draw the line? How much control should (or can) we relinquish? How do we work positively with everyone involved even though it might mean a massive shift in the way of life their families have known for centuries? How much of a political revolution do we need for the uplands to be rewilded rather than managed for the pleasure of the rich elite?

Feral is a thought-provoking, revolutionary and often controversial book. It no doubt has and will continue to leave a lasting legacy, providing us with many questions to debate and hopefully address for years to come.

Rewilding of the kind that interests me does not seek to control the natural world, to re-create a particular ecosystem or landscape, but – having brought back some of the missing species – allow it to find its own way.


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