'Feral' - George Monbiot goes wild

George Monbiot is a writer and campaigner. His interests range from kayaking and fishing to Shakespeare and “Gavin and Stacey”. No stranger to radical thinking, he explains in his latest book 'Feral', why we should be “rewilding” our seas, our land and ourselves.

What do you mean by rewilding?

The mass restoration of ecosystems. At sea it means “no-take” zones – places where there’s no commercial activity. No trawlers, no gravel suckers, or anything like that. You allow nature to resume.

On land – places abandoned by farmers. We’re seeing very large parts of Europe being abandoned by farmers. It’s a question of taking down fences, filling up drainage ditches, reintroducing missing plants and animals, and then standing back.

And rewilding our own lives – rediscovering a delight with nature which has been shut off from us. Incredible damage has been done to the natural world. And our ecosystems are such shadows of what they once were.

How have you begun to rewild your life?

Partly by an understanding of what I’m looking at. Every time I go into a wood now, I don’t see it in the same way as I saw it before. I see it as a really exciting place.

I realise that the trees I’m looking at are elephant-adapted. The under-storey trees are tougher than the canopy trees and the birch has black and white bark – it’s because they had to survive attacks by elephants.

Come again? Elephants in Europe?

Elephants dominated the European ecosystem. I’m not talking about woolly mammoths. Straight-tusked elephants, a larger relative of the Asian elephant, lived across Europe, including Britain.

It was driven out of Britain by the Ice Age. Then it was hunted to extinction in the rest of Europe about 40,000 years ago. Ours is a ghost ecosystem, where the trees are adapted to a species which is no longer there.

What’s wrong with the way we look after our wild places?

Conservation in the UK has difficulty in letting go. It’s all about controlling a space. Nothing which isn’t already there can come into it. And nothing which is there can leave it.

It’s also extremely unambitious. We’re preserving club mosses and moorland weevils. On that land you could have lynxes. You could have wolves. You could have wild boar, moose, bison. It’s a back-to-front process. They look at what is there and say, “We’re going to build our conservation plans around it,” rather than looking at what could be there and saying, “Let nature rip.”

The wildlife you describe sounds like something you’d see on safari. Would it work?

Across the continent people are very accepting of the return of the wolf and the substantial rewilding taking place. But the UK’s very detached from nature. The land is controlled by a very small class of people. And that class is more hostile to wildlife than anybody else in the UK.

As agricultural subsidies go, that grip on the land will ease. In the uplands there’s no economic case for farming without substantial subsidies. And without subsidies, they’ll take the sheep off, which is the key.

Sheep make all the difference between a thriving ecosystem and a totally crap one.

Sheep have done more damage to the environment of Britain than all the building which has ever taken place here.

You talk of sheep being connected to flooded homes. Please explain.

Sheep in the uplands mean floods in the lowlands. They compact the soil with their sharp hooves. And they eat the vegetation whose roots would otherwise absorb a lot of the rainfall and release it slowly.

We’re unaware of the impact of upland agriculture. The more land cleared, the more flooding in the lowland. We’re paying a huge amount of money for that agriculture. British households pay £3.6 billion every year in subsidies, and the extra hundreds of millions – billions some years – we’re paying as a result of flooding.

Who are you speaking to in this book?

It’s the first book I’ve ever written which I can explain to my six-year-old daughter. “I want to bring back the big animals. I want to bring back the trees.”

I’m hoping it’ll reach a lot of people who perhaps feel like I do, ecologically bored. You feel there’s got to be more to life than we’ve got at the moment. For people who want no more contact with nature than feeding the ducks, maybe it won’t appeal.

You’ve talked about your daughter. When you were a child, what did you want to be?

My parents could never explain it but from my pram, apparently, I was fascinated by wildlife. I did my first direct action when I was eight. I tried to stop a hollow tree with a woodpecker’s nest from being cut down. I attached myself to it until I had to go home for lunch. When I came back, it had been cut down, which taught me an important lesson in life about persistence.

I loved nature and in some ways my life has taken me away from that, into the policy areas and social justice stuff.  I am coming back to my first love with this book, and it’s been delightful doing so.

Radiohead frontman, Thom Yorke on "Feral"

Feral has really opened my mind to the history and possibilities of our landscape. It is the most positive and daring environmental book I have read. In order to change our world you have to be able to see a better one. I think George has done that.

Buy Feral: Searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding (Penguin) from The Book Depository.

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