We recently read ‘Feral’ by George Monbiot. It is a brilliant book, without doubt the best of his we have read (although you can’t go wrong with checking out his other works…)

It is an exploration of what it means to bring back the large predators, to ‘rewild’ the earth, the air and the sea. It is a romantic account of how to readjust humans place in nature. It is utterly fascinating and very readable.

We made notes from several sections of the book, which we have written up below, which we hope will give you a taster of what ‘Feral’ is all about…

“The rewilding of natural ecosystems that fascinates me is not an attempt to restore them to any prior state, but to permit ecological processes to resume… the conservation movement, while well intentioned, has sought to freeze living systems in time.

Rewilding, unlike conservation, has no fixed objective: it is not driven by human management but by natural processes.

Rewilding, to me, is about resisting the urge to control nature and allowing it to find its own way.”

Central to his theory is the idea of recreating trophic cascades…

“”Restoring trophic diversity means enhancing the number of opportunities for animals, plants and other creatures to feed on each other; to rebuild the broken strands in the web of life.

(They are) processes caused by animals at the top of the food chain, which tumble all the way to the bottom. Predators and large herbivores can transform the places in which they live.”

In ‘Feral’ he goes on to give the example of reintroducing wolves to a National Park in North America – they hunt deer, reducing the population and allowing the trees to grow. But the reintroduction of wolves also changes the behaviour of the deer, who no longer move in the open spaces – again, allowing for trees and saplings to survive.

This way of allowing the world to find its own path, by just reintroducing one element, is utterly fascinating.

It means you go wide – by adding animals like wolves, bears, lynx and eagles to your landscape, as well as deep – encouraging top predators, middle predators, plant eaters, plants, carrion, detritus feeders…

It links the relationships at each level, which are then allowed to find their own complexity. A trophic cascade works when not just the prey of the top predators but the species which have seemingly no connection to them improve too.

Add wolves and they reduce the deer, stop them going into the open spaces. Less deer in the open spaces means there is less dung, so less nitrogen in the soil. This reduction in nitrogen provides a more level playing field for plants, increasing plant diversity. Trees by the water grow four times as high. This creates shade, cooling the water and providing cover for fish. More fish means you provide more food and this changes the wildlife community there too.

More trees also means less bank erosion, and just as importantly, more songbirds and more insects. Bears arrived because they saw more berries on the trees. Next came an explosion in the beaver and bison population. The beavers created a greater diversity of pools, and niches for otters, muskrats, fish, frogs, reptiles and bats as well as cleaning the water.

Humans cannot, by hunting deer, replicate this effect. Yet this all started from one simple action, adding wolves to the area.

He then goes on to talk about how else we, humans, interact with nature…

“Much of the diversity and complexity of nature could be sustained only if levels of disturbance were low. Major intrusions, such as clearing trees and raising cattle, quickly simplified the ecosystem… here (in the UK) many conservationists appear to believe the opposite: that the diversity, integrity and ‘health’ of the natural world depend upon human intervention, often intense intervention, which they describe as ‘management’ or ‘stewardship’…

Most human endeavours, unless checked by public dissent, evolve into monocultures. Money seeks out a regions comparative advantage… and promotes it to the exclusion of all else. Every landscape or seascape… performs just one function.”

It is an important point, and a logical one – we follow the money as we can understand when it is working – it is measurable, as you either have it or you don’t. How hard is it to quantify wildlife and the complex links between animals as in our example above – the addition of wolves and the growth of the insect population, which feeds the birds, who spread the berries across the landscape, allowing for trees to find new places to grow… and on and on.

He also points out how we conserve certain areas in the UK, but these areas are really not wild, not anymore, and not the way they could be. Yet huge efforts are made to keep them in stasis, exactly as they are right now. Think about the heathlands of Britain, where trees are kept from developing by grazing…

“… the upland habitats we have chosen to conserve seem to be almost as dead, impoverished and lacking in structure or complexity as a parking lot… without trees, large predators, wild herbivores, rotting wood or many other components of a thriving ecosystem, these places retain only a few worn strands of the complex web of life.”

We will finish this blog on ‘Feral’ by sharing with you his thoughts on our relationship to the wild. We hope it leaves you with something to think about!

“The Masai accepted wild fluctuations in their fortunes with equanimity. In one season, their cattle would darken the plains; in the next, drought struck and they had nothing. To know what comes next has been perhaps the dominant aim of materially complex societies. Yet, having achieved it, or almost achieved it, we have been rewarded with a new collection of unmet needs. We have privileged safety over experience, gained much in doing so, and lost much.”

One important figure in this book was Alan Watson Featherstone, who is Executive Director of Trees for Life. This is his blog about the work he does for the charity.

Go here to buy ‘Feral’ by George Monbiot.


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