Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding (Book Review)
Published in Permaculture Magazine issue 79 Book Review by Andreas Kornevall Author: George Monbiot Allen Lane, 2013 ISBN: 9781846147487 The Guardian journalist George Monbiot needs no introduction, if you haven’t heard of him, you have some catching up to do; he is a modern day Guy Fawkes armed with a pen. In his latest book, Feral, he lights a bonfire under wildlife organisations here in Britain. With a perceptive eye, he writes of why we have lost our most precious resource: the wilderness. He also suggests of how we can regain it again through “rewilding” - to rewild is to restore an area of land to its natural uncultivated state and reintroduce the native species that once lived there. We can all agree that we have a moral obligation to make sure megafauna such as the lion and the tiger are saved from extinction. We all agree that the decimation of the rainforest in Indonesia and Brazil needs to stop and we are quick to point fingers at distant Governments who commit wildlife crimes. But what have we done to our own megafauna here in the UK? What have we done to our own ancients forests that once stood here? The answer is: we shot the megafauna to extinction and we have cleared the forest to make way for grazing animals. When it comes to reintroducing megafauna, it instantly triggers the assumption that we are too many people, or that there is not enough space for wolves, lynx or bears. George reveals to us, convincingly, that this assumption is wrong and misinformed. With the current migration from the farms to the cities, large tracts of land can be opened up and considered for large rewilding programmes, where native species - including the megafauna - can be reintroduced. The book describes many obstacles for rewilding and there are two that stand out for me: The first obstacle comes from the wildlife organisations themselves. George writes: “Almost every national park in Britain is a sheep ranch and can scarcely be distinguished from unprotected places.” He described how the NationalParks mandate is to preserve a cultural profile of the landscape rather than enhancing its ecological integrity. The consequence being bald hills, grazing animals, soil erosion, and scarcely any wildlife. George argues, quite rightly, that these are not nature reserves, but should be re-named culture reserves - most of the UK’s national parks are managed in this way. The second barrier to rewilding is our own fear of nature: he writes: “The United Kingdom has a peculiar fear of nature, and its conservationists a peculiar fear of letting go. Germany, France and Slovakia are permitting part or all of their national parks to rewild. Most countries in Europe now have large areas of self-willed land. Even the tidy, busy Netherlands is allowing nature to reassert itself.” Where this fear comes from and why it exists in the UK is an important debate to be had. But perhaps the main topic that draws attention to the importance of rewilding is the concept of “trophic cascade”. A trophic cascade occurs when predators in the food web alter the traits of their prey. Since the reintroduction of gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park, George explains how the wolves changed the behaviour of the feeding patterns of elk. Elk, now being prey, would only remain in one place for a short while and they would avoid areas where they could be vulnerable to an attack. This behaviour resulted in big positive changes to the ecosystem as a whole; more aspens and willows started growing, and many other plant species. Scavengers too, such as ravens and bald eagles prospered from the carcasses of wolf kills. The grizzly bears increased in numbers and songbirds who utilised willow flourished. Beavers, which feed on willow trees, created sediment retention in the rivers, giving nutrients to even more animals, fish and plant life. This is a riveting new ecological finding and it offers us a great example of what happens when we allow the land to be self-willed. It also presents us a glimpse of a positive future. The vision of rewilding bestows us with a sense of hope. The best mitigation against climate change, overpopulation and mass extinction is simply to permit the land to be self-governed. A world without megafauna is what we are patently creating today. This prospect is a personal grief for George, and he writes his ideas from a more personal perspective than in his previous books, which makes for a welcome show of vulnerability and it is instantly likeable. I recommend this book because it shows us clearly that the wilderness is a necessity, both physically and psychologically. We can be sure, whenever the megafauna is left to roam freely, alongside them, there will be pure water flowing in the waterways, clean air, fertile soils and mighty forests. This is positive environmentalism; through rewilding we can reveal a future for both the wilderness and civilisation, it is a vision worth fighting for.