Thursday, 22 August 2013

Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea, and Human Life

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“In countries such as my own, the conservation movement, while well intentioned, has sought to freeze living systems in time. It attempts to prevent animals and plants from either leaving or – if they do not live there already – entering. It seeks to manage nature as if tending a garden.” 

“Rewilding recognizes that nature consists not just of a collection of species but also of their ever-shifting relationships with each other and with the physical environment. It understands that to keep an ecosystem in a state of arrested development, to preserve it as if it were a jar of pickles, is to protect something which bears little relationship to the natural world.”

All of us love nature, but we don’t always agree on the best ways to protect it. George Monbiot, author of Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea, and Human Life, takes a controversial stance, arguing in favour of stepping out of the way and letting nature choose its own path:

“Conservationists sometimes resemble gamekeepers: they regard some of our native species as good and worthy of preservation, others as bad and in need of control. . . . They seek to suppress nature, to prevent successional processes from occurring, to keep ecosystems in a state of arrested development. Nothing is allowed to change: nature must do as it is told, to the nearest percentage point. They have retained an Old Testament view of the natural world: it must be disciplined and trained, for fear that its wild instincts might otherwise surface.”

In Feral, Monbiot explains why the traditional management approach doesn’t work and speaks out strongly in favour of rewilding nature.

Failure of the Traditional Management Approach 
Nature is vastly complex. It is impossible for humans to understand all the implications of their conservation initiatives. As a result, the initiatives often fail.

Untitled Monbiot points to conservationists in Florida who sought to protect sea turtles by culling the raccoons which eat their eggs. Unfortunately, it had the opposite effect: “More turtle eggs were lost, as the raccoons were no longer eating the ghost crabs which also preyed on them [turtles].”

Fishermen have long argued that whale and seal populations should be reduced because they eat fish and reduce the fishermen’s catch. And yet marine biologist Steve Nicol says that the decline in plant plankton, which is critical to a healthy fish population, is greatest in areas where whales and seals have been heavily hunted. The large mammals stimulate plankton bloom by recycling nutrients and bringing them to the surface, thereby providing food for fish.

Shifting Baseline Syndrome 
Picture Great Britain and you immediately visualize small fields dotted with sheep or empty stretches of heathland. And yet, that wasn’t always the case. “When Trafalgar Square was excavated in the nineteenth century, presumably to build Nelson’s column, the river gravels the builders exposed were found to be crammed with hippopotamus bones; these beasts wallowed, a little over 100,000 years ago, where tourists and pigeons cluster today.” 

Great Britain was heavily forested before the introduction of sheep, cattle, and other grazing animals. And yet, conservation management plans strive to preserve the heathland, choosing that as their point of reference. For example, the Glaslyn Nature Reserve management plan recognizes that the site is artificial and that the trees were removed when the site was mined and later farmed. And yet, the plan insists that it must remain treeless, without explaining why.

Many of the bird species that are protected in Britain are, according to Monbiot, “an artefact of grazing; they are all species which can survive in the scoured, open habitats humans have created and that some conservationists now seek to preserve, in order – with dizzying circularity – to protect the species which can survive here.”

Monbiot argues that, “Many of the places ecologists have studied have been radically altered by human intervention, and many of the processes they have recorded, and which they assumed were natural, appear to have been shaped as much by people and their domestic stock as by wild animals and plants.”

He goes on to say, “Wildlife groups seek to protect the animals and plants that live in the farmed habitats of the previous century, rather than imagine what could live there if they stepped back.”

Canada and Great Britain have very different ecosystems, but the principles of rewilding still apply. They can assist us in maintaining our wild areas without interfering and could be particularly relevant in large, unpopulated areas that are too large to practically “manage.”

ready for takeoff

What’s Nature Trying To Do?
The highlands of Scotland were once covered by the great Caledonian Forest. Grazing and human habitation have reduced it to around 1% of its greatest extent. Alan Watson is seeking to expand the forested area. He believes that rewilding requires humility, stepping back and letting nature evolve unhindered.

In 1990, the Forestry Commission agreed to fence off 50 hectares of heath. When Monbiot visited the site over 20 years later, the contrast from one side of the fence to the other was remarkable: “On one side the grass was nibbled low and covered in deer droppings. Apart from a few small saplings buried in the heather, and one or two growing out of reach of the deer in the crooks of fallen trunks, there were no young trees. On the other side was a mosaic of habitats.” The ground was covered in bog myrtle and the tallest conifers were now 23 feet tall. Dead trees provided habitats for birds, insects, and lichen.

Similarly, the creation of sea reserves, where no fishing is permitted, has proven tremendously effective: “On average, in 124 marine reserves studied around the world, some of which have been in existence for only a few years, the total weight of animals and plants has quadrupled since they were established. The size of the animals inhabiting them has also increased, and so has their diversity. In most cases, the shift is visible within two to five years.” And it benefits fishermen, greatly enhancing the number of lobsters and fish in surrounding areas.

Keynote Species
Monbiot points to the importance of protecting and/or reintroducing keystone species, which have a larger impact on the overall environment than would normally be expected. The reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone has reduced erosion and increased plant life as there are less grazing elk. It has increased the number of small mammals and hence the birds which hunt or scavenge.

Monbiot says, “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 – to allow it to find its own way. . . . The main aim of rewilding is to restore to the greatest extent possible ecology’s dynamic interactions.” 

Monbiot notes that it is particularly difficult to maintain a fixed ecosystem in the face of climate change. Rewilding is far more adaptable.

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Opening Up the Ecological Imagination
Large mammals used to roam freely on all the continents, and Monbiot dreams of expanding the ecological imagination, of re-introducing extinct species, such as lynx, moose, hyenas, perhaps even elephants to Great Britain.

As Alan Watson said, “The environmental movement up till now has necessarily been reactive. We have been clear about what we don’t like. But we also need to say what we would like. We need to show where hope lies. Ecological restoration is a work of hope.” 

Additional Reading 
George Monbiot's blog

Other books, which discuss similar concepts, include:

Wild Hope: On the Front Lines of Conservation Success by Andrew Balmford includes a chapter about the Netherlands’ experiment with rewilding

Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World by Emma Marris discusses the impossibility of preserving nature in its pristine, pre-human state
"The conviction that something must be done is the parent of many bad measures." – Daniel Webster

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