Boars should replace sheep on the Welsh mountains

Rob Yorke interviews George Monbiot about his latest campaign to rewild our upland landscapes

Rob Yorke (RY): Where did you spend your childhood?

George Monbiot (GM): I was brought up in the Oxfordshire countryside next to an old golf course that had returned, I suppose rewilded, to an amazing habitat mix of scrub, dry valleys and Neolithic flint mines. It was perfect for a bunch of young lads doing what kids do in the countryside: roaming, making camps, fishing, birdwatching, botanising and having lots of wars. I was quite nerdy on natural history.

RY: How would you describe yourself today?

GM: A campaigning environmental journalist. A few book critics say that I’m having a midlife crisis. That’s not a bad thing. As I’ve not much time left before I turn into an old crock, I want to focus on where it takes me, to look back on what kind of world I would want to live in. I prefer to call it a midlife reflection. Having studied zoology, I went into the BBC Natural History unit to do investigative environmental radio programmes. Things went well until the team was disbanded and I went abroad writing books on similar subjects. It was a very miserable and grim business: everywhere you looked there was destruction, degradation and stupidity – it was like passing through the veil of tears. That’s why, after falling into despair with all the stuff I was covering, I’ve now found such a source of hope and optimism with rewilding.

RY: Is that how you wish to engage us with nature – through your own journey?

GM: Yes, partly by showing there is hope, that it can go into reverse, but what really gets me going is explaining to people what was here beforehand. When you tell kids in particular about straight-tusked elephants once roaming the British countryside, it’s a direct connection with the flora and fauna of today.

RY: So you’re engaging with kids but disengaging with hill farmers?

GM: Yes, a regrettable outcome!

RY: Is it in fact easier to engage with nature, than engage with the complexities of a working countryside?

GM: Yes, it is more complicated, but we’ve come to see the countryside and farming as synonymous. It’s often perceived that the countryside is just about farming. In Wales, which is more rural than much of Britain, farmers are only five percent of the population but yet have 95 percent of the ‘voice’. Sheep could be reduced on the hill by changes in the subsidy system. My own obsession is to revoke a EU subsidy-linked condition stating that scrub must be kept in check to enable land to be brought back into food production; but with modern machinery that would be easy today.

RY: So would you like to see the National Trust’s Beatrix Potter estate in the Lake District ‘roughed up’?

GM: To their credit they are doing a bit of rewilding at nearby Ennerdale, perhaps not taking it back as far as I would like it to go, but there’s a lot to latch on to. As most of the Lake District is astonishingly impoverished and much of the common land is overgrazed, it would be good to see more rewilding in ‘Beatrixville’.

RY: What’s your favourite part of the UK?

GM: North Norfolk saltmarshes. They are self-willed, always changing, not heavily managed and no one goes there. The birdlife in winter is exquisite; one of my favourite sights is watching the short-eared owls hunting waders over the flats.

RY: Is it habitat or species that interest you the most?

GM: It’s the dynamic interaction between both. And this is where my complaint against conservation comes in. Conservationists are very much into pickling ecosystems, making sure nothing changes, allowing no dynamism or succession. Not in all cases, but some nature reserves are a depressing experience. Just read the management plan – everything is pegged down to the nearest percentage point. That’s not nature they’re conserving, that’s a clinical museum. What’s wonderful about nature is the unexpected things, the surprises it throws up as species interact with each other.

RY: Respected ecologist George Peterken said that some heavily wooded areas, such the Wye Valley, may not be so rich in wildlife as when the area was coppiced for charcoal. Can we have both landscape and biodiversity?

GM: There’s not always a conflict. Part of the problem is that worked woodland doesn’t have a build up of deadwood that biodiversity needs. We miss deadwood; in virgin forest 70 percent is deadwood. Of Britain’s missing species, a high proportion are deadwood species, while many ‘old’ ecologists believe that there is more life in deadwood than in living wood. Coppicing imperils a far greater number of endangered invertebrates than it supports. Yes, there would have been some natural coppicing in the past – because of elephants – but too much of it limits the possible number of habitats.

RY: OK, so you remove sheep from the hills and bracken would overshadow everything; we would have to wait years for deadwood?

GM: My feeling is that every succession stage is fascinating. To deal with the bracken, you bring in a keystone species such as wild boar, an ecosystem ‘engineer’ that has a disproportionally powerful impact on the environment around it – they are great at creating conditions for trees. Beavers are another keystone species.

RY: But people complain about wild boar and want them culled when they dig up their gardens (particularly in the Forest of Dean).

GM: It’s less of any issue in the featureless, treeless Cambrian ‘desert’ in mid-Wales, where there are no gardens for a very long way. But of course not everyone is ready for a reintroduction of these species and will complain – I understand that.

RY: We really want to see nature near us. From the M4 corridor, would we go anywhere near these wild, wooded places?

GM: I think connecting people to nature is a good thing – but there’s no guarantee that if people are close to it, they are going to connect to it. I noticed this in rural mid-Wales; proximity doesn’t necessary mean proper contact but I agree that we are a bit fearful of trees. Many love the openness of the uplands, whereas I just lose the will to live when up there. Let’s have something that we can both enjoy – some openness and some woodland.

RY: What would you plant in the uplands?

GM: We need much more vegetation in the uplands, and what absorbs rainwater best? Forest – the denser the root structure the better. The small-leaved lime is my favourite tree; it represents old, wild wood. It’s a magnificent tree when allowed to grow large, with its fine shape and beautiful daffodil-yellow leaves in autumn. As to which tree species to plant, it depends on where you are and the nearest seed source; birch would be good to start with, then perhaps oak via acorns carried in by jays.

RY: There’s not many jays at 550m (1,800ft), so what about more hardy, pioneering conifers?

GM: Sure. Scots pine do well – even on mountain tops, in fact it should be called British, not Scots pine! Look, even the grimmest and darkest sitka spruce plantation has more invertebrate and bird life than the sheep pastures surrounding them.

RY: What did you think of the National Ecosystem Assessment (the first assessment of the state and value of the UK’s natural environment including its provision of ecosystem services such as food, soil, landscape and recreation (uknea.unep-wcmc.org)?

GM: It was done in such depth, I loved it, it’s so good. There are, for instance, so many cultural ecosystems. My criticism of the National Trust’s view of a cultural landscape is that it is a Downton Abbey one – harking back to just a 100 years ago – a classic conservationist’s approach. After I argued on Radio 3 with a former director-general of the Trust about cultural landscapes, she came up to me afterwards and said that, hang on, of course wolves were part of our cultural landscape until the 17th Century. It may all be a question of which cultural landscape, but let’s just have a few more of them.

Rob Yorke is a rural commentator based near Abergavenny. George Monbiot is an author and journalist. His latest book is Feral (Allen Lane) which poses some searching questions about how we we undertake conservation today. This interview was conducted at the Hay festival and also appears in the current issue of the BBC Countryfile magazine.

13 thoughts on “Boars should replace sheep on the Welsh mountains

  1. Re wilding i’m afraid is a myth because it looks back. if this light touch approach is envisaged then something around ‘future natural’ which includes rhododendron, japanese knotweed, himalayan balsam is to be included. The species needed for a warmer Wales are not here yet. Because of the man made landscape blocking their migration they can’t and won’t move. This might not include the British pine! if these species and others are not wanted then we start gardening and therefore there is less ‘wild’ .

    Introducing climax species without all the supporting biodiversity which accompanies is also a bit naive. Getting peat lands and woodlands to work, and waxing and waning habitats also have merit. But we can’t escape the fact that we are an overpopulated, administration-focused little island which is constantly asking a hell of a lot from its landscapes. Interesting in terms of landscape in Wales are the ideas the cynefin, bro, milltir sgwar and the fact that we are part of the landscape.

    Rewilding all too often hints at ‘without people’. I realise there is a balance to be struck. The idea of dominion over rather than being shaped by it or being a part of it has never been in the Welsh cultural landscape as far as i’m concerned (diwylliant – culture – without wild). Rewilding is often misused by some in looking back at some distant past when our context was different. The balance needs to swing back to a more robust ecosystems approach, but not by looking back. People, economy, culture, environment are here today and need to be part of future natural and not simply removed. There is a place for everything but not everything everywhere.

  2. As we know all too well, bores (not boars) have replaced sheep: environmentalist bores; imperialist bores; literati bores; monolongual bores. When, when, when will our people wake up and realise that we do not need these Notting Hill interlopers?

  3. RY “What’s your favourite part of the UK?”
    GM: “North Norfolk saltmarshes. They are self-willed, always changing, not heavily managed and NO ONE GOES THERE”.
    I think George lives in a middle class dream world. That sentence says it all really.

  4. I don’t agree with George Monbiot’s entire narrative about rewilding, but he does have some serious points about our very man-made landscape and we do ourselves no favours if we try to deny them by putting our fingers in our ears and singing “middle class imperialist” in the hope that he’ll go away.

  5. A hell of lot of ‘meaty’ stuff didn’t make it into the interview – remember it was aimed at Countryfile Magazine readers. But as Alun (above) says, there are points to debate: from Europe led farming subsidies, preservationist conservation, upland forestry to payment for public goods from ecosystems. All of which – and more – are inextricably linked to how we produce affordable food into the future.
    More to come…

  6. As I recall, there are references to boar hunts in the Mabinogion when the land was under the control of a local lord. The scenario that George Monibot envisages appears to be a step backwards in time to the large estates and the protection of species to be hunted by the privileged.

    Since the end of the19th century the dynamics of land management and ownership might be characterized the progressive erosion of the large estates and the acquisition of property rights by previous tenants who farmed the land for several generations. There are also wild places in several parts of Wales, but even those were “managed” in some way or another.

    This changed. During the 20th century large tracts of land were acquired for forestation, and public rights of access confirmed along ancient paths and trackways. National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and other protected areas were establshed. Historic landscapes were identified and described. In sum, a managed landscape, with the rural community as the principal managers and stewards guided by a set of planning and environmental laws and policies.

    “Growing our Woodlands” and the Welsh Government’s proposed policy for protected landscapes are recent examples of desired changes in management practices for certain parts of rural Wales. The latter document, which is a draft and currently the subject of public consultation, is an indication from the Welsh government of how it envisages Wales’ protected landscapes (about 25 % of the land area) coul be managed in future. One wonders how a scenario of re-wilding might fit into that, if “re-wilding” is the correct term, because the discussion in the interview shifts suddenly to the consideration of cultural landscapes which is something else altogether.

    Blue sky thinking is fine up to a point, but let’s discuss how deep ecology connects with the reality of the rural landscape of Wales and how it has evolved over time.

  7. When I read where this interview took place I thought “how very Hay!”. The festival is awash with social imperialists like Monbiot who enjoy their weekends on “the Welsh border”, not realising that they are in Wales and therefore near “the English border”. The Guardian-istas have reaped desecration on our land – wind farms being the most visible scar – so lectures on “countryside management” by medddlars such as Monbiot should be robustly challenged.

  8. What George Monbiot advocates is a different form of human designed landscape. Think Longleat rather than London Zoo. that’s fine in itself, it’s the sort of landscape he desires to move about in. But it shouldn’t be dressed up as a superior model of conservation. There is a huge drop off in biodiversity once you cross the English channel from France. If conservation gains are the genuine driver of his argument then continental Europe is the obvious location for such wildernesses. There such wildernesses would conserve 1000s of extra species, invertebrates, plants, fungi that already exist but which never made it to Britain before the English channel formed. Just add some charismatic megavertebrates and the elephants would be grateful for the warmer climate.

  9. The best, most robust decisions are taken, involving the people who are affected by them.

    So, Lord Elis Thomas’ argument is right. And, so too is Anne Meikle’s – with appropriate leadership and investment in good, capacity building processes it is possible to do quite a lot within the existing guidelines and legal framework. Take for example the Pen y Cymoedd Wind Farm. Extensive public and stakeholder engagement to shape the layout of what is currently England & Wales’ biggest wind energy project meant that people affected were able to understand the plans, comment on them, influence them, understand the impact of the project, and decide whether or not they can live with it – which they did – it’s consented, and already is brining benefit to the Welsh economy.

    A significant point to be made with regard to meaningful and effective decision-making is that it is easier to engage with the appropriate people (including those speaking on behalf of nature and habitats) about some energy projects than others, because they are less complex, and have fewer uncertainties and far reaching, impacts associated with them. Our current decision-making processes are not predisposed to taking “absent” parties’ views into account (the silent or disengaged majority; distant people; future generations; nature).

    Neither the “not in my back yard”, nor the “we can do what we like in our back yard and on our watch” are particularly clever positions to take, yet take them we do. But if we work hard, think hard and smart, together, using our imaginations, not forgetting our values and ethics, we can make good decisions. If WG can encourage the kind of decision-making we can be proud of, then it should be empowered to do so.

  10. Well known that Elephants eat practically nothing and are ever so much more dainty than those “woolly maggots.” When Britain was attached to Europe migration of huge animals to fresh pastures was likely … But George’s elephants on the Lakeland fells premise is a false argument in much the same way as his Marie Antoinettish ” let them burn plutonium” He always sounds so much more persuasive than Marie Antoinette.

    http://mariannewildart.wordpress.com/2014/01/21/beatrix-potters-evil-master-plan-trash-woodlands-replace-with-woolly-maggots/

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