Book Review: “Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea and Human Life” by George Monbiot
Off the Top of My Head
By Paul Murray
Oxford-educated Zoologist and writer George Monbiot takes on the subject of rewilding in his latest book “Feral” and makes it real by searching out and documenting practical examples of its successful application and exploring possibilities of furthering the concept to restore damaged ecosystems for the betterment of human life by recognising that the natural world is integral to our well being.
Wikipedia describes “Rewilding” as “large-scale conservation aimed at restoring and protecting natural processes and core wilderness areas, providing connectivity between such areas, and protecting or reintroducing apex predators and keystone species.”
Conservation is a hot topic these days and everyone has their own perception of what it is and how it should be applied. Monbiot introduces the concept of the “Shifting Baseline Theory” whereby people and conservation groups only seek to restore the environment to the level of their personal experience and recollection of how it once was, not necessarily how it naturally existed, or its natural state. Rewilding is a process that permits nature to conserve and restore itself.
In many parts of the world, relentless grazing by sheep, goats and other livestock limits the re-establishment of the natural environment by browsing young plants and preventing them from reaching maturity. Monbiot suggests that large tracts of Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales (where he lives) are devoid of woodland, forest and have depleted ecosystems as a result of centuries of overgrazing in a chapter he titled “Sheepwrecked.” The same certainly applies in Australia and New Zealand and all other countries where broad-scale grazing practices are common and landscapes are devoid of vegetation and the natural life systems it supports. Rewilding offers a positive means of correcting the damage done and restoring biodiversity.
Rewilding is no longer merely an idea or theoretical concept; it has been successfully applied with numerous unexpected benefits. Perhaps the best example is the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in the United States. Wolves had been absent from the park for about 70 years after having been completely hunted out. This led to a proliferation of grazing animals, particularly red deer (or elk), which were then permitted to reproduce freely in an environment without predators. The increase in deer numbers resulted in a marked decrease in vegetation, loss of habitat for birds and animals that had sheltered in the grass and woodlands that existed there before heavy grazing by deer drastically altered the original landscape.
The reintroduction of a dominant predator, in this case wolves, led to an initial reduction in deer numbers, but also a change in the behavior of the deer. They no longer grazed in the valleys, canyons, gulches and gorges, zones where they felt vulnerable to predation. They were restricted to the grasslands and plains where they were able to more easily escape wolf attack. This enabled the vegetation to re-establish in the less open areas, woodlands returned, saplings were allowed to become trees, the trees and the shelter they provide allowed birds to return, small animals found home in the undergrowth, rabbits and mice returned providing a food source for weasels, foxes and birds of prey, which also fed on the carrion left by the wolves.
Bears also came to feed on the berries, carrion and assisted the wolves in the ecological reengineering process by eating deer calves. Beavers came down the rivers and recolonised the banks, built their dams, slowed the flow of the river, which rehydrated the land, facilitating further vegetation growth and stabilising the riverbanks, reducing erosion and soil loss, the river meandered less, the entire ecosystem became more robust, balanced and steadfast. The reintroduction of wolves changed the entire landscape, significantly increased the biodiversity and health of the environment and initiated a natural top-down succession process that has been termed a “trophic cascade.”
The idea of reintroducing wolves to the Yellowstone National Park met with significant resistance, but proponents of rewilding overcame the challenges to the ideas and the people who feared their grandmothers might be eaten and were permitted to release a few wolves into the park to see what effect they would have on the ecosystem. The results far exceeded all expectations and did much to establish the concept of rewilding as a means of repairing damaged landscapes. No grandmas died, no houses were blown down, no one was mauled when the moon was full…the net result definitely justified the means and Yellowstone is now significantly more valuable as a national park, sustains vastly more plants and animals and is far more stable environmentally since the wolves were returned.
How Wolves Change Rivers:
Oceans too can be rewilded; in fact the process is simpler than land rewilding as there are less physical barriers to the movement of plants and animals through the water. The creation of marine reserves around the world has produced remarkable results in quickly restoring fish stocks, species diversity and seabed vegetation. By prohibiting fishing trawlers from regions of the ocean, breeding zones and ecologically significant areas, the number, size and types of aquatic species soon recover and proliferate. Monbiot states that by allowing fish and other marine life the protection they need to regenerate their numbers, fish catches and associated economic return outside the marine reserves have increased.
Another interesting revelation in the book is the importance of whales to the ocean environment and indeed the entire Earth. Whales eat fish, plankton and krill, and it turns out that they also sustain their food sources. Monbiot convincingly demonstrates that removing whales from the ecosystem leads to a trophic collapse of fish, plankton and krill numbers, quite the opposite of claims by the Japanese government and others that removing whales will increase fish numbers and improve catches and allow more food for humans.
Whales feed in the dark depths of the ocean and then return to the surface for air. In the photic zone, the upper levels of the ocean where sunlight penetrates the water, the whales release what scientists politely refer to as “faecal plumes,” meaning they defecate in the water, effectively fertilsing the ocean in the photic zone where photosynthesis occurs. Whale excrement is rich in iron and nitrogen and these nutrients significantly enhance the growth of plankton, which in turn, supports other aquatic life.
By deep diving and returning to the surface, the whales also create turbulence in the water that circulates plankton back up into the photic zone where it can reproduce. The plankton, like all plants, absorbs carbon dioxide and sunlight as it grows. It then sinks to the ocean floor effectively removing carbon from atmospheric circulation and storing it. The sequestration of CO2 by plankton is an important process in the balancing of carbon levels in the atmosphere and Monbiot suggests that the action of whales removes “tens of millions of tonnes” of carbon from the atmosphere, benefits of which reach far beyond the ocean and assists human life and the general health of the planet as well.
How Whales Change Climate:
In addition to significant environmental benefits, rewilding has been shown to generate a much better financial return from rural land than grazing. Environmental tourism, bird and animal watchers, botanical tour groups etc. are attracted to rewilded areas, spending money as they go, Monbiot lists numerous examples in his book of vastly better economic results from eco-tourism than agriculture.
The Anthropecene epoch is in danger of being remembered historically by future peoples as the stupidest, most apathetic, ignorant and indecisive generation ever for its inaction and inability to accept and meet current environmental challenges and for our unwillingness to change, even though we know we must.
Nature knows nothing of shifting baseline theory, as its memory is timeless. In fact, time is all nature requires to fully restore itself. Rewilding is a simple and cost-effective means of restoring damaged environments, it’s as simple as removing grazing animals from an ecosystem and allowing it to regenerate, create habitat, shelter, food sources that permit and sustain wild animals. Perhaps it’s time for humans to respect the power of nature to heal itself, defer to a greater authority on the subject of eco-management and allow natural systems to rewild themselves for the great benefit of all concerned.
Transcript of TED Talk on Rewilding by George Monbiot:
When I was a young man, I spent six years of wild adventure in the tropics working as an investigative journalist in some of the most bewitching parts of the world. I was as reckless and foolish as only young men can be. This is why wars get fought. But I also felt more alive than I’ve ever done since. And when I came home, I found the scope of my existence gradually diminishing until loading the dishwasher seemed like an interesting challenge. And I found myself sort of scratching at the walls of life, as if I was trying to find a way out into a wider space beyond. I was, I believe, ecologically bored.
Now, we evolved in rather more challenging times than these, in a world of horns and tusks and fangs and claws. And we still possess the fear and the courage and the aggression required to navigate those times. But in our comfortable, safe, crowded lands, we have few opportunities to exercise them without harming other people. And this was the sort of constraint that I found myself bumping up against. To conquer uncertainty, to know what comes next, that’s almost been the dominant aim of industrialized societies, and having got there, or almost got there, we have just encountered a new set of unmet needs. We’ve privileged safety over experience and we’ve gained a lot in doing so, but I think we’ve lost something too.
Now, I don’t romanticize evolutionary time. I’m already beyond the lifespan of most hunter-gatherers, and the outcome of a mortal combat between me myopically stumbling around with a stone-tipped spear and an enraged giant aurochs isn’t very hard to predict. Nor was it authenticity that I was looking for. I don’t find that a useful or even intelligible concept. I just wanted a richer and rawer life than I’ve been able to lead in Britain, or, indeed, that we can lead in most parts of the industrialized world.
And it was only when I stumbled across an unfamiliar word that I began to understand what I was looking for. And as soon as I found that word, I realized that I wanted to devote much of the rest of my life to it.
The word is “rewilding,” and even though rewilding is a young word, it already has several definitions. But there are two in particular that fascinate me. The first one is the mass restoration of ecosystems.
One of the most exciting scientific findings of the past half century has been the discovery of widespread trophic cascades. A trophic cascade is an ecological process which starts at the top of the food chain and tumbles all the way down to the bottom, and the classic example is what happened in the Yellowstone National Park in the United States when wolves were reintroduced in 1995. Now, we all know that wolves kill various species of animals, but perhaps we’re slightly less aware that they give life to many others. It sounds strange, but just follow me for a while. Before the wolves turned up, they’d been absent for 70 years. The numbers of deer, because there was nothing to hunt them, had built up and built up in the Yellowstone Park, and despite efforts by humans to control them, they’d managed to reduce much of the vegetation there to almost nothing, they’d just grazed it away. But as soon as the wolves arrived, even though they were few in number, they started to have the most remarkable effects. First, of course, they killed some of the deer, but that wasn’t the major thing. Much more significantly, they radically changed the behavior of the deer. The deer started avoiding certain parts of the park, the places where they could be trapped most easily, particularly the valleys and the gorges, and immediately those places started to regenerate. In some areas, the height of the trees quintupled in just six years. Bare valley sides quickly became forests of aspen and willow and cottonwood. And as soon as that happened, the birds started moving in. The number of songbirds, of migratory birds, started to increase greatly. The number of beavers started to increase, because beavers like to eat the trees. And beavers, like wolves, are ecosystem engineers. They create niches for other species. And the dams they built in the rivers provided habitats for otters and muskrats and ducks and fish and reptiles and amphibians. The wolves killed coyotes, and as a result of that, the number of rabbits and mice began to rise, which meant more hawks, more weasels, more foxes, more badgers. Ravens and bald eagles came down to feed on the carrion that the wolves had left. Bears fed on it too, and their population began to rise as well, partly also because there were more berries growing on the regenerating shrubs, and the bears reinforced the impact of the wolves by killing some of the calves of the deer.
But here’s where it gets really interesting. The wolves changed the behavior of the rivers. They began to meander less. There was less erosion. The channels narrowed. More pools formed, more riffle sections, all of which were great for wildlife habitats. The rivers changed in response to the wolves, and the reason was that the regenerating forests stabilized the banks so that they collapsed less often, so that the rivers became more fixed in their course. Similarly, by driving the deer out of some places and the vegetation recovering on the valley sides, there was less soil erosion, because the vegetation stabilized that as well. So the wolves, small in number, transformed not just the ecosystem of the Yellowstone National Park, this huge area of land, but also its physical geography.
Whales in the southern oceans have similarly wide-ranging effects. One of the many post-rational excuses made by the Japanese government for killing whales is that they said, “Well, the number of fish and krill will rise and then there’ll be more for people to eat.” Well, it’s a stupid excuse, but it sort of kind of makes sense, doesn’t it, because you’d think that whales eat huge amounts of fish and krill, so obviously take the whales away, there’ll be more fish and krill. But the opposite happened. You take the whales away, and the number of krill collapses. Why would that possibly have happened? Well, it now turns out that the whales are crucial to sustaining that entire ecosystem, and one of the reasons for this is that they often feed at depth and then they come up to the surface and produce what biologists politely call large fecal plumes, huge explosions of poop right across the surface waters, up in the photic zone, where there’s enough light to allow photosynthesis to take place, and those great plumes of fertilizer stimulate the growth of phytoplankton, the plant plankton at the bottom of the food chain, which stimulate the growth of zooplankton, which feed the fish and the krill and all the rest of it. The other thing that whales do is that, as they’re plunging up and down through the water column, they’re kicking the phytoplankton back up towards the surface where it can continue to survive and reproduce. And interestingly, well, we know that plant plankton in the oceans absorb carbon from the atmosphere — the more plant plankton there are, the more carbon they absorb — and eventually they filter down into the abyss and remove that carbon from the atmospheric system. Well, it seems that when whales were at their historic populations, they were probably responsible for sequestering some tens of millions of tons of carbon every year from the atmosphere.
And when you look at it like that, you think, wait a minute, here are the wolves changing the physical geography of the Yellowstone National Park. Here are the whales changing the composition of the atmosphere. You begin to see that possibly, the evidence supporting James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, which conceives of the world as a coherent, self-regulating organism, is beginning, at the ecosystem level, to accumulate.
Trophic cascades tell us that the natural world is even more fascinating and complex than we thought it was. They tell us that when you take away the large animals, you are left with a radically different ecosystem to one which retains its large animals. And they make, in my view, a powerful case for the reintroduction of missing species. Rewilding, to me, means bringing back some of the missing plants and animals. It means taking down the fences, it means blocking the drainage ditches, it means preventing commercial fishing in some large areas of sea, but otherwise stepping back. It has no view as to what a right ecosystem or a right assemblage of species looks like. It doesn’t try to produce a heath or a meadow or a rain forest or a kelp garden or a coral reef. It lets nature decide, and nature, by and large, is pretty good at deciding.
Now, I mentioned that there are two definitions of rewilding that interest me. The other one is the rewilding of human life. And I don’t see this as an alternative to civilization. I believe we can enjoy the benefits of advanced technology, as we’re doing now, but at the same time, if we choose, have access to a richer and wilder life of adventure when we want to because there would be wonderful, rewilded habitats.
And the opportunities for this are developing more rapidly than you might think possible. There’s one estimate which suggests that in the United States, two thirds of the land which was once forested and then cleared has become reforested as loggers and farmers have retreated, particularly from the eastern half of the country. There’s another one which suggests that 30 million hectares of land in Europe, an area the size of Poland, will be vacated by farmers between 2000 and 2030.
Now, faced with opportunities like that, does it not seem a little unambitious to be thinking only of bringing back wolves, lynx, bears, beavers, bison, boar, moose, and all the other species, which are already beginning to move quite rapidly across Europe? Perhaps we should also start thinking about the return of some of our lost megafauna.
What megafauna, you say? Well, every continent had one, apart from Antarctica. When Trafalgar Square in London was excavated, the river gravels there were found to be stuffed with the bones of hippopotamus, rhinos, elephants, hyenas, lions. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, there were lions in Trafalgar Square long before Nelson’s Column was built. All these species lived here in the last interglacial period, when temperatures were pretty similar to our own. It’s not climate, largely, which has got rid of the world’s megafaunas. It’s pressure from the human population hunting and destroying their habitats which has done so.
And even so, you can still see the shadows of these great beasts in our current ecosystems. Why is it that so many deciduous trees are able to sprout from whatever point the trunk is broken? Why is it that they can withstand the loss of so much of their bark? Why do understory trees, which are subject to lower sheer forces from the wind and have to carry less weight than the big canopy trees, why are they so much tougher and harder to break than the canopy trees are? Elephants. They are elephant-adapted. In Europe, for example, they evolved to resist the straight-tusked elephant, elephas antiquus, which was a great beast. It was related to the Asian elephant, but it was a temperate animal, a temperate forest creature. It was a lot bigger than the Asian elephant. But why is it that some of our common shrubs have spines which seem to be over-engineered to resist browsing by deer? Perhaps because they evolved to resist browsing by rhinoceros.
Isn’t it an amazing thought that every time you wander into a park or down an avenue or through a leafy street, you can see the shadows of these great beasts? Paleoecology, the study of past ecosystems, crucial to an understanding of our own, feels like a portal through which you may pass into an enchanted kingdom. And if we really are looking at areas of land of the sort of sizes I’ve been talking about becoming available, why not reintroduce some of our lost megafauna, or at least species closely related to those which have become extinct everywhere? Why shouldn’t all of us have a Serengeti on our doorsteps?
And perhaps this is the most important thing that rewilding offers us, the most important thing that’s missing from our lives: hope. In motivating people to love and defend the natural world, an ounce of hope is worth a ton of despair. The story rewilding tells us is that ecological change need not always proceed in one direction. It offers us the hope that our silent spring could be replaced by a raucous summer.