Feral – George Monbiot

Ritchie Tassell is the person to whom I have most often turned when trying to feel my way through this story. He has a voracious appetite for reading, and made some of the key discoveries in the literature that feature in this book. More importantly, he has an engagement with the natural world so intense that at times it seems almost supernatural. Walking through a wood he will suddenly stop and whisper ‘sparrowhawk’. You look for the bird in vain. He tells you to wait. A couple of minutes later a sparrowhawk flies across the path. He had not seen the bird, nor had he heard it; but he had heard what the other birds were saying: they have different alarm calls for different kinds of threat.

Trophic Cascades, that’s one of the big things I took from this book. How ecosystems are intimately intertwined between all the species that inhabit them, and taking even one species out of the chain, has an effect that cascades all the way through it. I learnt a lot of other things as well, like how much George Monbiot hates sheep, doesn’t really like Wales either, mostly because he feels they have let sheep destroy it’s ancient habitat in the name of conservation.

I’m not sure what I was expecting from this book, but it wasn’t what I was expecting. It was fascinating and interesting and eye opening and thought provoking in the same way that Sapiens was. Monbiot has a dream to rewild the land and sea around the world, Never forcibly, but where everyone involved has a say and a chance to understand what it means and how it works.

He argues that Elephants used to roam much of Europe, that trees and plants that live today potentially could have evolved mechanisms to deal with attention from Elephants. And while he tentatively touches on the idea of re-introducting elephants to Europe, he does propose re-introducing Wolves, bears, Lynx and other animals long ago hunted to extinction or who died out because their habitat and ecosystem was destroyed.

Monbiot uses an exhaustive list of literature to back up his arguments, reports from all sources that patiently explain how rewilding, bringing multiple diverse species back into a wild ecosystem that is left to manage itself improves not only the natural world but also the economic one, yet so often short term outlooks override long term beneficial gain.

What Monbiot points out quite clearly is the flaw of certain conservation movements, who use their own base line to determine how things should be conserved, often their own time, which in itself was created due to human intervention. Rewilding effectively means leaving nature to it’s own course, indeed the comment, ‘you wonder how nature survived until we came along’ is a pertinent one that seems to fall on deaf ears.

While I was aware that I was being sold a very biased and one sided argument for rewilding, Monbiot does talk to people who disagree with it and I particularly liked the Welsh farmer he spoke to was given a draft of the chapter which allowed him to, extremely eloquently, respond to, and he is treated with respect by Monbiot, which is not always true in discussions as impassioned as this.

While I found the book fascinating I couldn’t make my mind on Monbiot himself. He writes the book as part travelogue, as he visits the different places and talks to various people, but also intersped are him on different adventures, particularly on his Kayak, that just seemed to come across as a very smug look how in touch with nature he is and what he can do, even pointing out that what he did was extremely stupid and dangerous.
I don’t doubt that it was not meant to be portrayed in this way, and I know that had Monbiot not presented the content in the way he did that it would have been a long dry list of facts and figures from reports and people, but it felt at times as if his intrusion of his own adventures jarred with the rest of the narrative that he excellently portrayed.

As I mentioned earlier, for me though, Feral is a book alongside Sapiens, that has had a massive impact on the way I think. I think it makes a compelling argument for rewilding, and the thought of walking through an environment that contains wolves and boars as well as untold numbers of birds and flora excites me no end.

Sustaining the open, degraded habitats of the uplands means keeping sheep. It does not seem to matter whom you talk to in the hilly parts of Britain: farmers, government officials and wildlife groups will all tell you that the answer is sheep – what was the question? If you challenge their management of the land they invariably invoke the horror of ‘undergrazing’. But how can a native ecosystem be undergrazed by a ruminant from Mesopotamia? Is our wildlife under-hunted by American mink? Are our streamsides under-colonized by Himalayan balsam, our ivers under-infested by red signal crayfish, our verges under-occupied by Japanese knotweed? It is a nonsenical concept.

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