George Monbiot: Feral - The Promise of Conservation

George Monbiot: Feral - The Promise of Conservation

In the third of three extracts from his new book, Feral: Searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding, George Monbiot explores the artificiality of contemporary conservation strategies.

The promise of conservation used to be that by protecting the species you would protect the habitat. The Bengal tiger needs jungles to survive, so defending it means defending the rich and fascinating ecosystem that supports it. But in the United Kingdom, the species we have chosen, historically, to protect are often those associated with damaged and impoverished places, and to defend them we must keep the ecosystem in this state. Armies of conservation volunteers are employed to prevent natural processes from occurring. Land is intensively grazed: to ensure that the plants do not recover from intensive grazing. Woods are coppiced (the trees are felled at ground level, encouraging them to resprout from that point) to sustain the past impacts of coppicing. In their seminal paper challenging the conservation movement, the biologists Clive Hambler and Martin Speight point out that while coppicing might favour butterfly species which can live in many habitats, it harms woodland beetles and moths that can live nowhere else1. They noted that of the 150 woodland insects that are listed as threatened in Britain, just three (two per cent) are threatened by a reduction in coppicing, while 65 per cent are threatened by the removal of old and dead wood2.

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. Unlike gamekeepers they don’t use the word “vermin” to describe our native wildlife. Instead they say “unwanted, invasive species”. 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.

The result is back-to-front conservation. 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. They take a species like the red grouse, or a club moss or a micromoth, which happens to thrive in a place that has been greatly altered by humans, and they build their management plans around it, seeking to keep the land in the state which best secures its survival. In doing so, they shut down the opportunities for other species to establish themselves, either naturally or by reintroduction.


How can a native ecosystem be undergrazed by a ruminant from Mesopotamia?

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-colonised by Himalayan balsam, our rivers under-infested by red signal crayfish, our verges under-occupied by Japanese knotweed? It is a nonsensical concept.

Even the grazing of cattle or horses in the uplands, which some conservation groups characterise as the benign alternative to sheep, means maintaining habitats that would not exist without us. During the Boreal and Atlantic periods, when warm, wet weather returned to northern Europe, the giant aurochs, or wild cow, appears to have been a forest animal. Analysis of the carbon and nitrogen isotopes in its bones shows that it lived on woodland plants. Domestic cattle, by contrast, from their first appearance in northern Europe, largely ate grass, growing in clearings created by people. The chemical differences are so discrete that they can be used to distinguish the bones of wild cattle from the bones of domestic cattle3.

The wild horse seems to have disappeared from the British Isles around 9,000 years ago4: some 2,000 years after the last ice sheets retreated5. Though hunting by humans doubtless accelerated its extinction, the horse was deprived of what was likely to have been its favoured habitat - steppe grasslands - by the change in climate, which allowed forests to spread. In other words, the horse died out here soon after the lion6 and the saiga antelope7 and before the reindeer8. Though both horses and aurochs were intensively hunted, the aurochs survived for much longer: until 3,500 years ago in Britain and into the 17th Century on the Continent. This is one of several lines of evidence suggesting that climate change, not hunting, was the major reason for the horse’s disappearance9. Arguably, it no more belongs to our native fauna under the current climate than the woolly mammoth does. The large herbivore which is missing from our ecosystem is the moose or elk10, which became extinct here a little under 4000 years ago, largely as a result of hunting11. Moose are browsing animals which live in and around forests.

But even if horses or cattle were replacing native plant eaters, the absence of predators utterly changes the way in which they engage with the ecosystem. The grazing regime imposed by conservationists in upland Britain – whether they are using sheep, cattle, horses, yaks or pushme-pullyous - bears no relationship to anything found in nature.


If the protection of nature is to be extended, we need a radical re-assessment of what we are trying to achieve.

What we call nature conservation in some parts of the world is in fact an effort to preserve the farming systems of former centuries. The idealised landscape for many wildlife groups is the one that prevailed 100 years ago, regardless of the point at which they start counting. This is what they try to preserve or re-create, defending the land from the intrusions of nature. Reserves are treated like botanic gardens: their habitats are herbaceous borders of favoured species, weeded and tended to prevent the wilds from encroaching. As Ritchie Tassell says sardonically, “you wonder how nature coped before we came along.”

I do not object to the idea of conserving a few pieces of land as museums of former farming practices, or of protecting meadows of peculiar loveliness in their current state, though I would prefer to see these places labelled culture reserves. I do not object to the continued existence of reserves in which endangered species which could not otherwise survive are maintained through intensive management12. Nor do I believe that rewilding should replace attempts to change the way farms are managed, to allow more wildlife to live among crops and livestock: I would like to see that happen too. But if the protection of nature is to be extended to wider areas, as both conservationists and rewilders agree that it should be13, I believe we should first conduct a radical re-assessment of what we are trying to achieve and why.

This assessment is likely to show us that rewilding could offer the best chance of protecting endangered species. According to a paper in Biological Conservation, around 40 per cent of the creatures that have become extinct in Britain since 1800 lived in woodlands, and two fifths of those needed mature trees and dead timber to survive14. The paper warns that “extinction rates in Britain will rise this century without … restoration of woodlands and wetlands”.

A new assessment might prompt conservationists to focus less on species and habitats which happen to be there already, and more on those which could return. Rather than sustaining the sheepwrecked, open habitats of the uplands, they might begin to reduce the impacts of human management, to allow trees to return, even to reintroduce some of the great beasts which once lived among them. That, to me, is a more inspiring vision than sustaining a slightly modified version of the farming which is suppressing the natural world almost everywhere. Everyone should have some self-willed land on their doorstep.


George Monbiot is an English journalist known for his political and environmental activism. He lives in Machynlleth, Wales, writes a weekly column for The Guardian, and is the author of several books, including Captive State (2000) and Bring on the Apocalypse (2008). His latest book, Feral: Searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding, is published by Penguin.

Extracts selected by Dr Crystal Bennes.


1. Clive Hambler and Martin Speight, 1995. Biodiversity Conservation in Britain: science replacing tradition. British Wildlife, Vol.6, no.3, pp137-148.
2. This is not to suggest that coppicing has no ecological role: many woodland species must have evolved to take advantage of the habitat disturbance caused by elephants.
3. N. Noe-Nygaard, T.D. Price and S.U. Hede, 2005. Diet of aurochs and early cattle in southern Scandinavia: evidence from 15N and 13C stable isotopes. Journal of Archaeological Science Vol 32, pp 855-871. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2005.01.004
4. The Mammal Society, 2011.
5. There are two references to horse remains beyond this date in the archaeological record. One, found in Kent and held by the Harrison Institute, is sometimes described as being 8000 years old. I checked with the institute: it appears that some people had confused BC (before Christ) with BP (before present). The institute tells me it has been carbon-dated at around 9760 years old. The other, a single tooth, was found in a Neolithic tomb at Hazleton in Gloucestershire, which is some 5700 years old. In correspondence with myself and the biologist Clive Hambler, Robert Hedges, one of the archaeologists who analysed the contents of the burial site, explains that the tooth itself is undated and the notion that it originated at the same time as the tomb is “an unsupported possibility only”. It is possible that it was found and carried into the tomb by Neolithic people. If horses had survived that long in Britain, one would expect to see a good deal more fossil evidence, before they returned in domesticated form, later in the Neolithic.
6. Derek Yalden, 1999. The History of British Mammals. T and AD Poyser, London.
7. R. Coard and A. T. Chamberlain, April 1999. The nature and timing of faunal change in the British Isles across the Pleistocene/Holocene transition. The Holocene vol. 9 no. 3 372-376. doi: 10.1191/095968399672435
8. The Mammal Society, 2011.
9. Robert S. Sommer et al, 2011. Holocene survival of the wild horse in Europe: a matter of open landscape? Journal of Quaternary Science, Vol 26, No 8, pp 805–812. doi: 10.1002/jqs.1509
10. Alces alces
11. The Mammal Society, 2011.
12. Hambler and Canney argue that rewilding protects a greater number of threatened species than any other approach. Clive Hambler and Susan M. Canney, 2013 (read in galley proof). Conservation. 2nd Edition. Cambridge University Press.
13. John Lawton, 2010. Making Space for Nature: A review of England’s Wildlife Sites and Ecological Network. DEFRA.
14. Clive Hambler, Peter A. Henderson and Martin R. Speight, 2011. Extinction rates, extinction-prone habitats, and indicator groups in Britain and at larger scales. Biological Conservation Vol 144, pp713–721. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2010.09.004

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