Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding by George Monbiot

feral‘A raucous summer…’

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In the past few years, I feel I have been observing a welcome note of commonsense and even optimism creeping into the arguments of some of our leading environmentalists. In this book Monbiot, while proposing ambitious and doubtless controversial ideas, confirms that impression.

Feral is his story of why and how he has come to believe that the future for nature conservancy is to stop conserving – to sit back, release the brakes and go on a wild ride with nature in the driving seat. He calls this process ‘rewilding’.

‘Rewilding recognises 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.’

He scared me in the first couple of chapters. It seemed as if he had turned into a mini-Welsh version of Crocodile Dundee (Grass-snake Aberystwyth?) as he regaled us with tales of tracking and killing his prey with his bare hands and then eating it raw – it was a mackerel! When he set out to harpoon flounders with a trident, I genuinely thought he’d lost it; and when he became mushily sentimental over initiation rites for an African tribesman that involved tormenting and killing a lion, I nearly gave up on him.

wolfHowever, the point that he then went on to make eloquently and convincingly is that humanity has lost something precious by its disconnect with the wild world and that we in the UK have taken that disconnect to further extremes than most. He isn’t arguing for a return to the world of hunter/gatherer (although the first couple of chapters made it seem as if he was about to). But he is arguing for the return of at least parts of the country to true, unmanaged wilderness status and for the reintroduction of some of the top predators – wolves, for example – arguing that trophic cascades mean that such predators can have often unexpected effects on biodiversity and environment and thus are an important part of any rewilding project. However he maintains a sense of realism and commonsense, making it clear that his suggestions should only be implemented with the informed consent of the people, and wryly admits that his attitude towards the introduction of top predators may not be universally shared.

‘The clamour for the lion’s reintroduction to Britain has, so far, been muted.’

Along the way, Monbiot gives us a history of why our landscape is as it now is. He blames sheep-farming for the bareness of our hills and points out that the sheep is a non-native species to the UK. He talks about the vested interests of farmers and landlords and how these seem to be given excessive weight, considering the comparatively small numbers of people employed in farming and the huge subsidies required to make it economical. He points to the somewhat symbiotic relationship between farming organisations and government and suggests this leads to suppression of real debate around the subject of land use. And his anger shows through as he discusses how the subsidy schemes of the EU continue to distort and warp the productivity of the land.

George Monbiot
George Monbiot

There is so much packed into this book that I can only give a pale impression of its scope in this review. Monbiot discusses the damage that an uncontrolled red deer population is doing to the landscape in the Highlands of Scotland; the adverse effect on childhood health (not to mention imagination) of the more indoors, sedentary lifestyle of today’s child; the reasons for the growth of the myth of big cat sightings around the country; the Nazis’ adoption and corruption of the concept of rewilding. He explains the effects that Shifting Baseline Syndrome has had on the debate over the years – that because ‘the people of every generation perceive the state of the ecosystems they encountered in their childhood as normal’ then attempts are made to conserve back to a state of nature that was already seriously degraded.

Towards the end of the book he extends his arguments for rewilding to include the seas, building on the arguments put forward so impressively by Callum Roberts (whose Ocean of Life I heartily recommend) that areas set aside as protected zones actually lead to greater fishing productivity rather than reducing it. And as he set off in his kayak in the final chapter to hunt the newly returned albacore, I no longer felt that he’d ‘lost it’ but that, perhaps, if we listen to what people like Monbiot and Roberts are saying, there’s still hope that the rest of us may ‘find it’.

‘Environmentalism in the twentieth century foresaw a silent spring, in which the further degradation of the biosphere seemed inevitable. Rewilding offers the hope of a raucous summer, in which, in some parts of the world at least, destructive processes are thrown into reverse.’

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

16 thoughts on “Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding by George Monbiot

  1. What an interesting perspective and concept for making peace with the environment! I agree with you too that what we need is sensible and workable discussion of the challenges we face in trying to care for the environment. I don’t have the answers of course but I’m glad that there is reasonable and informed discussion from those who know more than I do about it.


    • They finally seem to have realised that simply telling us all that we need to give up everything we enjoy isn’t an approach that will work. There’s some great stuff coming out of the debate these days – and some of it is actually beginning to happen too. 🙂


  2. Yes, when I was a child, we raised sheep on our farm. They do eat the grass down to the nub. I wonder what the author would think of the USA’s farm subsidies. They make me shake with anger.

    Although the U.S. does have a significant amount of “protected wilderness,” it takes constant vigilance to keep the natural gas frackers, oil drillers, ranchers, miners, developers, etc. at bay. I do agree that we all could use with a little more “wilding.” Our family tries to immerse ourselves in wild spaces at least once a week. It is immensely rejuvenating. There is something to be said for wanting to protect something that you have personally experienced.


    • Monbiot was a bit politer about the US and the rest of Europe than he was about Britain, but only a bit! He’s right, though, about the sheep. I live at the foot of the Campsie Hills and love them, but yesterday with my newly-opened eyes I saw how brown and bare they are, and suddenly got an imaginary glimpse of what they could be if the sheep were removed. And so much of Britain is like that.

      Mind you when he hinted that reintroducing the elephant might be a possibility, I did wonder if he’d been at the mushrooms…


  3. Does he look further into the pernicious role played by the supermarkets in making farming less and less viable – large conglomerates, monoculture etc. Have just returned from an annual visit to one small farm, independent, trying to be mixed animal and crop husbandry, seeing the hard hard work they put it.

    As for wolves, well bring it on! Lovely creatures


    • He did talk about monoculture, but saw the sheep-farming fetish we seem to have as more of the issue with regards to this particular subject. He was really talking more about the use of ‘spare’ land or non-economic farming, such as hill-farms, which cost a fortune in subsidies and achieve little except destruction of habitat. His suggestion in part is to pay the same subsidies to rewild the land rather than to continue to destroy what little is left and stop forcing small farmers to keep land active just to get the subsidies.

      Re wolves, he pointed out that more people in Europe die of falls caused by ill-fitting slippers than wolf attacks so I think the new Elf & Safety motto should be…

      Save Lives! Ban the slipper and bring back the wolf!


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