Thinking Like a Forest

Why do conservation groups help to keep our wildlife in a state of extreme depletion?

By George Monbiot, published on the Guardian’s website 17th October 2013.

I returned from the meetings filled with amazement, and the stirrings of a hope which has been all too rare in recent years. First, at the launch of Rewilding Europe’s Wildlife Comeback report three weeks ago, I heard about the remarkably rapid spread of large wild animals back into places which lost them long ago(1).

Then, at the World Wilderness Congress ten days ago, I heard how people and nations with very few resources, under almost impossible circumstances, were protecting or reintroducing “difficult” wild animals, species which are most controversial and which require the largest habitats(2).

Amid the hope and wonder, what hit me hardest was this: while in Britain we applaud the courage of people in poorer nations and celebrate their successes, while we send money abroad to conserve large wild animals and, rightly, become upset if people start killing them, we seem determined not to participate. Protecting species towards the top of the food chain, with all the difficulties that can involve, is something other people should do: we would rather stand back and watch.

Please forgive me for the length of this article. What I am trying to do here is to pull together the strands of what has for me been a gradual and deeply troubling revelation. I have been trying to understand why we are so far behind the rest of the world, why we fetishise deforested and almost empty ecosystems, why the United Kingdom, in the words of the biologist David Hetherington, is “the largest country in Europe and almost the whole world” which no longer possesses any of its big (or even medium-sized) carnivores(3), and why, above all, our conservation groups seem so unconcerned about the depletion of nature in Britain and so disinclined to address it.

This article is intended as a challenge to the British conservation movement and an attempt to catalyse a major change in attitude. While at times my language may be a little spicy, I hope that the groups I challenge will see it as friendly and constructive criticism.

Let me first summarise what I heard at those meetings and have subsequently read.

Rewilding Europe points out that its findings do not invalidate concerns about the global loss of biodiversity. This is happening at rates unparalleled since the previous mass extinctions, caused by meteorite strikes or gigantic volcanic eruptions(4), and it is being driven by human action: the trashing and clearing of habitats, pollution, acidification, global warming and the direct killing of vulnerable species.

Europe is not immune to these extinctions, and some species, both on land and particularly at sea, are being pushed to the brink with astonishing speed.

But at the same time something remarkable and unexpected has been happening. In many parts there has been a great restoration of habitats: partly accidental, as farmers have vacated marginal lands; partly deliberate, as ambitious European conservation groups have secured the protection of large areas. There has also been a sharp reduction in the persecution of many species which people previously either hunted for sport and food or sought to exterminate as vermin. Animals which were once hated are now protected and cherished. Even the species which seemed least likely to return – those which require large territories and were reviled by people – have started to bounce back.

For example, by the First World War, the wolf’s range in Europe had contracted to just 7% of what it had been at the time of the French Revolution. It was extinct almost everywhere. Well into the second half of the last century it was still persecuted in its last redoubts.

But since 1970 its population in Europe has quadrupled: there are now around 12,000 wolves on the continent(5). Relict populations in eastern Europe, Italy and Spain have expanded into much of Germany, the French Alps and as far as central France, Catalonia in Spain, Denmark, Belgium and even, on two occasions, the Netherlands. While its populations are not everywhere secure, it is now as likely to be welcomed as feared, as a new generation of nature lovers delights in its reappearance, and as wolf-watching businesses have sprung up, generating income and employment in places where both were in short supply.

Lynx populations have also quadrupled over roughly the same period (to around 10,000 animals), and have spread – largely through deliberate reintroduction by conservationists – from their holdouts in the Carpathians, the Balkans and Scandanavia into places in which they had previously been erased. They are once more living in France, Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland and Italy.

A similar story can be told about golden jackals, returning to much of their historical range in south-eastern Europe, and brown bears, whose population on the Continent has doubled in the past 45 years. Even the wolverine, deeply unpopular with sheep farmers and reindeer herders, still persecuted in some places and requiring vast territories for successful reproduction, is believed to have doubled in number in the 1990s alone(6).

The return of certain herbivore species has been even more dramatic. European Bison have risen from 54 captive animals a century ago to 2,700 free-living beasts today. Alpine ibex have expanded from the 100 animals remaining in Italy’s Gran Paradiso massif in the 1820s to 37,000, spread across the mountains of Italy, Switzerland, Austria, France, Germany and Slovenia. Southern chamois numbers have risen from 40 in the 1950s to 69,000 today.

The range of the elk (known as moose in North America) has increased threefold over the past two centuries, and they are still moving rapidly westwards across Europe, now expanding into parts of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, the Baltic states, Poland, Austria and Germany from which they had been missing for many years. A century ago only 1,200 beavers remained in Europe; now there are more than 300,000 of them, occupying most of their former range(7).

It should be emphasised that, remarkable as these recoveries are, most of these populations are still far below their original size, and occupy far less land than they did before human persecution and the destruction of their habitats began. What we have seen so far is a partial recovery from a great reduction. The state of nature is a state of great abundance, and the recoveries offer us just a hint of how it might have been, and, in some places, could be again.

But missing from most of this story is the United Kingdom. Many of the species I’ve mentioned once lived here. Bison in Britain died out during the peak of glaciation, between 25,000 and 15,000 years ago(8). They might have been prevented from returning at the end of the ice age (when this landmass was still attached to the Continent) by human hunting pressure. Wolverine survived here until about 8,000 years ago(9). Elk were exterminated later: the last remains found in Britain are 3,900 years old(10).

Bears died out about 2,000 years ago(11). The most recent lynx bones date from the 6th Century AD, but cultural records might extend to the 9th Century: when a stone cross on the isle of Eigg that carries what appears to be a carving of a lynx was erected(12). The last clear record of the wolf in Britain is an animal killed in Sutherland in 1621(13). Beavers might have persisted into the mid-18th Century(14).

There have been a couple of introductions of these missing species: the beavers officially released in Knapdale in western Scotland and unofficially released into the catchment of the River Tay, the bison and moose now living in enclosures on the Alladale estate in northern Scotland, a few escaped wild boar. But otherwise this wildlife revolution has more or less passed us by.

Only three of the mammal species listed in the Rewilding Europe report are thriving in Britain: the grey seal, the roe deer and the red deer. The red deer’s enhanced population here (it has more than doubled in the Scottish Highlands since 1965(15)) is, paradoxically, a result of the abuse and neglect of the natural world. The deer no longer have any natural predators here. Stalking estates boost their numbers by feeding them in the winter. They also use funnel fencing and salt licks to provide what is in essence canned hunting to the City boys who come to shoot them. There are now so many and they are so easily found that you might as well shoot sheep. (Hmmm … ).

When you think of the fuss we make about the 500 or so wild boar living in Britain, then discover that there are now 600,000 in Spain and 600,000 in Italy, a million in France and a million in Germany, you can, I hope, understand why I see Britain as the most zoophobic nation in Europe.

At the World Wilderness Congress, I heard the brave and remarkable Li Quan explain her project to reintroduce the tiger into south China(16). The obstacles – political, financial, ecological, humanitarian – she has had to overcome are mind-boggling. But, having established and begun to rewild a viable captive population, and having sold the idea to local people, her project is almost ready to release the first animals. Think of this, when you hear farmers and fishery owners insist that we can’t afford to have beavers in Britain.

Joaquim Chissano, the former president of Mozambique, discussed the creation of the vast peace parks straddling the borders of Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland and Zimbabwe that he helped to oversee(17). Extremely poor and emerging from a devastating civil war, Mozambique nevertheless managed to support one of the world’s biggest and most ambitious conservation programmes. It has helped to secure the survival of species that even the bravest European wildlife groups are not yet ready for: the lions, hyaenas, elephants and rhinos which once lived throughout Europe, but which are not even contemplated as potential reintroductions here, though we expect much poorer nations to look after them.

So why does Britain lag so far behind the rest of the world? Why do our conservation groups appear to be so lacking in ambition and aspiration? Before I try to tackle this question, here are two observations. The first will be more or less familiar to people who follow this blog.

1. The places in which you would expect to find most wildlife, and in which you would expect a significant ecological recovery, are those:

a. where the human population is lowest

b. which are furthest from the cities and

c. which are the least favourable for farming.

In Britain this means the uplands. This is why I have become obsessed with the way they are managed. But wildlife in the uplands, amazingly, is faring worse than it is in the crowded, intensively farmed lowlands. The State of Nature report, published in May, revealed that while 60% of wildlife species in Britain as a whole are in decline, in the uplands the rate is 65%(18).

The primary reason is that almost all the trees and scrub – on which the majority of species depend – have been removed, mostly by sheep farming. On the Continent, the uplands are now largely forested, while the lowlands are largely bare. That is what you would expect. Upland soils tend to be much poorer than lowland soils, so farming is less productive there: generally many times less productive. But in Britain, while the lowlands are largely bare, the uplands are even barer. The places that should be our wildlife reservoirs are wildlife deserts.

This state of depletion has been maintained by three means, in escalating order of importance:

a. Stalking estates artificially boosting the population of deer.

b. Grouse moor owners cutting and burning the land (and killing hen harriers and other predators) to maximise the population of the upland chickens people pay to shoot.

c. Governments spending public money to sustain farming – almost entirely sheep grazing – in the hills.

There would be no hill farming in Britain or anywhere in Europe were it not for subsidies.

Keeping the uplands bald, whether or not it makes social, ecological or financial sense, is now government policy. Last week the Secretary of State for the Environment, Owen Paterson, told parliament:

“I am absolutely clear that we have a real role to play in helping hill farmers to keep the hills looking as they do”(19).

This, remember, is the government that refuses on principle to intervene in the market unless it is deemed unavoidable. Yet the environment secretary pledges to use public money to maintain a wasteland. Why?

2. The policies you would expect conservation groups to prioritise would be those that optimised the protection of wildlife. Instead, they have more or less optimised its destruction.

A study by the biologists Philip Shaw and Des Thompson found that:

“wooded habitats in the Cairngorms [in the Scotish Highlands] are about 13 times richer than heather moorland and 11 times richer than grassland, in terms of nationally important species. These disparities are even more pronounced when the extent of each habitat is considered. Despite being the main habitat for some 39% of important species, woodlands cover only about 17% of the land area of the Cairngorms. In contrast, moorland appears to support only 3% of the Cairngorms’ important species, but covers some 42% of its area.”(20)

The figures are even starker when you consider species found nowhere else in Britain:

“Of 223 such species, 100 (45%) are associated mainly with woodlands or trees. … Conversely, moorlands hold proportionately fewer restricted-range species, being the main habitat of just one such species: the fungus Northern Bilberry Redleaf”.

I cannot emphasise this strongly enough: the entire basis of upland conservation, as pursued on most of the upland reserves owned or managed by the Wildlife Trusts, the RSPB, the National Trust, Natural England, Natural Resources Wales, Scottish Natural Heritage and other bodies is based on a misconception: that in keeping them open and largely devoid of trees, they are best protecting wildlife. This belief, which is largely unexamined by the groups that propound it, is diametrically wrong. It explains why many upland reserves are about as biodiverse and ecologically inspiring as the average car park.

(For more on British conservationists’ obsession with keeping habitats open, see the devastating set of slides compiled by Mark Fisher(21). Some of the policies he has unearthed are so strange that you hardly know whether to laugh or cry).

Our conservation groups are obsessed with the vegetation that results from repeated deforestation: primarily heather moorland. Heather thrives on burnt ground and depleted soils. Wildlife Trusts(22), the RSPB and the National Trust(23) and Natural England(24) all advocate “cutting and burning” to maintain these ecological disaster zones and prevent the restoration of the cleared forests. Need I point out that a conservation movement which believes that cutting and burning is the best means of protecting the natural world is one that finds itself in a very strange place?

Little illustrates the dire and perverse state of conservation policy in this country better than the report published by the National Trust a few days before the inspiring meetings I’ve mentioned(25).

I’m not singling this out because it is the worst document I have read by a British conservation group. Sadly it isn’t, by quite a long way. I mention it because it’s considered by the authors to be visionary, novel and forward-thinking. Perhaps by this they mean that it’s only 40 years behind the rest of Europe, rather than 60.

The report is the National Trust’s plan for managing an upland property which is large by English standards – 10,000 hectares – over the next 50 years. The property is the High Peak Moors, a treeless near-desert in the heart of England lacking most of the strands in the web of life.

The National Trust is often a force for good: see for example its Natural Childhood campaign and leading role in the Wild Network. But here it emerges at its worst: complacent, anodyne, misrepresenting our choices, mistaking a timid, retentive sally into the mid-20th Century for a radical and visionary plan.

This is not to deny that its report is a small step in the right direction, and a recognition of the growing public interest in ecological restoration. But it also reflects the lack of ambition of the conservation movement, and the myths it uses to justify this stance.

Without any explanation or attempt to defend this decision, it has decided that for the next 50 years and perhaps indefinitely this property will remain what it calls an “open landscape”.

It will let some trees repopulate the valleys and the ravines but insists that

“The open landscapes and vistas of the moors should be retained, so there
shouldn’t generally be trees on the open moor tops”(26).

Why? Scour its 52 pages and you’ll be none the wiser. It’s an assertion, repeated in various forms throughout the report, which is neither elucidated nor supported.

Usually, when British conservation groups seek a justification for their war on three-dimensional habitats, they fall back on tradition: this is how the land was, so this is how it should remain. They ignore the fact that almost the whole of the British Isles, including the uplands, was densely forested, before it was cut and burnt and grazed by people and their animals(27,28).

But in an appendix to this report you can find the following:

“Pollen records and tree stumps buried in the peat provide a fascinating record of past vegetation, and indicate that the High Peak Moors were once much more wooded that they are today. … in the 16th and 17th centuries … massive woodland and scrub clearance occurred to make way for grazing, including on the moorland tops.”

The Trust has decided to preserve a 17th-Century cataclysm. Why? Answer comes there none.

I perked up, however, when I read that “the full range of native wildlife should be present”. So imagine my disappointment when I could find no mention of lions – let alone wolves, lynx, wolverines, moose, bison, capercaillie, pine martens, wildcat, beavers, eagles or boar. The only species mentioned under “reintroductions” is the black grouse.

Now I’m not suggesting that lions or wolves or wolverines should be introduced to the High Peak Moors: apart from other considerations, the property isn’t big enough. But I strongly object to the way in which the National Trust misrepresents our ecosystems and their history. When it says “the full range of native wildlife”, what it is talking about is the barest remnants of what once lived here.

There’s a parallel with the sanitised, tea-towel histories it presents to visitors to its historic buildings(29). It airbrushes the people who were cleared to make way for its grand estates and landscaped gardens. History begins for the Trust when the big houses were built. The communities they displaced, the eviction, imprisonment, transportation or execution of those who stood in the way, though well-documented by historians(30), don’t feature.

When writing about the land it owns, the National Trust airbrushes the wildlife and ecosystems that lived there before the great clearances that created the open landscapes it preserves. There might be a potted history in Appendix 3, but the rest of the High Peak Moors report suggests that what you see now is what has always been and always will be, that there is no real choice about how the land should be treated, no option but to maintain it more or less in its current state, with some minor modifications.

This is what gets to me most: not just that the vision of our conservation groups is a mere half century behind the rest of Europe, but that they misrepresent the state of nature in this country. They pretend that the current management system is more or less the best that could be envisaged. They glorify our shattered and depleted ecosystems.

For example, in response to the column I wrote about the state of the Lake District(31), John Darlington, the National Trust’s regional director, maintained:

“Increasingly we recognise the value of places such as this for clean water, for storing carbon in precious peat-rich soils, for food and for nature, and of course for recreation, tranquility and inspiration. Farmers are critical for the delivery of many of these things.”(32)

In reality, the best protection for clean water supplies, soil carbon, nature and tranquility is the reduction or cessation of farming in crucial places. For example, if you want to prevent floods and ensure a steady supply of water downstream, the best means of doing so are to get the sheep off (which compact the soil and prevent trees and scrub from returning), to stop the dredging of tributaries by farmers and to de-canalise the rivers. So why do conservation groups feel obliged to recycle such myths? Is the fear of the farming lobby so great that the groups supposed to protect the countryside must repeat National Farmers’ Union propaganda?

This is not to suggest that the conflict between hill farming, wildlife and watersheds is easy to resolve; though I’ve put forward some proposals that I hope might help(33).

Nor is it to propose that there should be no farming in the hills: I recognise the value of the culture and traditions associated with it, just as I recognise the value of the wildlife and water storage it displaces. But why can’t we have some honesty about these issues? Some recognition that different aspects of what we might want to see in the uplands – traditional grazing and wildlife restoration for example – might be in conflict? What harm would it do to acknowledge this?

You get some idea of the extent to which the conservation groups have collaborated in both the destruction of the natural world and the cover-up of that destruction when you realise that not one of our national parks is rated higher than Category V in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s directory of protected areas(34). Most of the world’s national parks are Category II: “large natural or near natural areas set aside to protect large-scale ecological processes”. Some are Category I: “strictly protected areas set aside to protect biodiversity”, or “wilderness”(35).

Category V areas are not protected in any meaningful sense: they are, broadly speaking, ranchlands and similarly altered ecosystems. And that is all we have. That there should be designated areas in which farming traditions are recognised and respected is not something I have a problem with. That there should be nothing else is something that concerns me very much.

What it means is that there is no significant area of land in the United Kingdom in which either humans or wildlife can escape intense human impacts. I believe such escapes are essential for developing a sense of ourselves and our place in the world, for allowing the mind to run free, for shedding the stress and confinement of our crowded lives. You want to get away from it all? Then you’ll have to go abroad.

Does this stark fact not give our wildlife groups occasion to stop and think and wonder what they’re up to? Wouldn’t an ambitious, proactive conservation movement be challenging the fact that we have nothing better than Category V protected areas? What do these groups exist for after all? To reassure us that everything is just fine, even as the natural world is locked in a state of extreme depletion?

Why are our conservationists content with so little? Why do they, despite their vast memberships and influence, allow the farmers, deer estates and grouse moor owners – a very small proportion even of the rural population – to define the countryside and our relationship to it? Is there no vision other than a slight modification of what the private landowners want? Where is the leadership? Where is the inspiration?

In this open, blasted, impoverished land, there is little foothold for either wildlife or new thinking. We need to start a debate, a debate which asks a number of obvious questions. What are we doing and why? What is the basis of the decisions we have made? Is it sound? What do we want and how could we get it? These are the questions our conservation groups have failed to ask. Until they do so, they will continue their long and lonely trek into fatuity.

At the moment their vision seems as empty and simplified as the moors they fetishise. It is time they started thinking like a forest.









8. Derek Yalden, 1999. The History of British Mammals. T and AD Poyser, London.

9. The Mammal Society, 2011.

10. Derek Yalden, 1999. The History of British Mammals. T and AD Poyser, London.

11. Oliver Rackham, 1986. The History of the Countryside. JM Dent and Sons, London.

12. David Hetherington, 2010. The Lynx. In Terry O’Connor and Naomi Sykes, eds. Extinctions and Invasions: a social history of British fauna. Windgather Press, Oxford.

13. Oliver Rackham, 1986. The History of the Countryside. JM Dent and Sons, London.

14. Bryony Coles, 2006. Beavers in Britain’s Past. Oxbow Books and WARP, Oxford.






20. P.Shaw and DBA Thompson, 2006. The nature of the Cairngorms: diversity in a changing environment. TSO: Edinburgh. 444 pp. ISBN: 9780114973261







27. R Fyfe, 2007. The importance of local-scale openness within regions dominated by closed woodland. Journal of Quaternary Science, Vol.22, no. 6, pp571–578. doi: 10.1002/jqs.1078

28. JHB Birks, 2005. Mind the gap: how open were European primeval forests? Trends in Ecology & Evolution Vol. 20, pp154-156.


30. EP Thomson, 1975. Whigs and Hunters, p223. Penguin, London.