The British Thermopylae

And the case for reintroducing big cats. A weird and wonderful tale.

By George Monbiot, published in the New Statesman, 21st August 2014

Y Gododdin is one of the few surviving accounts by the Britons of what the Anglo-Saxons did to them. It tells the story of what may have been the last stand in England of the Gododdin – the tribes of the Hen Ogledd, or Old North – in 598AD. A force of 300 warriors – the British version of the defenders of Thermopylae – took on a far greater army of Angles at a town named in Brittonic as Catraeth: probably Catterick in Yorkshire. Like the Spartan 300, they fought for three days, during which all but four were killed.

The Anglo-Saxon conquest appears to have crushed the preceding cultures much more decisively than the Anglo-Saxons were later suppressed by the Normans. One indication is the remarkable paucity of Brittonic words in English. Even if you accept the most generous derivations, there appear to be no more than a couple of dozen, of which only four are used in daily conversation: dad, gob, beak and basket. (If you thought gob was recent slang, you couldn’t have been more wrong). It was an obliteration almost as complete as that of the Native American cultures in the United States.

The account was written by one of the four survivors, the poet Aneirin. He tells how the last warriors of the Gododdin gathered in Din Eidyn, the town we now call Edinburgh. (Several Scottish cities, including Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee, have Welsh – or, more precisely, Cumbric – names). They feasted there for a year before marching south, towards certain death in Catraeth.

In the middle of Aneirin’s gory saga is something incongruous: a sad and beautiful lullaby called Pais Dinogad (Dinogad’s Shift), in which a mother tells her son of his dead father’s mastery of hunting(1). It names the animals he killed. Most were easy for scholars to identify: pine marten, roe deer, boar, grouse, fox. But one animal was for many years a mystery: llewyn. It looks like a cognate of the modern Welsh for lion: llew. But what did it mean? Nothing seemed to fit, until 2006, when a bone was found in the Kinsey Cave on Giggleswick Scar(2), 30 miles as the raven flies from Catterick or Catraeth.

Until this discovery, the lynx – a large spotted cat with tasselled ears – was presumed to have died out in Britain at least 6,000 years ago, before the first sod was turned by the first farmer. But this find (and three others in Yorkshire and Scotland) drags its extinction date forward by around 5,000 years. It was likely to have been familiar to Aneirin and his people.

This is not quite the last glimpse of the animal in British culture. A ninth-century stone cross from the isle of Eigg shows, alongside the deer, boar and aurochs pursued by a mounted hunter, a speckled cat with tasselled ears(3). Were it not for the fact that the animal’s backside has succumbed to the delapidations of time, we could have made a certain judgement, as the lynx’s stubby tail is unmistakeable. But even without the caudal clincher it’s hard to see what else the creature could have been. The lynx might have clung on in forest remnants – perhaps in the Grampians – for another few hundred years. It was survived by the wolf, whose last certain record in Britain was the beast killed in Sutherland in 1621(4). The lynx is now becoming the totemic animal of a movement that is transforming British environmentalism: rewilding.

Rewilding means the mass restoration of damaged ecosystems. It involves letting trees return to places that have been denuded, allowing parts of the seabed to recover from trawling and dredging, permitting rivers to flow freely again. Above all it means bringing back missing species.

One of the most arresting findings of modern ecology is that ecosystems without large predators behave in radically different ways from those that retain them. Some of them drive dynamic processes – trophic cascades – that resonate through the whole foodchain, creating niches for hundreds of species that might otherwise struggle to survive. The killers turn out to be bringers of life.

Such findings present a radical challenge to British conservation, which has often selected arbitrary assemblages of plants and animals and sought, at great effort and expense, to prevent them from changing. It has tried to preserve the living world as if it were a jar of pickles, letting nothing in and nothing out, keeping nature in a state of arrested development. But ecosystems are not just collections of species; they are also the dynamic and ever-shifting relationships between them. And this dynamism often depends on large predators.

It is not just for scientific reasons that many of us now wish to bring back missing species; it is also an attempt to rekindle some of the wonder and enchantment that, in this buttoned-down land, often seems to be missing. Where farming is retreating from barren land, and where people are beginning to question why vast tracts of the uplands should be denuded by deer stalking and grouse shooting industries that serve only a tiny elite, there are new opportunities for change.

At sea the potential is even greater: by protecting large areas from commercial fishing, we could once more see what Oliver Goldsmith described in 1776: vast shoals of fish being harried by fin and sperm whales, within sight of the English shore(5). (This policy would also greatly boost catches in the surrounding seas: the fishing industry’s insistence on scouring every inch of seabed, leaving no breeding reserves, could not be more damaging to its own interests(6)).

Rewilding is a rare example of positive environmentalism, in which campaigners articulate what they are for rather than only what they are against. You cannot sustain a movement only by responding to the moves of your opponents. One of the reasons why the enthusiasm for rewilding is spreading so quickly here is that it helps to create a more inspiring vision than the usual green promise: “follow us and the world will be slightly less crap than it would otherwise have been.”

Lynx present no threat to humans: there is no known instance of one preying on people. They are specialist predators of roe deer, a species which has exploded in Britain in recent decades, holding back, through their intensive browsing, attempts to re-establish forests. They will also winkle out sika deer: an exotic species which is almost impossible for humans to control as it hides in impenetrable plantations of young trees(7). The attempt to reintroduce this predator marries well with the aim of bringing trees back to parts of our bare and barren uplands.

The lynx requires deep cover, which means that it presents little risk to sheep and other livestock, which are supposed, as a condition of farm subsidies, to be kept out of the woods. But the real reason for choosing this species first is that lynx are magnificent. To know that Dinogad’s father’s quarry, the llewyn in Aneirin’s saga, inhabits the woods through which you walk feels like the shadow that fleets between systole and diastole.

David Hetherington, Britain’s leading expert on lynx, estimates that the Scottish Highlands could currently support around 400, which is likely to be a genetically viable population(8). On a recent trip to the Cairngorms, I heard several conservationists suggest that lynx could be reintroduced there within 20 years. If trees return to the bare hills elsewhere in Britain, the big cats could soon follow.

There is nothing radical about these proposals  – from the perspective of anywhere else in Europe. Lynx have now been reintroduced to the Jura mountains, the Alps, the Vosges in eastern France, the Harz mountains in Germany and several other places, and have re-established themselves in many more. The European population has tripled since 1970, to around 10,000(9). Like wolves, bears, beavers, boar, bison, moose and many other species, lynx have been able to spread as farming has left the hills (where yields are very low) and people discover that it is more lucrative to protect charismatic wildlife than to kill it, as tourists will pay well for the chance to see it. Large-scale rewilding is happening almost everywhere – except Britain.

Here, attitudes are just beginning to change. Conservationists are starting to accept that the old, preservation jar model is failing, even on its own terms. People are beginning to ask why magnificent wildlife is allowed to return everywhere else in Europe, but not here. Already projects like Trees for Life in the Highlands(10) or the transformation of the Knepp estate in Sussex(11) provide a hint of what might be coming. The organisation I’m helping to set up will seek to catalyse the rewilding of land and sea across Britain. Our aim is to reintroduce that rarest of species to British ecosystems: hope.

George Monbiot’s book Feral: rewilding the land, sea and human life, is now published in paperback by Penguin.



2. David A. Hetherington, Tom C. Lord and Roger M. Jacob, 2006. New evidence for the occurrence of Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) in medieval Britain. Journal of Quaternary Science, 21(1) 3–8. DOI: 10.1002/jqs.960

3. 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.

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

5. Callum Roberts, 2007. The Unnatural History of the Sea. Gaia, London.

6.  Hanneke Van Lavieren, 5th February 2012. Can no-take fishery reserves help protect our oceans?

7. David Hetherington, 2006. The lynx in Britain’s past, present and future. ECOS Vol. 27, no.1, pp. 66-74.

8. David Hetherington et al, 2008. A potential habitat network for the Eurasian lynx Lynx lynx in Scotland. Mammal Review, Vol. 38, no. 4, pp285–303.

9. Rewilding Europe, 2012. Making Europe a Wilder Place.