Walk on the Wild Side

Rewilding, hillwalking and the extraordinary history of these islands.

George Monbiot, interviewed by Dan Bailey for UKHillwalking.com, 11th December 2015

What would a natural upland habitat have looked like in Britain before humans started having the dominant influence?

This is a particularly interesting question, because we have two completely different baselines in Britain. The more recent one is the situation that prevailed after the ice retreated, and a temperate climate returned. I’m talking about parts of the Boreal and Atlantic stages, roughly between 9000 and 5000 years ago. It seems that during this period, much of western Britain was covered by rainforest. I’m using the term rainforest precisely: to denote forests that are wet enough to support epiphytes, plants that grow on other plants. Wherever you see polypody, the many-footed fern, growing along the branches of a tree, it’s a reminder that you are looking at rainforest fragment.

Hardly any land in this country would have been treeless at this time. With the exception of the summits of the Cairngorms, Ben Nevis and one or two other mountains, there is nowhere here that is too high for them to grow. Our bare and rocky hills are an artefact of deforestation, heavy grazing and the subsequent loss of soil.

But even that state arguably reflected the dominant influence of humans. To see what the land would have been like without them, you would have to go back to the previous interglacial period, the Eemian. At this time, the climate was almost identical to ours, but for some reason the people driven out by the previous ice age appear not to have returned to this country. At this stage, there was plenty of forest, but it seems that it was not continuous. The closed canopy rainforest was punctuated by more open forest, as well as wood pasture and savannah. Why? Because humans had not wiped out the dominant species. During the Eemian, Britain had a fairly similar collection of wildlife to the one we know today. You know: foxes, badgers, hedgehogs, deer, robins, jackdaws, elephants, rhinos, hippos, scimitar cats, hyenas and lions.

Ah yes, not the same in all respects. Like everywhere else on earth, we had a megafauna, and this shaped the ecosystem. The large herbivores were driven out of Britain by the ice, then driven to extinction in southern Europe about 30,000 years ago when modern humans arrived. (The hyenas and lions, incidentally, persisted throughout the ice age, hunting reindeer across the frozen tundra, and it seems that they survived here until about 10,000 years ago, when Mesolithic hunters turned up).

What does a typical British upland habitat look like now, and how does it differ from uplands in Mainland Europe?

In almost all other European countries (Ireland is an exception), the pattern of tree cover is what you would expect to see. The lowlands, where the land is worth farming, are largely treeless. The uplands, where the land is infertile and the climate is harsh, largely forested. This is why Europe has an average forest cover of 37%. In Britain, the lowlands are largely treeless, as you might expect, but the uplands are even barer. This peculiarity explains the fact that Britain has only 13% tree cover. Instead of a rich ecosystem in the hills, a mosaic of trees, scrub and glades (which is what would occur now, on our depleted soils, if the land were allowed to recover), the uplands are almost entirely treeless, and therefore remarkably poor in birds, insects and all the other lifeforms you might expect to find there. The parts of the country which would otherwise function as our great wildlife reserves – those places, in other words, where hardly anyone lives and there is almost no economic activity – have even less wildlife than the places that are intensely habited and farmed.

What are the people and processes responsible for keeping our hills bare in England and Wales? Who’s more to blame in Scotland?

In England and Wales, the cause is simply stated. Sheep, which originated in Mesopotamia, are wildly, disproportionately destructive. In many of our hills, they are kept at densities of no more than one per hectare or even less. But because they selectively browse out tree seedlings, they ensure that no recovery can take place. Even where remaining woods exist, they are often dying on their feet, because there are no young trees with which to replace the old ones. In terms of food production, upland sheep farming makes a minuscule contribution. It is hard to think of any industry where there is a higher ratio of destruction to production.

The denuding of our hills by sheep is supplemented by the burning of grouse moors, a fantastically destructive activity carried out for the benefit of a very small number of exceedingly rich people. These two activities ensure that in England and Wales there are scarcely any trees above around 200 m.

Both are also important factors in Scotland, but in the Highlands the dominant cause of destruction is the deer stalking estates. By keeping the numbers of red deer very high, so that a banker waddling up the hillside in tweed pantaloons is almost guaranteed to make a kill, these estates have a similar effect to sheep farms. Like sheep, deer seek out the seedlings, and when their numbers rise above five or ten per square kilometre, they ensure that no forest can grow.

So why the difference between Britain and the rest of Europe? The answer seems to be the size of land holdings. Because, unlike most other European countries, Britain never had a successful revolution, we have, on one estimate, the second highest concentration of landholding in the world, after Brazil. This grants landowners inordinate power. It also leads to the situation I’ll describe in the next answer.

Where does subsidy farming come in?

People farming the uplands claimed to make their money by raising sheep. But in economic terms, sheep are ornamental. Sheep farming throughout our hills is a loss-making activity, and persists only as a result of public money, that takes the form of farm subsidies. We pay £3.6 billion a year in this country to have our watersheds destroyed and our wildlife wiped out. The reason why the hills are kept bare here but not in the rest of Europe is that the landholdings in Britain are big enough to make subsidy harvesting a worthwhile activity: you are paid by the hectare. The more land you own, the more public money you receive. Some people take millions of pounds in these benefit payments every year. It’s extraordinary, when such restrictions are placed upon the ordinary recipients of social security, that this situation has not yet become politically explosive.

And culturally – how does our idealised view of the upland landscape feed into land management?

Our idealised, romanticised view of sheep farming, that bears almost no relationship to reality, but that is constantly drilled into our minds by programmes like Countryfile, makes it hard for us to see what is really going on. It’s because of this view that we fail to grasp a vast and obvious fact. That by denuding our hills, this economically-tiny industry has done more damage to our ecosystems and wildlife than all the building that has taken place in Britain.

Can you explain, in a nutshell, what you mean by re-wilding, and why you’d like to see it in the British hills?

Rewilding is the mass restoration of ecosystems and the re-establishment of missing species. I’m not arguing for the blanket rewilding of our hills by any means. But I believe that Britain would be greatly enriched, in terms of both wildlife and human experience, if significant areas were allowed to recover; if trees were allowed to grow in some of our denuded places, and some of the wonderful species we have lost were permitted to return. In particular, I’m thinking of beavers, boar, lynx, wolves and species that we retain in small numbers but that were once widespread, such as wildcat, pine martens, capercaillie, eagles and goshawks.

The other great benefit of allowing trees to return to the hills is the restoration of watersheds. In one study in Wales, the soil beneath woodland was found to absorb water at 67 times the rate of the soil beneath sheep pasture. The rain flashes off sheep pasture as if it were concrete, instantly causing floods downstream. Trees hold back the water and release it gradually, smoothing out the cycle of flood and drought.

Could you talk us through the stages of a habitat restoration process that could take a bare hillside and return it to woodland?

Many of our hillsides have been so thoroughly sheepwrecked that there are now no remaining seed sources. In these circumstances, we would need to plant islands of trees, using seed taken from the nearest surviving pockets of woodland in order to sustain local genetic diversity. Short of greatly reducing stocking levels or temporarily keeping herbivores off altogether, there is not a lot more that needs to be done. In some places, all that is required is temporary exclusion of grazing animals.

What is a trophic cascade, and how is this idea relevant in the British context?

A trophic cascade is an ecological process that tumbles from the top of the foodchain to the bottom. It turns out that in many places, large carnivores regulate the entire ecosystem; ecosystems that retain them behave in radically different ways to ecosystems from which they have been lost. This presents a powerful challenge to British models of conservation, as we have lost all our large carnivores here, with the result that ecological processes, and their dynamic and ever-shifting successional patterns, have been curtailed.

Critics sometimes suggest that proponents of re-wilding are advocating turning the clock back to an arbitrary point in history and then keeping things permanently fixed in this state. Is that fair?

It is precisely the opposite. Our current model of conservation fixes ecosystems at an arbitrary point and then keeps them in a state of arrested development through extreme management of the kind that everywhere else on earth we recognise as destruction, not protection: namely cutting, burning and grazing. There is no intelligible reason behind the choices that have been made by conservationists of the ecosystems and species they choose to maintain by these means. Rewilding, by contrast, has no fixed outcomes. It seeks to restore ecological processes by bringing back some of the key elements of ecosystems and the key drivers: species that trigger trophic cascades. To the greatest extent possible, it then seeks to stand back and allow natural processes to take their course.

What would a healthy population of deer look like? How about sheep – do you have a figure for environmentally supportable grazing densities?

In the infertile uplands, it is roughly 5 per square kilometre (in other words per 100 ha). Beyond that point, there is almost no regeneration of trees.

The debate often seems to be framed in absolute terms – either we re-wild everywhere, and get rid of all the farmers and deer, or not at all. How big would be big enough to please you? Are you talking about re-foresting every hill, moor and mountain, from valley to summit?

The aim of the group Rewilding Britain, that I helped to found but do not run, is to allow natural ecological processes and key species to return to at least one million hectares (4.5%) of Britain’s land and 30% of our territorial waters over the next 100 years. It would like to see at least one large rewilded area to connect both land and sea – descending from the mountaintops to our coastal waters.

In somewhere as crowded as Britain are vast re-created wildernesses a viable prospect, or would it be more realistic to go for smaller scale projects in which re-wilding is just part of a mixed land use picture – projects such as Wild Ennerdale perhaps, where habitat restoration is being managed in conjunction with forestry, leisure, water extraction and livestock?

The British population is highly concentrated. Some parts of the country are exceedingly crowded; others remarkably empty. Most British uplands have a far lower population density than many parts of Europe in which wolves, lynx, bear and other species are found. Wolves have even been appearing in countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark, where there is very little land that is unsuitable for intensive farming, and the rural population density tends to be much higher. Their arrival has been greeted by most sectors of society with delight.

Many hill-goers will recognise your picture of the degraded upland environment, but some may simply be making a different aesthetic judgement to you, valuing the barren wide open spaces for the experience they provide. If they just happen to prefer grass and heather landscape on some romantic level, and don’t much care about botany and wildlife, how might you seek to convert them?

I believe we should have both. At the moment those who value a wild, self-willed landscape have nowhere to turn in Britain. We have to travel abroad to find it and to experience magnificent encounters with wildlife. I believe this deprives us of the wonder and delight that can enhance our lives and of choice and freedom. We have nowhere in which to escape the order and control that governs all other aspects of our lives.

Hillwalkers and climbers have fought long and hard against vested landowning interests for our right to roam. There is a worry that conservation could be used to curtail these freedoms, and some evidence to support that concern. What place does public access on open upland have in a re-wilded landscape, and which would take precedence – amenity or conservation?

I was heavily involved in campaigns for the right to roam, through another group I helped to found, The Land Is Ours, and I would be dismayed by any scheme which sought to keep people out of the hills. I believe that rewilding and access are entirely compatible. While it may be necessary in some places temporarily to fence out grazing animals, the fencing required is no different from that which is already found across the uplands, and exactly the same arrangements can be made to cross it as are used today. My hope is that in some places, as a result of rewilding, in some places there will one day be no fencing at all: in other words it will mean better access than there is today.

On a related note, could public support for re-wilding have unintended consequences? Might it, for instance, be a gift to landowners and conservation bodies with priorities quite other than public access?

I would be surprised if there were no unintended consequences. But if problems arise, the policies should be modified. No good policy emerges from the egg mature and complete. It must be constantly assessed and adjusted to head off any problems that emerge.

What sort of reception have your ideas met from folk in rural communities such as hill farmers and shooting estate workers?

I think it’s fair to say that they have been mixed. There has been a fair bit of hostility from some farming and shooting groups, but also support from surprising quarters, including landowners’ representatives and a large number of individual farmers and estate owners. In the wider countryside, there is often strong support. We would do well to remember that farmers are a very small minority even of the rural population, though this often gets forgotten because of their powerful influence on policy.

Can you offer a fully thought-through transition from sheep farming and shooting to an alternative model for the rural economy, one in which rural residents still have a secure place in a re-wilded countryside? Can you understand people’s aversion to risking this?

I certainly can understand people’s concerns. But there is going to be a major transition in the countryside before long, with or without rewilding, when farm subsidies are either scrapped or greatly reduced, as they inevitably will be. When essential public services are being cut, giving €55 billion a year from the public purse across the EU to landowners, while helping to destroy both human communities and ecological resilience is surely as unsustainable politically as it is environmentally. So what are farmers whose livelihood is sustained only as a result of farm subsidies going to do?

I have two proposals. The first is that we start campaigning for the retention of some subsidies, whose purpose would be changed to that of ecological restoration and the support of communities. Landowners and tenants would be paid to restore watersheds, woodlands, rivers and wildlife. It’s hard to see how else continued subsidies could remain publicly acceptable. Rewilding could be a way out for struggling rural communities.

The second proposal is to start investigating means by which rural people can enhance their livelihoods by enhancing the ecosystem. There are plenty of examples from around the world of eco-tourism and associated activities reviving communities by generating income and employment. Given that the traditional industries have manifestly failed to sustain jobs and incomes, in some cases it will not be hard to show the alternatives might work better. But more research is needed, and we have to remember that the same approach is not going to work everywhere. Different local circumstances demand different strategies.

“We have an incredibly narrow and restrictive vision of cultural heritage and cultural landscapes” – your words. What would a broader vision look like?

I would love to see rural culture becoming more inclusive. It’s often highly hierarchical, with the landowners and farmers sitting at the top of the pyramid, dictating policy. In some respects, democracy is a stranger to the countryside; the old, landed powers still wield disproportionate influence over the lives of others. But I don’t want to invent a new culture. I believe that democratisation and pluralism creates its own cultures, that will evolve and develop independently in different places. I’m calling on people to challenge cultural hegemony in the countryside – perhaps we could call it agricultural hegemony – and for a much wider range of voices to be heard.

Farming and shooting are supported by the current dominant countryside culture. But wouldn’t a shift to re-wilding simply be replacing this set of special interests with another, a sort of cultural colonisation of the countryside by urbanites?   

That’s certainly not how I see it. And this has nothing whatever to do with the presumed urban-rural divide. Many of rewilding’s most ardent proponents live in the countryside, perhaps unsurprisingly. We are repeatedly told that the countryside is at war with the towns and vice versa. But I see no evidence of this. What I see is certain dominant interests in the countryside in conflict with other rural interests. And those dominant interests often have either one or both feet in the cities.

A few years ago there was an article in the Telegraph that sought to characterise authentic rural people. These people apparently don’t care about “newts, trees and bats”: such matters are of interest only in London. It described David Cameron as “at heart, a rural Tory”, who “still grumbles to his wife about what, for him, are ‘banned activities’ – notably shooting”. Authentic rural people, in other words, spend their adult lives in Notting Hill and drive out to their second homes for a shooting party at the weekend. People who live in the countryside and care about wildlife, on the other hand, are, “at heart”, Londoners. The rural-urban divide, as characterised in such papers, has nothing to do with location. It’s really about class.

What chance is there of significant progress being made in the current funding climate? You’ve recently written about the ‘toothless’ Environment Agency in this regard. Given the squeeze on public  bodies would it be more effective to promote the out-sourcing of re-wilding to non-governmental organisations, private philanthropists and large corporate landowners such as water companies?

There is a real problem here. Government agencies are being gutted and re-centralised. Cameron’s devolution agenda is a con: he is even more of a micromanager than Tony Blair was. The current environment secretary, Liz Truss, has put her department’s head on the block, volunteering for early execution. Statutory bodies like the Environment Agency are now, in terms of what they can do, almost dead. But the crazy situation that prevails today might not – should not – last forever. It is true to say however, that we cannot rely on government alone to deliver these changes, whatever form a government might take.

Are our National Park Authorities a help or a hindrance?

At the moment, they are a real drag on progress. This is partly because of policy, such as the Lake District National Park’s application for World Heritage status, which, as currently framed, will ensure that destructive practices are locked in (and continue to contribute to flooding). And it’s partly because of the way they frame the issues. They go to great lengths to persuade us that current land management is not only compatible with the protection of nature, but actually essential to it! All their brochures and display boards and websites create the impression that these ecological disaster zones are rich and thriving ecosystems, so people are constantly misled and misdirected. They are led to believe that all is well in our national parks, that these wastelands, which are in most cases little more than sheep ranches, are magnificent wildernesses. Our national parks are a disgrace, a shame upon the nation, and park authorities with an ounce of intellectual honesty would recognise this and seek to address it.

Re-wilding seems to be moving up the agenda of the large conservation organisations, and gaining a space in the public discourse.  Do you see grounds for optimism?

It certainly is. Before Feral was published, I visited all the principal conservation groups, and received responses that varied from mild interest to outright rejection. The change over the past three years has been astonishing. Rewilding appears to have moved from the fringe of the mainstream, and I’m delighted to see how these groups have begun to pick it up and engage with it. There’s still a long way to go, and plenty of daft practices still in play, but change among the conservation groups is certainly happening, albeit slowly. We will see rewilding in this country. The question is how far and how fast it will go.