The Unhowled Land

Without wolves or lynx, our ecosystems remain barren, depleted and overrun by proliferating deer.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 11th August 2023

What’s missing from this picture? I mean the picture of rural Britain many of us hold in our heads, whether it be a thatched and mullioned idyll, or the bare hills fetishised by naive nature writers? Well, quite a lot. Trees in the uplands; soft boundaries between habitats (ecotones) that are crucial for thriving food webs; dead wood, of which there’s a dearth in this country; scrub (a vital but derided habitat); undrained wetlands; and wild, healthy rivers. But there’s something else, something whose absence is less visible but just as important. Wolves.

Not just wolves, but any large or middling terrestrial predators. We talk here of wolves and lynx as “top” predators. But our native top predators, until modern humans finished them off, were lions, hyenas, bears and scimitar cats. Wolves and lynx would better be described as mesopredators. The wolf that didn’t howl helps solve the mystery of how this country, for all its love of nature, remains one of the most ecologically barren places on Earth.

A few years ago, and centuries after the last definite record in Britain (an animal killed in Sutherland in 1621), we started talking about wolves again. We also flirted with the idea of reintroducing lynx. Then we forgot again. While rewilding has spread further and faster in the past 10 years than I could have dreamed, it follows a certain pattern, described by ecologists as “non-trophic”. Trophic rewilding means bringing back important missing species, to restore ecological processes and create self-regulating systems. Instead, most of our rewilded places, while now much richer in nature, remain closely managed by people. People assume the role of wild predators, limiting the number of herbivores and moving them around. That’s fine as far as it goes. But we’re not very good at it.

Until the early 20th century, deer were absent from much of Britain. The roe deer was extinct in England, the red deer confined to isolated pockets, and non-native fallow deer to deer parks and grand estates. A century later, Britain has six species of deer, four of them exotic: red, roe, fallow, Reeves’ muntjac, Chinese water deer and Japanese sika. Up to a point, the expansion of the deer population was a great success. Beyond that point, it’s a tremendous failure. Deer have done so well (except in Wales) that they now present a major problem.

There are no reliable estimates of deer numbers in Britain, but there’s no doubt they’ve grown massively and continue to rise. There are several reasons: more affordable food (until recently), which meant less poaching; new woodlands and plantations; warmer winters; and autumn sowing, which ensures there are crop plants for deer to eat all year round. But above all, their numbers grow because there are no effective means of controlling them. The result is success of the kind you wouldn’t expect in nature: one study estimates the survival rate of muntjac born in the UK at 60-70% and of roe deer at an astonishing 83%.

The result is ecological disaster. In many parts of the country, deer make the establishment of new woodlands or even maintenance of existing ones nigh on impossible. They browse out young trees and regrowth from cut stumps. The woods that aren’t overgrazed by livestock are overgrazed by deer. The effect is the same: as mature trees die, they’re not replaced. In the Scottish Highlands, trees return only when deer numbers are below around five per square km. But in some places, there are 15 or 20.

Heavy grazing in woods reduces the numbers of small mammals, of nightingales and other warblers, willow tits, dunnocks and many other species.

Every so often, a “major initiative” is launched to control deer numbers. Working groups, strategies and action plans are announced, then promptly abandoned. A few years later, someone else in government will discover the problem and launch a “major initiative” of their own.

There are three ways of controlling deer, and none of them work in the UK. The first is exclusion. Hard fencing is extremely expensive and no barrier to muntjac. Electric fences need constant maintenance and, for reasons that remain mysterious, roe deer scarcely mind them. Contraception is useless: you need to approach within 40 metres to fire a dart. There are no other safe means of delivering the chemicals to a deer population.

All that remains is shooting. In some European countries, it works. The state decides how many deer should be shot, and landowners, working together, must implement the plan. But the British disease is the elevation of private interests above the common interest. Governments ensure no one can constrain the behaviour of major landowners, however grave its impacts. The House of Lords, where owners of overstocked deer estates are 10,000 times as populous as in the nations they’re deemed to represent, historically ensured that the interests of society can never override the interests of the lairds.

Governments have repeatedly sought to stimulate a market in venison to encourage more culling, but the only sure result has been to stimulate deer farming, especially in New Zealand, from which we now import 3,000 tonnes of this meat a year. It’s crazy in a country overrun with wild deer. Some of it is sold in Scotland as “Highland Game”.

After years of this nonsense, it’s obvious that humans in Britain are an unreliable control agent. They announce plans but don’t follow them through. They propose incentives, but either fail to deliver them or generate the wrong results. They fret about the problem, but constantly fail to solve it.

Wolves and lynx, by contrast, get on with the job. Wolves may hunt by committee, but they begin with a consensus position that hunting should happen. They require no incentives or action plans, strategy documents or working groups. Lynx, as solitary hunters, don’t even need to discuss the issue.

Elsewhere in Europe, these mesopredators, especially wolves, have spread back into much of their former range. Where wolves return, the outcome is less Little Red Riding Hood than Robin Hood: a redistribution of ecological wealth to the benefit of the whole system. Here, we stubbornly insist that their return is “unrealistic”. The “realistic” option, apparently, is to keep doing the same thing while expecting different results: ever more working groups, until the last tree falls and no saplings are left with which to replace it.

Bring back the wolf and the lynx and all the other native species that people in this country are prepared to accept. Our living systems – and our lives – will be the richer for them.