Monbiot: Britain has been shagged by the white plague

marksimonbrown mark at
Sat Jun 1 13:33:47 BST 2013

Broadcast on Newsnight last Tuesday evening (25/05/2013):

Environmentalist George Monbiot on 'rewilding' Britain

Environmentalist and writer George Monbiot in his new book 'Feral' is arguing that unproductive farmland be returned to the wild through reforestation. He lambasts hill-sheep farming, calling sheep a white plague.

How Britain has been shagged by the white plague.
by George Monbiot, published in the Spectator, 30th May 2013

The section of the A83 that runs between Loch Long and Loch Fyne in western Scotland is known as the Rest and Be Thankful. It would be better described as the Get the Hell out of Here. For this, as far as I can tell, is the British trunk road most afflicted by landslips.

The soil on the brae above the road is highly unstable. There have been six major slips since 2007, which have shut the road for a total of 34 days(1). The cost of these closures is estimated at about £290,000 a year(2). It's a minor miracle that no one has yet been killed. The Scottish government has already spent millions on clearing the road and building culverts and barriers. It's about to launch a new engineering project, at a cost of £10m, which, it hopes, will reduce the frequency of these disasters(3).

Sensible, logical? Yes – until you hear this. One of the factors destabilising the soil is the presence of sheep on the hillside. A report the government commissioned notes that the sheep make landslips more likely because they compact and erode the soil and prevent trees and shrubs (whose roots might otherwise have fixed the slope) from growing(4). The number of sheep on the hillside exceeds the danger point identified by scientists, beyond which erosion becomes severe(5).

Yet throughout the years of consultants' reports and engineering solutions, repeated landslips and continuing danger to the public, the sheep have remained on the hillside. Every one of those animals must have cost the taxpayer thousands of pounds. But they are worth next to nothing: the government describes the economic value of the grazing as "negligible"(6).

It's an extreme example, but it's indicative of a wider issue: we pay billions to service a national obsession with sheep, in return for which the woolly maggots kindly trash the countryside. The white plague has done more extensive environmental damage than all the building that has ever taken place here, but to identify it as an agent of destruction is little short of blasphemy. Britain is being shagged by sheep, but hardly anyone dares say so.

I blame Theocritus. His development in the third century BC of the pastoral tradition – the literary convention that associates shepherding with virtue and purity – helps to inspire our wilful blindness towards its destructive impacts. His theme was embraced by Virgil and the New Testament, in which Christ is portrayed both as the Good Shepherd and as Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God, "which taketh away the sin of the world." The Elizabethans revived the tradition, and the beautiful nonsense Marlowe, Spenser and others published about the uncorrupted pastoral life resonates with us still. Their eclogues and idylls, bucolics and mimes persist today on Sunday night television, through which we wistfully immerse ourselves in the lives of hunky shepherds and adorable lambs, sheepdog trials and market days.

This tradition, coupled with an urban cultural cringe towards those who make their living from the land, means that challenging the claims and demands of hill farmers is, politically, almost impossible. Instead we throw money at them. I've used Wales as my case study. Here, according to the 2010 figures, the average subsidy for sheep farms on the hills is £53,000. Average net farm income is £33,000(7). The contribution the farmer makes to his income by keeping animals, in other words, is minus £20,000.

But that's just the beginning. Hill farmers are used to justify the entire subsidy system. Farmers' unions and governments throughout Europe push them forward and tell moving stories about their plight to justify the €50bn the EU spends every year. The barley barons and oilseed oligarchs hiding behind them must scarcely believe their luck.

Farmers argue that keeping sheep in the hills makes an essential contribution to Britain's food supply. But does it? Just over three-quarters of the area of Wales is devoted to livestock farming(8), largely to produce meat(9). But according to the UK's National Ecosystem Assessment, Wales imports by value seven times as much meat as it exports(10). This remarkable fact suggests a shocking failure of productivity.

That's not quite the end of the issue. Deep vegetation on the hills absorbs rain when it falls and releases it gradually, delivering a steady supply of water to the lowlands. When grazing prevents trees and shrubs from growing and when the small sharp hooves of sheep compact the soil, rain flashes off the hills, causing floods downstream. When the floods abate, water levels fall rapidly. Upland grazing, in other words, contributes to a cycle of flood and drought. This restricts the productivity of more fertile lands downstream, both drowning them and depriving them of irrigation water. Given the remarkably low output in the upland areas of Britain, it is within the range of possibility that hill farming creates a net loss of food.

Sheep have reduced most of our uplands to bowling greens with contours. Only the merest remnants of life persist. Spend two hours sitting in a bushy suburban garden and you are likely to see more birds and of a greater range of species than in walking five miles across almost any part of the British uplands. The land has been sheepwrecked.

I accept that hill farmers are trying only to survive, and that theirs is a tough, thankless and precarious occupation. I'm not calling for the entire tradition of hill-farming to be abandoned (not that there's much left of it in this age of quad bikes, consolidation and absentee ranchers). I am calling for a good deal more scepticism about the claims of those who champion it. And for a sweeping reassessment of a subsidy system which has been sold to us with a series of falsehoods. Do we really believe that keeping the hills bare, wiping out wildlife, helping to flood homes and farms and exacerbating landslips is a good use of public money?

George Monbiot's book Feral: searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding is now published by Allen Lane.


1. Jacobs UK Ltd for Transport Scotland, February 2013. A83 Trunk Road Route Study Part A – A83 Rest and Be Thankful. Final Report

2. As above.

3. As above.

4. M G Winter and A Corby, 2012. A83 Rest and be Thankful: Ecological and Related Landslide Mitigation Options. Transport Scotland, Trunk Road and Bus Operations.

5. As above.

6. Jacobs UK Ltd for Transport Scotland, February 2013. A83 Trunk Road Route Study Part A – A83 Rest and Be Thankful. Final Report, page 136

7. Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences, Aberystwyth University, 2011. Farm Outputs – all sizes. Table B3: Hill sheep farms, 2009/2010.

8. The National Ecosystem Assessment states that "agricultural land occupied some 1.64 million ha or 79% of Wales in 2008" and that "crops now account for only 3% of the agricultural land area". UK National Ecosystem Assessment. Chapter 20.

9. Most of the animals farmed are sheep, whose major product is meat. There are also over a million cattle (UK National Ecosystem Assessment. Chapter 20, Figure 20.31). These are split almost evenly between dairy and beef (Statistics for Wales, Welsh Assembly government, 2010. Farming Facts and Figures, Wales), but the male calves from both industries are reared for beef.

10. UK National Ecosystem Assessment. Chapter 20, Figure 20.39: Imports and exports of food commodities in Wales.

Environmentalist George Monbiot on 'rewilding' Britain
Environmentalist and writer George Monbiot takes to the hills with Newsnight's Justin Rowlatt to explain what lies behind his plan to turn unproductive farmland back to the wild and encourage nature to take over.

My manifesto for rewilding the world

by George Monbiot, The Guardian
Monday 27th May 2013

Nature swiftly responds when we stop trying to control it. This is our big chance to reverse man's terrible destructive impact

Until modern humans arrived, every continent except Antarctica possessed a megafauna. In the Americas, alongside mastodons, mammoths, four-tusked and spiral-tusked elephants, there was a beaver the size of a black bear: eight feet from nose to tail. There were giant bison weighing two tonnes, which carried horns seven feet across.

The short-faced bear stood 13ft in its hind socks. One hypothesis maintains that its astonishing size and shocking armoury of teeth and claws are the hallmarks of a specialist scavenger: it specialised in driving giant lions and sabretooth cats off their prey. The Argentine roc (Argentavis magnificens) had a wingspan of 26ft. Sabretooth salmon nine feet long migrated up Pacific coast rivers.

During the previous interglacial period, Britain and Europe contained much of the megafauna we now associate with the tropics: forest elephants, rhinos, hippos, lions and hyenas. The elephants, rhinos and hippos were driven into southern Europe by the ice, then exterminated about 40,000 years ago when modern humans arrived. Lions and hyenas persisted: lions hunted reindeer across the frozen wastes of Britain until 11,000 years ago. The distribution of these animals has little to do with temperature: only where they co-evolved with humans and learned to fear them did they survive.

Most of the deciduous trees in Europe can resprout wherever the trunk is broken. They can survive the extreme punishment – hacking, splitting, trampling – inflicted when a hedge is laid. Understorey trees such as holly, box and yew have much tougher roots and branches than canopy trees, despite carrying less weight. Our trees, in other words, bear strong signs of adaptation to elephants. Blackthorn, which possesses very long spines, seems over-engineered to deter browsing by deer; but not, perhaps, rhinoceros.

All this has been forgotten, even by professional ecologists. Read any paper on elephants and trees in east Africa and it will tell you that many species have adapted to "hedge" in response to elephant attack. Yet, during a three-day literature search in the Bodleian library, all I could find on elephant adaptation in Europe was a throwaway sentence in one scientific paper. The elephant in the forest is the elephant in the room: the huge and obvious fact that everyone has overlooked.

Since then much of Europe, especially Britain, has lost most of its mesofauna as well: bison, moose, boar, wolf, bear, lynx, wolverine – even, in most parts, wildcat, beavers and capercaillie. These losses, paradoxically, have often been locked in by conservation policy.

Conservation sites must be maintained in what is called "favourable condition", which means the condition in which they were found when they were designated. More often than not this is a state of extreme depletion, the merest scraping of what was once a vibrant and dynamic ecosystem. The ecological disasters we call nature reserves are often kept in this depleted state through intense intervention: cutting and burning any trees that return; grazing by domestic animals at greater densities and for longer periods than would ever be found in nature. The conservation ethos is neatly summarised in the forester Ritchie Tassell's sarcastic question, "how did nature cope before we came along?"

Through rewilding – the mass restoration of ecosystems – I see an opportunity to reverse the destruction of the natural world. Researching my book Feral, I came across rewilding programmes in several parts of Europe, including some (such as Trees for Life in Scotland and the Wales Wild Land Foundation) in the UK, which are beginning to show how swiftly nature responds when we stop trying to control it. Rewilding, in my view, should involve reintroducing missing animals and plants, taking down the fences, blocking the drainage ditches, culling a few particularly invasive exotic species but otherwise standing back. It's about abandoning the biblical doctrine of dominion which has governed our relationship with the natural world.

The only thing preventing a faster rewilding in the EU is public money. Farming is sustained on infertile land (by and large, the uplands) through taxpayers' munificence. Without our help, almost all hill farming would cease immediately. I'm not calling for that, but I do think it's time the farm subsidy system stopped forcing farmers to destroy wildlife. At the moment, to claim their single farm payments, farmers must prevent "the encroachment of unwanted vegetation on agricultural land". They don't have to produce anything: they merely have to keep the land in "agricultural condition", which means bare.

I propose two changes to the subsidy regime. The first is to cap the amount of land for which farmers can claim money at 100 hectares (250 acres). It's outrageous that the biggest farmers harvest millions every year from much poorer taxpayers, by dint of possessing so much land. A cap would give small farmers an advantage over large. The second is to remove the agricultural condition rule.

The effect of these changes would be to ensure that hill farmers with a powerful attachment to the land and its culture, language and traditions would still farm (and continue to reduce their income by keeping loss-making sheep and cattle). Absentee ranchers who are in it only for the subsidies would find that they were better off taking the money and allowing the land to rewild.

Despite the best efforts of governments, farmers and conservationists, nature is already starting to return. One estimate suggests that two thirds of the previously forested parts of the US have reforested, as farming and logging have retreated, especially from the eastern half of the country.

Another proposes that by 2030 farmers on the European continent (though not in Britain, where no major shift is expected) will vacate around 75m acres, roughly the size of Poland. While the mesofauna is already beginning to spread back across Europe, land areas of this size could perhaps permit the reintroduction of some of our lost megafauna. Why should Europe not have a Serengeti or two?

Above all, rewilding offers a positive environmentalism. Environmentalists have long known what they are against; now we can explain what we are for. It introduces hope where hope seemed absent. It offers us a chance to replace our silent spring with a raucous summer.

• A fully referenced version of this article can be found at

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